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War Graves Commission

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

7 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise a subject that is of great interest to my constituents and those of many other hon. Members. I know that it is of interest to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who will make a brief intervention at the conclusion of my remarks, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I pay tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the men and women who work for it, including those who are employed as gardeners, especially the British gardeners. Those who visit the CWGC's many cemeteries all over the world are always struck by the fact that they are beautifully kept. I imagine that, over the years, many relatives of those who lie there have drawn comfort from that.

Many people who visit the cemeteries come into contact with the British gardeners. I have had that experience because in the summer of 1999, my family and I visited cemeteries around Vimy ridge and looked for the graves of two family members who were lost during the great war. We met and were helped by one of the commission's British gardeners. I can say from first-hand experience how helpful they are to visitors to the cemeteries.

British gardeners overseas play an important role in the upkeep of the cemeteries and the arrangements for them. I do not decry in any way the local gardeners who are employed by the commission. I pay tribute to their work and dedication. However, I believe that it is important to keep up the British connection, not least because the British gardeners are often responsible for the training and supervision of the local gardeners. The British gardeners have generally been trained in this country and they are therefore steeped in the high standards of British gardening. The existing arrangements work well.

Against that background, I want to speak about the changes in the allowance payments for the 70 or so British gardeners that the commission employs. The remuneration that they receive is fairly complicated and has to be viewed as a package. The changes that the commission has proposed are not to the gardeners' basic salary but to their overseas allowance, which is a substantial part of their income.

The Minister may be able to confirm that the majority of British gardeners will experience a reduction in their incomes as a result of the changes. Those suffering a reduction in incomes will include all the British gardeners who work in northern Europe. For some, the reduction will amount to as much as £7,500 a year, phased in by reductions of £1,500 a year. The commission admits that, last year, British gardeners earned between £19,000 and £29,000 in total through their basic pay and allowance. It is therefore clear that many gardeners face a substantial reduction in their income. They pay tax, or the equivalent of tax, on the basic pay component of their package.

In addition to the remuneration that I described, the gardeners receive an accommodation allowance of £6,000 a year. That reflects the fact that they can be--and often

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are--required by the commission to move anywhere in the world. They also receive a boarding school allowance, of which few take advantage.

There has been some comment about remuneration. In view of the job that those involved do, this is not inordinate and I think they are worth every penny of it. That is my view; I suspect that it may be the view of many others. The key point is that the gardeners are facing a substantial reduction in their incomes. This amounts to a disturbance to the arrangements of care of the CWGC cemeteries. A Transport and General Workers Union survey suggested that 10 per cent. of the staff in question are already considering leaving the employment of the CWGC. I recently met Peter Magee, the head gardener at CWGC cemeteries around Hanover. He told me that since the proposals were announced by the commission, many staff had left.

Against that background, I welcome the setting up of an independent inquiry under Baroness Dean to look into the issues. I appreciate that these issues concern the CWGC. I appreciate the relationship between that body and the MOD and the fact that the Secretary of State is the chairman of the CWGC.

I wish to refer one or two matters to the Minister. Will he do all he can to ensure that the inquiry takes place before Remembrance Sunday? I hope that this is dealt with urgently, for obvious reasons. Is he in a position to put a figure on the savings that will be made by the commission as a result of the proposals? Above all else, will he give an assurance that he shares my concern about retaining the connection between the cemeteries and this country through the maintenance of the existing level of UK gardeners looking after the cemeteries? The British connection is very important and we should keep up the number of British gardeners looking after those cemeteries.

There is a great deal of public interest in this issue. I give credit to The Mirror for its extensive and excellent coverage of the issue. In my view, the existing arrangements have worked well. The cemeteries are beautifully kept and a fitting memorial to the brave men who lie in them. The cemeteries mean a great deal to many people in this country; they should matter to us all. I hope that all of those who come to decide about the future of the gardeners will remember that.

7.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): With the agreement of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and my hon. Friend the Minister--it was agreed that I could try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--I want to buttress the points made so effectively by the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate, for which we should all be grateful.

At the invitation of my trade union, the TGWU, I went--at my own expense, incidentally--to Albert and Ypres in the summer to meet the trade union representatives, shop stewards and gardeners who are members of the TGWU and the civil service unions. The numbers of British expatriate staff have been eroded by a number of economic pressures. I wanted to share with them my fairly well-known interest in the Ypres salient and the first world war.

I was deeply concerned at the danger that if the reductions in the allowances are allowed to go ahead, it will accelerate the erosion or haemorrhaging of these

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expatriate staff who, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere indicated, do more than gardening. They provide the essential Britishness of those wonderful cemeteries.

That has to be borne in mind by the chairman of the CWGC, and by the commission itself. It is essential that the allowance is maintained. The quality of the commitment given by the French, Belgian and German staff is second to none, but the British staff are able to communicate the standards that are expected and train the staff. I have to say that they are on relatively low pay. They are not seeking more. That which they have, they wish to hold. That is what each and every one of us in this place does. Members of the Government who were trade union officials know that that is a legitimate basic tenet.

We have stumbled into this situation with some carelessness. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us that Baroness Dean will complete her inquiry with the utmost expedition and that in the meantime there will be no movement on revising the terms and conditions of the staff. I hope that Baroness Dean will be able to take into account various factors, including the fact that spouses invariably have very low earning capacity, as they often have no command of the local language, and the fact that, although the children can go to school in the United Kingdom, that cannot be taken up by people on moderate or low pay, because of the on-costs.

My hon. Friend may say that the newspapers have exaggerated or misunderstood. With respect, the matter came to a head in the summer and assurances could and should have been given then. The Dean inquiry should not have been set up so late. This debate should not have been necessary.

We are looking with enthusiasm for my hon. Friend to redress the situation. The problem underscores the need for a veterans Minister, who could deal with many issues, such as Japanese prisoner-of-war camp survivors and Gulf war syndrome. We have seen for the best part of today that my hon. Friend has other things on his plate. I hope that he will deal with this matter and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will reflect on the Royal British Legion's request to have a dedicated veterans Minister. That would help us to avoid such misunderstandings in the future.

7.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the service men and women of the Empire and Commonwealth who gave their lives during the two world wars; to express the Government's appreciation of the splendid work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining their graves and memorials; and to correct some errors and misapprehensions that have abounded in recent months.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) made some specific points. On the timing of the inquiry, we would have hoped to finish it as early as possible, but it will not be possible to complete it by 11 November. We felt strongly that Baroness Dean was the most suitable person to conduct the inquiry. Unfortunately, there are time constraints and people are not always available early on to give quite as

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much of their time as one would have hoped. The inquiry will be completed as expeditiously as possible within those constraints. I can also confirm that there will be no movement on allowances until this matter has been resolved.

I do not have a figure for the savings, but I can easily find it and supply it to the hon. Gentleman.

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