HL Deb 04 July 1984 vol 454 cc278-82

2.52 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will state their future policy in regard to the bands of the Royal Marines.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the policy of Her Majesty's Government is to maintain the band service of the Royal Marines in the size and shape which best meet the needs of the naval service, taking account of the need to shift resources from the support areas to the front line. Thus two out of the nine existing Royal Marines bands are being disbanded: the Band of Commando Forces in 1985 and the Band of Flag Officer 3rd Flotilla in 1987. The seven remaining bands are planned to continue.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, may I say to my noble friend that I am not very pleased with that reply, especially as the number of bands has been cut from 40 to 7 since the war? May I ask him whether he agrees that in war the bandsmen are very efficient, especially in casualty help, and that this was shown in the recent Falklands campaign? Furthermore, the intimate relationship between the Royal Marines and the Commandos in their training is very beneficial to them both. They are also a powerful recruiting agent, and a tourist attraction. Finally, may I say that the Plymouth band, which is the oldest, being 217 years old, has given very good service to the country, and also has now received the freedom of the City of Plymouth.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the structure of the band service in the Royal Marines has undergone a large number of changes in this century at least, and, indeed, in previous centuries. I am not sure that it is necessarily accurate to say that a particular band today is directly descended from some other band of years past. It is possible to suggest, for example, that the Band of Commando Forces was called something quite different not too long ago. There was a band called the Plymouth Group Band, which I understand played at the investiture of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales some years ago, and that has been called by some a descendant of the Band of Commando Forces.

It is true, as my noble friend has said, that bandsmen act as stretcher bearers and nursing auxiliaries in time of war, but I can assure my noble friend that there will be more than sufficient bandsmen remaining in the Royal Marines band service to fill these important roles.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, is it not regrettable that two of these Royal Marine bands are to be disbanded or abandoned? Will that not be greeted with very great regret indeed throughout the country? And would the Minister not agree that apart from their strictly service role (which not only includes their normal service duties but also includes the very big part that they play so far as morale is concerned) these bands also have a much wider public role in the public relations service which they perform? Will the Minister at least confirm that that particular role will be borne very much in mind so far as the future of these bands is concerned, and will he reconsider, and ask his right honourable friend to reconsider, the position of the bands as a whole?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, of course I agree with the noble Lord that the role to which he refers is an important one and one which we have had very much in mind in reaching this decision. There will continue to be at least three bands available in the West Country, one of which, the Band of the Flag Officer Plymouth, will be in Plymouth. In addition to that there will be the Band of the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth and the Band of the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone, all of which will be able to perform the role to which the noble Lord has referred, together with the other bands which are remaining.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that these Marines bands are the smartest and best that anyone could want? Will he say what is the cost of a Marines band compared with, for instance, the cost of Trident?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am not sure that I need precisely answer that amusing if irrelevant supplementary, but I can tell the noble Lord that the total cost of the Royal Marines band service is of the order of £8.1 million, and the Band of Commando Forces, to which my noble friend referred, costs about £900,000.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that his Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, causes as much dismay on this side of the House as on his own side? Bearing in mind that people get sick and tired of saturation at weekends by highly-paid and under-talented musicians in the various areas of entertainment, or what pass as such, why are the Government going to pursue this policy of dismantling two bands which have become household names and the envy of the world over? Can the noble Lord's right honourable friend reconsider the decision, please?

Lord Trefgarne

Naturally, my Lords, I would prefer it if we could retain large numbers of bands, including the very distinguished bands to which I have referred; but the fact is that the defence budget is a finite budget. It is absolutely necessary. I believe, to ensure that we get the best value for money out of that budget, and that we ensure that the maximum proportion of the resources that we make available is devoted to the front line rather than to the support lines, of which these bands form a part.

The fact of the matter is that they are very expensive to maintain, and the Government have had to take a decision about the priorities. The noble Lord asked how much. The answer I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, just now is that the Royal Marines band service costs £8.1 million in total a year, and the particular band mentioned costs about £900,000.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how the bands that the Army has compare both in cost and numbers with those of the Royal Marines? Could he further tell me what band is going to replace that which is currently allocated to the 3rd Flotilla?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the Army band service is under the same close scrutiny as that which the Royal Marines band service has been under. If my noble friend would like me to write to him with details, I shall be happy to do that. We are not specifically replacing bands which are being disbanded (if that is the right word) by other bands; but just now I gave a list of bands which are to be retained, any one of which, on a particular day, could replace the services provided by one of the others. I should perhaps add that, although the bands have in many cases discrete names, they are not necessarily individual bands with individual members, because musicians very often play in more than one band in any particular period of time.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, are the Government considering rationalising and possibly centralising music teaching in the armed forces as a whole, even bringing together all the military music schools in one place? If so, will they be very sure that they do not remove it from London, thereby making it impossible for musicians of the great national orchestras to teach military bandsmen how to play their instruments in the future?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, I can confirm that we have decided there should be a single defence school of music covering the musical training of all three services. We are at present considering where this should be.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that all military bands are bands of hope and glory? Does he really think it is possible to assess their value in terms of pounds?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I recognise that these are difficult decisions and a number of emotional considerations very often come into play in these matters. But in the end we have to take account of the very considerable costs these bands represent.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, while the cost of military bands as a whole exceeds that of the Royal Opera House, it is nevertheless a very small part of a very large defence budget? Having regard to this, and that military bands might conceivably encourage us, it is a much better bet than Trident which only succeeds in frightening us.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I agree that the total cost of the bands I have referred to is a comparatively small part of the defence budget as a whole. On the other hand, I am persuaded that the defence budget as a whole is best contained by having regard to all the small elements that go to make up the larger whole. That is why we have had to have regard to the cost in this matter.

Lord Stewart of Fulham

My Lords, I would like to ask the Government if they have no proposals for privatising these bands. Have they no faith in their own principles?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion from the noble Lord opposite.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister agree that what all of these supplementary questions really amount to is that the Royal Marines bands ought to be allowed to continue their various ceremonial functions and that really it ought to be the Government who should be solely confined to beating retreat?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I hope I can dispel the fears of the noble Lord that there will be any significant reduction in the ceremonial activities of the Royal Marines bands service. We have been careful to do what we can to ensure that that should not take place.

Lord Annan

My Lords, would the noble Lord accept that some noble Lords like myself are somewhat bewildered by the statement that members of one band seem to be able to play simultaneously in another band? But that having been said, would the noble Lord agree that if one has to make these decisions between one type of expenditure and another, the expenditure ought to be concentrated on those troops in NATO and elswhere who are in the front line and that this must have priority?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for that intervention. I shall do my best to ensure that musicians are not called upon to play in two bands at the same moment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, might I declare an interest in that more than 40 years ago I was proud to march behind a Royal Marines band as a Royal Marine. At that time the Royal Marines bands were looked upon with pride. Since then they have not only brought pride but great profit to this country, not least in respect of the tourist attractions that they provide. Will the Minister not listen very carefully to the powerful case that is being made by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, recognise that she has allies all round the House, and draw the proper conclusion and act accordingly?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I will certainly want to take note of the views expressed by your Lordships during the course of this exchange. My noble friend—and I am not sure if this was in the mind of the noble Lord as well—has referred to the funds and fees that these bands can earn. But I should say that the great majority of the fees earned by Royal Marines hands at private engagements are paid to the musicians themselves. Indeed, only about £600 of the fees earned last year went to the Ministry of Defence.