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Dr. Moonie: The scale of the sacrifice made by the armed forces of the Empire and Commonwealth during the world wars is overwhelming. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains over 1.179 million war graves at 23,204 burial sites in 146 countries and commemorates a further 761,000 war dead on memorials to the missing. It is both our duty and our privilege to ensure that the memory of all those who gave their lives is honoured in perpetuity. For more than 80 years, that duty has been faithfully carried out by the CWGC. I can give a cast-iron guarantee tonight that that will remain its sole objective and that nothing will be allowed to diminish it, now or in the future.
Most people will have a clear mental picture of a typical war graves cemetery, with row on row of clean white headstones, neatly trimmed grass and carefully tended flowers, shrubs and trees. They are a regular sight on our televisions at this time of year, and will be familiar to anyone who, like me, has travelled in the areas of intense fighting, such as northern France and Flanders. Those of us who have visited a war graves cemetery and seen the work of the CWGC at close hand will have a still clearer appreciation of its quality, and will also have experienced the sympathetic and helpful attitude of the CWGC staff.
Gardening has always been an essential part of the CWGC's work. Even before the commission was formally set up in 1917, the Army graves registration commission was trying to make burial grounds on the western front less bleak by growing grass, flowers, shrubs and trees in them. As the work of the CWGC evolved after the first world war, architects and horticulturists worked closely together on the overall design of cemeteries. The aim behind the design of a war graves cemetery is to give the effect of a garden rather than the usual concept of a cemetery, and to combine the various elements in a way that will help the visitor to achieve a sense of peace in a beautiful and serene setting.
There have recently been reports in the press that the British expatriate gardeners employed by the CWGC are facing pay cuts. It has been repeatedly alleged that that is the result of Ministry of Defence penny-pinching. It has been claimed that the gardeners' livelihoods are threatened, and even that this is a ploy to get rid of British gardeners and replace them with cheaper local staff, even though, for as long as anyone can remember, the gardens have been tended by a mixture of local and British staff.
I shall deal first with the most important element of this issue, which has unfortunately caused a degree of alarm due to erroneous reporting--the question whether the high standards of maintenance and the observance of care and attention, and the respect that we are used to affording our war dead, are jeopardised by any form of allowance changes, or changes in resource allocations, or any other form of budget changes.
The answer to that question is no. This Government will not do anything that could be construed as failing to ensure that our war dead are not properly commemorated, honoured and respected. Equally, the commission has given an absolute assurance that the high standards at cemeteries and memorials around the world will be maintained. I hope that this reiteration of our position will reassure relatives and all of us who are eager to ensure that we meet fully our moral responsibilities towards those service men and women who gave their lives for the sake of others.
It may be helpful if I outline the official position of the Ministry of Defence in its relations with the CWGC. The commission is a Commonwealth organisation established by royal charter. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is its chairman, and the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) are on its board, it is not a branch or agency of the Ministry of Defence, and the British Government do not control its organisation or internal affairs.
Mr. Clappison: Before the Minister speaks about the structure of the CWGC, is he able to give the reassurance that I seek about the British connection with regard to those who look after the cemeteries? Will the number of British gardeners involved in the care of the cemeteries be maintained? I think that that question also concerns the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).
Mr. Mackinlay: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I have question about misleading information on the CWGC's website. I fully accept that he and the Ministry of Defence have acted wholly honourably in this matter. He said that misleading information had been published in the national press in this country, yet the CWGC's website states:
Dr. Moonie: Had my hon. Friend been a little more patient, he would have found that I was coming on to that very point. Just in case I forget, let me say in passing that the figures that were quoted for total income are net of the contribution made in lieu of income tax. So the figure that the hon. Member for Hertsmere gave me as gardeners' total remuneration is not subjected to any further deduction. I can give him that absolute guarantee.
This is not a pay cut, of course, and I fully accept that the hon. Member for Hertsmere made no attempt to describe it as such. In other words, although the gardeners' pay is not being affected, the total remuneration package is. I would not try to pretend otherwise. I am not simply splitting hairs. A pay cut, to most people in my constituency, has a very specific meaning--it implies a cut in salary, not in allowances.
The proposed changes are to local allowances and affect all the CWGC's United Kingdom-based staff serving overseas, not just the gardeners. The allowances are intended to enable these staff to maintain a standard of living broadly equivalent to that which they would have in the United Kingdom. The CWGC's local allowances were based on the United Kingdom civil service cost of living allowance--COLA--with modifications to suit staff's individual circumstances.
In 1998, the need arose to change the arrangements because there were no longer civil service-wide rates of COLA on which the allowances could be based. In common with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the British Council, the CWGC decided to use a human resource consultancy to provide cost of living data on which new arrangements could be based. The consultants created a shopping basket system, weighted according to purchasing patterns drawn from the United Kingdom family expenditure survey. From cost of living surveys carried out twice a year, the consultants produce an index of the percentage difference in the cost of living between the United Kingdom and the host country. The index is applied to spendable income to produce the cost of living uplift required for everyday expenses.
Dr. Moonie: In addition to the COLA element, local allowances under the new system will include a child addition, a telephone addition, a utilities element and an expatriate allowance. It is wrong to suggest that the
In addition, an accommodation allowance of up to £6,000 is paid, and those wishing to educate their children in the United Kingdom, as is common for expatriate staff, receive a boarding school allowance of up to £16,000 for each child. In every case, basic pay and allowances are tax-free. As I have said, the total figure is produced net because account is taken of the deduction that has already been made.