HC Deb 17 November 1944 vol 404 cc2286-94

12.41 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Tamworth)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the question of compassionate posting on business grounds. I propose to deal with the matter generally as a question of principle, and to confine what I have to say to cases of men serving in the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the War Office allows, where possible, in special circumstances, compassionate posting on domestic grounds. The War Office also allows, where possible, compassionate release upon business grounds, but the rule of the War Office has never allowed compassionate posting upon business grounds for men who are serving in the United Kingdom, and it is that rule that I want to challenge to-day. In order to avoid complicating my limited objective, I do not propose to refer to the much more difficult class of case, and perhaps even more important class of case, of men who are serving overseas. There is, in their case, of course, some small concession available.

I raised this matter on 1st August at Question Time, when I asked the Secretary of State for War why compassionate posting is never granted on business grounds. My right hon. Friend really gave three answers to that question, but I submit that none of them really met the point. His first answer was this: When the soldier is at home, cases of this nature are usually dealt with by the grant of a period of release from the Army in order to enable the soldier to make the necessary arrangements for his business to be carried on. I think we know from experience what "necessary arrangements" usually involves for the soldier. It involves a long and almost always fruitless search of employment exchanges and elsewhere, trying to find somebody who can look after his business in his absence. Even in cases where he is offered a stranger, who may have, theoretically, the necessary qualifications, it is not unnatural that he should be very reluctant to entrust his business to a stranger. The alternative usually is for him to hand his business over to a competitor. That, naturally, does not often attract him. This form of concentration of a one-man business may have a disastrous effect upon the future of his goodwill.

The period of release to which my right hon. Friend referred, and which is usually of something like two months' duration, is, although no doubt welcome at the time, from the point of view of its permanent effect in assisting the saving of his business, of relatively little value. It is often a bad economy of man-power compared with what could be achieved through compassionate posting. What is wanted is something much longer in duration not necessarily by way of release, but to give him proximity to his business, so that when he is off duty he can give it some attention. In so many cases a man, rather than entrust his business to a stranger, even if a stranger can be found, prefers to leave it in the hands of his wife or his family, it may be his father or his sister or somebody like that, whom he can trust. If his business is being left like that in the hands of perhaps a couple of his women-folk, it makes the whole difference if he can be within close reach, in order to give them his advice, to help them with special difficulties and problems, to help them to keep the books in order and to complete the appalling number of forms and returns which they are probably required to deliver by the various Ministries.

I have had many letters in this sense urging the value of a compassionate posting, but I must be frank with the House, I did have one letter in the opposite sense from a wife who asked me to arrange that her husband should be posted away from home. She explained that he was carrying on with a young widow, and she hoped that he could be posted away from that temptation. That was a case, of course, in which one could not see one's way to please everybody and was better left alone. But to return to what my right hon. Friend was saying on 1st August. I have noted his first answer. The second answer was: If a man is posted near his business no guarantee can be given that he will be able to spend the necessary time away from his military duties. I am certainly not asking that any guarantee should be given. Obviously, military training, operational considerations and so on must be paramount. My right hon. Friend proceeded to give his third and last answer and, I submit, his worst answer. He said that a man compassionately posted to be near his business might well be tempted to neglect his military duties. He said, in answer to my supplementary question: If he is posted there, on the spot, it is very likely that he will tend to devote more time to his business than to his Army duties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1St August, 1944: Vol. 402, c. 1151–1152.] And according to HANSARD hon. Members exclaimed "Oh." I think that that was not surprising. I have always understood that hours of duty are a question for the commanding officer, and commanding officers are not, as a rule, indulgent towards voluntary absenteeism. Those three answers are not good enough, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will to-day either give a better answer or promise to provide a relaxation of this rule. In my view a man who is necessarily stationed in the United Kingdom in a static job is a very much better soldier if he can be stationed near his home than if he is stationed far away from it, and that is especially true if he has serious family or business cares. When he is away from home and he knows that his wife is striving, at the risk of her health, to keep his business alive, he is often sick with worry. He may spend his evenings at telephone call-boxes trying to get through long-distance calls he can ill afford, and it is a very unhappy situation for him trying to keep the necessary touch with his family in order to help them to carry on his business. There are far greater hardships than those I have mentioned, for men serving overseas, for them and for their families; nevertheless I submit that I have made out a claim for some substantial relief in a class of case, which, if my right hon. Friend is helpful, may be relieved to some extent. It is, I admit, very often impossible to comply with requests in this direction. Indeed, it may be difficult to find many cases in which compassionate posting for business purposes is possible at all. I most readily admit that. In a letter which I received from the War Office upon this subject, it was observed: There is rarely a unit in the required vicinity suitable to the soldier's rank, trade, training, medical category, etc. I agree, but it sometimes happens that there is such a unit, and certainly, whenever there is, an attempt should be made to accommodate the soldier. I cannot believe that there are not a large number of cases, say, in which a man whose business is in Birmingham is stationed in London, and another man whose business is in London, is stationed in Birmingham, the two of them, on grounds of their various qualifications, medical categories and so on, being easily interchangeable.

The Government always seem to under-rate the importance of a small business in the life of the man who owns it. I do not think that the importance can possibly be over-estimated. It is his pride, his career and, whether he has created it or has inherited it, he probably wishes to pass it on to his children. These small businesses are of immense national value in the aggregate. Where you have a one-man business or a family business, you get a degree of efficiency corresponding to the stake that that family has in the business. It is the only case of which I can think where you get a certain ideal achieved—the ideal of unity, of ownership, management and labour without any conflict of interests whatsoever. There may be a few cases, or there may be many, in which my right hon. Friend might be able to help if the War Office rule is relaxed, but even if there are only a few cases where small businesses can be saved by a relaxation of this rule, then the rule should be relaxed.

12.55 p.m.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I am glad very briefly to be able to support the appeal which my hon. Friend has made because I am satisfied that there is a case for a much more generous approach towards this problem. The preservation of a man's business means a great deal to him and the War Office ought to show greater appreciation of this fact. Can my right hon. Friend say whether the rule against compassionate posting being granted on business grounds is a rigid one, or whether each case is considered on its merits? There are instances where a compassionate posting would make all the difference between saving a business and closing it down. I would also ask whether my right hon. Friend takes into account the question whether a man does not really make a better soldier if, as far as possible, he is freed from the domestic anxieties which must worry him tremendously if he knows that he is right away from his business and that a burden is being placed upon his wife which she is not really able to carry. In these days the lot of married women, with their husbands in the Forces, is by no means an easy one, and when, in addition to all the other difficulties, they have to carry on a business under war conditions, it really is, in many instances, asking them to do far more than they can be expected to do.

Can we be assured that my right hon. Friend is prepared, at this stage in the war to allow more flexibility in the handling of applications of this kind, and in particular where these men in business on their own account are engaged in a food business. There are instances sometimes where the local food executive officer realises that the food position is going to be made very much more serious if these one-man businesses are closed down. If that could be taken into account, it would be helpful. We do not ask the impossible. We know that the claims of the war must come first, but we do ask that such concessions as can be made without detriment to the war effort, should be made in favour of these applications. If we could be assured that each case is given sympathetic and full consideration, that there is no hard-and-fast rule, and that if a good case can be made out and military circumstances permit, compassionate-posting will be given on business grounds, the concession would go a long way to cheer the men who, at present, feel that they have a real grievance over this matter.

1.0 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

Perhaps I might start by saying I am grateful to my hon. Friend who raised this matter for having, on an earlier occasion, when he had drawn a place in the Adjournment ballot, postponed his claim in order to meet my convenience. I am extremely grateful to him for that. My hon. Friend referred to the letters he had on this subject. Oddly enough I have had letters too—in fact, a very large part of my post-bag consists of applications for release from the army on compassionate grounds, and a substantial proportion of these applications come from the owners of one-man businesses which are, of course, in the main, small businesses, and this is a class for which I have great sympathy.

The hon. Member who raised this question assumed that the Government are apt to neglect the owners of small businesses, or one-man businesses. Well, I am not in a position to ignore them because I hear a great deal from them and, as I say, I have a great deal of sympathy with that class of person, particularly in relation to his service in the Army. A man who has built up a business is placed in a very difficult position when called up into the Army. He cannot just shut up shop, and then open again when he is released in his due turn, for the essential part of any business is the goodwill, which is built up in the course of years, and which, largely, evaporates if the business is interrupted. That is why the Ministry of Labour regulations provide for a period of deferment in order that the prospective soldier may make arrangements for carrying on a business during his absence. That is why, also, when the Army get applications from soldiers who are in great distress, when they hear from their wives or fathers, or mothers for that matter, that the effort of carrying on is getting beyond them, we grant a period of release, in order to enable the soldier to supplement the arrangements which he made on being called up.

However, these deferments or releases are for definite periods; they are never permanent. The only permanent arrangements permissible are those for indefinite deferments or indefinite release, when it is absolutely essential in the national interest for the business to be carried on, and there is no other person available, or who can be made available, to carry it on. In the case of indefinite release on these grounds, the application has to be sponsored by the Government Department concerned, and approved by the Ministry of Labour as well as the War Office. Quite apart from this class of case, there is no provision for indefinite deferment or indefinite release on business grounds.

I know quite well that my hon. Friend has in mind not a release, but a posting to a locality where the man can continue to supervise his business as well as to discharge fully his military obligation, but what I have said is relevant from this point of view. If it is clear that there are large numbers of cases in which businesses are suffering because of the absence of the proprietor, and if I can be sure that only a very small proportion of these cases can possibly be covered by a compassionate posting—and these not the most deserving or most poignant—then, I think I have made out a very powerful defence for the practice which both hon. Members are calling in question. I could develop very strongly the argument that no man can serve two masters—or perhaps I should say that no man can serve God and Mammon. But my hon. Friend has already heard that one, and simply brushes it aside. One of his earlier contentions, which I think has been repeated to-day by both hon. Members, was that if a man's mind is at rest by being in a position to look after his business interests constantly, he can more fully serve his country. I, personally, do not believe that, but I am not so foolish as to try to force a particular argument into a mind which has already made it clear that it will not accept it. So I come back to rest the case for the War Office practice on what I may call the inherent equities.

As I understand it, this is the class of case in which it is not a matter of a man's personal supervision being necessary in the national interest. It is merely a question of desirability in his own interest. It thus falls at the start into a lower category of merit than the great majority of cases which come before me. In the second place, I take it—and both hon. Members expressly disavowed any contention to the contrary—that it is not contended that a man's posting to such purpose should interfere with his being employed in the Army, where the military authorities think he can be best employed. For the bulk of the Army this is at present overseas, and quite a very large part of it is in direct contact with the enemy. Furthermore, the great bulk of the Army is organised into units which it is important to train, and keep together, as long as possible. Nobody can be unaware of, or minimise the importance. attached to the regimental spirit nor, I imagine, is it suggested that if a man's unit is sent overseas, or even into another place in this country, he should be pulled out of his unit and posted to another unit or job where he can still carry on his two avocations. That would seem to me to be monstrously unfair, but even if it were suggested, it would only be practicable in a small fragment of the cases for, with the great bulk of the Army overseas, the troops in this country are distributed much more sparsely.

It may very well be, and will generally, in fact, be impossible to find within easy reach of a man's business a job or unit to which he can be posted, leaving out of account all question of suitability. But even granted that this difficulty could be overcome, is it not clear that to leave a man in a job near his business, whatever the movement of his unit, or the post in which he has been employed, or the formation to which he has been attached for the whole of the war, is most unfair? In most cases it is physically impossible to do what my hon. Friend wants. In most of the cases in which it is physically possible to do what he wants, it is militarily indefensible. The very rare cases in which it is physically possible and militarily defensible are certain to be the least meritorious from the compassionate point of view. If then, we can only do what we are asked to do in very few cases, and then only in the least deserving out of a very large class, surely, the only possible course is to do it in no case? That is why I said—and this is what both hon. Members have complained about my having said—that we never grant compassionate postings on business grounds, and I, personally, think that is a practice and rule which ought to be preserved.

My hon. Friend raised the question of posting on compassionate grounds. Well, some of the arguments apply in this case, but there is no universal rule against it. However, it is an extremely rare practice, and I think, speaking from memory, we have confined compassionate postings—and they are not indefinite—to cases where there is a doctor's certificate that the husband's presence or proximity is absolutely necessary for the woman's health, nearly always in cases where the woman is in hospital, and the husband's presence is necessary to prevent her from worrying about the family at home. I do not think that case affects my main point. In any case, compassionate posting on domestic grounds is in a far higher category of equity than a posting on business grounds. The business ground is very rarely the extreme case, when the business has to be shut down altogether in the absence of the man; it merely is so that he can assist to carry it on rather more efficiently than would otherwise be the case. I am very sorry to be obstinate or immovable on this question, but it seems to me that in all this range of com- passionate releases, postings, and so on—of which, as I said to the House the other day, we have had 20,000 in the War Office since January, 1943—it is absolutely vital that we should preserve some reality, as well as appearance of equity in the matter. I, personally, think we should be quite wrong to give in in cases which, on the whole, are very far from being the most deserving class of case which comes before us.