HC Deb 17 November 1920 vol 134 cc2040-8

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 19th October, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

I wish to raise a matter which is non-controversial. I refer to the system by which decisions are reached as to which soldiers shall be able to purchase their discharge and which shall not. At present the question appears to be left, in many cases, to the discretion of the commanding officer, and my point is that it should be subject to appeal to some impartial tribunal at the War Office or to some other tribunal. The particular case I have in mind is that of a family in which all the five males went to the War. The father was killed. One son was killed at the Dardanelles, another was so badly injured that he is totally incapacitated from earning his living, a third has half his hand off, and the fourth is now in the Army. The mother remains and has two young daughters, who are invalids. Under such circumstances I should have thought that the one son of earning capacity who remains, and whose employer has offered to take him back at a good rate of wages, would have been released on compassionate grounds. I applied to the War Office for his release, but it was refused. The mother then, at great sacrifice, gathered the purchase money of £35, and applied for the son's release by purchase. This application was refused also, apparently by the commanding officer of the son's regiment. I have the correspondence here. In the next street to this unfortunate mother there is another woman who has several able-bodied sons at home, and she has been able to purchase the discharge of another son who is wanted to help his brothers. I put it that if the discretion as to the discharge by purchase of a private soldier is left to a commanding officer, inequalities are bound to arise. I should imagine that, in some cases at any rate, if a man is a good, hard-working soldier, a commanding officer will wish to keep him. On the other hand, if he is a waster the commanding officer will probably want to let him go. Soreness is, therefore, bound to arise. I suggest that there should be some appeal in cases where discharge by purchase on reasonable grounds of family necessity is refused, and that that appeal should be to a Committee at the War Office. The particular case I refer to was raised in a question and. relates to Private W. Garton, of the East Yorkshire Regiment. He has, as I say, two brothers, but they have been so badly wounded in the War as to be handicapped from earning a living. I think I am right in saying that Private Garton is the only son who can help his mother, as things are. I hope I have put the case quite fairly. I think I have voiced a grievance that must have been felt by many poor families throughout the land.

Sir A. WILLIAMSON (Parliamentary Secretary, War Office)

It must be remembered that the purchase of discharge in the case of a soldier who has served more than three months is an indulgence and not a right. A soldier who wishes to leave the Army within three months of joining it has a right to purchase his discharge, but after three months, and after the country has spent a very large sum in making him efficient as a soldier, the case is different. It would be an unprofitable and uneconomical business if we were to train soldiers and allow them to purchase discharge without any restriction at all. The discretion is not in the hands of the commanding officer of the unit to which the man belongs. No one with a rank of less than Brigadier can decide the point. It must be brought before him, and he is not a man specially interested in the personnel of any one particular unit. The case is not quite as put by the hon. and gallant Gentleman in that respect. In this case the decision was made by a General of division, and not by the com- manding officer of the regiment. As to the merits of the case, it has been reconsidered at least twice, if not more. It was first put on compassionate grounds, and was thoroughly investigated a good many months ago. It was not thought that the conditions were such as to justify discharge on compassionate grounds, which means discharge without payment on special considerations. It was found on inquiry that whilst the mother of this soldier is, as described, a widow, she is in receipt of £2 4s. 2d. per week. In addition to that, she has two sons, who are both, I understand, in employment and earning money. I am informed that is so. She has two daughters, who are not able to earn anything. The conditions are not quite so bad as the hon. and gallant Gentleman described. So far from the mother having scraped together £35, it was the previous employer of this man who offered to give that sum in order to get him back into his service. When the money was sent the case was again inquired into, and it was not considered it was justifiable in this case to grant a discharge. It is quite obvious that there must be a certain amount of judgment used in allowing discharges. A strong case has to be made out before a soldier can be permitted to buy himself out, or his relatives to buy him out after the country has spent a sum of perhaps several hundreds of pounds in making him an efficient soldier. The hon. and gallant Member is well known as an advocate of economy, and I am sure he would not approve of training men at a cost of several hundreds of pounds and then to allow them very freely to purchase discharge for a sum of £35. I think there is really nothing more to say in this case. With regard to the question of difference which may arise in the same town where purchase was effected and in another where it was not, it may be that the circumstances of the two cases were very dissimiliar. It may also happen that one of the cases was that of a young soldier who had, within three months of joining, exercised the right which he had to purchase his discharge within that period. I cannot say without further information whether the second case comes within that category or not, but if the hon. and gallant Gentleman will give me the particulars I will inquire.


I think the House ought to be grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for bringing this matter up for discussion. From my observation here I can say that there are many Members interested in this question. I have had this very day a reply from the War Office upon a similar case, and a reply which in my humble judgment is entirely unsatisfactory. The Parliamentary Secretary to the War Office has entirely ignored the remarks of the hon. and gallant Gentleman as to the desirability of setting up some sort of appeal tribunal. I feel that we ought to set up an appeal tribunal such as exists to-day in the case of men who are demanding some justice relative to their pensions. I thought the right hon. Gentleman tried to exaggerate the case when he spoke of the family income. He said the mother got £2 4s. 2d. a week, and it seemed to me a very thin string to hang a case on. There are a mother and two daughters, and that income works out at 15s. a week a head, and with the cost of living as it is to-day, and the increase of rent, and the rates which will go on to the rent, I think there is a case here on compassionate grounds if not on anything else. In regard to the case I have mentioned, of Rifleman M. H. Stoker, he is a youth not yet 18, and you deliberately keep him for 10 months simply dawdling the time away until he is 18, and then you endeavour, to claim him. We have tried to secure this youth by purchase, but on more than one occasion the appeal has been turned down, notwithstanding the fact that the military authorities were warned, before he joined, of his particular age at that time. He is not yet 18, and I want to know why it should be left in the hands of one individual officer to decide whether or not he should be kept as a unit of His Majesty's Forces. I desire to raise an emphatic protest against such a state of affairs as being extremely unfair, and if the War Office is not prepared to accept full responsibility, I think it might set up an appeal tribunal of two or three individuals to whom the soldier or the soldier's parents might appeal.

Brigadier-General COCKERILL

I would like to urge on the right hon. Gentleman the desirability of giving to the suggestion a little more consideration. I cannot conceive why, for his own sake, if I may say so, he should not welcome some appeal tribunal which would take this very heavy responsibility off his shoulders. He himself has stated that in these cases it is a matter of indulgence and not a right. If it were a right it would be extremely simple to do justice to the soldier. It is just because it is an indulgence that it seems to me that, for the protection of the right hon. Baronet himself, it is very desirable that there should be some tribunal set up, and it is desirable, if I may say so, on other grounds. From the point of view of the people of this country whose wage earners are refused to them by what seems to them some arbitrary action, it would be extremely desirable that they should feel that these questions had not been dealt with just by one individual officer, even if he were, like myself, a brigadier-general, and consequently accustomed to discharge judicial functions. After all, even brigadier-generals make mistakes, and it seems to me from my point of view that it would be a very great advantage to the people in this country whose relatives put forward these applications that they should feel that there was some small tribunal to whom these cases would go, and they would feel that justice would be done. Not in a similar case, but in a case of which I have some personal experience, I have known very good results to arise from setting up tribunals of this sort to assist those who have to discharge executive functions of a very delicate nature. It strengthens their hands when they can refer these cases to a tribunal, and therefore I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should give the matter a little further consideration.


I venture to support the views that have been expressed tonight on this side of the House. I think that the ill-feeling against the Army caused by a case of refusal of purchase is very, very seldom worth the actual keeping the man against his will in the Army. It must produce a great feeling of hardship, and, of course, it produces also the feeling that if a man wants to get out of the Army so much that his relatives will pay £35, or whatever it is, I cannot think the State is getting very much good out of keeping men in the Army, and certainly it has an influence on everyone in the street or the street near by who hears that the Army is so badly in want of men that they are going to keep them even if their relatives are willing to pay £35 to get them out, and if he is kept in against his will, in addition, they must feel that they will not risk letting their sons go into the Army. It is quite right in certain circumstances to make people pay, but the more freely, within the limitation, men who want to get out of the Army are allowed to do so on a payment, although you may lose what seems to be a pretty good soldier, on the whole, it is the better course. We do not want anyone to have the feeling that the Army is a thing that, once a man gets into, after the first three months he has got to stay in. Therefore, I do think it well worth while to give a little more consideration to this matter, so that it may be considered, not by a purely military authority, but by those able, to judge what is the sort of local feeling produced if these refusals are committed in what seems to be cases of domestic hardship. Therefore, I hope the matter is not altogether closed.


There is one point I should like the right hon. Gentleman to clear up, and that is on the point of economy. He says it costs £300, approximately, to make a soldier, and that, therefore, if you release him it is an uneconomic thing to do. But perhaps he might also tell us what it costs us to keep a soldier. Having once made a soldier, you have made him. Once thoroughly trained, the fact that you have released him does not make him the less a soldier. You may keep him on another three months polishing buttons and attending parades, but once a man has learnt the fundamental duties, he is a soldier, as we found in the War, where the old soldiers who joined up, in a very days were quite efficient, and in many cases more efficient, than many of the men who persisted in their button-cleaning for many years.

The whole question of purchase is a pernicious thing. Either a man should be released on compassionate grounds, or he should be retained in his contract. Let us waive the economic point, which I am glad one Member is at last taking into his careful consideration after years of the most woeful extravagance the country has ever seen. But I dispute the economic ground. If the man does not want to stay you ought to be pleased to be rid of the responsibility of keeping him longer, seeing that you can always call him up. However can there be any comparison between compassionate and economic grounds? One man's employer may be willing to help to raise the £15 or £35, and another man's employer may not be willing. If the hon. Member told us what the true facts are I do not think we ought to boggle over a little matter of this sort. It would appear that the British Army is represented in the British Isles, ex Ireland, by 5,000 men, and the authorities cannot get new recruits. That seems to me to be extraordinary, seeing that men are out of employment. I do not know whether in cases of this sort the Army feel that having got hold of a man they do not want to get rid of him.


Under 18 years of age!


Possibly the Government consider that 5,000 men are inadequate to deal with any crisis which may arise in this country, and therefore having got recruits you must keep them.

Having had experience of the Army, Navy, and Police, as a trooper, a private, and an officer, I know how some of these things happen. I know that if a man wanted to get out of the Police, directly he so made up his mind he started what is called "working his ticket," and if there is a greater curse to the discipline of a force than a man "working his ticket" I should like to know what it is. He is a trouble to his corporal, a curse to his sergeant, and a bother to his officer; because he just keeps out of disciplinary punishment, and continues in his dissatisfied mood until he gets it. I honestly think that, from economic, humane, and disciplinary grounds, if a man does not want to serve, especially if he is likely to be called upon to serve in a crisis, if his heart is not in his job, get rid of him. I would not allow a man to leave the Army in the first twelve months. He has put the country to the expense of his uniform, etc., and we might knock twelve months' soldiering into him with advantage He will leave the Army physically and mentally better for the training. If after twelve months he has not got over the incubation stage, and has not his heart in his job, I would advise the War Office to get rid of him. Make recruiting more attractive. It is far better to give seven men one year's training than to give one man seven years' training, if ever military service be again required in this country.


May I again appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the case that has been brought forward by my hon. Friend, apart altogether from those general considerations which have been put before the House by the different speakers—considerations of very great importance, and considerations to which, I think, even greater attention ought to be given when there is a larger opportunity for discussing them. I rise for the purpose of joining in the appeal which has been made by my hon. and gallant Friend on behalf of this poor woman. That, after all, was the main purpose in the mind and heart of my hon. and gallant Friend when he raised this question on the Adjournment to-night. Really, I have never heard of a more irresistible case than that which has been made by my hon. and gallant Friend. This poor woman lost her husband, and she gave three of her sons in the War. She has two little children, according to this letter, one a cripple and the other suffering from consumption. If it is humanly possible to make a case upon the grounds of sympathy, never was there a more powerful case made than that made by my hon. and gallant Friend. I trust that the last word has not been said by my right hon. Friend. If he is prepared to grant an indulgence of this character, surely there never was an indulgence granted on better grounds than those put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend in the appeal he has made. I do not intend to go into the broader question, but I think it is eminently well that the House ought to consider it. I was surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should have made the point that the mother was not prepared to pay this money herself, that the employer paid it. It is extraordinary how this excuse was rooted out by those who made the inquiry. That shows the spirit of those who refused I to release this boy. According to this woman's declaration she borrowed this money.


If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, it was in the I woman's own letter, not rooted out.


The woman, according to her own statement, borrowed the £35 probably from the employer, and no doubt the young fellow, if released, will go back to his employer and will probably repay by a weekly deduction out of his wage. Whatever the woman said in her letter does not really matter. It makes no difference whether she borrowed it or whether the employer paid it. If the employer did pay, that is another reason why this boy should be released; he must have been a good chap, a capable workman, and of some value to his employer. The British Empire will not shake to its foundations nor will the glories of the military system of the Empire disappear if the right hon. Gentleman will do this simple humane act. The right hon. Gentleman has a sympathetic heart; will he lend a sympathetic ear and a humanitarian mind to the appeal of my hon. and gallant Friend and send the boy back to the humble home of the widow whose husband fought in the Great War?

It being half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of 19th October.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.