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Ulster Defence Regiment(Travelling Allowance)

Volume 888: debated on Wednesday 12 March 1975

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4.15 a.m.

I recollect having frequently replied to Adjournment debates—not often at so advanced an hour—but, curiously enough, having almost completed my 25th year as a Member of this House, this is the first occasion on which I have been the initiator of such a debate. I am inclined to think that I—and consequently, the Under-Secretary of State—may not have been fortunate in terms of the day upon which I hit for this new experience.

Nevertheless, the hon. Member will not expect me to apologise, in the light of the importance of the subject, because on this at least we shall be agreed— that the recruitment and the morale of the Ulster Defence Regiment is of even greater importance now than it was in the circumstances that existed when that force was first devised, for in the improving—I am sure they are improving— circumstances in Northern Ireland, with the role of the Regular Army being gradually modified and the police, on the other hand, extending their proper functions, there is an even more important place for this special force—a unique corps or territorial force devised for Northern Ireland.

Anything which causes justified dissatisfaction amongst its members, and anything which deters recruitment or lowers the status of that force, must be regarded as contrary to the general interest.

The particular aspect which I wish to raise is that of the motor mileage allowance which is payable to members of the UDR for travel between home and duty. Perhaps this will be clearest if I set out first—I think correctly—the three forms of allowance which exist. One is the official duty allowance for travel on duty, which represents full reimbursement of the cost, in the fullest sense. The second is the Regular Army rate, which falls far short not only of full reimbursement but even of the public transport rate. The third is the public transport rate, which endeavours approximately to match what would be the cost of carrying out the equivalent journey, on average, by public transport.

Having set out the three possibilities, let me say straight away that it seems to me entirely right that where public transport is available for a journey from home to duty it would be quite unacceptable for the public to bear more expense than that, just because an individual chose the superior convenience of using his own private motor transport. I regard the principle of the public transport rate as one which, in itself, is entirely logical and justified.

What I advance is the proposition that in the circumstances of the UDR in Northern Ireland as it is today the reasons which render the public transport rate justified and rational do not exist— and that in two important respects. First, there is the question of the availability of public transport, for clearly it is unreasonable to say to a person "You shall be paid no more for the use of your car than the public would pay for your conveyance by public transport ", if there is no practicable possibility of his being conveyed by public transport. Over a great part of the area where the UDR and its members live and operate there literally is no public transport. I speak from personal knowledge of an extensive rural part of Northern Ireland where members of the UDR live and are required to operate. There is no available suitable public transport, even in the daytime, for many of the home-to-duty journeys. But these journeys are frequently performed at times when even if there were public transport it would not be operating, for instance, where tours of duty end, as I believe they not infrequently do, at 5 a.m.— a thought not far remote from our own minds at this moment.

The Under-Secretary gave an informative Written Answer on 2nd December last on the subject of motor mileage allowances. He set out the particulars of the public transport rate and explained the way in which it was assessed. Then in small print and one should always read the small print— there followed a note saying:
" This rate applies to the use of private cars, not requiring special permission, on official duty journeys including regular journeys between the place of duty and the place of residence or employment ".
Then there follow these words:
" and particularly over routes adequately covered by public transport."—[Official Report, 2nd December 1974 ; Vol. 882, c. 333.]
What is the point of those words in the definition of the application of the public transport rate if a public transport rate is to be applied whether or not there is any public transport?

The significance of the expression
" This rate applies…particularly over routes adequately covered by public transport ".
is that where routes are not adequately covered by public transport, or are not covered by it at all, the discretion exists for a rate other than the public transport rate, namely, the official duty rate, to be taken into consideration. By his statement to the House, the Under-Secretary has indicated that there is an agree with the policy that
" particularly over routes adequately covered by public transport "
the public transport rate should apply. But the Under-Secretary has indicated that it by no means necessarily applies to all
" duty journeys, including regular journeys between the place of duty and the place of residence or employment ".
So I establish, first, that on the hon. Gentleman's own admission there is a choice, a discretion. The Department has reserved to itself a discretion whether to pay at the public transport rate or at some higher rate in those circumstances. Otherwise, those words would be entirely pointless, and I am sure that pointless words would not have been inserted in so careful a statement.

Second, I have established that in much of the area concerned there not only is no adequate public transport ; there is no public transport at all, and there is no public transport, a fortiori, operating at the hours at which many of these regular journeys are performed.

But there is a third and, in my view, much more important consideration. I have confirmed and checked the fact to which I draw attention. That is that the UDR soldier has to travel to and from duty with his uniform and invariably with a weapon, and that consequently he cannot be allowed to travel on public transport alone, with uniform and arms, as he would be immediately a target. That may be not so easy to imagine for those who live in other parts of the United Kingdom, but for those who know Northern Ireland it is a self-evident truth that it would be perfectly crazy, dangerous to the man himself and, in some places, undesirable to public order, if he were to seek to travel as he is required to present himself, with uniform and arms, on public transport. So by the very nature of the regular duty journey without "special permission "— I am quoting the words of the regulation— from home to duty, he simply cannot use public transport, in the nature of the case, even if it were available.

Therefore, I claim that in the circumstances of the UDR operating as it is today in Northern Ireland, use should be made of the discretion which clearly exists to apply the official duty rate. It may be argued that the Regular Army, travelling between home and duty, is paid at an even lower rate ; that the Regular Army's rate is on a lower scale than the public transport rate. But then, of course, there is virtually no such travel by the Regular Army under the conditions of Northern Ireland, either in Northern Ireland or in conditions which are comparable with those which exist today. So that comparison does not exist and that problem does not arise.

Then there is the point that the Army Cadet Force and the TAVR operate with the public transport rate of motor mileage allowance. But those forces in Northern Ireland are not required to travel to duty in the circumstances that soldiers of the UDR are required to travel to duty. The Army Cadet Force and the TAVR are not carrying out the same regular, uniformed armed journeys from home to place of duty, to place of patrol, that the UDR does in the rural and other areas of Northern Ireland. So the Government are capable of treating the case of the UDR on its merits, in its circumstances, without any repercussions or unfairness as between the UDR and other forces.

I submit in summary once again to the hon. Member that this discretion exists, that in the very terms of the discretion it is applicable to the circumstances which apply in Northern Ireland. and that the conditions of operation of the UDR are such that it is only fair that they should be permitted the official mileage rate for their home-to-duty journeys.

4.29 a.m.

I naturally want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on having completed almost 25 years of service and having been fortunate enough to be drawn in the ballot for the Adjournment debate tonight. I cannot necessarily thank him for having to reply at this hour of the morning, but I certainly would not blame him, either, for the time that the House has taken on its previous business.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for raising this matter this evening since it gives me the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding that may have arisen regarding travel expenses for members of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by the men and women of the UDR who give up their time for this worthy cause. The presence and activities of this local, nonpartisan force, in support of the Regular Army is of the greatest value in establishing and maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. I have had the privilege of seeing at close quarters these men and women at work and have been heartened at their high morale and determination to do their bit towards the defeat of terrorism. I am sure that the Ulster Defence Regiment will have a long and continuing rôle to play in the security of Northern Ireland.

I also appreciate the problems which some members of the UDR face in travelling to and from their places of duty, and which the right hon. Member has highlighted. Many key points which have to be guarded by the UDR are in isolated places, and there is no doubt that some people do have to travel considerable distances at difficult times of the day and night to reach them.

This is, I believe, at the root of the problem although the question is usually expressed in fairly technical terms about the relative merits of the various rates of motor mileage allowances. This has been propounded by the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Member has referred during his clear exposition of the case to the various types of motor mileage allowance. I think it would be helpful to the House if I first describe how these allowances operate.

The public service as a whole uses two rates of allowance— the official duty rate and the public transport rate. The official duty rate is paid when special permission has been given for a private vehicle to be used on an official journey when alternative official or public transport is not available or would cause serious delay or marked inconvenience. The rate is based on the total cost of running a car and takes into account the capital investment, depreciation and so on. The rate is kept under review and, for example, the current rate for a 1500 cc car is 7.4p per mile— plus, if appropriate, an official passenger allowance of a halfpenny per mile.

The public transport rate, on the other hand, applies when an individual chooses for his own reasons to use his private vehicle on an official journey. No special permission is required. The rate is assessed on the cost of all forms of public transport, and it is geared to fluctuations in the Retail Price Index fares item. The Department obtains an advantageous rate on public transport for Service men, and this is reflected in its public transport rate of motor mileage allowance. This currently stands for a family car at 2·8p per mile, plus, again, a halfpenny per mile for official passengers.

The House will note that both the official duty rate and the public transport rate of motor mileage allowance relate only to official journeys. Generally, throughout the public service, no allowance is made for journeys to and from the place of duty.

In the Armed Forces somewhat different considerations apply and it has been the practice for some assistance to be given towards travel costs to and from the normal place of duty. But the individual is expected to make a contribution. If a member of the Armed Forces uses his car to travel from home to duty he is reimbursed at the rate of 1·7p per mile but has to contribute 50p a week from his own pocket. When the military salary was introduced, it was considered reasonable that a Service man should make some contribution to this expense on a par with the sort of expenditure incurred by his civilian counterpart.

I think this is very fair, and the same rules apply when members of the permament staff of the UDR use their own cars to travel to and from duty. However, part-time members of the UDR, like their part-time counterparts in the TAVR, receive more generous treatment. They receive motor mileage allowance for travel to and from duty at the public transport rate I mentioned earlier, amounting at present to 2·8p per mile.

Nevertheless, the right hon. Member argued that part-time members of the UDR should get more than this because, for one reason or another, he believes that the normal rules should not apply to them. He has rightly argued that public transport may not be available. But it would be hard to differentiate between a member of the UDR who had to use a car and a member of the Regular Army or of the TAVR, either in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, who was similarly placed. Such a concession could have widespread repercussions. I know that the right hon. Gentleman disagrees, but we must consider the widespread repercussions on a matter that operates across the whole of the public services.

But it is not the case that they are travelling on the same or even on similar routes to either the TAVR or the Regular Forces.

I shall develop the case as I go along and I think the right hon. Gentleman will see the justice of my case. He has argued that the public transport rate at 2·8p per mile is not relevant because one cannot base a motor mileage allowance on a non-existent alternative means of transport. I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on that point but, as I said earlier, the public transport rate is not based on any particular form of transport or journey but rather on the average cost to the Depart- ment of all means of travelling by public transport.

The right hon. Member argued that, in view of the security situation. part-time members of the UDR cannot safely travel on public transport. But the same considerations must apply to members of the TAVR and, perhaps even more so, to the Regular Forces in Northern Ireland.

I am afraid that it is not simply a matter of instructing Service men in Northern Ireland— the UDR or anybody else— to use private transport and then cheerfully calling that an official duty journey qualifying for the full rate of motor mileage allowance. Not everyone has private transport and, in any event. this would ignore the whole basis on which motor mileage allowances are assessed throughout the public service— I stress "public service "— and it would ignore the reality that, even in Northern Ireland, as the right hon. Gentleman will concede, security conditions vary enormously from one place to another.

The right hon. Member complained, or at least implied, that those who use their cars for travel to duty are seriously out of pocket if they are reimbursed at the public transport rate instead of the official duty rate. I think that it is possible to exaggerate this factor. It would no doubt be true if a member of the UDR were to run a car for the sole purpose of travelling to and from UDR duty. However, most, if not all, of those who run cars use them for other purposes. Reimbursement at 2·8p a mile should at least cover the cost of petrol for the journeys, and they would have to meet the standing costs of running the car whether or not it were used for travel to duty. I am sure he would not suggest that any member of the UDR would purchase a car simply to travel to and from duty. Finally, part-time members of the UDR do not have to make a specific contribution towards their home-to-duty travel costs as do members of the Regular Army. In that respect they have an advantage.

I do not wish for one moment to appear unsympathetic, but we must remember that we are not talking about the UDR in isolation. That is why at the outset I carefully explained the general rules which apply to the public service as a whole and to the Services in particular. I will accept that the right hon. Member has advanced his case in all honesty and with the best of motives, but he must accept that the UDR is only a part of the total picture. Nor can we ignore considerations of cost. The Army already spends about £2 million a year on motor mileage allowance for home-to-duty travel. Any substantial shift to higher rates of motor mileage allowance could involve a sizeable increase in expenditure in an already tight defence budget.

As I have said, I do not wish to appear unsympathetic, or to underestimate the fact that some UDR members feel a sense of grievance in this matter, but it is equally fair to say that many people in public service in receipt of car allowance from time to time feel similar grievances, and this is why I give the assurance that we are keeping the matter constantly under review.

I hope that what I have said will put the problem in perspective and convince the members of the UDR that the rules which are being applied to them are consistent with the motor mileage allowance rules which apply generally in the Armed Forces, and that it is not possible to single them out for entirely exceptional treatment, much as I should like to do so.

I hope I have said enough to show how much I appreciate the work being done by these men and women, and I trust that, for their part, they will recognise the importance of allowance rules being applied fairly and consistently throughout the Armed Services.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Five o'clock a.m.