HC Deb 16 November 1945 vol 415 cc2616-26

4.1 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

In making my maiden speech to this House I rely on its traditional reputation for being, on these occasions, what Mrs. Malaprop might have called the "very pineapple of politeness." I daresay I shall perpetrate a few malapropisms myself before this speech has run its course. But more particularly I rely on the importance of this question of Class B releases to the great work of national reconstruction on which we are now engaged. This is a matter on which we have all had a good deal of correspondence. It is a matter, too, on which we all need a good deal more enlightenment than we have yet had. It is a matter of vital interest to our constituencies. My own constituency of Blackburn has a big housing programme on which it wants to embark. It has educational reforms it wants to undertake. It has a cotton industry which needs textile workers. In attempting to tackle these problems, it is vitally interested in the progress of this Class B scheme, which has been specifically designed to enable the local authorities of this country to overcome shortages in those particular fields. They want to see that the scheme really is working, because, without it, they cannot get ahead with their reconstruction plans.

I am concerned this afternoon with the fact that all the evidence which I can obtain, both from the figures put forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and from the letters I am receiving from my constituents, goes to show that in fact the scheme is not working at the tempo we want to see. Judging by my own correspondence and by my conversations with my hon. Friends in this House, there are numbers of men in the category of essential workers who are anxious to get out under Class B and who have been anxious for a good deal of time, but who for some mysterious reason cannot get out. I am referring particularly to the block release section, in regard to which principles of action have been quite clearly put forward. We all understand those principles, but what we do not understand is why, somehow, they do not seem to work out in the cases of our own constituents.

I have in mind one outstanding example—a miner in my constituency who is a private in the Army, and who has been trying to get out of the Army to go back into the pit ever since last July, and as far as I can ascertain has not yet succeeded. I thought that we were facing a desperate coal famine this winter, but the man himself has written to me, his colliery which wants him back has written to me, I have written to the Minister of Fuel and Power, and the man, as far as I am aware, is still not out of the Forces. The Minister of Fuel and Power replied to me as far back as the beginning of September that collieries were being asked to draw up lists of the men who were formerly in their employment as underground miners and whom they wanted back for that type of work. I was told that it might be a little time before the collieries could complete their lists, but this man's employer wrote to me on 4th September and said he had put the man's name on the list and was there anything else he should do about it? In my innocence, I replied, "No, you have done all you can, and very shortly the man will be out." But on 20th October the man wrote to me to the effect that he had been put on draft for overseas service, and had only got himself taken off with some difficulty after interviewing his commanding officer and saying that he was under consideration for Class B release. I, therefore, took the matter up with the Minister again and a few days ago he replied informing me that this man's name had been passed to the Ministry of Labour for release under Class B and no doubt he would be coming out soon. Surely, in a vital section of our national life such as coalmining, it is a little absurd that a man should have to struggle from July to November in order to get back into this essential national work.

What we want to know is, where the fault for this delay lies. It is not only in underground mining that this sort of case has arisen. I want to refer also to those two important sections of block releases, the building workers and the teachers. The men cannot understand why they are not getting out. We cannot understand why they are not getting out, and when we write to the Minister of Labour we sometimes suspect from his letters that he does not understand either why they are not getting out. I want to put two questions to the Minister this afternoon, and ask him very earnestly if he will give a factual reply.

In the first place, to which release groups have facilities for release under Class B so far been extended? I want him to tell us to which release groups in the Army facilities for Class B release have been offered to men in the trades concerned? How far has he got? Is it Group 27, 28, 29 or what is it? Similarly, for the Air Force and the Navy. Secondly, I want to ask him whether any particular trades or units inside the Armed Services are, without our knowledge, being excluded from the scope of the Class B scheme, because we have reason to suspect that that may be the case. I had a letter from one of my constituents which I think ventilated very accurately the sort of feeling the men have about this scheme. This man writes: So far as the Services are concerned, Class B seems to be reserved for men who, it is fairly sure, will refuse it. I am one of the thousands of building workers in the Services who have not been invited to take this method of release. In fact, I am informed that as I have only three years' service I am not eligible. At the age of 35, with over 20 years' experience of the trade, five as foreman, I think I would be more useful building houses than acting as grease-monkey to worn-out Army lorries for a few hours each week. That is one aspect of the problem, but my second question arises from another case which came to my attention during my last visit to my constituency. I was visited by a constituent now serving in S.E.A.C. who was home on leave. He said to me, "Are Royal Engineers excluded from the application of the Class B scheme?" He said he was a skilled building worker, and was in a release group in the early thirties, and he had friends in groups 24 and 27 who were also skilled building workers and to whom the opportunity of Class B. release had not been offered They wonder whether it was because they were Royal Engineers.

I want to plead with the Minister to give us, very specifically, the range of his Class B policy this afternoon, because there is suspicion growing up in the Armed Forces that discrimination is taking place or may be taking place. I urge this point. We have said in regard to Class A releases, that it is vitally important the men should know where they stand, so that they can be quite sure no sort of a wangle is being done. But if nobody knows to which groups Class B release is being applied, or to which men, if we do not know the Minister's policy, then the men have every right to suspect that wangles may be going on under the Class B scheme. If they do not know and even their Members of Parliament do not know whether essential workers in Groups 24, 25 or 26 should have been offered Class B release or not, how can they be sure that someone within the Forces, someone in command, is not discriminating as between one man and another in this Class B policy? I also suggest to the Minister that he has not yet cast his net wide enough in this Class B scheme. He is being rather too cautious and, therefore, he is defeating his own ends.

I know very well the great necessity in my constituency for rapid educational reform. Our schools need greatly increased supplies of teachers if we are to press ahead with the application of the new Education Act. Yet I received this letter only a few days ago, from one of my constituents who was a teacher before he joined the Forces: There seems to be some muddle as to the Class B release of teachers. There are many of release group 26 still in the Forces and likely to be, as it is impossible to make inquiries regarding their position as they have to wait until their names are forwarded to their stations. Today I visited the Blackburn Education Offices to make inquiries, only to be informed that there was a great shortage of teachers, although the local authority has done all in its power to obtain the services of its teachers in the Forces. Apparently before V.E. Day a list was submitted to the necessary Authority but the only result has been the release of five men, one of whom went straight from college into the Forces and is of a higher release group than many still serving. I understand that Class B release would be offered to men in accordance with their release group. This is apparently not the case. That sort of confusion and suspicion is, very naturally, causing bitter feeling among the men themselves. Now the right hon. Lady the Minister of Education stated in the House the other day that considerable progress has been made with the speeding-up of the Class B release of teachers. The total which it is hoped to reach by the end of Decemberis 10,000. By the end of October just over 3,000 had been released, leaving 7,000 to be caught up with in the next two months. She told us with pride that the rate of release has now been speeded up to 1,000 a fortnight, but unless my calculations are very wrong, we have not much more than four fortnights left between now and the end of the year, and at that rate of release we shall still be 3,000 short by the end of December. The Class B scheme is narrow enough in its scope already without our failing to achieve the limited objective which has so far been set. I believe that the trouble arises from the fact that the possibility of Class B release is not being offered to a wide enough range of men.

Indeed, it is quite clear that if a man is coming out shortly under Class A, he is not going to accept Class B with all its disadvantages. That means that you have got to go into a wider field—into the groups of the 30's and even further—with your offer of release if you are to have a rapid response and are to obtain rapidly the numbers you require. I would point out to the Minister that, in the Army, it is hoped that Class A release by the end of the year will have covered Group 24; yet, as my letters show, there are men in Group 27 in the Army who cannot get Class B release, although they want it. Is that not rather unadventurous in scope, with the building situation as it is? Or take the case of the Royal Air Force. We understand that Group 25 will be covered under Class A by the end of the year, yet here is a Blackburn ex-teacher in the R.A.F. in Group 26, who wants his Class B release as a teacher, and cannot get it.

In view of these facts, it is hardly surprising that, by the end of September, only 18,000 men and women had been released under Class B. That is 5 per cent. of the Class A releases to that date, and not the 10 per cent. that we had been promised. It is quite true and the argument will probably be brought forward by my right hon. Friend that the rate of release has been speeded up. The rate of release during September rose to 9,600, but, if we are to reach the target figure of 148,000 men and women released under Class B by the end of the year, we shall have to average a rate of Class B release during October, November and December of 43,000 a month, which is a big jump from the 9,600 of September. Does the right hon. Gentleman think he is going to pull it off?

Surely, this is a field in which the usual arguments about military commitments, transport difficulties and so on, do not apply? Here is a percentage figure of the over-all figure, for which transport pro- vision has already been made, and if that percentage cannot be achieved, it is obvious that there is some administrative breakdown which holds the matter up. What alarms me is that if we fail in this Class B release scheme, our chances of achieving the Class A target figure, which is the greatest task, are very poor. In my opinion the figure of 148,000 is already inadequate if we are to do, particularly, the building jobs at present facing us.

I believe the men in the Forces are more concerned to see the houses built and to get on with the reconstruction job, than they are with any fine principle as to whether the man next door is getting out ahead of them or not. They will criticise us far more vigorously on this reconstruction job than they will grumble about whether one or two men are getting out ahead of the others under Class B. I would like to see the figure of 148,000, which is too low, increased by an increase in the overall rate of demobilisation, but, even if the overall rate is increased, we have no guarantee that we shall get the essential workers out, if we are already failing to reach our percentage figure under our present limit target.

I know the Minister has a difficult job, but I ask him to give us some clear explanation of the policy on which he is working, and not just to quote to us "age and length of service" again. I ask the Minister to tell us specifically the groups already covered and prove to us that he is tackling this policy boldly, because, without boldness here, the whole of our reconstruction programme will be seriously held up in the next few vital months.

4.19 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

It is not merely a perfunctory tradition that I follow in complimenting the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) on her maiden speech. Those of us who have heard her elsewhere knew very well that she would acquit herself with credit in this House. In saying that to the hon. Lady it is not an invitation to her to come after the Minister of Labour another time. The hon. Lady has asked questions of very great importance, and I am sure that she and the House, as well as myself, regret that there is not adequate time to go fully into all the points she has raised. However, I will try to deal with the points of importance.

One of the main points was that Scheme B is not wide enough in scope to cover other industries. On that point I must say that the scheme must be balanced, otherwise we shall get completely out of step. Now I will obey her admonition, if I may call it such, not to quote again age and length of service, but I would like to say something about the way in which the scheme is working, although I cannot go into the detail that I had hoped, because I am sure it will be of information to the House. The hon. Lady mentioned the question of teachers, and that she had been told that out of the 10,000 asked for, only some 3,083 had got out up to the date of the last return. What is important to notice, however, is that Scheme B did not start working until after Scheme A had started and, in the first six weeks of its running, we got out 296 teachers; in the next four weeks of its running, we got out 744 teachers, but—and this is the important point—in the last four weeks we got out 2,043, so it has rapidly jumped up.

If I may turn to the figures and show the House how it is working, during the full period we got out, over all trades and all classes under B in that first six weeks, 8,295; in the September four weeks, 9,651; in the four weeks of October, 20,846—a total of 38,792. However, in the second half of October—the last two weeks of the period under review—we got out 12,700, which is nearly one-third of the total over the whole period. I want to say at once that we are not satisfied and that we want to see it speeded up. Speaking as Minister of Labour, responsible on the industrial side, I am desperately anxious to see it speeded up. Industry is standing still, and it must be speeded up, but I must, in fairness to my colleagues in the Service Departments, say that I believe they are helping and that we are getting it speeded up now.

Let me explain how the B scheme of block releases works. It is not the right of the individual to claim to be brought out under the B scheme; it is for the Services to make the arrangements. In saying that a man has not the right to claim, that does not mean he is deprived of the opportunity, it means that he himself has not to go and ask for the opportunity. Sometimes when I refer to the B scheme I think some hon. Members believe it is an adjective and not a designation.

Let me quote the case of the Army and building releases as an example to show how it works. For instance, 60,000 building workers are required out by the end of the year—that is the target. The Minister of Works then says "We want so many bricklayers, so many carpenters, so many plumbers, etc." Having decided what proportion of the total number is to be allocated to the separate trades, we then give the quota to the separate Services. The quota given to the Army was 40,000. To show the hon. Lady and other hon. Members that there is an attempt being made to ensure that wastages are dealt with—and when I say wastage I mean those who do not want to come and those who cannot be released quickly—the Army has informed us that they have put forward a list of 80,000 names from which they hope to get 40,000. First of all the Army has to go through its lists.

There is no complaint anywhere, from anybody who knows the facts, as to delay at the Ministry. Every name that goes to the Ministry of Labour is out within 48 hours. The Army has to pick out names, find out in which command and in which unit they are, and then send them to the particular command or unit. The Army has submitted 80,000 names from which they hope to get 40,000 men. Some men do not want to come out, some are so far away that it takes a long time to bring them back, but there is no restriction in the scheme by which you cannot bring anybody out of the Army in this class if selected.

We are also promised that there will be no making use of the term "military necessity," except in exceptional cases. Exceptional cases, as we see them are, for example, those people in the Pay Corps who are needed for handling demobilisation and who it may not be possible to release. It is not the Ministry of Labour which lays down which group shall be released. We have said "We want 1,500,000 out by the end of the year." Having got the promise of that number, we say "We want 10 per cent. as quickly as we can get them, under the B scheme." The Service authorities go ahead, and call out under the B Scheme the number wanted. It is true that at the beginning they limited the call under the B scheme to the A groups coming out under the age and service scheme, but it was found that it was not attractive enough to induce men to come out. They are now pushing it up, but I have no specific information in my Ministry as to what groups are being reached. I say "Give me 60,000. I do not care how I get them, so long as I get them." That is the principle on which I am working.

Flight-Lieutenant Beswick (Uxbridge)

Is the actual selection made by the War Office or by the local commanding officer?

Mr. Isaacs

Not quite that. So far as the B scheme is concerned, the War Office picks out 80,000 names of building workers in connection with the B scheme, finds out where they are, and notifies the commanding officer, "This man must be offered release under the B scheme." Any criticism as to how that operates must go to the Service Departments, but that is, in effect, how the matter is being worked.

The hon. Lady mentioned collieries. I will not try to cover the whole of the ground now, but I will try to deal with that. The position in regard to collieries is that to avoid delay every colliery that wanted men back and had vacancies had to give us names. Every name thus given was immediately passed on, and action was taken with a view to getting the men out. It has not worked as quickly as it should have done, but it has been building up. I am not quite sure if I have the latest figures. We want 30,000 out. Up to the last return in October there had been 1,044 out, not by any means enough. I am asked for the programme. Perhaps it will suffice if I say that I will publish the programme in the Official Report. I have not time to read it out except at such a speed that hon. Members would not be able to understand it. I can tell hon. Members that the rate of release is speeding up. There is considerable improvement over the last fortnight, and it is still improving. I have a sufficiently clear understanding of the position to say that it will speed up sufficiently to ensure that by the end of the year we will get out the number that has been promised.

Captain Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

Will the Minister consider, during the first six months period of 1946, when a great increase in the overall figures is to be expected, because we shall be continuing to release at the rate of 80,000, 90,000 or 100,000 a week, including in Class B not only workers in the building trade but also workers in the building materials trade, which are also important for housing?

Mr. Isaacs

We have put industries ancillary to building or civil engineering at 15,000.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

The Minister did say that some men were too far away to be brought home in time for Class B release. Does that not modify the assurance he gave me the other day that distance would not prejudice a man's release? Is there any discrimination against those who are far away?

Mr. Isaacs

What I intended to convey was that it takes a long time to get them back. There is no discrimination.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.

Following is the programme referred to by the Minister of Labour in his speech:

Building and Civil Engineering 60,000
Industries ancillary to Building and Civil Engineering 15,000
Underground Coalminers* 30,000
Railways 5,000
Food 3,600
Cotton 2,200
Wool 1,500
Gas 1,300
Draughtsmen 1,050
Electricity 700
Pottery 600
* At 15th November just over 17,000 names had been submitted to the Service Departments.
School Teachers 10,000
Firemen, Recruits 9,000
Regular 600 9,600
Police, Recruits 5,000
University Students 3,000
Candidates for Colonial Service and similar services 2,180
Candidates for Palestine Police Force 2,000
Theological Students 1,500
University Teachers 500
Miscellaneous 2,500
TOTAL 157,230
Wool textile 2,300
Laundries 2,000
Clothing 2,000
Cotton 1,000
Boots and Shoes 600
Cigarettes 500
Textile finishing 450
Flax 250
Jute 250
Nursing trainees 2,000
Hospital cooks 1,000
Telegraph and telephone 500
Miscellaneous 600
TOTAL 13,450
Individual Specialists (Men and Women) 10,000
Notes.—(1) In addition to the above, as many members of Regular Police Forces as can be spared from military duties are being released in Class B.
(2) The numbers shown above represent the quota of Class B releases allotted to the industries and services concerned;they do not necessarily represent the numbers which the Service Departments have been asked to release. At 15th November the releases asked for amounted to approximately 141,000.