HC Deb 05 August 1943 vol 391 cc2522-32
Captain Cobb (Preston)

I informed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War during the week-end that I proposed to raise certain matters arising out of Army Council Instruction 440 of 1943, which deals with the stoppage of family allowances, the procedure for attempting to effect reconciliation between a soldier and his wife and action to be taken by welfare officers. I am quite sure that when the War Office published this A.C.I., they did it with the best possible intention. Their intention was to provide effective machinery for dealing with these difficult cases which arise when a soldier and his wife are not hitting it off as they should, but it is unquestionable that, however good those intentions were, the A.C.I. is not operating as the War Office intended. Probably the most offensive thing one can say about a human being is that he means well, because the implication is that he does not succeed in what he sets out to do. I have no doubt that the War Office meant well when they drafted this Instruction, but their intentions are not working out as they desired. This Army Council Instruction, in my judgment, works unfairly, both to the man and to his wife.

If my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Daventry (Major Manningham-Buller) is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Sir, he proposes to deal with the Army Council Instruction as it concerns the soldier. I propose to deal with it from the wife's point of view. A case came before our local bench during the Whitsun Recess, when I was sitting as a member of the bench. This case made me realise that there was something very wrong with the War Office regulations. There was an application by a wife for a court order against her husband, serving in the North of England. This soldier had enlisted a few weeks before the war began. On enlistment, he disposed of his house in Essex, and his wife went to Sussex and rented a small cottage in one of the villages. She received a dependant's allowance of 39s. a week. Very early in the soldier's service there was some trouble about another woman. The wife appears to have behaved extremely sensibly, and this trouble blew over; but about a year ago this soldier, who seems to have been extremely susceptible, formed an attachment for another woman. He told his wife that he wanted her to divorce him, so that he could marry the other woman. The wife, being very sensible, and knowing what an emotional creature her husband was, refused. Her view was that this would blow over, and that after the war they would be able to continue their married life. The soldier came on leave several times, and continued to press his wife to sue him for divorce, and she refused to do so. The soldier then informed his commanding officer that normal domestic relations with his wife had ceased, and that he wished to stop her allotment. The commanding officer then put into operation the machinery provided under this Instruction and the county welfare officer caused investigations to be made. In due course, the wife received a questionnaire from the regimental paymaster or from Records—I am not sure which—and was asked to it in. She did so, and returned it to the source from which it came.

A few weeks later she received notification from the regimental paymaster informing her that they had considered the evidence—whatever the evidence might have been—and that the paymaster was satisfied there was no case whatever for imposing compulsory stoppages upon the husband, whereupon the dependant's allowance was stopped, and for nine weeks that wife, a perfectly blameless woman who had gone out of her way to make a new home for her husband in a Sussex village, was left without any means of subsistence whatever except for a few shillings a week which she received from the education authority for work she did in connection with the village school canteen.

The soldier in question appeared in court, and he made it clear that he had no complaint against his wife whatever except that she bored him. She bored him so much that he would very seldom stay at home during the whole of his leave and that he would return to his unit before his leave was up rather than continue staying with his wife. It is obvious that the soldier had no idea at all that he was under any obligation whatever to maintain his wife. It is perhaps understandable when a man is away from home for a very long time that he should, at times, form undesirable associations, but it is a most extraordinary thing that the War Office, as is evidenced by the case I have quoted, appears to approve of a soldier divorcing himself from all his responsibilities to his wife, and appears to approve also of a woman being left in this deplorable condition.

The War Office is, unconsciously I am sure, deliberately encouraging lax behaviour. It states in the Army Council Instruction that family allowance is an emolument of the soldier himself and is granted to him in order to assist him in meeting his family obligations. The War Office in this particular case—and I do not suppose for a moment it is an isolated case—have assisted that soldier in ridding himself of his family obligations. We hear criticisms of every kind about the War Office, but I have never heard it suggested that they were the kind of institution that encouraged immorality or lax behaviour and in view of the facts which I have quoted I am entitled to ask for an assurance that the War Office will see to it that this kind of case can never happen again, and that a woman who is a good wife to her husband and who has nothing whatever against her moral character should not be left destitute as this woman was. It is surely not too much to demand that the War Office should continue the payment of these family allowances until the woman has applied for and obtained her court order. The soldier must be made to understand that no matter how fickle he may be he has a duty to his wife, and the War Office ought to insist upon his fulfilling that duty.

Major Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I rise to follow by hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Preston (Captain Cobb), because I feel that there are other aspects revealed by this Army Council Instruction which deserve serious consideration. The object of the A.C.I. is stated at the beginning, and with that object no one can quarrel. The object of this procedure is to ensure that every possible effort is made to effect reconciliation between husbands and wives before the wife's allowance is stopped and to prevent her home being broken up owing to temporary estrangement or insufficient cause. When one goes on right through the rest of the A.C.I., it reveals a state of affairs which wants remedying as soon as this can be done. It is said, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Preston stated, that the basis on which family allowance is paid is that it is an emolument to the soldier himself and is granted to him in order to assist him in meeting his family obligations. If one were to pause there, one would be entitled to assume that the family allowance would continue to be paid so long as the soldier remained under a legal obligation towards his wife and family. One only has to read on to find out that that is not the case at all and that this family allowance granted for this specific purpose is only paid while normal domestic relations exist and ceases to be payable on a cessation of normal domestic relations as defined in the Army Council Instructions. That definition is as follows: Normal domestic relations must be assumed to have ceased to exist as soon as either party has decided not to live with the other party in the same home together at any time in the future and when reconciliation under this A.C.I is held to be impossible. Normal domestic relations may therefore cease even if no formal deed or other separation document is drawn up and though divorce proceedings are neither contemplated nor instituted by either party. A quarrel resulting in a temporary estrangement does not constitute a cessation of normal domestic relations. My hon. and gallant Friend has given one instance of how the Army Council Instruction works, and I would ask the House to consider two other cases of how it works. Take the case where a wife is petitioning for divorce against her soldier husband on the ground of his adultery. That is clearly a case where normal domestic relations have ceased under the terms of the Army Council Instruction. What is the effect of that? The family allowance upon which she is probably dependent is stopped, and for a period which may be long and of hardship which may be acute she is deprived of this family allowance. It is true that she can go to the court and apply for alimony pendente lite, but a considerable time must elapse before she gets it. If she gets it, what is the position? The soldier no longer gets the family allowance, and in order to meet an order for alimony it has to be paid out of his pay. He probably cannot meet it at all, and so he cannot provide for his wife and she is left unprovided for. That is a complete contradiction of the statement at the commencement of the A.C.I. that the family allowance is an emolument to the soldier himself, granted to him to enable him to discharge his obligations towards his family.

I will give a further illustration of how this works. Supposing a soldier hears that his wife has been guilty of mis-behaviour, it is his duty under the Army Council Instruction to report the fact to his commanding officer, and then after some inquiries have been made that this may result in the allowance being stopped. What happens then? The wife can go to the police court and take out a summons for maintenance and it will be for the soldier to prove that the wife had been guilty of adultery. It may be impossible for him to attend the hearing of the court and for him to get evidence to prove the wife's misconduct, and if he fails in either of these things an order will be made against him. Again the position arises that he will have to discharge that order out of his pay and he loses the benefit of this family allowance.

I ask that this should be carefully reconsidered. The principle should be that the family allowance should continue as long as the legal obligation to maintain the family exists. It is nonsense to say that the position of a wife is the same as it would be in civil life. In civil life no employer can reduce a man's pay on the ground that he has ceased to live with his wife, nor should the Army Council decide to do so either. The pay should continue while the obligation exists, and it is not right that this cumbrous machinery should be introduced to give a contrary effect. Why should a wife suffer because of this Army Council Instruction and why should a soldier be deprived of this part of his pay because of these rules?

I ask the House to consider also the position of the soldier under the Army Council Instruction. The burden is put upon him of reporting a cessation of normal domestic relations. He has not only to report that but also to report if he has any strong reason to believe that they have ceased and he is told in the Army Council Instruction that if he does not report it he will be subject to disciplinary measures and liable to repay any over-issue of allowances. I wonder how a private soldier can keep free of trouble under that heading. He is bound to report a quarrel leading to a temporary estrangement, but how is a soldier to know whether a quarrel between him and his wife is going to lead to a temporary estrangement or to a permanent separation? If he decides wrongly, he may find himself having to make repayment. He is always in the dilemma that, as long as the issue of the allowance does not depend upon the continuance of the legal obligation, if he reports to his commanding officer, he loses his family allowance and still may have to provide for the maintenance of his family out of his pay, and if he does not report that he is subjected to disciplinary measures. I ask that this matter should be reconsidered and made plain and straightforward and that a soldier should not be put into this position any longer and that wives should feel that as long as the legal obligation exists on the part of their husbands to maintain them, they will continue to receive their family allowances.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

I should like to support what my two hon. and gallant Friends have said, and in the view of any sane man of age who reads this Army Council Instruction it should most certainly be revised. In fact, having been looked at afresh with some degree of enlightenment directed towards it, it should certainly be altered. It has always been wrong. The soldier, for instance, is not paid enough. Then we get to what we see in this particular Army Council Instruction. Soldiers in the Armed Forces are at present inarticulate. Unless hon. Members of this House or others attempt to look after their interests there is nothing that they can do now. I can assure hon. Members that a lot of these soldiers will have plenty to say to a lot of us after the war is over, and I think a good deal of it will be justified. The soldiers realise that plenty of money is being made now in all walks of civilian life, and yet it always happens that the State seeks to economise at the expense of those in the Armed Forces. They can say and do nothing about it now, but I assure the House they most certainly will after the war is over. I beg of my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office to try and get his Chief to go into this Army Council Instruction again in order to have it properly and thoroughly amended.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

The hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull), who has just sat down, will forgive me if I do not follow him into the realm into which he has just sought to take the House by referring to the question of soldier's pay. The specific point to which my attention has been directed by the other hon. Members who have spoken is with reference to the position in which the wife of a soldier finds herself in the unfortunate event of her becoming separated from her husband. As regards the particular case to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Preston (Captain Cobb) referred, I want to be quite frank with the House and admit that there was a slight hitch in the normal machinery. The soldier expressed a wish to stop his quail- fying allotment from his pay. In the normal way reconciliation was attempted, but it failed, and it was at this point that the paymaster concerned made an error. According to the procedure, he should have sent a letter to the wife telling her that the family allowance and allotment must cease under the rules and setting out the courses open to her, namely, either taking the case into court or appealing to the deputed officer—that is the Officer i/c Records appointed under Section 145 of the Army Act—to decide whether, in accordance with the provisions of the Army Act, the soldier had deserted or had left his wife in destitute circumstances without reasonable cause, in which event it would have been the responsibility of that officer to order a deduction from the soldier's pay. Instead of sending this letter, the paymaster recalled the wife's allowance book, thereby automatically stopping payment of her family allowance and referred the case to the deputed officer. As the hon. and gallant Member told the House, the case eventually found its way into a court of law, but as a result there was a gap of a number of weeks during which this unfortunate woman did not receive any family allowance. I can only express my regret that as a result of this error this occurred, but at the same time I do not accept the suggestion which was put forward that because of this particular incident the A.C.I. is not, in general, working fairly.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Were the arrears repaid?

Mr. Henderson

No arrears would be payable, because from the time the information was received that the husband was no longer having normal relations with his wife the family allowance ceased to be payable. The object of providing an appeal to the deputed officer is to bring into operation other machinery, under which an allowance is paid to the wife but which is not in the nature of a family allowance. It is really a stoppage of pay imposed upon the husband, but in view of the fact that he is not in a position to pay an amount equivalent to the recognised sum of the family allowance, the difference is made up by the War Office.

Mr. Mathers

My hon. and learned Friend seemed to indicate a failure on the part of the War Office to deal with this case in the proper way. Surely, then, it was the responsibility of the War Office to see that this woman did not suffer.

Mr. Henderson

That may be so. I am quite prepared to look into the question as to whether payment should be made to cover the number of weeks which elapsed between the failure of the appropriate officer to send that information to the wife and the date upon which the court order was made.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

Are the Regulations so framed that there is no possibility of a gap existing between the stoppage of the family allowance and any other payment which is arranged?

Mr. Henderson

If the hon. and gallant Member will be patient, I will endeavour to explain the procedure. The hon. and gallant Member for Daventry (Major Manningham-Buller) is quite definitely under a misapprehension as to how the machinery in relation to this subject works. He seems to be under the apprehension that where a wife has to go to court and a court order is made, that, having regard to the remuneration of a soldier in the Army, it would, in most cases, be quite impossible for him to pay the amount ordered by the court and that consequently the wife has to go without. Perhaps the House will allow me to explain the system that operates in dealing with this particular problem. It is quite correct to say that under the A.C.I. referred to it is the duty of the soldier to report to his commanding officer when there is a temporary estrangement. That is because the basis of this arrangement is that the payment of family allowances, although they are regarded as an emolument of the soldier himself, is made to him in order to assist him in meeting his family obligations. In the event of a separation, where the husband decides that he is no longer justified in contributing to the maintenance of his wife, the War Office does not accept any obligation to give him that part of his remuneration to meet the obligation he has repudiated.

When the information is received by the Army authorities that there is an estrangement between a soldier and his wife, the welfare authorities are then instructed—and it operates in every case— through the local welfare officer, to endeavour to secure a reconciliation between the husband and his wife. According to the circumstances of the case, that takes from a week to three months. During that period no interference is made with the payment, week by week, of the family allowance. It continues for all that period, whether it is for a week or for three months. It may interest the House to know that as a result of this machinery in between 10 and 20 per cent. of the cases that have come to the notice of the military authorities attempts to secure reconciliation have been successful. But in the event of a reconciliation being unsuccessful, then the wife is informed of her rights—it broke down in this case—and is informed that she can either take her case to the court in the same way as in civilian life, or can appeal to the deputed officer, who is, as I have said, the Officer i/c Records appointed under Section 145 of the Army Act or the officer in charge of records. If she does that—and it ought not to take more than a few days—he has power to impose an obligation on the soldier to pay an amount equal to the family allowance payable when the soldier and his wife are living together.

Major Manningham-Buller

Would not that be a qualifying allotment?

Mr. Henderson

The deputed officer has the right—to take the case of a wife without children—to order payment by the soldier of a sum totalling 25s., composed of a payment of 18s. to the wife herself, plus 7s. The State finds 21s. 6d. and the soldier 3s. 6d. allotment. Under a compulsory order, assuming it is 25s., the soldier still continues to pay 3s. 6d., and the balance is found by the Government. To that extent, therefore, the wife is in no worse position than she was before the estrangement took place. If, on the other hand, she prefers to go to the local police court and make out her case that she has been deserted by her husband, then, in the ordinary way, according to the rules of procedure, an order will be made for the husband to pay, it may be, again, 25s. a week. Then the same result ensues. The man is expected to pay his 3s. 6d. as before, and the War Office finds the balance. Again, in that case the wife is no worse off than she was before her estrangement from her husband. I think the House will agree that this system is working equitably from the wife's point of view. It is quite correct to say—

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