HC Deb 19 July 1944 vol 402 cc304-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain McEwen. ]

Major C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

I want to draw attention to the question of the granting of compassionate leave from the Army. I have purposely made this a wide subject because I believe that there are a number of Members who, if there were time, would like to raise certain aspects of the case, but I want to put one particular case. I would like to draw attention to the Financial Secretary's statement in this House on 11th July, 1944, when, speaking on the Adjournment, he said: The essential in considering compassionate applications is that each case must be treated on its merits, and it is not possible to lay down hard and fast rules of what should or should not be regarded as grounds for release." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1944; Vol. 401, c. 1704.] I understand that it is the usual practice in the Army to give compassionate leave in the case of a man who had a business before the war but whose business looks as if it is going to break down for lack of someone to run it. He is given compassionate leave to make arrangements for somebody else to carry on his business for him, and he may be given a period of compassionate leave—I know that the Financial Secretary will correct me if I am wrong—up to a period of three months.

I have a constituent who is a baker and in pre-war days he and his brother and his mother used to run a bakery business in Eastbourne. His brother was called up and he was left alone to run the bakery business with the help of his mother, and he alone was responsible for baking the bread. At this stage I must disclose that my baker constituent has the name of Taylor, but as far as I know he is no relation of mine, and there is no special pleading. This baker came to see me in March last and I would like to read a brief extract from a letter: In order to carry on the work of my mother's bakery business in which, until his call up my brother and I undertook the responsible and urgent operative work, I should be pleased if he could be given leave of absence over a period of several weeks to give me an opportunity to recuperate my strength following a period of ill-health and to ward off further illness and the risk of a complete break-down. The brother of this baker is not what one would call, in the strict sense of the term, a fighting soldier. He is actually carrying on his bakery trade in the Army. He is a private, and not a very essential private, I should say, serving in the Army in this country. I advised the baker to write to his brother and ask him to submit an application for compassionate leave to his commanding officer, as I understand—and I think it is right—that when hon. Members get applications of this sort they should refer them to the commanding officer. But at the same time I did say that I would put in a plea for the civilian, that is the baker, still carrying on the business at Eastbourne, to the War Office supporting an application for compassionate leave for his brother. I wrote to the Parliamentary Private Secretary of the Secretary of State on 29th March, 1944, giving him full particulars of the case, and on 27th April, I received a letter from him turning down my request. I discussed it further with my constituent, and I re- ceived a letter from him dated 6th May in which he writes as follows: The letter from the War Office does not appear to take any account of the fact that the temporary release of my brother would enable me to have a long needed and medically advised rest. The medical certificate was forwarded at the request of my brother's commanding officer. One key-man temporarily replacing another key-man is somewhat different from the reason for refusal set out in the War Office letter. The reason was that a man can be given compassionate leave to arrange for somebody to run his business but he cannot be given compassionate leave to run the business for a month in order to give his brother this medically advised rest. On 5th June I received a letter from the Parliamentary Private Secretary saying: The report we have now received confirms that the soldier's brother and sister are still conducting the business and in these circumstances we do not consider the release of Private Taylor would be justified. I had already pointed out that Private Taylor's brother was, in fact, running the business but he had been advised on medical grounds that, if he continued to do so and to work long hours in the bakery, he would break down and the business would break down with him, so I replied to the Parliamentary Private Secretary: I have made it quite clear that Mr. P. S. Taylor is still running his bakery business, but, as I explained before, he is on the verge of a breakdown and has been informed by his doctor that unless he stops work and has a holiday, only for a month, serious consequences will result to his health. Again I received a letter in reply to that on 26th June saying: temporary release for a short period can only be authorised when a business in which the soldier has a direct and personal concern is in danger of being lost"— I submit that is so— to enable the soldier to make whatever arrangements are possible during the period authorised, and then only when there is no one else available to make arrangements. But the point is that there is a shortage of bakers, they are very scarce at the moment——

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [Mr. Pym. ]

Major Taylor

I do not believe there is very much difference between the case of a man asking for compassionate leave, to make arrangements for his business to be run, and the case of a man who asks for compassionate leave to run the business to enable his brother to have a month's rest. I see very little difference between those two cases.

Since I asked a Question about this case in the House, I was approached by a representative of the Ministry of Food in my constituency, who rather hinted that the Ministry of Food were somewhat indignant because my constituent had approached me and had not gone to the Ministry of Food first. That may have been my mistake. It may have been my constituent's mistake in not going to the Ministry of Food and asking them to back up his request. But the point is, I want to be absolutely certain that neither my baker constituent is being penalised because he did not go through the usual channels nor Private Taylor by reason of this being raised to-day. I take the view that it may have been my mistake or it may have been the baker's mistake in not getting the support of the Ministry of Food first, but, nevertheless, it should not go against him in any way because if we as Members of Parliament cannot say to our constituents, "Certainly you can come to us with your troubles without first submitting your case to the Regional Food Officer," or whoever it may be, then I think we are probably neglecting our duty.

As a last and final hope, I am asking the Financial Secretary to give way on this point. Why must you be so hidebound on the rules and regulations about the granting of compassionate leave? In the Financial Secretary's own statement he says that they should not be hidebound, and I submit that this is being hidebound because, in one case a man is given leave to make arrangements for his business to be run, and, in the other case, he is not given leave, although there is a shortage of bakers, to carry on the business for a month to enable his brother to have this well-earned rest. Finally, I would say this: it was suggested in this House at Question time by me that some of my constituents would suffer because their bread supplies would break down. I understand that is entirely wrong, and I apologise for making the mistake. I understand that if this business is closed down, bread will be supplied from other sources, but that is no compensation for the business that is being closed down. I appeal to the Financial Secretary to give this case his sympathetic consideration.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I would like to support what the hon. and gallant Member for Eastbourne (Major Taylor) has said. He has drawn attention to one case but there are many cases of this sort in my belief, cases which do not easily fit into one compartment. I have had one which I have been pursuing for months—not with the War Office —a case where a father who is a coal merchant has been told by his doctor that he ought to go to hospital for two or three months. In that case the son is in the Air Force on ground duties and the application for his release to carry on the business while the father went to hospital was supported, as one anticipated it would be, by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In the end, however, after masses of correspondence, what has one found? It does not quite amount to a case for compassionate leave, it does not quite fit into the category for relief of the business on hardship grounds. And so the father is left to carry on his business, a business which is of great importance in that locality, when he ought to be in hospital receiving treatment.

He cannot get anyone else to carry on the business who knows the business, and it only means the release of the son for a short time. I am sure that Members could multiply these instances and that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eastbourne has done a very good service in drawing attention to the rigorous manner in which these Regulations are now interpreted. No one wants men to be released from the Forces on semi-bogus excuses, but there appears to be need for a more genuine understanding and appreciation of the situation which affects so many small traders and small business men of this kind. I hope the Financial Secretary will be able to announce that the case raised by my hon. and gallant Friend, and similar cases, will be reconsidered without delay.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

I want to put forward a case which appears to be harder than the case raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Mem- ber for Eastbourne (Major Taylor), a case concerning which I do not seem to be able to break the ice or get through the door. It concerns a butcher, whose father died recently. His two sons are in the Forces, one in South Africa and one in Lincolnshire. The business has 800 customers. There is a daughter of 17 years and a widowed mother, who is broken down in health. This girl serves customers and drives a cart during the week to take out orders. I have asked that there should be in this case not only compassionate leave, but release. The lad writes to me and says, "My sister and mother cannot carry on much longer. Am I to write and tell my brother that the business will have to be handed over to somebody else, which will mean that there will be nothing to go back to after the war?" This man is not in the Army —he is in the Air Force—but I thought I would ventilate the case on this occasion. This girl of 17 is a brave girl. She is carrying on the business, and I think that in a case like this, the second lad, who is in the British Isles, should be allowed to return home. He would be serving his country, because he would have to serve 600 to 650 miners and their wives with butcher's meat. This lad was not called up so that somebody else could have his business. The Forces are far too stringent in these matters, and I would like them to be more sympathetic. When cases of this sort arise it does not do the Forces any good because the customers talk, the customers' relatives talk, and, in a population of 10,000 people, they all get to know about it. It is no credit to the Forces. I make my plea because I feel that it is necessary. I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for this golden opportunity to ventilate the case.

Lieut. Commander Joynson - Hicks (Chichester)

I should like to try to assist my hon. and gallant Friend on one point. I do not think the Financial Secretary will be able to establish that there is a hard and fast rule against the compassionate release of a member of the Forces when he requires to run a business himself. I have attempted to establish such a plea and have failed, but I also have attempted to establish it and succeeded. A constituent of mine aged about 43, who is C.3, got release. In private life he was a partner in a business with a turnover approaching £500,000 which was an essen- tial war industry. He was released, and I believe that is a precedent for my hon. and gallant Friend's case. I hope the War Office will show that they regard these cases sympathetically and individualistically. We recognise the need for stringent control of the number of people who come out from the Army but there are hard cases and they should be looked at sympathetically.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I think it is a very short-sighted policy to wait until a man breaks down and is in hospital for a long period, when a short period of a month's rest might, conceivably, cure him. We hear a great deal about the small man and his interests. It might well happen that in cases like this the small man may be swallowed up by a large firm, or a chain of bakers or butchers, and he may come back at the end of the war and find that this chain has established itself effectively and he cannot get back his business. I should however like to raise rather a different point. There are many people who will be very anxious to have compassionate leave and will be in need of it when their homes are bombed. I understand that, if a man is given compassionate leave, it is only to replace the privilege leave that he would have and, when he has finished his compassionate leave, he goes back to the bottom of the roster again. I see the point of that. You cannot give a man leave continually at the expense of other men, but there is a case for not putting him right to the bottom again, because he is not going to enjoy his leave very much. He is going to have a terrible time. When he goes to the bottom of the list he will wait perhaps for three months, until his ordinary privilege leave starts again, whereas if he had not gone it may be that he would be due for privilege leave a comparatively short time ahead. I hope my hon. and learned Friend will consider the position and see if some alteration can be made.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

I agree, to a large extent, with what my hon. Friends have said and I equally agree that there are a great number of cases of hardship which must arise, but I hope the Financial Secretary will agree that, while we must have a number of bakers, we must, equally, have a few people in the Forces. Therefore the question I would ask my hon. Friends who have raised these cases is what are the ages of the men concerned, whether they are married and whether they have any children. The point has also been mentioned that if compassionate leave is given and these people are released from the Army, someone else has to take their place. That ought to be said. I agree that there are a number of cases of hardship and I know of some myself, but I do not think it is a good thing to bring up individual cases on the Floor of the House. If any headway is made in cases in other divisions, however, I shall wish to make headway with some cases I have in mine.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

I do not think it is a wrong thing at all to bring up individual cases on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Bull

That is my opinion, at any rate.

Mr. Driberg

And I am expressing mine. One of the glories of this House is not only that great issues of policy can be debated, but that the humblest individual cases can be brought up. I am glad the hon. and gallant Member for Eastbourne (Major C. S. Taylor) has raised this matter, because it is the kind of problem that bulks large in the correspondence of all Members. There is only one point I wanted to make. I do not think the hon. Member said anything about a medical report.

Major Taylor

Yes, I did; the medical certificate was sent to the commanding officer of the man in the Army.

Mr. Driberg

I beg the hon. Member's pardon. I missed that opening part of his speech. It seems to me that if a medical certificate can be obtained certifying that there will probably be a serious breakdown in health of the person who remains to carry on the business, surely compassionate leave should be granted. He should not be obliged to wait until he has a breakdown and the service to the community performed by the shop is dislocated. It is my impression that the Air Ministry are perhaps somewhat more lenient in these matters than the War Office. I can think of one recent case that I know of in which the Air Ministry granted compassionate leave for a month in almost analogous circumstances, but the business in that case was not a bakery but a public house. I was wondering whether the War Office and the Air Ministry could get together and make their procedure a little more uniform. Personally, I have had some good results and some unsatisfactory results from both. I do not think that we can ask for any general relaxation of the rules at this time, but I do think that the rules as they are might be interpreted with rather more generosity in cases such as that which has been raised in this Debate.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) indicated that there were large numbers of individual cases which come under the subject we are discussing now. I doubt whether there is any member of the Government who has had greater experience of the truth of that statement than myself. I feel I must enter a caveat with regard to his statement as to the comparative degree of sympathy extended by one Department as against another. I do not know to what extent my hon. Friend is correct in his reference to the generosity of the Air Ministry, but hon. Members who were present last week will remember that I gave some figures as regards the War Office, which I will give now for what they are worth. In the four months, March to June, 21,000 compassionate leave cases were dealt with where leave was granted. If that is averaged over the year, it amounts to a very respectable number.

Major Taylor

Short leaves?

Mr. Henderson

Yes, short leaves up to three months. One has to differentiate between compassionate releases and industrial releases and that is where my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chichester (Lieut.-Commander Joynson-Hicks) went wrong. He quoted a case which was very pertinent in regard to an application for release on industrial grounds. To-night we are discussing release on compassionate grounds, and therefore his case is not relevant. As regards the number, it was over 30,000 applications, and 21,000 of them were granted. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) thought we were interpreting these Regulations in a rigorous manner, but I hope he will agree with me that that was rather an extrava- gant statement to make, in view of the facts.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

I do not want to interrupt my hon. and learned Friend but I must point out that I did not say that the Regulations were being interpreted by the War Office in a rigorous manner. The case I cited was an Air Force case.

Mr. Henderson

I am sorry if I did not quite understand the hon. Member, but what I put down on my notes was: "interpretation of regulations in a rigorous manner." I may be a little prejudiced, but after my experience at the War Office for the last 2¼ years, I do not accept the view that the regulations, either in regard to industrial release or compassionate release, are interpreted in a rigorous manner at the War Office. My hon. Friend quoted my statement of last week in which I quite rightly said: The essential in considering compassionate applications is that each case must be treated on its merits, and it is not possible to lay down hard and fast rules. Later on, as he will see if he looks at HANSARD, I made a reference to cases where compassionate leave was required for business premises, and I went on to say: The particular type of case in which compassionate release is granted, is where there is a business owned by the soldier in which he has a direct financial interest, and which is in jeopardy as a result of his absence in the Army and there is no one else to conduct it. In these circumstances, the soldier may be released temporarily."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1944; Vol. 401, c. 1705.]

Major Taylor

That is my case.

Mr. Henderson

Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend would allow me to make my point. That puts rather a different complexion on the first quotation he made, in which I said that each case had to be treated on its merits. That is not inconsistent with the rule which in fact is the case, rightly or wrongly, that where a soldier seeks release on compassionate grounds for a short period of time, where it is a case of his desiring to assist in The conduct of a business, then it has not been the practice since this war began for the War Department to allow release on compassionate grounds for that purpose.

The most that can be done is, when a business in which a soldier has a direct interest is in jeopardy, to authorise a short period of release, usually two, and in rare cases three, months, to give him an opportunity of making, within the time granted, whatever arrangements he can for its management by someone else during his absence on military service. That may be wrong, but that is the rule which has been operated during the whole of this war. Even there, release can be granted only if there is no other person available to make arrangements. I am not going to deny for one moment that in individual cases of small businesses it may have very unfortunate results.

But on the other hand one can well appreciate that if the rule were not there —one could not restrict it to small businesses, it might be that the number of applications for release in order to get key man or maybe a skilled worker, whatever the business may be—the War Office and the other Service Departments would be inundated with requests from employers for the release of key men in order to assist them to conduct their business.

Major Taylor

But this business is in jeopardy, and this man wants release for the period which the Financial Secretary specifies, to make arrangements for somebody to run it. He wants to make arrangements for his brother to go away for his medically advised rest and to come back to run the business. I see no difference.

Mr. Henderson

In this case, as my hon. and gallant Friend says, the soldier's brother and sister are carrying on the business, and it is considered that if the brother needs a rest he should to in a position to make arrangements for some one else to carry on the business while he is away. That seems to me quite a reasonable attitude, to take up.

The soldier is a young man of 23 and of medical category A1. It is also true, as my hon. and gallant Friend says, that he is serving in the Army Catering Corps, not in a front line unit. [Interruption.] I ought not perhaps to have said "not in a front line unit," because the Army Catering Corps are attached to front line infantry battalions. Those of us who served in the last war when there were many complaints about bad cooking do not object to the higher standard of cooking for fighting men. This has been made possible by the Army Catering Corps personnel of which are in fact attached to front line infantry battalions, and the type of soldier in the cook house in the last war is a thing of the past, and I think we are all thankful that is so. So that there is the fact that this soldier cannot, in any event, under the rules as we operate them today, be released to run the business himself, but only to make arrangements for it to be run and as I said a moment ago it seems that the brother, and the sister for that matter, who apparently are not suffering from any possible illness, should be at least in as good a position to make arrangements for the business to be carried on as the soldier himself, even though they would not be able to run the business themselves.

I regret very much that I shall have to disappoint my hon. and gallant Friend, because I cannot give any under- taking that in present circumstances there is any likelihood of his case being reconsidered and a decision being given that the man should be released for this purpose, having regard to the fact that it would be in flagrant breach of the rule, which I say has been operated through-out the war. There is one other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) raised, the question of the soldier whose house was bombed. I am not in a position to say whether he will be placed at the bottom of the leave roster. There is no doubt that he would get his compassionate leave. I will ascertain whether it is the practice to place such a soldier at the bottom of the leave roster and I will communicate the reply to my hon. Friend.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.