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Vote 8 Works, Buildings And Lands

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 15 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £48,300,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings and lands, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1963.

The amount of money shown under Subhead A of this Vote is to be devoted to new buildings and is an extremely good target. I have heard from all quarters that the amount of building going on both here and overseas has been extremely well received by the Army and that we are now getting to a decent standard, particularly for married quarters. My hon. Friend is to be highly congratulated on this achievement.

I am rather concerned, however, about the figure of £190,000 in Subhead E for works services in aid of work by industry, in which it is stated:
"Provision is made for capital assistance to industry engaged on production on behalf of the War Office… Provision is also included for the maintenance of buildings held as reserve production capacity."
What exactly does this mean? Throughout the Votes reference is made to the money the Army is paying to private industry to do research and development work. I am all for research and development by private industry, where necessary, but it seems that the Army is spending a large amount, perhaps larger than is necessary, and I would like an explanation of this.

On Subhead G, which deals with the purchase of land, although my hon. Friend dealt with this when we considered the previous Vote, I hope that it will only be in times of emergency that land will be purchased, or for rehousing or for new exercises. It would be monstrous if we had the Army buying up more and more land, especially considering the amount of land it already holds—and I refer to good farming and agricultural land in all parts of the country.

We can talk about Army pay from now until Doomsday. While it is very important, the real basis of a contented Army is the assurance the men have of a continuing family life. Good married quarters represent the basis of a good Army.

In Subhead A of this Vote is shown the sum of £462,000, which it is intended should be spent in the next financial year on the provision of married quarters abroad. I suppose that this is an addition to the £1½ million which, it is expected, will be spent on services already started. But I feel that if we are to stabilise the Army abroad—and some hon. Members consider that it should be increased—this figure will also have to be drastically increased.

Last year, I had the opportunity of travelling to Germany to see exactly how the Army of the Rhine was living. In our tour of the various Army camps we saw some of the private accommodation which the soldiers had provided for themselves and I must say, frankly, that the standard was just not good enough for the soldier of today. It is expensive, while not being very good. If the money which is now being spent to supplement the rents of inferior accommodation for the Army abroad were used for the provision of permanent and decent buildings, the type of letter from which I propose to quote would not be received by hon. Members. The Under-Secretary knows about this letter to me because, as a result of it I received a disappointing letter from him.

The letter states:
"I am writing in the hope that perhaps you can help me. My husband has been in the Army for eleven years, and all this time we have been separated. Now my husband is serving in Germany and we want to be together. He has 77 points and he has been told this puts him up the top of the list for married quarters. Yet others seem to get quarters before us. My husband has objected to it, but there is nothing he can do about it. So I thought I would try to do something myself. We have a son of nine and a half. Is there anything we can do? I will be very grateful for your advice."
The Under-Secretary, who has been very kind throughout the whole of this matter and who, I believe, has done his best, explains in his letter to me that married quarters are allotted on a points system which gives credit for rank, length of service, size of family up to three children and the extent to which a family has been separated during the last three years. Here is a family which, apparently, has been losing the benefits—if "benefits" can be used in this context—of eight years' separation.

The Under-Secretary stated:
"… the waiting list is liable to fluctuate as other families with more points come into the garrison and also because families already in Germany must be accommodated first when the husband moves from one station to another."
I fail to see the logic of that, because the accommodation situation in Germany is of no real importance to a serving soldier who is posted from home to a station abroad. He needs married quarters. The only real way to have a contented Army is to offer a real family life with housing facilities which are no worse than these families have enjoyed in this country.

6.45 p.m.

I wish to raise a point on Subhead G, regarding the purchase of land and buildings. I have just returned from a short visit to Sennelager, the all-arms training centre of the Rhine Army, about 25 miles from Bielefeld, in Westphalia. This is very bleak country and, at this time of the year, is extremely cold.

In the middle of this training centre there is a wonderful sports field, with facilities for playing rugby, soccer and other sports. This is of great value to the troops. I imagine that, in the sort of bleak, open country I speak of, it is the only kind of recreation and amusement available to them. While I was there a rumour was circulating among quite high authorities that this recreation field might be handed over to the Germans because of some difficulty over the cost of its upkeep.

If it were handed over to the Germans, who are also training there, the fear was expressed that it might be used as a tank training ground and that the recreational facilities now provided for the troops would be lost. I urge my hon. Friend to look at this and to allay my fears, for it would be a shame if this wonderful field, of about 100 acres, could not be kept for the Army for the period of its stay, which may be very many years indeed. These are the only facilities in the area for recreation.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with the comments of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochdale (Mr. McCann') about married quarters. This is the one important aspect of married Army life. We must ensure that Army married quarters are as good as those enjoyed by families in civil life. However, I cannot see any provision in the Estimates for accommodation for the men immediately they come back from overseas. Frequently, when a unit comes back from overseas, a man goes to his unit and his family is split up, possibly going to relatives and remaining there for some time. I know that there is temporary accommodation for this type of case, but I cannot see provision in the Estimates for either improvement or enlargement.

I welcome very much the increased expenditure on married quarters in the hope that the time may come when every soldier who is married gets a married quarter as of right.

I endorse everything that has been said by hon. Members, on both sides, about the need for more married quarters. The Memorandum by the Secretary of State for War confesses the disappointment of his Department this year about the number of married quarters that were put up. Paragraph 71 contains the statement that

"This time last year it was possible to look forward with some confidence to a spurt in the programme for rehousing the Army in modern buildings. … In the event, progress has not been as quick as had been hoped. At home, for example, the boom in building of all kinds has slowed the pace of new work."
I shall not repeat the points I made in the Army Estimates debate, but it is obvious to everyone that housing and accommodation for our soldiers is, like council house building, at the end of the queue as compared with the Clores and the Cottons. Private building has first preference every time and accommodation for the Forces comes very much at the end of the queue.

If I understood aright the Third Report from the Estimates Committee, that Committee was dissatisfied with the explanation proffered by the War Department for the fall in the building programme. The Committee said, in paragraph 35:
"The witness, when asked why only one-third of the planned expenditure for new barracks had taken place this financial year, stated that this was due to delays consequent on pressure of work in the building industry."
Question No. 449 of the evidence on this matter bears out that statement. The question was put:
"Is it not very unusual for plans costing £3 million to come out in the end as an expenditure of only £1 million? "
This was the answer by the official of the War Department:
"It is unusual and it is disappointing."
That sums up the position.

The Estimates Committee stated:
"Your Committee do not consider that the conditions at the time the Estimates were framed differed significantly from those obtaining during the financial year. They therefore believe that the loss of so much as two-thirds of the programme must have been due in part to the Department embarking on an unrealistic programme. At the same time they find it hard to believe that so great a shortfall was due solely to this factor. In any case the Department cannot escape considerable responsibility for the substantial discrepancy disclosed."
I made this point when speaking on the Army Estimates, but if my memory serves me aright, it was not answered. Here is a grave indictment against the War Department. I hope that when the Under-Secretary replies, he will meet it.

In the Estimates Committee, the following question was put by an hon. Member of the House:
"Let me put it this way: are you anticipating next year having to put in a larger Estimate than you had thought this year you would have to because the delay is liable to result in an increase in costs? "
The answer was:
"It will certainly mean we have to spend more money from now onwards than we had expected, as the programme will be to that extent pushed on. Whether it means that we shall spend more money next year I am not sure ".
Can the Under-Secretary clarify that statement of the witness to the Estimates Committee? Whether it means that we shall spend more money next year, I am not sure. It may merely mean that the programme lasts longer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. McCann) said, it is vitally important that when men join the Army they should have every possible opportunity for the continuation of family life. If we are to have a happy and contented Army, ample married quarters are badly needed. I hope that when we discuss the Estimates in future years, horn. Members on either side will not have to read the kind of letter that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale read today complaining about the lack of married quarters. Can the Under-Secretary indicate how many years it will be before everyone who needs and is entitled to a married quarter will be able to have one?

I noticed, as the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) also noticed, that the War Office was purchasing land. Perhaps we can nave an explanation of this. As I understood it, the War Office was selling land to a considerable extent. Like the hon. Member for Cornwall, North, I am concerned that, where possible, good agricultural land should not be used. Perhaps we may have assurances about this.

I wish to put a specific point which possibly the Under-Secretary will not be able to answer tonight because I did not give him notice. Perhaps he will give me an answer later. At Trawsfynydd, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones), a large area of land is held by the War Office. I understand that there have been negotiations for the sale of the land, but they are taking a considerable time. I shall be glad if the Under-Secretary will look into this matter, and I hope that the resale of the land to the farmers can be expedited.

Perhaps I may begin by answering the point raised by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) on the Supplementary Estimate. I did not deal with the point when we were debating Vote A, because it fell under the Supplementary Estimate and I thought that the hon. Member might raise it tonight. As, however, we might not get as far as the Supplementary Estimate and the hon. Member made some fairly serious charges and asked searching questions, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I say a word about it now.

I hope to be able to convince the hon. Member that we are less blameworthy in this matter than the Select Committee implied. As the hon. Member reminded us, the Committee's criticism was based on the fact that in our original Estimates we assessed the likely expenditure on new works services to be started in the United Kingdom during this financial year as just under £3 million, whereas in the Supplementary Estimate we put the figure at £1,070,000, a difference of nearly £2 million. The Committee state that they
"do not consider that the conditions at the time the Estimates were framed "—
that is, in the last half of 1960—
"differed significantly from those obtaining during the financial year."
The Committee concluded that our original Estimate must therefore have represented an unrealistic programme.

It was not until the summer of 1961, however, that my Department began to run into difficulties in placing new contracts for barracks in the United Kingdom. These difficulties could never have been foreseen six or nine months earlier. Barracks are not straightforward things for the building industry to tackle. They are complicated. The builders who might have been available found that there were plenty of simpler jobs ready to hand. They lost interest in our business and, as a result, the tender prices that were being submitted to us rose sharply.

One thing that we could have done would have been to go ahead and place the contract notwithstanding the high prices that were quoted. Had we done this, the original Estimate would probably have been vindicated. We should not have built so much, but we should have built it so expensively that we should have just about come out at the original Estimate figure, and the House would have known nothing about it. That, however, would have been thoroughly irresponsible and wrong, as, I am sure, the Committee would agree.

Instead, we reviewed the scope of the services for which the high prices had been quoted and we revised and simplified one project after another so as to bring down the cost and ensure that we got value for money. All this inevitably took time. Thus, the starting of the new projects was, in many cases, delayed by several months, anything from two to eight months. This is very disappointing to my right hon. Friend and to me because we have been most anxious to press on to the best of our ability with the home building programme. But we were not prepared—I do not believe that the Committee would wish us to do so—to carry on irrespective of cost. I think that this puts a slightly different slant on our position in the matter which I hope the Committee will accept.

7.0 p.m.

The explanation which the hon. Gentleman has given seems rather more alarming than the one given to the Estimates Committee. Apparently, an estimate of about £3 million was presented, and, when it was looked at, it was decided that the Department could have what it wanted, under a simplified scheme, for about £1 million. What has happened to the chap who gave the £3 million estimate?

When we receive a price which we regard as unacceptably high, we have sometimes to accept reduced and simplified standards because there is a limit to the finance which can be made available for particular projects. It may happen, after we have gone out to tender on one basis, that the tenders seem likely to be very high. Prices rise. Contracts are subject to variation when prices rise for inevitable reasons. If, as a result of these things, the result seems to come out unacceptably high, it is right that we should have another look. It is only financially responsible to do so.

One can entirely understand that attitude in regard to marginal differences which might even go up to 20 per cent., but here we are dealing with 200 per cent. If one can obtain substantially what one wants for £1 million, I should imagine that one would wish to inquire fairly closely into what was done by the people who set out the previous specifications stating that the requirements could not be met for less than £3 million. It seems a very alarming state of affairs.

That is the difference, but the whole programme is very much bigger than that. I will look at the point which the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised, but I hope that he will. on further consideration, feel satisfied with my explanation.

I am glad that we have had an opportunity in Committee today to think about the importance of married quarters. My right hon. Friend is under no illusion about how essential such provision is for the continued good morale of a Regular Army. When speaking about our building programme a year ago, he laid the main stress on the provision of accommodation for married soldiers and their families, and this still remains our top priority job. However, as we have had to point out in the Memorandum, there has been some delay in the provision of building works in overseas stations. We have explained the reasons for that. Apart from this, we are maintaining the rate of progress which we started last year.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. McCann) referred to accommodation in Germany. I can tell him that new building of hirings, the type of married quarter which is prevalent in Germany, is going ahead extremely well, but naturally, some of the private accommodation which is the alternative open to a soldier who cannot qualify for a War Department hiring is not as good as we should like to see. Men are allowed to go out and have their wives with them if they can find accommodation, which, of course, has to be passed as satisfactory by the commanding officer. We have to strike a balance in these things, accepting that, if men are to have their families with them in the interests of family unity, the standards will not always be so high as in the quarters which we ourselves have built. The hon. Gentleman quoted from the letter which I wrote to him. I will look at the matter again, but I regret that I cannot hold out much hope, since the decision was based on the points system which we operate, that the answer will be any different from what I was obliged to tell him before.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) asked about a sports field in Germany. I shall look into this and write to him, if I may.

The hon. Member for Aberavon and my hon. Friend the Member for Clap-ham (Dr. Alan Glyn) spoke about War Department land. My right hon. Friend and I are anxious not to hold any more land than we need to hold. We do not want to keep land which could otherwise be used for agriculture. We do not buy more land unless we find it essential to do so. I ask the Committee to remember, nevertheless, that this is a small island. Land is short for every sort of purpose and everyone casts envious eyes upon it. The Army needs land for training. If it is to be efficiently trained, a certain minimum amount of land suitable for training areas is and will be essential. We have to keep this in the forefront of our mind, not to speak of married quarters, barracks, and so on. Subject to that, it is our policy, subject also to the needs of other Government Departments, to make available for other uses any surplus land which we hold.

I am familiar with the specific case in Wales to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If he will excuse me, I will not go into it now. I hope to write to him about it very shortly.

I apologise to my hon. Friend. He asked why it was that in Subhead E there is provision for assistance to outside industry. The reason is that—I am thinking particularly of munitions production—we cannot make everything we need for the Army in our own factories. It is sometimes an economical and sensible arrangement either by sub-contract or in some other way to arrange for the production we need to be done by private industry This, as I understand it, is the explanation of the payments for capital investment. I cannot justify each one in detail now, but I can tell my hon. Friend that in general I am satisfied that this principle of payment in aid of capital resources to be used for our purposes in industry is a sensible one which does give advantage.

I gather from what is said on page 167 that the War Department is holding buildings, presumably factories, in reserve in case it is desired to expand production. Is that what it comes to?

Yes, that may happen. We may have part of a factory, a shop within a factory, or even a section of a shop, and we have to maintain it. Provision must be made for the maintenance of the building in a private concern.

The hon. Gentleman was good enough to refer to one area in Wales. Will he bear in mind that there are other areas which the Armed Forces expect to vacate? I have in mind the area around Pembrey on the Carmarthen coast. I understand that this is to be vacated in the near future. In such a case, does the War Office make any effort to draw to the attention of other Government Departments the fact that such land is being vacated, with the idea of inducing them to establish industries there, particularly in places where the introduction of industry is so vital?

Could my hon. Friend deal with the point which I raised? Is there provision in the Estimates for improving and enlarging accommodation to receive troops when they return from abroad with their families? I cannot find any in the Estimates.

I cannot give my hon. Friend the answer now, but I will write to him and let him know what it is.

In reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. S. O. Davies), when we have land available for disposal, as a matter of policy we offer it to other Government Departments to see whether they are interested in it. The former owners of agricultural land also have rights which, as a matter of policy, are respected. When industrial sites are involved, my right hon. Friend and I consult the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade over matters such as those which I think the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Resolved,

That a sum, not exceeding £48,300,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of works, buildings and lands, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1963.