HC Deb 07 November 1939 vol 353 cc5-7
5. Mr. Woodburn

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is aware that young recruits at camps in Scotland are having to send home for additional food and for overcoats, and that hardship is experienced by others without these resources; and whether he will take steps to see that adequate supplies are available of both food and clothing?

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

No such information has come to my notice. If the hon. Member will give me particulars, I will have the matter investigated. I have reason to believe that this is one of the rumours deliberately circulated in the vain endeavour to shake public confidence.

Mr. Woodburn

I will give the Minister particulars of an actual case.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I think this matter is so important that I will read a letter which I have received from an hon. Member: I went to Edinburgh on Thursday night last…When I got there I was told that a dreadful thing was happening and they hoped I would try to do something about it. This is the story. The men were billeted in an unused mill. They were treated like cattle, having nothing but straw on the top of cement flooring and one blanket, and that several of them had been taken to hospital with pneumonia, that the food was inadequate, meat in particular being short, and that the men had to go into the town to buy anything to keep themselves going. This story was told to me by responsible municipal councillors, not Labour. I said that I would immediately go into the matter and I took one of these councillors with me and went down to the works. I found the sentry at the gate and I got him to take me to the officer on duty. I explained who I was and I said I would like to look round. I found that each man had an excellent straw palliasse under which he had got two ground sheets, and he had three very good blankets. The men all told me that they were very satisfied and had no complaints. I then went round the kitchens and interviewed all the cooks. I found that the food was plentiful and good. I also interviewed the butcher who told me that he had never been short of meat, and I inspected the meat he had already received that day which was very good indeed. He said that, of course, occasionally they got a side of beef which might have rather more fat than others, but he said he had no complaints whatever and that everything was going well. The officer told me he was not aware that many of the men were going sick; in fact, he told me that the story I had been told was a complete ' mare's nest.' I am trying to find out how it originated, but I rather fancy it is propaganda.

Mr. Attlee

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that numerous cases are being brought to the attention of hon. Members of soldiers sleeping on the ground in tents without blankets, and that they have been doing so for weeks without any question of propaganda arising? This is a serious matter.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to pause before making statements of that kind. They are all broadcast in Germany. This question asked me if I am aware that young recruits in Scotland have suffered these indignities. I said if any hon. Gentleman will furnish me with precise information I will immediately send down an inspector to investigate. On the whole the British Army is treated better than any other army in the world.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman deny that apart from propaganda—it is not our intention to use propaganda—in the last few weeks, indeed since the outbreak of war, many complaints have been brought to the notice of the War Office and that in many cases remedies have been found, and does not that prove that there was some justification for the complaints?

Mr. Hore-Belisha

That is a different thing from saying that recruits have had to send home for additional food and that hardship was experienced by others without these resources. I say to the House that I have had no case brought to my notice where any British soldier has been without sufficient food or who has been badly treated in any way. If by some mischance it should prove to be the case that in some out-of-the-way unit unsatisfactory conditions have prevailed, I only ask my colleagues in this House to give me an opportunity to investigate the matter.

Mr. Woodburn

The Minister stated that this was propaganda. May I ask him whether I did not indicate privately in my note that the reference was to Battle Abbey camp? I can add that the conditions were that recruits were sending home to people in my own constituency for food, and there is no propaganda attached to it. It is a simple statement of fact, and I very much resent the Minister's statement.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

If it is true that the hon. Gentleman is referring to a particular unit—I have not seen any letter from him —he might give me an opportunity of verifying those facts.

Mr. A. Edwards

The Minister has made a statement and I think I have the right to say that he has a letter from me regarding a constituency where exactly those conditions prevail.