HL Deb 30 October 2000 vol 618 cc660-4

2.46 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reverse the decision to reduce the allowance paid to gardeners in the Commonwealth war cemeteries in European countries.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, the Government understand the concerns which have been raised about the allowances paid to gardeners employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As your Lordships know, it is the commission's responsibility to set these allowances.

As many of your Lordships also know, the commission has decided to suspend any changes in these allowances pending the outcome of an independent review by my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Flylde.

Maintenance of war graves and memorials to the highest standards remains the central concern of the commission, with the complete support of Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the standards in the cemeteries which are looked after by the commission in all parts of the world are to its credit? To those who have members of their family or old comrades buried there it matters a great deal.

I am interested in this independent report. I am not sure why one needs an independent report; I should have thought it could be independent in the first instance. Can we be assured that the policy change came from the commission itself and not from the Treasury or from the Minister's own department? Perhaps she will explain why the change was made? Will she also assure us that no one will be worse off? If our allowances in the House were cut there would soon be a row.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the state in which the war graves cemeteries and the memorials are kept is an enonnous credit to those who care for them—the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the expatriate gardeners and indeed the gardeners of other nationalities who give their support.

The review will be independent. It will be carried out by my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, who, I am sure, will act as expeditiously as she can.

My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees also asked about the change of policy. The commission announced the review as an act of good faith, to overcome the present impasse, to reassure the staff and, very importantly, to reassure the public—particularly those who have loved ones in the cemeteries—of the commitment to fair awards and to demonstrate its desire to maintain high standards in the cemeteries, to which my noble friend referred.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that because the cemeteries are so well-cared for—I have to visit some of them from time to time, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, knows—no act ion should be taken which would reduce the very high standards maintained over many years?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree. But, more importantly, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission agrees that the maintenance of the very high standards of the cemeteries and of the memorials to the missing dead who do not have individual graves must not be jeopardised.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while the decision as to whether to reduce these allowances is to be taken by the commission and not by the Government, we are entitled to express a view on the issue? It is, I should have thought, the unanimous opinion of noble Lords on both sides of the House, especially those of us who are ex-service people, that no step should be taken which would reduce in any way the excellence of the manner in which the cemeteries are looked after. To reduce the allowance of the gardeners appears on the face of it to be a form of insensitive meanness which would be unworthy of the commission or of this country.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may explain the genesis of what has happened without expressing a view as to whether what has happened is right. Changes were made in 1998 to the allowances paid to those serving overseas. Similar reviews have been undertaken in, for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the British Council, which your Lordships discussed a few moments ago. This is part of the same review, although it is undertaken differently by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Of course your Lordships are entitled to express a view; so are the many others who have expressed a view. It is Her Majesty's Government's position that it is a privilege as well as a duty to look after the sites which commemorate our war dead.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, did the Minister read the letter in the Mail on Sunday a week ago from Dr Moonie, the Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, in which he said that not only the allowances but the salaries of these men are tax free? Surely that is not true, is it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, perhaps I may try to explain the position as I know that it has caused some difficulty elsewhere. The actual sums paid to the individuals concerned are tax free. They do not pay tax on the sums they have received. What happens is that there is a discount in lieu of tax before the sums are paid. So my honourable friend was right when he said that the sums received, both salaries and allowances, are not taxed. I hope that that explains the position to the noble Lord.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, notwithstanding the fact that the Government are not responsible for the dreadful decision to look into the allowances, does my noble friend agree that the people who will be commemorated on Sunday week and those whom they left behind in graves never had the luxury of waiting for an independent inquiry into such a matter? Does she not further agree that if the matter is not settled before Remembrance Day those responsible should hang their heads in shame?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government and, I am sure, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—my noble friend is quite right to say that it is independent of the Government in this respect: the Government do not control the way in which it deals with its staff—seek to maintain the highest standards of maintenance and give the care, attention and respect which this country rightly owes our war dead. I have said that I do not believe that the commission will take any action that jeopardises those very high standards. But I cannot give an undertaking to my noble friend that my noble friend Lady Dean will have completed her work by 11th November. I am sure that she will proceed as expeditiously as possible, and I am sure that no one is more seized than she of the urgency of so doing.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness said in her first reply about the survey being undertaken by her noble friend Lady Dean. But why has there been this change in the method of negotiation which has given rise to the justifiable concerns expressed by noble Lords and by so many people outside? I have a totally separate question. Will the noble Baroness try to persuade the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to take on the maintenance of graves from campaigns which took place before 1914, particularly those in South Africa and the Crimea? I know from personal knowledge that the graves in South Africa are in a very poor condition.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in 1998 the central system for calculating overseas allowances of a number of public servants—not only those in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but public servants in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere—was changed. Each individual department then had to devise a system of its own. Such systems have already been devised in some of the large departments, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. What we are discussing is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission going through its own revision of allowances. There is also a twice yearly updating of how the money that will be paid in the United Kingdom is paid to people locally to take into account currency fluctuations. I hope that that explains why this has happened.

The noble Lord asked about the graves from pre-1914 campaigns. As I am sure he knows, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up in 1917. It looks after some graves from before that date. South Africa is one of the countries where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is involved. I shall raise the noble Lord's question with my colleagues in the commission and write to the noble Lord about any views it may have.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister says that this issue is very much one for the commission and that the rationale for the present review is the activities of the commission. But the noble Baroness also says that the decision in 1998 to review overseas allowances was made by Her Majesty's Government. Does that mean that at the end of the day the genesis was indeed the action taken by Her Majesty's Government in 1998 and that the only reason there is a review today is directly as a result of the action of Her Majesty's Government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that does not follow. The action taken in 1998 has not resulted in the same kind of difficulty in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence. It is the way in which this has happened that has caused the difficulty. Although allowances have moved up and down, there are a number of parts of the allowances. There are additions for accommodation and schooling overseas. These are very complicated arrangements, as I know from a former incarnation as a Civil Service union official. The fact is that the changes have taken place relatively peacefully—not without difficulty, I have to say—in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in the Ministry of Defence. However, on this occasion they have caused difficulty and for that reason, and as an act of good faith, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has decided to set up the review, a decision which I hope your Lordships can welcome.