HL Deb 08 March 1962 vol 237 cc1242-9

5.35 p.m.

LORD MOLSON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they cannot find less expensive accommodation for troops delayed on the air journey from Ringway to the British Army of the Rhine than by engaging rooms for them in an expensive hotel. The noble Lord said: My Lords, there was a sensational item of news in one of the daily newspapers suggesting that troops were being accommodated in a luxury hotel, and I think it desirable that Her Majesty's Government should be given an opportunity of explaining how this came about and justifying it, as there was a suggestion that it was unnecessary extravagance.

I have made some inquiries and, as I understand it, since October all trooping has been done by air, so far as was possible. When troops are delayed owing to technical trouble, the company which has undertaken the contract for trooping is responsible for the accommodation of the troops who are delayed. In cases where the delay is due to unfavourable weather, the cost is borne by Her Majesty's Government. I understand that, in the case of troops moving from Gatwick to Germany, they are accommodated in the Union Jack Club or at an air trooping centre. When they are travelling from Ringway, they are accommodated in a hotel in a neighbouring town, in Buxton.

What I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government is; are they satisfied that this is in every way the most economical and, at the same time, the most satisfactory accommodation? Of course, considerations of economy must weigh highly, but naturally one wishes that troops delayed should be decently accommodated in every way. I should like to ask what arrangements there are for the general maintenance of discipline during an interruption of this kind. I wonder how much it costs to transport the troops from Ringway to Buxton, and what is the cost of the accommodation in the hotel. It would be interesting to know—unless there is a special reason for not disclosing it, in which case I should certainly not wish to press my noble friend to make any disclosure—what is the cost per head, and what the total cost has amounted to since October, 1961.

My Lords, I am not in any way wishing that the Armed Forces should be treated in a miserly manner, but at the same time we are all very conscious of the desirability of economy. Especially at the present time, when largely increased Estimates are being presented, I am sure that Her Majesty's Government would be glad of an opportunity of explaining how it came about that it was possible for a newspaper to publish a somewhat sensational item of news with photographs. I beg to ask the Question standing on the Order Paper.

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know anything about the particular question which the noble Lord has asked, but what I want to make certain is that it will not go out from this House that troops, when they are detained due to weather, or for other reasons to do with aircraft, should be invariably herded into huts and made uncomfortable. This trooping by air is now going very well, and those of us who were in Germany the other day were told that it does make a great deal of difference, both to the troops who are actually on trooping, being taken out as reliefs or as a unit, and to those who are going backwards and forwards to Germany on leave. It would be a pity if this new system, which is running so well, were spoiled by their having to be made uncomfortable once again, as they were at the Hook of Holland. I am sure that Her Majesty's Government have an answer to this particular case, and I hope that people will not assume that it is necessary for troops always to be made uncomfortable.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, in this because I think that the Question on the Order Paper has been rather unfortunately framed. It seems to imply that troops as such should not be accommodated in an expensive hotel. On that, there are two points. First of all, why should troops not have the opportunity of being decently accommodated, whether the hotel is expensive or not? The question is not whether the hotel is expensive, but is the accommodation necessary at the particular place where the troops happen to be? That is the real point. We must get away entirely from this idea that the troops are second or third-class citizens. They are first-class citizens, and they are just as much entitled to the best accommodation that can be given to them as anybody else is. If somebody goes abroad on business, whatever his rank or grade may be, he gets proper accommodation provided by his firm. Why should the soldier not get from Her Majesty's Government just as good accommodation as the businessman? The soldier is a very important person today. Goodness only knows! there are few enough of them, and they are hard enough to get. We shall not get the number of recruits we require if this sort of attitude is adopted. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will be very firm on this.

The second point which the noble Viscount. Lord Goschen, made, one with which I entirely agree, is the general question of trooping by air. For years past he and I, and others in this House, have pressed the Government to go in for air trooping. We have said all along that sea trooping is expensive. It takes a long time; and, while troops are coming from the Far East or from Africa, then, so far as the Army is concerned, they are out of existence. It may take a month or five weeks for a battalion or a regiment to come home by sea, whereas by air the whole operation could be concluded in 48 hours. So far as expense is concerned, I believe that maintaining troopships and the like is far more expensive than the method which is now being employed of charter aircraft. Furthermore, it is good in the national interest that private firms (and the State airlines, for that matter, if they get the tender) should obtain charter tenders of this nature. It keeps the aircraft employed; it keeps the pilots employed; and it is a good thing, especially out of season, when the summer visitors are not available. For all those reasons I hope that the Minister who is going to reply to-day will give us an answer which will satisfy the Forces and will satisfy the public that we in this House, at all events, and I hope the Government, too, regard the soldier as a first-class citizen.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, it may help if I explain in some detail our trooping arrangements for North-West Europe. They were, as my noble friend said, reorganised last October, so that practically all our passengers are now moved by air. This followed a trial period of one year during which about a third of our Servicemen, their wives and families travelled by air. The experiment was very successful. It showed that travel by air was cheaper and more convenient than by sea and train. That is the background of this whole policy, my Lords—it is cheaper and more convenient, as was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore. British United Airways were awarded the trooping contract on a competitive basis. They use Viscount aircraft, and fly from Gatwick, near London, and Ringway, near Manchester. These two airfields were chosen so that passengers from the North would not have to come all the way to London and so incur high travelling costs—that is to say, again, it was cheaper and more convenient that way.

Once a passenger has reported to British United Airways, it is the aircraft firm's responsibility under the contract to arrange accommodation if the flight is delayed for any reason. The cost of this accommodation is met by the contractor if the delay is caused by technical trouble with the aircraft, and by the Services if the delay is as a result of bad weather or for other reasons outside the contractor's control—and in this, also, my noble friend was correct. Most of the passengers—that is to say, nearly five-sixths—go from Gatwick, and if any serious delay occurs there they are normally accommodated at the Union Jack Club, the Joint Services Air Trooping Centre at Hendon, or, failing these two, at hotels. In Manchester, however, there is no similar suitable Service or club accommodation, and hotel accommodation is far more restricted than in London.

There are, in theory, three possible courses of action if flights from Ringway are delayed. First, we could disperse the men and their families to their homes until the delay was over. In view of the wide area from which they come, this would be quite impracticable, as well as being inconvenient to the families concerned, and also very expensive. A second course would be for the Services to provide some sort of transit accommodation similar to the Joint Services Air Trooping Centre at Hendon for passengers who are delayed, and I think that this is what my noble friend is seeking. But for this purpose we should have to put up new buildings, or at least rehabilitate existing ones, and also employ a permanent staff. This would be a very expensive way of insuring against what are comparatively rare delays affecting only very few of our passengers. Since we began full air trooping to North-West Europe last October, only 3–8 per cent. of those who went from Ringway were delayed overnight. Indeed, the Select Committee on Estimates in another place, who recently investigated trooping, recommended that the Services should close down the Joint Services Hostel at Hendon, which performs a similar function, as soon as the needs of passengers, including accommodation, can be met more economically. For these reasons, therefore, this course is not acceptable.

This leaves the third possibility—the use of hotel accommodation of some sort in the local area. Extensive inquiries were made before British United Airways decided to use the Palace Hotel at Buxton, to which my noble friend has referred. Hotel accommodation in Manchester is scarce. There are three hotels which are capable of taking a full planeload of passengers, but the contractor found that it was impossible to find room for large numbers at short notice in any of them. In any event, they were more expensive than the one at Buxton. Smaller hotels could take only parts of the load, and here, too, there was difficulty in finding room at short notice. But in any case it is impracticable to have a plane-load of passengers (or, as occurred in January through fog, three plane-loads) scattered among half a dozen different hotels in different areas of Manchester. Apart from having to ensure that the passengers are being looked after properly—for, after all, the Services acknowledge that these passengers are travelling at the Services' rather than their own choice—we should be faced with an administrative problem in taking the passengers to their hotels and collecting them again when the aircraft was ready to leave. It would be equally impracticable to put the numbers involved in boarding houses, especially at short notice. It is far more satisfactory to have all the passengers under one roof. As a result, the hotel at Buxton, which is only 15 miles from Ringway, was chosen.

My noble friend asked me for the cost of transport, but I am afraid I cannot give him that detail. However, I might say that the route from Ringway to Buxton lies almost entirely through open country, whereas, of course, the route to Manchester, as I know only too well, lies through a very heavily built-up area, and therefore, in terms of time, there cannot be very much difference. At Buxton, the charter company has a standing arrangement, which applies whether the company or the Services pay for the accommodation, under which the hotel makes a substantial reduction in the normal charges. These charges vary, depending upon whether accommodation is required for the full day or just for bed and breakfast. The charges have been arranged as a result of an agreement between British United Airways and the hotel. They regard them as confidential, and I do not think it would be fair to expect me to reveal them. They are, however, substantially below the normal charges made.

The noble Lord also asked me what the cost would have been at the Hendon Joint Services Air Trooping Centre or the Union Jack Club. The daily rates at these places are 17s. 6d. and 20s. If the passengers delayed at Ringway had been brought to London, the extra fares would have cancelled out any possible saving on the hotel bill.

Since full air trooping began last October, 8,199 passengers have gone through Ringway, of whom 315 were delayed for one night or more. The longest delays occurred at the beginning of January, when 105 passengers were held up for four nights, and 51 passengers for three nights, because of fog. Previously, a total of 159 passengers had been delayed, for one night on two occasions in November, and on one occasion in December. All these delays were due to bad weather, and we can expect them to decrease in the spring or summer months, or so I devoutly hope.

While, therefore, this arrangement results in something above the normal standard of Service accommodation being provided, it is the most economical and practical course. Other hotel accommodation arrangements would, because of distance or dispersal of passengers, result in further delay to aircraft. They might possibly affect return and subsequent flights, and they would undoubtedly result in additional costs of various kinds that would exceed the cost of the accommodation at Buxton. The noble Lord also inquired about the arrangements for discipline when troops were delayed. Each flight is in charge of an officer, who is responsible for discipline and for keeping the passengers informed.

My noble friend Lord Goschen and the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, expressed solicitude for the travellers in this instance, but I can assure them that they are regarded by the War Office, who have to foot the bill, if any, for the hotel accommodation, simply as delayed air passengers, and we see no reason for less comfortable accommodation to be sought for them than would be enjoyed by other passengers in similar circumstances. I know that that is not what my noble friend was saying. I am very grateful to him for enabling me to give this explanation, and I hope that, in return, I have been able to set his mind at rest.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask him two very quick questions? The actual payment of the hotel bill is done by the contracting firm. Does that mean that in fact there is no cost to the public purse over and above the contract already entered into? The second question is: As they have to go all the way up to Hendon from Gatwick, which is quite a day's march in itself, would it not be easier, if the accommodation is still available, to send them either to the R.A.F. station at Biggin Hill, or to Kenley?


My Lords, the second of those two questions is rather outside the scope or the intention, I think, of my noble friend's original Question. I will, of course, find out the information and let my noble friend have it. In regard to his other question, I am sorry that I did not make it plainer, but when an aircraft is delayed as a result of weather, or any other factor outside the control of the air carrier, then the payment for accommodation is made from the public purse, as my noble friend put it.


My Lords, if troops are going to be moved to a place other than Hendon, will my noble friend remember that they would probably be much happier at Brighton than at the Air Force centre at Biggin Hill?