HC Deb 19 March 1942 vol 378 cc1694-702

Motion made, and. Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I wish briefly to refer to a matter of which I have given previous notice. It concerns the issuing of some sort of badge to those men of the Fighting Services and the Merchant Navy who have been discharged because of ill-health, or perhaps wounds, and have not been able to establish their right to pensions. The House may remember that, nearly a month ago, I brought forward the case of a man who served overseas, went through Dunkirk, and was then discharged from the Service, but who was not able to establish his right to a pension owing to his disability not being due to war service or aggravated by it. This man received a present of some white feathers from some ill-natured person, and naturally, he was very much grieved by this. When one considers the circumstances in which these men live, such incidents often have—and I believe had in this case—a detrimental effect upon their health or at any rate upon their business circumstances. Another hon. Member supported the case that I made, and the Press have taken up the question generally in relation to the white feather episode. I do not want to stress that aspect of the matter too much, because, I am pleased to say, the white feather business is not overdone in this war as it was in the last war.

I bring forward the case on general grounds, because it affects a large number of men who have been discharged from the Services because they are unfit, and the Army, Navy and Air Force have no further use for their services. When war was declared, many of these men, in the heat of the moment, volunteered their services. It is possible that many of them were not fit at the time, but nevertheless, owing to the low medical standard adopted in those days, the medical officers passed these men into the Services, and therefore, it cannot be denied that the Services have had the use of these men for varying periods. In the particular case which I raised, and in many other cases, the men have gone overseas and have fought their country's battles. I do not want to make a sentimental matter of this, but I suggest to the House that some slight recognition ought to be given to these men. It is not much that I am asking. I would remind the House that if discharged ex-Service men are able first of all to pass through the fine mesh of the Ministry of Pensions' sieve and obtain a pension, they are automatically entitled to a discharged Service man's badge; but as we know, the Ministry of Pensions reject a large number of cases because, they say, the disability was not incurred or aggravated by reason of service during this war. I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is to reply, whether it is not true that the decision as to the issue of badges was arrived at, before the war, by an Honours Committee and whether that procedure of not granting these badges, or granting them in certain limited categories is being followed. I put that point because questions to the Service Departments and the Ministry of Pensions have brought me the reply that they can do nothing about the matter, and therefore, I am led to believe that it is within the province of the Prime Minister to settle the matter. I hope the Prime Minister's representative here to-day will be able to give some sort of answer which will remove this disability from this deserving body of men.

I should like to say a few words concerning whether a badge is necessary or not. The late Secretary of State for War dismissed my Question quite casually, saying that he did not think a badge was necessary, because nowadays everybody is more or less subject to some form of national service. That is not the point. This patriotic body of men, and perhaps women, would like to feel that there is some small recognition of the services they have given to the State. Is it too much to ask the Government to give them that slight recognition at a time when badges are issued to all sorts of people? I have noticed that Members of the House who serve in the Home Guards go about with little badges in their buttonholes. It may be that they have purchased these badges themselves, but I presume it is quite in order for them to wear the badges; they like to show that they are members of the Home Guard, and perhaps the badge is some sort of alibi in case somebody wants to present them with white feathers. Those people who serve on the railways are all badged as railway workers, merely because they are in reserved occupations. I do not know who pays for those badges; it may be the railway companies in their generosity, it may be at the expense of the stockholders. I believe that in the case of members of the Home Guard, they are proud to wear the badges. I do not know whether any discharge certificate is given to men who are discharged from the Services, but if so, it is obvious that they cannot carry such certificates about in their buttonholes.

I ask my right hon. Friend to give sympathetic consideration to this matter. I do not wish to develop it at any great length, as there are other hon. Members who wish to raise matters on the Motion for the Adjournment, and I will conclude by quoting from a letter which I have received from a man who was formally a regular soldier. It is true that some of the men whom I have in mind have served only for a brief period during the war. The case which I want to quote now, however, is of a man who was a regular soldier. He served for nearly 16 years in the Regular Army and on the Reserve, and he retired with an exemplary character. He writes that the Ministry said his disability was not aggravated by war services, and I presume that there the matter ends as far as his claim for a pension is concerned; but he asks that at any rate he should be granted a small reward in the form of some sort of badge which he could show proudly among his associates in various places where associates meet. He Wants to display some mark of his service before the war and during the war.

That is my case. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to say something which, if it does not go all the way to meet the case, will partly meet it. It may seem to the House that this matter is a trivial one, but it is the small things which count in life. Somebody may say a word or do something that will create pages and pages of print in the newspapers or cause despondency and dissatisfaction. If we can do anything to remove a certain amount of discontent which is evident among these discharged soldiers, sailors, airmen and members of the Merchant Navy, I think we ought to do it. It is something that would not cost much in money. In our childhood days we learned that civility costs nothing. This would be more than civility. It would be a recognition by the State that a man has done his duty' to his country in his country's hour of need. I hope my right hon. Friend may be able to give a satisfactory answer.

Colonel Arthur Evans (Cardiff, South)

Quite briefly, I should like to sustain the argument which has been submitted to my right hon. Friend and the House. I have examined the Questions and Answers on this subject, and they have failed to convince me, for the reasons which have been submitted by ray hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger). In the city and in the country we see large numbers of people in civilian clothes wearing armlets or badges of some kind which have been issued by various Government Departments, denoting the kind of national service they are endeavouring to render to the nation in its hour of need, and it seems strange to me that the authorities have decided in the case of a man who came forward at the beginning of the war, in spite of certain physical disabilities, to offer his services, who was accepted, and nine times out of ten served overseas with distinction, who, through no fault of his own, has been subsequently discharged—that in such a case he should be denied the distinction he has earned, and of which he has every right to be proud. Those who served overseas in the early days of the last war were awarded the Mons Star, and others who served overseas were awarded the 1914–15 Star. I think the Mons Star ribbon was issued within nine months of the declaration of war, and the 1914–15 Star came out within a year.

Captain Cobb (Preston)

There was no medal.

Colonel Evans

I think my hon. and gallant Friend has made a mistake, and on reflection he will recall that the red, white and blue Ribbon was issued to the troops nine months after August, 1914, and the 1914–15 Star within a year. I well remember the effect on the men wearing that new Ribbon. It had an encouraging effect on the morale of the troops—after all, it was nothing to be ashamed of. To-day we have many men serving in the Army at home and overseas who have nothing to show that they have been through France, Belgium, Greece and Crete, and I think there has been an undue economy in building up morale, or, if you please, bowing to the human desire for some kind of recognition among their fellows. It does not help to sustain the morale of the nation if the authorities take too narrow a view of an issue of this kind, and I trust the Government will reconsider their decision.

Mr. Burke (Burnley)

I should like to support very briefly the argument which has been put forward. The borderline between the issue and the non-issue of a badge is very nebulous. Let me give an illustration. Correspondence has been taking place for six months with the Ministry of Pensions as to whether or not a man's injury was aggravated as a result of his war service. Finally, the Ministry decided to come down in the man's favour, which means that he will be entitled to a badge. It has always been touch and go which side the Ministry would take, and the man would have lost his entitlement if the decision had gone the other way. Many of the men are disgruntled about this matter, and I can assure the Minister there is a good deal of dissatisfaction about it. These men, many of whom went through the last war and were called up in 1939, feel they are entitled to a badge. Many of these men, because they had suffered so much in the last war, were not able to keep the pace in this war—many of them were at Dunkirk—and had to be discharged. They feel very strongly on the matter. They had a good deal to suffer in this war because of the duties they did in the last war, and they feel that their entitlement to a badge is something to which the Government ought to pay consideration.

I will give a further case to the House. A good deal of concern was caused in my constituency because of the unfortunate incident connected with it, which gave it much publicity. The man in question fought in the last war, and was passed A.1 for this war. He went through Dunkirk and had a terrible time, coming home a nervous wreck. I took up his case with the Ministry of Pensions, but they declined to recognise their responsibility. The man committed suicide, and the case got a good deal of publicity. As a result, when I took up the case again, the claim of the man was recognised, and his widow will now be entitled to some memento. I very much doubt whether his claim would have been recognised had he died under ordinary circumstances. It is because of the anomalies which arise from the line which has been drawn by the Ministry, that I think they should go the whole hog, instead of making entitlement dependent upon a Government Department's decision, which is often thought to be wrong, and causes a great deal of hardship, and against which there is no right of appeal. That decision should not also decide the entitlement of a man to some permanent recognition of his service. I hope the Minister will give the matter very serious and sympathetic consideration.

Major Milner (Leeds, South East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) should be honoured by the fact that the Foreign Secretary has come to reply to him to-day. I think that we might have had one of the Service Ministers, or the Minister of Pensions, on the Front Bench, although I do not wish my right hon. Friend to think I am complaining in any way; there is no one who has a better record in these matters, and who will be more sympathetic to the claim put forward. Clearly, I think, there is a need for some recognition, although, of course, every man presumably obtains his discharge certificate, which gives evidence that, in fact, he has served for his period. I may be in error, but I do think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Cardiff (Colonel Evans) is correct about the 1914 Star and the 1914–15 Medal. It is certainly the case that the Medals were issued at a later period, otherwise some of us would have been wearing them earlier. There is, I think, a case for some recognition, but as to which form it should take I am in some little doubt it is difficult, I imagine, to draw the lin2. There is the man who volunteered in the first few days or weeks of the war, who, by reason of some injury suffered in the last war., was not accepted for His Majesty's Forces. I put myself in that category, because in the heat of the moment I endeavoured in the first week of the war to join the Royal Air Force but was not found medically fit. No doubt there are many cases of that sort. A most deserving case is that of a volunteer who suffered an injury in the war, but whose injury has not for technical reasons entitled him to receive a pension. Whether that is so or not, clearly there should be some recognition of that sort.

My only doubt is as to precisely where the line should be drawn. I do not feel competent, without more thought than I have been able to give it, to express an opinion on that, but I think that in normal cases those who joined up or were conscripted or had commissions and suffered ill-health during their service, possibly due to the service, should receive some acknowledgment. Throughout the war we have perhaps been lacking in a number of respects of this sort. I have often felt recently that many of us, myself included, perhaps may be a little to blame in a number of matters that we have preached about, the attacks that we have made upon the brass hats, and so on. The Army must be backed up, and we must show our confidence in it. I have no doubt that when the time and the opportunity come the present Army is as good as, and possibly better than, any that has gone before it. We have boosted the Air Force and the Navy, and we have rather neglected the Army, and I feel that at the first opportunity we ought to ensure that the Army should have its tail up as much as the other Armed Forces, and this matter would help to some small extent in that direction. I hope the right hon. Gentleman may be able to give a favourably reply to the request.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I have listened with a very considerable measure of sympathy to the case which has been so well put and so ably supported. It seems to me just one of those subjects which the House should discuss, as it affects a great number of people and it is a subject on which we should try to arrive at a just conclusion. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) asked how the decision as to this King's Badge and the entitlement to it were come to. The examination was originally referred to the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals in Time of War, a Standing Committee which advises the War Office and other Service Departments on these things. On it were representatives of all the Departments primarily concerned. That Committee, after very full consideration, reported unanimously in favour of the introduction of the Badge and also recommended what rules should be adopted. That representation was in its turn examined by the War Cabinet, which found in favour of instituting the Badge. They also looked into the definition of qualifications and decided to adopt it.

Mr. Bellenger

When was that?

Mr. Eden

I cannot give the exact date

Mr. Bellenger

Was it before the war?

Mr. Eden

I feel pretty certain, from my own recollection, that it was since the war. The scheme was submitted to the King and had His Majesty's approval. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South East Leeds (Major Milner) seemed to put his finger on the difficulty, which is where to draw the line. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke) spoke of the line as being nebulous. I do not know whether a line can be nebulous, but it is certainly wavy, and it is very difficult to draw it straight. Wherever you draw it, there are bound to be hardship cases on either side. My own feeling is that I should be very reluctant to ask my colleagues to widen the terms of reference for this particular Badge. It is very desirable that it should be highly valued by those who get it. That means that you must not widen your scope too much. I often thought that the trouble about the last war with practically all the decorations was that as the causes for which they could be given were widened they became of less and less value. I felt perhaps that the ordinary private soldier would have preferred a decoration for six months' service in the line.

For these reasons and others I should be very reluctant to ask my colleagues to increase the number of those who will become entitled to this actual Badge. But what has been said to-day makes me feel that there is a case for further examination as to whether some other badge might not be made available for those who fall on the wrong side of the line in respect of the King's Badge. That is a matter which should have further examination, and I am prepared to take the matter up and see whether something of that kind can be done—to have it investigated and to report to the House again upon the decision that we may arrive at. I think on the whole that is the fairest procedure, and I hope it will commend itself to the House.

Mr. Bellenger

I appreciate very much the right hon. Gentleman's answer, and I hope he will make the investigation.