Orders of the Day — Military Expenditure Overseas (Estimates Committee's Reports)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th January 1965.

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Photo of Mr Robert Woof Mr Robert Woof , Blaydon 12:00 am, 19th January 1965

I am sure that the House will have noted many of the remarks and forceful points made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). I am also sure that he does his homework well on military matters and that we always listen to him with much interest.

Having the honour to be a member of the Estimates Committee, may I say that I have always found it an interesting function to exercise vigilance over expenditure? As with the many other commitments of every hon. and right hon. Gentleman, we endeavour to possess our minds with habitual good intentions and to aim our thoughts, words and actions to some laudable end. In this respect, while constituents may not be so well acquainted with duties performed outside the Chamber, the volume of work undertaken by members of the Estimates Committee illustrates the need to see that the taxpayers' money is wisely spent. As a member of the Sub-Committee which conducted the inquiry, I found it a great experience to go with other members of the Sub-Committee to look at our bases overseas. It took a lot of trouble to ensure that the Report was as good as it could be. As is often the case with a blunt and forthright Report, this has come in for a certain amount of criticism, but I feel that that shows that the Committee has done its work well.

Before touching on some of the aspects of the Report, I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to our former Chairman, Sir Frank Markham. I cannot forget the way in which he conducted many inquiries. He set his mind to work with a superior understanding and he applied his thoughts vigorously. By inducing a sense of cheerfulness he always maintained a high standard of eagerness for the task allotted to us. It would also be reprehensible on my part if I did not express sincere gratitude for the faithful service rendered by the Clerks of the Committee.

Difficulty is always a severe instructor —it may be notice of the necessity for exertion to accomplish particular objects —and our first difficult problem was to find out what to investigate since the Estimates give very little idea of how much money is being spent in any particular base, although it is common knowledge that we have reached the stage when £2,000 million a year is spent on defence.

As a consequence, we tried very hard to find out what proportion of this sum is spent overseas. We have a picture of gross military expenditure overseas accounting for roughly £350 million a year, and the plain fact cannot be too often emphasised that such expenditure is throwing on the British people ever heavier burdens which are reflected in the balance of payments crisis, resulting in the need for desperate measures.

I believe that some retrenchment is necessary. If part of the £2,000 million and much of the labour force being wasted on arms were switched to peaceful production, we should probably get somewhere near to solving our export problems and have resources available for improved living standards. Even Mr. McNamara, the American Secretary of Defence, shook some parts of the Pentagon some time ago when he had to face a storm of criticism for introducing what is termed "cost effectiveness" to ensure that America was getting a dollar's worth of defence for every dollar spent.

I think that it will be appreciated that rules can never be so general as to include every possible circumstance or contingency. Obviously, it is not very welcome to have one's expenditure examined critically, but many of the people, both military and civilian, whom we met overseas said that they thought that the fact that the taxpayers, through Members of Parliament, were taking an interest in the way in which money was being spent on their behalf was not a bad thing.

In taking into serious consideration the present aspect of expenditure, this Report is, in some ways, like an iceberg, in that we put into it only matters which we felt needed looking into and not the numerous other matters about which we heard evidence but on which we had no comment to make. For this reason, the Report may appear to be very critical, but we emphasise how much we were impressed by the spirit in which forces overseas were tackling very difficult problems.

It will be noted that we also said a word of thanks to the Ministry of Defence. I should like to add my own personal thanks for all that the Ministry did to help us with the inquiry. It may not be altogether pleased with the result —it would be surprising and perhaps suspicious if it were entirely pleased—but we cannot blame it for any lack of co-operation with the Committee.

On the other hand, there is no doubt from what has been said in the debate that the Sub-Committee had to work under some difficulty, particularly with regard to evidence taken abroad, which was partly due to constitutional rulings about Committees not being officially entitled to sit overseas. These rulings were given to the Estimates Committee by a former Leader of the House and went against precedent since. In fact, there are several instances of Estimates Sub-Committees having sat and taken evidence overseas both in countries within the Commonwealth and even in Germany.

I hope that the Select Committee on Procedure will eventually get round to examining this problem. In the meantime, I understand that steps are being taken to ease our difficulties, particularly as regards the recording of information overseas, which was a major bugbear last time. I am glad to learn that some improvement is planned in this respect for subsequent visits of Sub-Committees overseas.

I propose to mention briefly some parts of the Report which seem to have escaped the glare of publicity which other parts of it received. One of these was the main recommendation in the Report, namely, that there should be a review of our bases and garrisons overseas with a view to relating our commitments more closely to costs. For example, military expenditure in Hong Kong is costing us about £15 million a year. There are six major Army units in the Colony, yet their duties are limited. They are there to assist the local police in an emergency, but they are not expected to constitute a defence force. I do not want to spend time dealing with Hong Kong—it is all well set out in the Report—but I must say in passing that Hong Kong would be very difficult to defend in any case since it is dependent even on Communist China for its water supply.

Similarly, in Nepal, we are spending £300,000 a year to recruit Gurkhas. The Committee found that this works out at over £600 for each Gurkha recruited. It seemed to us that this was another example where costs should be considered in relation to the commitment.

It has been mentioned in the debate that in Gibraltar, also, costs are very high. There seems to be a need for ensuring that only the minimum number of personnel are stationed there. The maintenance of Service men in Gibraltar is considerably more expensive than keeping them at home. There is a £10 million works programme for the three Services, and the Committee was not satisfied that the Services were fully aware of these high costs. In spite of that, while I am also in receipt of letters such as those quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), what I have seen in private accommodation in Gibraltar fully justifies people's complaints.

In general, what impressed the Committee much was the very high cost of many of the activities of forces overseas and how little was known of the cost in detail. I was therefore very pleased to read in the reply of the Ministry of Defence that it has accepted the recommendations and that a review is taking place. I was also glad to learn from a recent speech of the Deputy Secretary of State for Defence that the Ministry was examining the whole question of figures for costs of Service units. This was one of the points made by the Estimates Committee in this Report and the previous one on military expenditure overseas. The details of costs which did exist confirmed our view of the expensive nature of certain operations.

Two perhaps minor details are mentioned in the Report which have been referred to in the debate—the 115 police dogs in Singapore, which cost £1,000 each per annum to maintain, and the Royal Air Force band, which costs £85,000 per annum. When I think of the money that is needed by local authorities in my constituency for all sorts of vital things, I feel that this expenditure could be put to much better use.

Much expenditure has been undertaken at military bases overseas which would not be sanctioned even by a local council in Britain. And if, by chance, it were to be sanctioned by a local authority, it would certainly be disallowed by the appropriate Ministry. For example, Service married quarters at El Adem, in North Africa, have cost more than £9,000 each to build. I agree that costs overseas are higher, but imagine what the Ministry of Housing and Local Government would say if a local authority proposed to build council houses for people who could not build their own homes even at half the price.

Another item of expenditure which drew the attention of the Committee was the fact that married accompanied Service men were provided with female domestic servants, whose wages were a direct charge on public funds. These servants are termed "Amahs" and were recruited and paid by the Services themselves. The number of "Amahs" engaged for the three Services in Singapore up to October, 1963, was 7,100, at a cost of £1,191,400. The number engaged in Hong Kong was 1,600, at a cost of £196,500.

The Committee was concerned at the high proportion of personal servants employed at these bases, especially as the cost did not include administrative expenditure, amounting to more than £13,000. It was impressed upon the Committee that many Service men's wives did not always welcome the arrangement. As hon. Members will be aware, the recruitment and supply of "Amahs" in Hong Kong has now ceased, giving Service men the choice of whether or not to employ a personal servant. It seems altogether ridiculous that Service men overseas should have been forced to employ servants, whether or not they wanted them.

In several other cases we were also pleased to learn that certain matters raised by the Committee had been taken up by the Ministry or another responsible body; for example, the existence of the Airfield Construction Branch of the R.A.F., which was queried by the Committee in its Report. It seemed wasteful for both the Army and the R.A.F. each to have its own specialist personnel and expensive equipment for building airfields in Singapore. This seemed a clear case where one Service should take over the task for the three Services, and it was announced recently that this was to be done. The saving should amount to a considerable sum.

I do not wish to rake over much of the ground which has already been well covered in the debate. However, I stress again the value which these inquiries have produced. This, I think, is so both for the House of Commons—for hon. Members have been given in the two Reports a great deal of valuable information about the day-to-day running of the Services, information which, so far as I know, is available nowhere else—and for the Departments and the Services. I sincerely hope that this supply of information will continue to be maintained and that new methods of checking and surveying military expenditure will be evolved for the benefit and health of the economy, since I consider that every new achievement smooths the way to future achievements of the same kind.