HC Deb 14 June 1945 vol 411 cc1874-86

6.24 p.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Mott-Radclyffe.]

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

I hope I shall not be out of Order in referring very briefly to the preceding Debate and in saying how deeply moved I am sure we all were by the speech we have just heard. I hope it is not presumptuous in me, as a comparatively junior and very unimportant back-bench Member of the House, to say that I know that we shall deeply miss our older friends and collagues, to whatever party they belong.

The Debate, with the exception of some liveliness towards the end, had quite a Coalition atmosphere; and, in this final Adjournment Debate of this long Parliament, although I shall be dealing with matters which are in some sense controversial, I shall endeavour to avoid anything that might be described as "squalid bickering." I want to raise the question of the political rights and opportunities of Servicemen in view of the coming Election. I am not, of course, dealing with those aspects of the subject covered by the Prime Minister yesterday in his very satisfactorily amended statement. I want to deal with one or two other points.

This is not the moment to endeavour to apportion the blame for the way in which this General Election has been rushed, as some people say, if it has been rushed; but I think, at least, that it will be generally agreed that the men and women in the Services overseas have not had very much time, since they finished fighting in Europe, to consider coolly and discuss and argue out amongst themselves the various political issues which will be presented to them at the Election and the programmes of the various parties. I know that I, and many other hon. Members, constantly get letters from constituents and others serving overseas, of which the burden is something like this: "I have never had a vote. I have not the faintest idea what all these political arguments are about. Can you tell me what the Conservative Party stands for, what the Labour Party stands for—"and so on. This is rather a burdensome addition to one's mail bag when it happens so often, but one has to try to give fair and thorough replies.

For this reason I suggested some little time ago, first to the Secretary of State for War and then to the Prime Minister, that rather more should be done than has been done so far to provide the Forces with elementary factual political information of an impartial kind, and, in particular, I suggested that at least one issue of the A.B.C.A. Bulletin should be devoted to an objective statement of the main policies and programmes of the various political parties and schools of thought. The Secretary of State for War replied to the effect that it would be impossible or impracticable to work out such an objective bulletin, and that it would be beyond the wit of man to devise any really objective survey. I was interested to learn the other day that precisely what I suggested has, in fact, been done by the Canadian Government in connection with the Canadian Election which has just been held. I have here in my hand a copy of the official bulletin "Canadian Affairs," which corresponds almost exactly to the "Current Affairs" bulletin issued by the War Office for A.B.C.A. discussion groups. This is a special Dominion election number, and I am going to read a sentence or two from the editorial foreword: This supplementary issue of 'Canadian Affairs' has been specially prepared to bring the answers to their election problems to Canadian Service men and women overseas. By arrangement with the Armed Forces, it is being distributed on a very much wider scale than regular issues of 'Canadian Affairs,' so that everyone may have a chance to read it. The booklet and the arrangement of its contents have been made possible by the mutual agreement of the national political parties, whose official statements are printed in the following pages without editorial changes or comment of any kind. The statements were prepared specially for 'Canadian Affairs' by the national offices of the parties concerned. No-one can vote intelligently in a vacuum. So read, digest, and, above all, vote. That seems to be an admirable editorial foreword to this pamphlet, which contains outlines of policy by the five main Canadian parties. I cannot imagine why something of the kind could not have been done here. I only wish there were time still for it to be done, but I suppose there is not much hope of that.

When I raised this matter with the Prime Minister, I pointed out to him, in a supplementary question, that Members were getting all those letters of inquiry from the troops, and the Prime Minister seemed to think that that was the best way that it could be done—by these informal contacts and letters, queries and replies—and also, he said, by getting as many newspapers as possible, as quickly as possible, out to the Forces overseas. I do not believe that, whatever newspapers they happen to get, they will get a particularly clear, impartial, informed picture of the issues before the electorate at the coming election, because the newspapers of the various parties are naturally full of the propaganda, perhaps legitimate, perhaps truthful, perhaps not, of their own respective sides, and I am asking for the provision of impartial information for those troops who want it. I do not believe that more than 5 per cent. of the troops who would genuinely like to have such information, and are in need of it, will in fact take the step of writing to their own M. Ps. about it.

That brings me to the second point that I want to raise this evening, and that is a question concerning the Admiralty. I am grateful to the Civil Lord for being so civil as to stay in London and be here this evening. I have just recalled that the Prime Minister said how admirable and adequate it was that Servicemen should simply write to their Members of Parliament and ask for information about political matters. A few months ago, when I had the privilege of visiting, and taking short trips in, one or two of H.M.'s ships, I found that there was an almost universal impression in those ships, both among officers and ratings, and among commanding officers themselves, that it was actually forbidden for naval personnel to write to their Members of Parliament about anything. When I said that I was sure that that was not so, and that it had been repeatedly established in this House, and stated on behalf of the Government, that they could write letters to their Members of Parliament about political or even about Service matters—adding the proviso, of course, that they should always take up Service grievances through the proper Service channels first and only approach their Member of Parliament if they could not get any satisfaction that way—when I said that, I was told definitely by captains of ships that I was wrong and that it was contrary to the Naval Discipline Act; and that was what they always told their men.

I therefore put one or two Questions and had some correspondence with the then First Lord of the Admiralty about it, and he eventually established quite satisfactorily—and it is on record in Hansard—that of course men in the Navy, as in every other Service, and like every other citizen, have the right to write to their Members of Parliament about anything, although there is always the proviso about Service matters that for the sake of discipline and, very often, speed, they should first approach their own officers. Having established that, it was pointed out to me by constituents and by correspondents in the Navy, that there was an apparent inconsistency between this perfectly proper ruling and the notice which was posted in every ship and naval shore establishment—the notice called Form S.272, which appeared to make it an offence to communicate with Members of Parliament, although it was rather vaguely worded. Therefore, I raised this matter also, and in the Easter Adjournment Debate the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty was good enough to come to the House and say that, after consideration, the First Lord, and their Lordships, and he, and everybody else had decided that this notice was to be amended forthwith; and he read out the revised wording, which indeed, although it perhaps did not go quite as far as some of us would have liked, did no longer suggest at all that there was any offence involved in a man's writing to his Member of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman concluded his speech by saying: The hon. Member far Maldon (Mr. Driberg) also asked me whether these changes will be conveyed clearly and in full to those in command of His Majesty's ships and naval shore establishments. I can assure him that this will be done both in regard to the statement by the First Lord, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, and also in regard to Poster S.272, which he has brought before the House to-day."—[Official Report, 29th March, 1945; Vol. 409, c. 1626.] I naturally took that on the hon. Gentleman's word, and assumed that everything would be all right, and that pretty soon it would be generally realised throughout the Navy that there had been, if not a modification of policy, at any rate a clarification of policy. I was, therefore, rather shocked a week or two ago to learn that at one of the most important of naval establishments—the Royal Naval Bar racks at Portsmouth—the revised form of the poster had not been put up at all. This was two months later, and so I asked a Question about it yesterday, and the First Lord of the Admiralty explained that unfortunately the distribution of the poster had been delayed by printing difficulties and that it was now being distributed; he added: And copies are displayed at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth."—[Official Report, 13th June, 1945; Vol. 411, c. 1640.] I am bound once more, as I was on the occasion of the Easter Adjournment, to accept the word of a member of the Government, and I do really hope that this time we shall have this poster properly displayed and the situation clearly explained to commanding officers, so that there will no longer be any risk that men will be misled as to their rights in this important matter. Since putting down the Question which was answered yesterday, I have had a further check made at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, and my informant writes as follows: Have re-checked the 'Complaints Poster' position thoroughly and the position is worse than I reported. In a widespread inspection I saw only three copies of the poster, all of them of the 1932 issue,"— That is very bad, because I know from my own previous observation that the poster had been revised, before the present revision, since 1932— including the one in the main police office. Two of them are practically impossible to read, being hung about seven feet from the ground. Judicious inquiry suggested that only about one man out of a hundred actually questioned knew about the new regulation. He means the revised form of the poster. There is, in the Royal Naval Barracks, a very large notice board, which most men glance at, which is smothered with obsolete notices. Perhaps it could be suggested that this notice board is the one most suited for the exhibition of the new notice. It is located between 'A' and 'B' blocks. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be good enough to pass that suggestion on to the commanding officer at the Royal Naval Barracks. This report was made at 16.30 hours on 7th June, so we hope that since then what the First Lord assured us had been done has in fact been done. I hope that this will be done not only at these barracks, but at all other establishments and in all other ships, although with regard to ships in distant waters it may no doubt take a little longer. I cannot help feeling that it would have taken less than two months to print something that their Lordships had really wanted to get out to the Navy urgently, that there was a rather casual and lethargic interest in this matter, and that there was even perhaps a certain lack of good will in regard to speeding this poster, with its important emendation, to the various ships.

The third point that I want to make—I am dealing with one point affecting each Service—concerns the Royal Air Force station at Yatesbury. It was suggested some weeks ago, apparently by some of the airmen stationed there, that it might be a good thing to do precisely the kind of elementary, impartial, educational political work at that station, which is the main theme of my speech to-night, and again I quote from a correspondent. He says: It was suggested—through the proper channels, by way of the station education officer—that an education committee be set up on, the station, presided over by the station administrative officer, with representatives of the men, to supervise and organise election publicity and information on the camp. The committee was to be run, in fact, on the lines of the already existing welfare committee. It was further suggested that the committee should arrange matters after the following manner.

  1. (1) Literature of all parties to be placed in the N.A.A.F.I.s and information rooms.
  2. (2) Discussion groups to be arranged in the N.A.A.F.I.s, an officer being present.
  3. (3) Wall newspapers to be set up in the N.A.A.F.I.s giving the latest election in formation and notices of meetings outside the camp.
  4. (4) A special room to be set aside, equipped with a radio, for the purpose of ensuring quiet during the broadcasts taking place after the 9 p.m. News.
  5. (5) Speakers of all parties to be invited to address the men.
  6. (6) A brains trust to be organised, having members of all political shades to answer questions relating to the parties and the General Election.
  7. (7) The Tannoy to be used as an extra publicity agent.
The Station Administrative Officer discussed the matter with Group Headquarters and it was decided (a) the Tannoy may be used to urge the importance of the Election; (b) notices may be displayed in the information room (which is very little used), informing the men of outside meetings. Various reasons were given for refusing the other suggestions. For instance, literature may not be placed in the N.A.A.F.I.s because it was believed that some airman might remove that with which he disagreed (or that with which he agreed, for further perusal); and again that discussion groups must not be organised, because that would mean a discusion of party politics, which is not permissible under K.R.s. Personally I think it is permissible by King's Regulations. I believe that the discussion of party politics is permitted within camps and stations; I am sure that one of my hon. Friends will correct me if I am wrong. As long as it is not public, I am sure that under King's Regulations, discussion of party politics is permitted. These suggestions were perfectly reasonable and I cannot imagine why they should have been turned down.

There is a lamentable lack of full, complete, and impartial information about politics in the Services. I think it is true to say that a much larger minority of Servicemen than ever before are acutely interested in politics; but they are still a minority, and among the very large number of those who will have to vote in a few weeks' time there is considerable ignorance still prevailing. Now, just at the last moment, they are beginning to wake up, and are anxious to find out how they ought to vote and what all these Parties stand for. I maintain, therefore, that every possible facility should be afforded them for that purpose. Incidentally, the Prime Minister's statements yesterday and the day before were very welcome, in so far as they enable the men to take part in public political meetings; but I do not see why there should not have been perfectly harmless facilities like those suggested at Yatesbury. By the way, this is the same station which we had a little trouble about once before in this House—before the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) was at the Air Ministry. It is the station whose Commanding Officer banned simultaneously the sale in the camp both of the "Daily Worker" and of "The Times"; that matter was put right immediately by the then Secretary of State for Air. It seemed rather an egregious action.

There are just one or two very brief point that I want to make before I sit down. One is that I think it was rather a good suggestion, in the series of suggestions at that R.A.F. station, that there should be a special radio listening room, because any of us who have been in camps know what it is like to try to listen to any two consecutive words in a barrack room or in a N.A.A.F.I full of men eating, drinking or enjoying themselves. It is quite impossible to listen consecutively to a 20-minute broadcast—much less to a half-hour broadcast like the one we had last night. No doubt part of the answer which my hon. and gallant Friend will feel obliged to give me is that, after all, the radio is ubiquitous and these men have the opportunity of listening to all the speeches made by the various political leaders. I would suggest that the point made in that memorandum is a good one and that special facilities should be provided in camps and on stations for those listening. Another point arising out of that is, of course, that it is very difficult to get any three people who have listened to a broadcast—whether a news bulletin or anything else—ten minutes after it is over, to give a really coherent report on it in which they would all agree with each other. The radio word becomes distorted and garbled more quickly in subsequent conversation than practically any other kind of word, and that is why it is additionally necessary to have these things down in cold print where they can be referred to again.

I should hate to suggest—because I said at the beginning that I would not be controversial—that there are any foolish old men still around in any of the Parties who cling to the Blimpish idea that Servicemen generally should not be encouraged to think for themselves or to discuss politics. It may be that there are a few foolish old men of that kind, but I certainly cannot believe that any responsible Party would dare to suggest that it does not want its policy argued as fully and critically as possible—because, of course, every Party should presumably feel and believe that its policy and its programme will stand up to argument.

Before I sit down, as this is the valedictory Debate of this Parliament, I should like—if it is not presumptuous in one who has only been a Member for three years—to say that, whatever happens at this coming Election, to me or to any of us, I shall always regard it as the proudest memory and privilege of my life to have served in this House even for that brief time. I would like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, and all the other occupants of the Chair, the Clerks, and the staff of the House, for their unfailing courtesy and tolerance.

6.50 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Captain Pilkington)

I am sure that those sentences with which the hon. Member closed his speech will find an echo on all sides of the House. I would thank him also, if I may, for his courtesy in informing me earlier about the things on which he was to speak this evening. As he said, on an occasion such as this, which is the last Adjournment Debate of this record Parliament he thought it better to be non-controversial. I think he kept to that intention, and so I do not propose to deliver any of those counterblasts and broadsides which I might have done, had his approach to the problems he mentioned been different.

The hon. Member mentioned two very important subjects and the first was the question of the political rights and opportunities of Servicemen. The burden of his complaint was that Servicemen had not, in fact, had adequate preparation and adequate information to enable them to make up their minds on how to vote at the forthcoming Election. First, we must remember that all serving men will have had, at any rate two months after VE-day and before the Election, in which to take stock of the political situation, and they have, as the House knows, had twice as long as usual between the announcement of the Election and the actual polling day. Secondly, at no time, I think, have the Services been more politically conscious than they are to-day. That is very important because it means that they are not, as it were, starting from scratch. They already have a great deal of information in their minds. Thirdly, at no time have there been such facilities for the distribution of news as there are at present. The distribution of newspapers, the use of the radio, the use of lectures in this war, far more than in the last, has had the effect of keeping people really up to date and well-informed about current problems.

The hon. Member mentioned that he had had various letters from constituents asking him to set out the different policies of the different parties. I only hope he was very well briefed when he had to set out the Tory programme to any questioner. I think that in itself—the number of queries which have come in from Servicemen—shows how politically alive and aware they are.

The hon. Member's main suggestion to improve the already substantial methods of distributing political information was the use of the A.B.C.A. pamphlets. He had already made this suggestion to various Ministers. As he was told then, it was considered that the existing facilities, which I have already described, were sufficient for accomplishing the end which he has in view. He quoted, to substantiate his argument, the Canadian pamphlet which he had with him. In the short time available, I have not been able to see a copy of that, or to know what went to the production of that document. But I suggest to him that it may well have been felt that the Canadian facilities for the distribution of this political information, were perhaps not quite so easy of implementation, as were the facilities which we have in this country, being nearer the scene of action. In any event, be that as it may, I think that perhaps a more forceful argument against the use of A.B.C.A. for this sort of thing is that the A.B.C.A. pamphlets are not primarily meant for universal distribution among the men. They are meant more as a medium which the officers of a unit can use in the preparation of lectures or in the starting of debates, and obviously it would be practically impossible for any officer to propound the contents of an A.B.C.A. pamphlet without allowing his own political convictions to peep in. Whatever he said, it seems to me, would be bound to be influenced by his political wisdom if he belonged to one party, and by his political bias if he belonged to another party.

Now I come to the question concerning the Admiralty which has nothing to do with the General Election. That is the poster known as "S272."As the hon. Member said, an assurance was given to him that the existing poster would be replaced by another, carrying the phraseology which was read out in this House. Two or three days ago, he asked my right hon. Friend the First Lord why this poster had not been distributed already. As he was told then, there had been printing difficulties. If it were peace-time, or even if the matter were one of primary urgency, of course it would have gone through quicker, but the fact remains, as I am sure he realises, that printers like everybody else at the present time have an immense amount of work to do and inadequate staff with which to do it. The particular printers in question have been concerned with the resettlement and demobilisation—or rather re-allocation—printing which has to be done. Even so, as my right hon. Friend told him, instructions were issued to the commanders of the various stations as was promised by the Financial Secretary in this House.

The hon. Member, although he was not controversial to-day, permitted himself to suggest at the end of the exchange across the Floor on 13th June, that this was "a calculated bottle-neck." Of course there is nothing in that at all, because, as I am sure the hon. Member realises, there is, after all, very good existing machinery by which complaints can be dealt with, and it is only on those rare occasions, I hope, when that machinery goes wrong that there may be a case for people in the Services writing to then-Members of Parliament. Again, a calculated bottle-neck rather tends to imply that there was the same urgency about this matter as there would be, for instance, in getting the political information out to the Service people, and of course, that is not the case. However, the hon. Member did for a moment rather shake me when he said that he had had a further letter since he put down the question, saying that this poster was still not displayed, but he kindly told me the date of the letter which was 7th June. According to my information, the first distribution of the posters took place on 10th June. By now ships in this country should be supplied with them, and overseas stations and His Majesty's ships at sea are in process of having them distributed. I hope the hon. Member will feel that I have adequately answered his points, and in the same non-controversial spirit as that in which he opened his remarks.

Mr. Driberg

On a point of Order. Are we to have a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Air?

7.1 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Quintin Hogg)

I was not proposing, subject to the views of the House, to take up any time with a second Government reply in a single Adjournment Debate. I should be happy, of course, to do so if the House really desired to hear a second Government speech—an abnormal state of mind, I think—or I should be willing to communicate privately with the hon. Member, who has quite properly raised the matter. Personally, I should favour the latter course.

Mr. Driberg

I am prepared to accept the latter course, if the communication is satisfactory.

Mr. Martin (Southwark, Central)

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the poster to which the Civil Lord of the Admiralty referred is going out to the Air Force as well; and, if so, whether it is being distributed to stations abroad?

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that situation arises in relation to the Air Force. So far as I know this is a domestic concern of the Navy, which has adopted a different language and procedure altogether.

Mr. Martin

Is the Air Force getting some kind of information of that sort? I am told that some stations abroad have absolutely nothing.

Mr. Hogg

Judging from my post-bag there has never been any need for that information in the Air Force. They seem fully aware of their right to communicate with their Members of Parliament, perhaps too fully.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two Minutes past Seven o'Clock.