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Defence (Army) Supplementary Estimate, 1967–68

Volume 757: debated on Monday 22 January 1968

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding£18,000,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1968, for expenditure beyond the sum already provided in the grants for Army Services for the year.—[Mr. Charles Morris.]

9.42 p.m.

I shall do my best not to talk this Motion out. Neither I nor any of my hon. Friends has the least wish to prevent the Services getting the money represented by this Supplementary Estimate. We think that in the present climate of opinion they had better get anything they can for they have been cut short enough by recent Government decisions. But this is the second year running that the Government have asked for a supplement to the Army Votes of about£18 million and this in itself is something which ought to be debated.

Before coming to one or two specific points in the Estimates, there are some general comments I wish to make about this state of affairs. It must look very odd to the country, and in particular to informed opinion, that the Government cannot get their estimates of the Army Votes right to within £18 million, to within 3 per cent. It certainly looks odd to a number of people, as hon. Members can judge from their postbags and as the House can judge from the letter which appeared in this morning's Times from no less an authority than Lieutenant-General Sir George Cole, recently Director of Staff Duties, and more recently Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Command.

On the one hand, we have the Government unable to frame Army Estimates to within 3 per cent. of the total Army Vote yet on the other they quite happily take for budgetary reasons major decisions affecting the future constitution of our forces and in particular our Reserve forces where the order of magnitude of the sum involved is only about a half of 1 per cent. of the total Army budget or, in terms of the whole defence budget, as little as one-five-hundredth. I refer to the decision to scrap the T. and A.V.R.III and to do away with what remains of the Territorial Army. It is difficult for people observing these two contradictory factors in the Government policy not to have the feeling that there is a great deal of irresponsibility about the way in which these affairs are at present being conducted.

My second general point concerns the extent to which the need for Supplementary Estimates of this size in two successive years appears to illustrate the strains that are being imposed on the Army Department by the Government's policies. It is fairly clear what has happened in order to produce this year the need for a Supplementary Estimate of this size. The Army Department was faced with the stringent cuts imposed by Ministers on next year's Estimates—those for 1968–69—which were announced last November. Faced with the need for very considerable extra expenditure in the short term on the Vote 10 items in these Estimates and up to a point on the Vote 7 items, what has it had to do? It has had to rush forward the expenditure into the present year.

indicated dissent

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. He will have an opportunity to answer.

It then had to come to the House for a Supplementary Estimate. All this, or so it appears, was so that the total of next year's Estimates should wear at any rate a moderately respectable appearance and that the increase in next year's figures should not appear to verge too much on the absurd.

I make these general points not because my hon. Friends are in any mood to complain when the Services are going to get some money, but to illustrate the essential dishonesty of the Government's financial case in relation to the economies which are being proposed and which the Government have been trying to make, largely for the benefit of their colleagues below the Gangway.

I think it fair to point out that the effects of asking for Supplementary Estimates of this size in two successive years on public administration are to be deplored, and one hopes that when the public Accounts Committee considers this, as no doubt it will, it will put the blame where it belongs, on Ministers and not on accounting officers, because all this stems directly from the policy in regard to the Army Department adopted by He Majesty's Government in the context of the recent cuts.

I want to devote most of what I have to say to Vote 10, the initial expenditure on the Services emergency housing programme, but I should like to make a I related point in connection with Vote 7, Subhead C, where we see an increase of nearly£5 million in expenditure on vehicles. I presume that this is mostly attributable to the items which were referred to on 27th November by the secretary of State—the increased numbers of A.P.Cs, Chieftain tanks and so on, coming forward. If this is so—

—and the Under-Secretary indicates that it is—it is related to the consequences, financial and otherwise, of withdrawing large numbers of men from Germany—and also elsewhere, but I specifically mention Germany—and redeploying them in this country. We were given on 5th July a list of the various units that are being redeployed back into this country from Germany. I will not go through them now, but all of them, it seems to me, w ill have to be provided with a duplicate set of vehicles. The vehicles in Germany will have to be kept there in case the troops have to go back. They will have to be maintained there, presumably by civilians. Some provision for barrack accommodation in case of emergency will have to be retained in Germany, and that also will need maintenance, which will be expensive. Although the Minister of Defence for Administration, in the debate to which I have referred, made no reference to the armour, I presume that the necessary tanks for the armoured forces which are 'being withdrawn will have to be kept in Germany on a care and maintenance basis.

I presume also that there will be, as a result of this policy, a great deal of duplication, and consequently a good deal of extra expense. In this context the House ought to take a pretty close look at the im- plications of this policy of redeployment. I hope that the Minister, in the eight minutes or so which I have left him, will do his best to help us understand the implications fully. To put the point as shortly as I can, there are two aspects to this question of the redeployment of our forces from Europe or elsewhere to this country.

There is the foreign exchange aspect, the objective of saving foreign exchange, and there is the budgetary aspect, the question of the total cost of the new stance adopted. The foreign exchange aspect is one thing, its importance may be less now that substantial savings in foreign exchange in other parts of the world have been announced. It looks from the size of this Estimate and the scale of expenditure which the Government have had to go into—not only on vehicles, but more particularly in connection with the re-provision of married quarters and other accommodation—as though the budgetary cost as a result of this redeployment may be very considerably increased. In other words, it will cost, absolutely, more money to keep the same number of forces here than it would cost to have them in Germany.

In the light of the last White Paper, Cmnd. 3515, and what is said in paragraph 26, about the main future stance of our forces being in Europe, I regard the implications of this as being extremely serious and I hope that the Under-Secretary will go as far as he can in setting out for the benefit of the House what this sum really amounts to in total and justifying, if he can, this redeployment in the light of the full budgetary cost as opposed merely to the foreign exchange saving.

I have tried to put as shortly as I could what it is that bothers us in the main about these Supplementary Estimates. I should have liked to have asked the Under-Secretary at greater length how the re-provision of accommodation is proceeding, how far it has gone, what is the state of accompaniment for these units that have been brought home. compared with that which they enjoyed before their withdrawal. I should also like to know what effect this new stance looks like having upon recruiting. We shall wish to return to these matters, insofar as I have not been able to cover them, and insofar as the hon. Gentleman will not have time to give us a full reply, on the Army Estimates, if not before. I think that I have said enough to indicate our anxieties and for the moment I will leave it there.

9.55 p.m.

The party opposite become curiouser and curiouser. The Government of the right hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden) took Supplementary Estimates in the spring of 1960–61, the spring of 1961–62, the summer of 1962–63, the spring of 1962–63, and the spring of 196–364. Then he talks in the way that he has done. This Supplementary Estimate is in Vote 4, Civilians at Outstations; Vote 7, Stores and Equipment; and Vote 10, Defence Lands. We need£5 million more for outstation civilians, largely because of increased costs due to pay awards. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would applaud that. His party have prayed against all the Prices and Incomes Orders, and I should have thought that they would have favoured pay awards for industrial civil servants.

Next,£2¼ million more is needed for stores and equipment, for ammunition and armoured vehicles—I shall deal with the misleading point which the right hon. Member made about anticipating cuts—and£10¾ million is needed for defence lands and buildings because of the housing programme, which I should have expected every right hon. and hon. Member opposite to applaud.

I can put the matter in this way. The first general cause for the increase in cost was rises in pay and prices, mainly pay, accounting for£4·3 million out of the total of£18 million. This includes a very good pay award to industrial civil servants, good in the sense that it provided better incentives. There has been a complete reorganisation of industrial pay structure, and I should have thought that everyone would applaud it.

The second general cause was a forecast loss of receipts of£3·65 million. This was a net figure.£4·4 million was due to delays in the sale of property, but it was partly offset by an increase on the sale of stores of£750,000. The main delay in the sale of property was on the sale of the R.A.F. aerodrome at Hendon, which is valued at about£5 million. The reason for this is quite easy to see. It is a large scheme which needs to be dealt with thoroughly and carefully, and the reasons for the delay are certainly not within the control of the Ministry of Defence.

No, I have only about three minutes.

The third cause for the increase was the emergency housing programme. The original Estimate for 1967–68 was based on a requirement of 3,700 houses. The programme did not proceed as rapidly in 1966–67 as we had hoped, and to that extent the provision in 1967–68 was too low. On top of this, however, there was the accelerated withdrawal from overseas, so that it became necessary to increase the number of houses to 8,600. This is the main reason for the increase.

I pay tribute here to the imagination shown by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works who, when chairman of the committee looking into this, drove through the scheme with great ingenuity and initiative so that, as it is running now, 80 to 85 per cent. of families coming home are together and move into a quarter almost at once. I pay tribute also to the Defence Lands staff who have really got to grips with the problem of buying houses; they are buying houses very well and most imaginatively.

I should mention here—I hope the hon. Members opposite are not playing this one up—that in some areas there has been an outcry against the housing of soldiers. This is a most selfish attitude and quite unwarranted. I am pleased to say that in one case where an organisation was set up to resist Service housing, the people concerned saw the folly of their ways, turned round, and welcomed the troops in a suitable way.

The right hon. Gentleman made a most misleading point about the increased cost in respect of tanks and ammunition. He knows very well that these things are planned a long way ahead, and the production period for a tank can last up to about 18 months. The record of the party opposite in the development of the Chieftain tank was not all that hot as regards production. Production line tooling began in 1960. First deliveries of Chieftain were expected in 1963 but were delayed. Production was, in fact, started in 1964. There was a whole background of pessimism about what money should be provided for Chieftain tanks. This has been shown over the years.

However, we have now an estimated annual production rate of about 180, which is very creditable to the people concerned, especially to the Barnbow factory. In 1965–66, the Estimate was for 116 Chieftains, but only 29 were completed. In 1966–67, the Estimate was for 150, and only 124 were completed. 1 his year it will be about 180.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right that the Under-Secretary of State should talk these important Estimates out or take them right up to 10 o'clock, when there are many hon. Members on this side who wish to make a contribution? The hon. Gentleman is not answering the debate completely, and there are many matters involving a great deal of public money covered by the Estimates. Is it not up to the Government to provide time, if they wish to allow us to debate the matter further? The Estimates have been selected for debate by agreement between both sides. Is it not up to the Government to provide proper time?

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, though it is not a point of order. However, I believe that there will be other opportunities.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.