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Mr. Cryer: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Moonie: No, I am sorry, I do not have time.

By comparison, a gardener working in the west midlands earns about £13,000 a year before tax, and about £9,600 after tax deductions. Even after the proposed reductions, expatriate gardeners undoubtedly have considerably more take-home income than gardeners in the United Kingdom.

As local allowances are designed to maintain a United Kingdom standard of living, they will vary with changes in exchange rates and in local costs of living. Some changes will be upwards and some downwards. The examples that have been quoted in the press are at the end of the downward spectrum.

The impact of the new system varies from an annual increase of £4,500--admittedly for very few staff--to a decrease of £7,500, depending on location and individual circumstances. A great part of that reduction is due to the strength of sterling and would also have occurred under the old system.

I do not think that anyone present is suggesting that allowances for currency fluctuations should not be made periodically. That has always been the accepted practice. To be fair, the deductions are largely being caused by the currency fluctuations. To ease the transition, the CWGC proposes to phase the reductions over a period so that no one's income will be reduced by more than £1,500 in any one year. Admittedly, that is a substantial sum.

There is no truth in the suggestion that the commission is trying to drive out the British gardeners and replace them with cheaper substitutes. As I said, even under the new arrangements the net income of an expatriate gardener will compare favourably with what he might receive for similar work at home.

The CWGC has refuted any suggestion that future standards will be jeopardised by a revision of the allowance system. Maintenance of the graves and memorials to the highest standards and a sympathetic and helpful approach to visitors are at the very heart of theworking ethos of CWGC staff, whatever their nationality.

The expatriate British gardeners undoubtedly deserve the greatest credit for the standard of their work, but the suggestion that only they have the skills and dedication to maintain that standard is an insult to the many indigenous gardeners we employ through the commission. At many

26 Oct 2000 : Column 494

cemeteries, in particular in Italy, there are no British gardeners. One is not suggesting that they are not maintained to the same standards.

Mr. Clappison indicated dissent.

Dr. Moonie: I am not suggesting for a moment that the hon. Gentleman suggested that. I am referring to many of the inaccurate reports that have appeared in the past few weeks, which have served only to upset people unnecessarily. One of my colleagues was telephoned by a woman who was in tears because of the effect that the changes would have on her husband's grave, which is in Italy in a cemetery where there are no British gardeners anyway. That is the sort of disturbance that inaccurate reporting produces. It is not helpful to people who may well have a good cause. That is why we are pleased to be able to say that the commission has agreed to an independent inquiry into the procedures, to find out whether they are fair and justified and what should be done, under the chairmanship of Baroness Dean.

Mr. Clappison: Is the Minister now in a position to give me the assurance that I was seeking about maintaining the British connection in the number of British gardeners looking after the cemeteries?

Dr. Moonie: Clearly, the gardeners do not work for me, so I cannot give a guarantee. However, the commission has told us that it has no plans to reduce the number of British gardeners working abroad. [Interruption.] The shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), may sneer, but one has to take the word of people when they are asked whether they intend to do something. I am satisfied that their intentions in this case are honourable, whatever the effects of their acts might be.

We have announced that the commission has decided to hold an independent review of the pay and allowances of the gardeners and other UK-based staff overseas. There will be full consultation with the staff and their representatives. Any changes will be delayed until the review has been completed. I am glad that a woman of such experience as Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde is to conduct the inquiry for us.

The commission and its staff do a superb job in maintaining the war grave cemeteries and so perpetuating the memory of the fallen. Both this Government and the commission will ensure that that remains the case.

We welcome the review, which will help to ensure that the public have confidence that the highest standards will be maintained in faithfully meeting our moral responsibilities, and that all those involved are fairly rewarded. It would be in the best interests of the review to allow it to be conducted as expeditiously as possible and, preferably, without any further external pressure and misrepresentation.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere on securing this debate and I hope that I have managed to provide him with the limited reassurances that I have been able to give.

Question put and agreed to.

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