MoD catering figures attacked as half-baked

A fine mess: MP claims that training the services' chefs puts the bite on taxpayers unfairly
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The Independent Online
CHRIS BLACKHURST

Westminster Correspondent

The Ministry of Defence was yesterday embroiled in a row over the cost and numbers of chefs being trained by the armed forces. Labour MP Stephen Byers was told by the Defence Minister Sir Nicholas Soames that the MoD is training 244 cooks at an annual cost - excluding the trainees' wages - of pounds 8.6m, or pounds 38,400 for each cook. "This would appear to be yet another example of waste in the MoD," Mr Byers said. "We all know that an army is said to march on its stomach but to spend pounds 48,000 a year - over pounds 900 a week to train a cook for the army is simply unacceptable."

Mr Byers challenged Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, to "explain why the forces need to train 244 cooks at a cost to the taxpayer of pounds 8.6m and why each service needs to have its own separate school to train cooks. At a time of defence cutbacks and the issuing of redundancy notices, does Michael Portillo regard the training of an extra 224 cooks at a cost of pounds 8.6m as really putting the front-line first?"

The MoD reacted with fury to Mr Byers' attack, claiming that while the figures given to him were correct, they were easily explained. All the cooks training used to be centralised at St Omer but, said an MoD spokesman, "due to the significant difference of the final product required by the final services that led to little communality". In English, that translates as the Army training people to cook from field kitchens; the Royal Navy dealing with galleys on ships moving round the world and the RAF feeding its personnel at permanent bases. But later the MoD claimed the MP had got his sums wrong and that the true cost of putting a trainee through catering school was just under pounds 4,800 a year.

Mr Byers, MP for Wallsend, had based his calculations on the figures supplied by Mr Soames in a parliamentary answer which showed the annual cost of the forces' catering programme was pounds 8.6m and that there were currently 224 chefs in training. Averaged out, that gave a total of pounds 38,400 for each trainee cook.

However the MoD - which had earlier said his figures were correct - said later that Mr Byers had not taken into account that the 224 total was only a "snapshot" figure of the number of chefs in training on one particular day. In the course of the whole year 1,800 trainees passed through the forces' catering schools - hence the revised figure of pounds 4,800.

Mr Byers responded by demanding to know why, at a time of cutbacks, the forces needed so many new chefs. "I shall be writing to Nicholas Soames asking him to explain fully why it is necessary for them to be training 1,800 cooks," he said.

He added: "There must be concern that it would appear that the minister when he replied to the parliamentary question was not properly briefed by the Department."

The MoD said that the 1,800 trainee cooks represented only a small fraction of the 240,000 personnel in the armed services.

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