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Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I claim some qualification to speak because I was for three-and-a-half years the Minister responsible for looking after the married quarters estate in the Ministry of Defence. If my memory serves me right, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, was Chief of the Defence Staff at that time. I am sorry to have to tell my noble friend that we made a complete hash of it. At that time, at least, large numbers of married quarters stood empty. Large
I remember visiting several RAF stations over which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, was then presiding as commander in chief, I think, where the water was coming through the roof, the window frames were all rotten and the doors were falling out of their frames. I was ashamed to be the Minister responsible for such a scandalous situation. I did my very best to get it right but inevitably there was not enough money to do the job properly. I do not think therefore that I have any right to complain to the Government about a change in the policy that I presided over with such conspicuous lack of success.
I have to say to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that the chiefs of staff were just as responsible as I for the policy at that time. I was told that the surplus married quarters could not be sold because they were needed, perhaps for some future deployment of troops yet to be decided upon. But the truth was also that many of the married quarters were unsaleable. All, for example, had the same heating system. No individual would buy a married quarter where the heating was part of some communal system. The electrical system, I believe, was common in many cases. Many quarters were, as I said, in a quite deplorable state. The best I could do was to call for the bulldozer at every possible opportunity and flatten them so that new ones could perhaps be built in due course.
Other surplus quarters that we wanted to sell were located in remote or distant spots. The RAF had many married quarters in distant parts of Scotland which naturally could not be sold in any numbers because not many people wanted to buy them. I therefore have no difficulty with the proposition that the married quarters should be transferred to the private sector. The result, I believe, will be better managed, better maintained married quarters--all very much in the interests of our servicemen and women.
The amendment we are considering seeks to interfere--quite respectably, but nonetheless interfere--with the executive actions of the Ministry of Defence and of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. It is highly unusual--to put it no more strongly--to have amendments of the kind we see on the Order Paper today to a public Bill going through your Lordships' House. By her own confession, my noble friend, Lady Park, does not apparently intend to change the policy, simply to have my noble friend consult and bring forward a report to your Lordships in due course. That is not, in my view, the right subject for an amendment. If Ministers want to give assurances that they will do as my noble friend asks, that would be entirely proper. But it would be entirely inappropriate to include the proposed amendment on the face of the Bill.
I turn to some of the difficulties that have been advanced to support the amendment. I have heard much complaint, for example, that there is likely to be a Japanese owner of a number, if not all, of the married quarters to be disposed of. I do not know whether that is true or not. I am not sure it is particularly relevant.
Finally, I should like to deal with the principle--I address my remarks now to noble Lords on this side of the House--of moving such an amendment to upset a major piece of policy being advanced by the Ministry of Defence at a time when our political majority in the other place is so slim--
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I do not expect noble Lords opposite to be swayed by those arguments--they would no doubt find them appealing--but perhaps I may advise my noble friends that this is an important piece of government policy and I do not think that it would be right for a Conservative majority in this House, about which noble Lords opposite never cease to complain, to move in the way proposed by the amendment.
I very much regret that for the practical reasons that I have advanced, as well as for the political reasons to which I have alluded, I cannot support the amendment. I hope that my noble friend will not press it.
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I am somewhat surprised by the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who has suggested that in some way the amendment is improper. I shall return to that point later.
I rise to support very strongly the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth. Before doing so, I should declare, as I did in the House of Lords Register of Lords' Interests, that I am a consultant to a company which has put forward certain suggestions for the sale of the married quarters which it claims would benefit service personnel. In declaring that interest I must emphasise that that company would not benefit from any cancellation or postponement of the sale which might result from the amendment.
Perhaps I may begin by saying what, at least in my view, the amendment is not intended to do. It is not a wrecking amendment, as was implied by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. It is not designed to affect any other part of the Bill. It is certainly not intended as ammunition for any faction engaged in internal political manoeuvring. I have no wish to intrude upon private grief whether it is being suffered by the Government or by the Opposition. And I can give the House a categorical assurance that I am not seeking the leadership of the Right-wing of the Cross Benches.
It is therefore pertinent to ask, as I gather that some noble Lords are asking, what exactly is the intention of the amendment. My position in supporting it derives from my conviction--unfortunately, now shared by fewer and fewer people--that the Armed Forces are a very special part of our society, that they deserve special treatment, and that it is not always possible to base our attitude to their welfare and conditions on arguments which are valid for the rest of society.
The first point to be made is that there is a widespread feeling that the project for the sale, as put forward by the Ministry of Defence, has not been thoroughly thought through, especially with regard to the long-term implications. Noble Lords who have had the time and the good sense to read The Times this morning will have noticed a powerful argument examining some of the long-term implications and pointing out some of the dangers, not only for the Armed Forces, but for the national economy, of pursuing the sale. It can be argued--it is rightly being argued--that there are legal, financial and operational aspects of the deal which are open to question and which, in my opinion, need closer examination. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Park, I am content to leave these aspects of the problem to other noble Lords who are more qualified than I am to speak on legal and financial matters.
My own main concern about the project is that there appears to have been inadequate consultation, if any, with those most closely affected--namely; those who occupy the married quarters which are now to be sold into private ownership. There is widespread evidence from a number of sources, including the Royal British Legion and the Federation of Army Wives among others, that servicemen and women and their families are worried about the long-term effects of this sale on the security of tenure of their homes. I repeat the word "worried". If you have worried soldiers and worried families, you have a danger at the heart of the Army. I can confirm that to be so from my own contacts in the Armed Forces, and especially in the Army in which I had the pleasure and the honour to serve for so many years.
In that context, I have a feeling--I do not make this criticism in any polemical way--that the Ministry of Defence has paid insufficient attention to one of the less tangible but nevertheless very important aspects of the problem. As anyone who has served in any of the Armed Forces knows, the married quarters of a military unit are an integral and important part of the structured military system in which soldiers and their families are accustomed to live. Apart from the general social importance of close proximity between servicemen and their families when they are serving at home, the existence of the "patch", as it is called--we are all getting used to that expression for the married quarters estate adjoining a barracks--reassures the serviceman that when he is serving at home his family is nearby and
It may well be that those concerns are misplaced, but that is not the point; they exist and they are having a significant effect upon morale at a time when the Armed Forces need, and have indeed been promised by the Government, a period of security and stability after the turbulence and uncertainty caused by the defence reviews such as Options for Change and Frontline First.
The public intervention in this matter of the Chiefs of Staff has already been referred to by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. If the Ministry of Defence and the Chiefs of Staff claim that they have engaged in a process of consultation, I can only observe that it has not been very successful because the proposal is still causing real concern to servicemen and their families.
I concede that Ministers and service chiefs have displayed great courtesy and patience in trying to explain the deal to me, to some of my colleagues and to others. They have converted many people to their view--they have gone some way towards converting me to their view--but they have apparently not convinced the people who really matter, those who are most directly concerned.
As I commented at the beginning of my remarks, I have no quarrel in principle with the proposal to privatise the married quarters estate. In principle it sounds a good idea, but there must be ways of doing it which would allay some of the concerns of those who live in quarters which are to be sold. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, the important point is that before a change in military policy as important as this is implemented, those most directly involved should be fully and effectively consulted, and the result of that consultation should be the subject of debate in Parliament.
This is where I return to my quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. The amendment seeks a period of reflection over what is not an executive decision of minor importance. It is not a piece of housekeeping for the Ministry of Defence to deal with in an executive way; it is an important change of military policy and to military culture in this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has complained that this matter should not be the subject of an amendment to the Housing Bill. Very well. There is no need for an amendment of the Housing Bill. If the Government undertake to engage in the process of consultation and place the results of that consultation before Parliament the reasons for this amendment will fall away. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, will be strongly in favour of withdrawing it.
Finally, it has been suggested that to embark on a consultation process of this kind will, in some mysterious way, undermine the Army's normal chain of command. I have discussed this matter with some of my noble and gallant friends in this House. Speaking as someone who has experience in these matters, I find that an extraordinary claim. All that is required is that the problem should be passed down the chain of command to commanding officers. All that commanding officers are required to do--as I was required to do on many occasions when I was in the Army--is to speak to their officers and men. Whatever else has changed in the Army, I hope that that has not changed. All they need do is to report the views of soldiers and their families upwards through the normal chain of command. Far from undermining or circumventing the normal chain of command, it seems to me that a consultation process of this kind can be carried out in the Armed Forces more quickly and effectively than in any other part of our society--because of the chain of command.
Before I sit down, I should like to refer to an unworthy suspicion that has been hovering in the minds of some of us and is openly expressed in the current issue of the Economist. This matter has been referred to by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. I should like to quote a few sentences:
I ask the Minister in his reply to tell the House whether there is any substance in that. Is it true that if the married quarters estate were not privatised the Treasury would demand corresponding cuts in the equipment programmes of the Ministry of Defence? I believe that we are entitled to a plain answer to that question. If it is true, it is perhaps not surprising that the Chiefs of Staff--men who I know have the national interest very much at heart--support the sale of the married quarters rather than contemplate cuts elsewhere in their equipment budgets. If this is so, it is a curious approach to what must be the first duty of any government--the effective deployment of resources for national security or (as it used to be referred to in the good old days) the defence of the realm.
I hope that the Government will agree to a period of reflection, reconsideration and consultation and bring the results back to Parliament. I can think of no argument against a brief delay in this sale which is not totally outweighed by the need to ensure not only that it is the best deal that can be achieved in the public interest but, more importantly, that it is fully understood and accepted throughout the Armed Forces.
Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: My Lords, when I entered the Chamber this afternoon I had no intention to speak, but I have been driven to it by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I remind the Government of Napoleon's dictum that morale is to the material as three is to one. It seems to me that in this matter it is only the bottom line that counts, whatever the Treasury may feel is
I confess that I have received very few representations. I have made one or two inquiries. As I entered the Chamber I was informed by one noble Lord, who often speaks for the Army, that on the whole he believed the system and safeguards would work, although he was not ready to commit himself on some of the broader considerations. That may well be true, but that is not the whole of this argument. We are not concerned solely with what safeguards can be introduced in order to satisfy service wives and their men. We are also concerned with what the Government are destroying by failing to carry the Armed Forces with them before they do it. It is not sufficient to carry the Chiefs of Staff. I have had some dealings with Chiefs of Staff. I have at all times and in all circumstances respected them very much, but I know the pressures under which they are placed by Ministers of Defence, past or present. The Chiefs of Staff have the very difficult task of weighing in the balance the needs of and consequences for their forces and their loyalty to the government of the day, which they have to express in some way. They face a dilemma which has existed under both Labour governments and the present Government. I venture the opinion--without any evidence, and I am open to challenge at all times--that if the Chiefs of Staff were asked, free of any other constraints, whether they preferred this system to the old one the answer would be that they would prefer to continue as they are.
Finally, I should like to deal with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. My only difference with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, relates to his statement that we must not be polemical about this. Why on earth not? I listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, with the utmost incredulity. It appeared to me that the Government's defence amounted to the following. In the 1980s the Government preferred to cut taxes rather than look after the living conditions of the Armed Forces. They preferred to win a general election, even if it meant that water poured through the roofs and ceilings of homes in which service personnel were living. His second defence of the Government was that they found it quite impossible to look after their own estate, that when the noble Lord was a Minister the office in which he worked was a disgrace and it was far better that the Japanese should handle it. If that is the defence of the Government, the sooner they are ejected neck and crop the better.
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