More is spent on jail fare than army food

MORE is spent on feeding a prisoner in jail than on food for a British soldier, sailor or airman, new figures have revealed.

The disclosure came as Britain's top commander warned Gordon Brown that he must increase defence spending if Britain is to retain its military capabilities.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff, told MPs at Westminster that the armed forces are "very stretched" by deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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He is the latest senior military figure to speak out about the government's treatment of the armed forces. Privately and publicly, other defence chiefs have complained about the pay and conditions of service people.

In an admission likely to fuel those concerns, the Ministry of Defence said that it spends just 1.51 a day per person on feeding servicemen or women in their home bases.

By contrast, the Scottish Prison Service spends 1.57 per prisoner per day on food. In English jails, the figure is 1.87.

In a parliamentary written answer, the MoD revealed that the "daily messing rate" (DMR) recorded for each member of the armed forces at their home base or port has fallen since a new catering contractor was hired in October.

The same statistics suggest that spending on food for frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen by a fifth since last year. Last July, the MoD said spending per day for personnel on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was 3.11. Now the figure is 2.49.

Recorded spending levels for Royal Navy personnel on ships at sea have also fallen. In June 2006, the MoD budget said the minimum daily spend for food for a sailor at sea should be 2.14. The new figure, for the first three months of this year, is 1.68.

Willie Rennie, a Liberal Democrat member of the Commons defence committee, said he was "very concerned" about the MoD's spending on food, and pledged to raise the issue with defence ministers.

"It is very important that service personnel get the quantity and quality of food they need to do their jobs," Mr Rennie said.

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In a statement the MoD insisted that the fall in the spending figures was caused by different accounting methods introduced last year.

"The changeover of food supply contractor on 1 October, 2006 resulted in a change in the method of calculating the DMR," the ministry said. "Under the previous contractor, the rate included an element for their management fee, while under the current contract, that fee is paid centrally. The DMR now appears lower, but it still purchases the same quantity and quality of food product."