HL Deb 19 May 1994 vol 555 cc347-50

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to vary their contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, the effect of the reduction of approximately £1 million in our contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for this year will be to cut the surplus carried forward from last year's operations. The commission itself has stated that the current year's level of funding will have no adverse effect on its ability to perform to its usual high standard.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that satisfactory Answer. Is he aware that I visited a number of these cemeteries in France and Belgium and was most impressed by the work done there? Will he assure me that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is satisfied with the way that it is financed?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for raising this Question which has caused a great deal of anxiety as a result of what I believe to be misrepresentation in the public press. Like my noble friend, everybody is enormously impressed by the magnificent job which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission does. It would be horrific if sufficient funds were not provided under the current arrangements to enable that work to continue to the existing high standard. As I said, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for providing me with this opportunity to be able to confirm that the Government will do nothing to inhibit the work which the commission does.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, will the Minister not agree that the War Graves Commission is an excellent body for consolidating the work of the Commonwealth? The Government should do everything possible to see that the commission has adequate funds to carry out that work.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord has a long-standing interest in this matter. I am happy to give him the assurance which he seeks and also to endorse the encomium which he pronounced in the first part of his question. I emphasise that, through no fault of its own, the commission has a record of carrying forward a higher surplus from year to year than that for which it has budgeted. That is in the nature of its work. This is not the first time that the grant has been cut to take account of that higher than budgeted surplus.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, while I admire the plans for the commemoration of the end of the European War, may I respectfully remind the noble Viscount that the war did not end until VJ Day? Can he state that there will be no impediment to the maintenance of the high standard of care for the war graves of those who died in South-East Asia?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope that the noble Viscount knows that I am at one with him in regard to the importance attached to the deeds of the 14th Army and those who fought in the Far East. It is essential that next year the nation recognises their contribution. The nation should not be given the impression that the war ended on VE Day. I certainly agree with the noble Viscount that any suggestion that the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the Far East, particularly in relation to those who fell with the 14th Army and South-East Asian operations, should be cut would be a very poor reward indeed for the sacrifices which the noble Viscount's associates made.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his current answer is satisfactory, but with regard to the future there is an element of doubt? Having served for 16 years on the War Graves Commission, I recognise in full the dedication and service rendered by the staff of the commission.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to echo the tribute that he has just paid, which is richly deserved. I remind the noble Lord that the financial memorandum between the Ministry of Defence and the commission provides that the commission should notify my department at the earliest opportunity of any prospective overspend of the grant-in-aid which produces a requirement for additional funding. Should such a requirement for additional funds be agreed, funds would be provided without implications necessarily for the following year, particularly where the requirement is due to circumstances beyond the commission's control.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether other Commonwealth countries which make a contribution to the War Graves Commission do so on a pro rata basis to Her Majesty's Government's contribution? If so, will there be enough money available for the commission if the other countries also cut their contributions?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord makes an important point. I am sure that he knows that the answer to the first part of his question is yes. The United Kingdom's contribution to the commission is something under 80 per cent. of the total funds required. I can confirm to the noble and gallant Lord that the other participating Commonwealth countries have agreed that their pro rata contributions will continue. They are content that the "strictures" which I have been able to make this afternoon to your Lordships accord with their wishes. Their own graves will continue to be protected in the same way as UK graves.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Royal British Legion is greatly interested in this matter? It will certainly be encouraged by his replies this afternoon. If there are to be any significant changes, will he please seek the views of the Royal British Legion?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord's connection with the Royal British Legion is well known in your Lordships' House and much appreciated. I am well aware that the Royal British Legion has expressed anxiety about this matter. I hope that it is satisfied by the answers that I have given this afternoon. My department endeavours to keep in close contact with the Royal British Legion. The noble Lord will be aware that, apart from keeping the nation informed, because the nation is quite rightly concerned about this, the detailed negotiations must be a matter for the commission and the Ministry of Defence.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I too echo my noble friend's tribute to the work of the War Graves Commission? Is he aware further that I had the privilege of attending yesterday a meeting of the all-party D-Day commemoration committee which was held in this Palace? During the course of an exchange with a Member of the other place, Mr. Iain Sproat, of the Department of National Heritage, said that he would use his best efforts—and I do not believe that I am misquoting him—to reinstate the full grant to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Will the Minister confirm that those best efforts will be met?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I make it clear to your Lordships and to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that if it is at all necessary to provide additional funding to the commission under the memorandum of understanding to which I referred earlier, those funds will be forthcoming. I hope that the noble Lord and, indeed, the House have been reassured. I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for providing me with this opportunity to reassure people who were rightly worried by a number of the newspaper reports that we have all read.