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Column 655In saying that, I make no criticism of the commission's staff. These are, by their very nature, difficult matters to judge and to estimate, but my Department, in allocating funds, must take account of consistent patterns and trends of this kind to ensure the most cost-effective use of its resources.
I can certainly understand the comfort that a substantial cushion of funding, carried forward from one year to another, gives the commission's staff in managing its programme of work. It is quite another matter, however, to justify such a cushion in terms of fair and equitable public expenditure.
I have tried to explain this in detail to set out the proper context for the figures that appear in the defence supply estimates showing a reduction in the UK's contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from £21.4 million in 1993-94 to £20.5 million in 1994-95.
It is easy to exploit that reduction, and the hon. Lady has tried her hardest to do so tonight, but these matters were discussed between Ministry of Defence officials and the staff of the commission from last October onwards. Again, some detail may suffice to refute an allegation that there has been a lack of consultation or that Ministry officials have acted in an arbitrary fashion.
An informal meeting was held between commission and Ministry of Defence officials last October, which was followed by the meeting of the commission's finance committee, on which representatives of all contributing nations sit, at the end of that month. That was followed in turn by a commission meeting in December, which discussed funding for 1994- 95. Between those meetings, there was a certain amount of correspondence, which set out the Ministry's views in full and could hardly be construed as acting in a stealthy or pre-emptive manner. The main meeting on which I wish to dwell, however, is one that the vice-chairman of the commission, Sir Joseph Gilbert, and others sought with the Secretary of State earlier this year. At that meeting, my right hon. and learned
Column 656Friend examined in the greatest detail the effect that any reduced funding would have on the work and standards of the commission, taking into account the surplus being brought forward. He made it clear that it would be quite unacceptable to him personally if damage were done to the splendid work of the commission by his Department's funding proposals. He was assured that the commission did not plan to cut projects or reduce commitments. For the future, my right hon. and learned Friend made it perfectly clear that he would not accept any reductions that would damage the commission's work.
It was those assurances to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred in his powerful intervention in the Army debate on 4 May--an intervention which, had the hon. Lady been present to hear it, would have been judged to be as genuine as it was intended to be. The hon. Lady might then have concluded that this debate was unnecessary. I understand that, at the March meeting of the commission, the hon. Member asked about the effects of the funding level for 1994-95 and was told that no cuts in the programme were planned, which she accepted. The hon. Lady was not only at that meeting but was provided with a detailed record of the meeting between Sir Joseph Gilbert and the Secretary of State in February. I wonder what her motives are in persisting with these arguments.
In conclusion, and in the hope that this time the hon. Members who signed the hon. Lady's early-day motion will listen, hear and understand, I state categorically that the Government will continue to honour fully their obligation to fund the splendid work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the war graves and memorials of the British and other Commonwealth dead of two world wars to the very high standard that they deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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