Tuesday 15th December 2020

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Cabinet Office
Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Sir Christopher, and a privilege to speak today on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff. They are unsung heroes, who care for the cemeteries and memorials of over 1.7 million Commonwealth casualties of war. Although the commission employs local staff across the globe, it has always retained a proud and important link to the UK by sending domestically based staff to work abroad, primarily in France and Belgium. Gardeners, stonemasons and other staff tend cemeteries across those countries, including in the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Normandy and Dunkirk.

Before I continue, I wish to assure the Minister that I come to this debate with sincerity. This is an important matter and I have not come here today to debate leaving the EU—indeed, I hope that their researcher did their homework and understands my position.

This matter touches me personally in a number of ways. First, I am a member of both Unite and the Public and Commercial Services Union, which stems from a career in the wider civil service before coming to this place. Often, I worked for organisations that not many people knew about, but when they found out what those organisations did, they appreciated their importance. Secondly, I have lived abroad and been affected by a significant drop in income through no fault of my own. I was a student in France in 1992 on Black Wednesday, when the UK dropped out of the European exchange rate mechanism, and overnight we lost two francs to every pound—a 20% drop. Finally and most importantly, like so many members of the public, I have three family members buried in cemeteries in France and Belgium. I wish to put on the record my personal thanks for the brilliant work that all the staff in those cemeteries do, which I saw at first hand when I visited some of those cemeteries.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I rise as a Commonwealth war graves commissioner to express the commissioners’ concern about and our respect for the workers she is talking about—those gardeners in Belgium and France. We must ensure that we do exactly the right thing by them, especially in the context of the rather challenging employment situation they are in and against the background of Brexit. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister says on behalf of the Secretary of State, who is the chair of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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I thank my hon. Friend for making those really important points. This debate focuses very much on those staff, and I, too, look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

My great-grandmother lost her first brother, my great-uncle, Private Ernest Henry Butterfield of the Middlesex Regiment, Third Battalion, on 23 May 1915. He is buried in the Hop Store cemetery, which is to the west of Ypres in Belgium. My great-grandfather, Private Arthur John Langley of the Middlesex Regiment, Second Battalion, died on 23 October 1916. He is buried in Caterpillar Valley cemetery, just outside Longueval, in the Somme in France. That date was not a good one for my great-grandmother, as her second brother died on 23 October in 1918. My great-uncle, Lance Corporal Sidney John Butterfield of the Northampton Regiment, First Battalion, is buried in the Highland cemetery, Le Cateau, in France.

I have visited Caterpillar Valley cemetery in France. It was the end of summer, but it was still pretty bleak. I take with me that feeling of not only desolation but the beauty of the cemetery. I went past the Hop Store cemetery on the train between Ypres and Poperinge before I realised my great-uncle was buried there. It is small and beautiful, with just over 200 graves. It was there that I found out that he died of his wounds, because there is always a small book on a little shelf to say who is buried there.

I visited the visitor centre at the Somme and the Thiepval memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also designed and laid out the house and gardens up at Putteridge Bury, which is now part of the University of Bedfordshire, just on the edge of my constituency. Thiepval is absolutely stunning from afar, and as I got closer I realised that the gigantic memorial is inscribed with the names of more than 70,000 soldiers who lost their lives on the Somme.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward and her impassioned description of her visits to those cemeteries. I have been contacted over the years by many constituents, but one in particular comes to mind in relation to this debate. He wrote about a war grave for his uncle. The importance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cannot be overstated—it was incredibly helpful. It is important to ensure that staff in Belgium and France have job security and options. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to hear definitive answers about exactly what is going to happen, and not generalised possibilities for all those staff?

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that really important point about genuine options and security for the staff. I will come to that in my speech, and hopefully we will have a response from the Minister.

The amazing work carried out by CWGC staff and the many volunteers in many countries who support the cemeteries must not be forgotten. Across the House and across the country, we proudly recognise the national value of the work they do. Some staff who have been posted to France and Belgium, although not permanently, have stayed for many years—some for decades—and have had families on the continent. As they are posted abroad from the UK for work, they are offered affordable housing and a living allowance to stay for the duration of their posting by the commission. That is commonplace when UK staff are sent to work abroad, and has been the situation for a number of years.

That supportive agreement between the commission and its staff has ended. Following remembrance events this year on 12 November, the commission’s management provided Unite, PCS and Prospect—the trade unions representing staff—with a decision that it would be presenting to its UK-employed staff abroad. At three weeks’ notice and without consultation, staff, many of whom have lengthy service with the commission, would be forced to decide between transferring to new pay and contractual terms, which means choosing to have their income drastically cut, or being repatriated back to the UK in January.

Staff had to respond to that ultimatum by 7 December, and if they did not, they would be repatriated. I first want to highlight to the Minister the inappropriateness of the timing of that announcement. Releasing life-changing information that would completely upend the lives of staff the day after Armistice Day is completely unacceptable.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) is extremely sorry that he cannot be here to listen to this important debate. The point that the hon. Lady makes is extremely important. It is not necessarily a question of the employment terms of those people; it is the way in which the choice was put to them and the time they were given. I am sure she will agree that, by and large, the CWGC is a first-class employer, but on this occasion it seems to me to have slipped up, and it really ought to get it sorted out.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that completely pertinent point.

The decision is perceived by some as a communications strategy to limit the backlash against the mistreatment of staff, and by others as an attempt to silence staff and prevent them from speaking out, as they know that those loyal, dedicated staff would not want to be criticising the situation at an important time for remembering those who sacrificed their lives. I hasten to add that it may have been a logical decision taken to meet tax and payroll deadlines, made with the head but sadly not with the heart.

I hope the Minister will agree that the timing of the announcement is pretty shameful. The excuse that the EU transition period deadline is approaching is actually thoroughly inadequate. The vote to leave was more than four years ago. Implementing a plan to support staff should have been a priority for the commission. As an employer, the commission has a duty to protect the staff’s wellbeing.

I am deeply concerned that the new employment contracts for staff who choose to remain in Europe remove their entitlement to additional allowances, which will lead to staff having their income drastically cut. A PCS member in France at a supervisory grade, who shared their situation with me, is having their total employment package cut by 53%, equating to about €32,000. That is not an anomaly. Two other staff members working abroad have told me that their package will be cut by more than 50%. Staff are being told to sign new contracts by 22 December, although they have been told that they cannot negotiate their new pay levels, as pay is a decision for human resources to make. Many long-serving staff are being transferred to a level that is between 50% and 75% of the corresponding local pay scale, without any opportunity to negotiate. The staff involved also still do not know what will happen with their state or occupational pension.

I understand that the commission points to the Brexit mitigation payment that offers staff who want to stay in a European country £30,000 to account for the loss of income under the new contract. In most cases, it will cover only one to two years of allowances, and they will not be entitled to any assistance to repatriate when they retire or if they need to move back to the UK for compassionate reasons. Furthermore, I am aware that the commission has offered an additional payment of between £5,000 and £10,000 to assist with housing costs following the initial removal of rental and living allowances. That is a positive step, but it fails to confront the central issues: the long-term impact on staff’s pay and pensions arrangements.

Such decisions have a real impact on staff’s wellbeing. Accounts that I have received state that many of the staff are extremely distressed and feel completely let down and abandoned by the commission. The situation has had a tremendous toll on them, with four out of the 32 PCS members now unable to work because of illness. I have spoken virtually to some of the staff, and it is heart-breaking to hear how they have been treated after dedicating so many years to caring for the cemeteries. The support offered is essentially a stopgap, and an improved package is needed to ensure these important workers do not have to face significant upheaval in their lives and/or downgrade their living standards. What confuses the situation further is that such jobs are needed—they are essential. The cemeteries need caring for, and the incumbent staff have the skills and dedication to do it.

I am aware that the commission’s management state that, legally, the staff can no longer stay on UK contracts and will need to localise in order to pay into the local tax system, but the UK’s exit from the EU should not be used by the commission as an excuse to reduce its overall costs. Indeed, the legal advisers to the trade unions have not been able to identify a clear legal reason why the commission is seeking to change the contracts of staff working abroad. As I understand it, the British Commonwealth war graves overseas situation is based on the 1951 treaty. It therefore derives from international law, not EU law.

That raises the question of whether the UK leaving the EU changes the immigration employment situation of staff. Subject to international law, the 1951 treaty is between individual sovereign states, and not all are members of the EU. I say that because I am concerned at the commission’s response. It not only refused to disclose its legal advice, but claimed that its external legal advice was verbal only. I would have thought it would have been to the commission’s benefit to have legal advice in writing, which it could then have shared with the trade unions to ensure that there was mutual trust in the process.

I hope the Minister can shed some further light on the legal position, as I believe the lack of transparency and trust is at the heart of the dispute. Through greater transparency and negotiation with the trade unions, the commission could have averted the crisis. Trade unions have repeatedly asked for more time to consider the legal position and for better pay protection for the staff involved, but they have received little to no movement from management.

I understand that things may need to change, but the jobs that those workers do are of national importance. I am sure the Minister and the Secretary of State agree with me on that, so will the Minister discuss this issue with the Secretary of State, who is also the chair of the commission, to increase the level of support provided to these workers? That should include improving pay protection for staff who are transferring to localised contracts. Importantly, the trade unions should be involved in representing staff and working collectively towards a negotiated settlement that continues to value the staff and the work they do, and that reflects the respect that I and so many members of the public have for them, as part of our connection to those who gave so much for our country. Nous n’oublierons pas.

Johnny Mercer Portrait The Minister for Defence People and Veterans (Johnny Mercer)
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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) for securing the debate. We all agree on the admiration that we have for the extraordinary work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—I see it in my own constituency in Plymouth—and its desire to ensure that those who do such an important job with dedication and dignity are treated fairly, in keeping with the values of the organisation. I certainly share that commitment.

I welcome, too, the opportunity to shed light on an institution whose work is often unsung, and I am grateful for a chance to provide some clarity on an issue on which I suspect there has been a degree of misunderstanding. My friend the hon. Member for Luton South does not want to talk about Brexit and I desperately share that ambition, but the reality is that it has had an impact on this situation, and I will outline that. I want to work with her going forward. I believe that she has a meeting with the Secretary of State tomorrow, so this is not a closed door. I will lay out the position as it stands, but I think that we should continue to work together to see what we can do to ensure that these people are looked after.

As we know, the commission was set up more than a century ago to honour in perpetuity the memory of 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars. In total, it oversees cemeteries and memorials at some 23,000 locations in 154 countries. In the United Kingdom alone, the commission maintains graves and memorials in approximately 13,000 locations. Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Arnhem. It is the final resting place of some 1,700 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives during Operation Market Garden. The serenity of that peaceful place, with its row on row of perfectly maintained and meticulously ordered white headstones, is particularly suited to the contemplation of service and sacrifice, and it continues to provide solace and consolation to all those whose relatives lie there. It is no wonder, because for more than 100 years horticulturalists and architects have laboured together to develop these cemeteries into something more, into great gardens of remembrance. As a former soldier, I find it humbling to think that there, as in all war grave cemeteries, no distinction is made for rank, race or creed; everyone is treated the same. It is a powerful reminder of our nation’s moral responsibility to ensure the legacy of every person who has given their life to keep us safe.

Today, our particular focus has been on the 30 UK nationals with UK-based contracts who work in Belgium and France alongside 550 staff. We are proud of those skilled British gardeners and want them to continue doing their excellent work, but, as with all UK citizens who work overseas, the end of the transition period from exiting the European Union and the end of free movement of labour have meant the introduction of new arrangements to ensure that they can continue working there after 1 January next year. That meant that they were faced with two stark choices: to remain in the EU on local terms, identical to those of their French and Belgian colleagues, or to return to the UK.

An additional complication has been that these staff enjoy certain unique advantages thanks to a set of historical anomalies. Not only do they not pay income tax in the UK or in their host nation, but they receive an allowance in recognition of the fact that they may be required to move anywhere in the world as part of their duties. Inevitably, once they have become permanently located, these arrangements will be brought into line with those for their counterparts. They would then have to pay local tax and lose their allowances. Although that is not a pay cut in the traditional sense, it does represent a significant reduction in their overall remuneration package. Consequently, the commission has been at pains to ensure that its employees are not disadvantaged. It offered employees a tax repayment of £30,000 and agreed to fund removal expenses where required. That was assessed as equivalent to 18 to 24 months of current benefits and will be paid in one lump sum to ensure that tax-free status.

I am pleased that, following a meeting with unions last week, the commission has further decided to help those remaining in the EU by making an additional one-off payment of up to €10,000, which, for the majority, will cover housing costs for the next 12 months. Should they decide to move house, the commission will also pay up to €5,000 to cover costs. Those choosing to return to Britain have also been offered equivalent employment with the commission here in the UK.

The hon. Member for Luton South asked specifically about union negotiations. Initial conversations between the CWGC and three UK trade unions took place in October, with detailed proposals to individuals in November, alongside collective briefing and discussions with those affected. It is certainly a matter of regret that employees were not given more time to make their decision, and I have no desire to minimise how tough these relatively sudden decisions will have been for them to make. That said, it should also be acknowledged that matters have been complicated by the absence of a clearly defined host nation policy on residency status. In the end, a balance had to be struck between ensuring enough certainty for any arrangements to be legally compliant while also giving personnel sufficient time to consider their options. Staff were asked to make their decisions before 8 December so that their payments could be processed before the start of the French and Belgian tax years, which, unlike the UK’s, run from 1 January to 31 December.

The hon. Member also asked whether the Ministry of Defence will intervene, but it is important to remember that although the Secretary of State is an ex-officio chair of the commission by virtue of the fact that the UK is the largest financial contributor to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ultimately the commission is independent, with its own commissioners and director general having direct responsibility for their personnel. Those affected by the changes are not MOD employees, so it would be inappropriate for the Department to intervene in this instance, but I believe my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is meeting the hon. Member tomorrow to continue these discussions.

We certainly agree that it would have been preferable for CWGC staff to have been informed earlier; we do not dispute that. However, all 30 employees have now confirmed their options, with 21 remaining in Europe, seven returning to the UK and two retiring. I hope that the commission’s increased offer last week will be welcomed. Those individuals now have the clarity needed to move forward, while our country has the certainty of knowing that the vital work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in preserving the memory of the fallen will continue come what may.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.