HC Deb 23 November 1945 vol 416 cc847-56

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

4.2 p.m.

Lieutenant William Shepherd (Bucklow)

The issue I wish to raise is not as large or as important in scope as that which has been debated here during the last two days, but it is of immense importance to hundreds of thousands of Service men, who have served this country during the past six years. I wish to make, for the consideration of the Secretary of State for War, a plea for an increase in the allocation of leave for Service men at this Christmas time. It may be of assistance to some Members if I recall what has already happened along those lines. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, myself among them, have addressed Questions to the Secretary of State for War, asking for some improvement in what was intended so far as Christmas leave is concerned. Unfortunately, we have all been met with a refusal to do anything better at the present time. We feel that with the end of the war, and the fact that we are free for the first time for many years to have Christmas free from the stress and strain of war conditions, the Government should do something about giving Christmas leave to a much larger number of men than is normal in time of war.

I am glad to see the right right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War here this afternoon, and I hope he does not come here, like Pharaoh, with a hardened heart. As matters stand, the proposal of the War Department is to allow only the normal leave, that leave which would obtain under ordinary wartime conditions, namely, a total of about 10 percent., 7½ percent. being the ordinary seven days' leave and the other 2½ percent. being shorter leave. We consider that that is a very niggardly portion to allow on leave at this Christmas time. There is a very good case for increasing that percentage considerably. I ask hon. Members to think of those hundreds of thousands of men who have spent four or five years, four at least, behind barbed wire in foreign countries, as prisoners of war. Is it right that they, at this festive time, should be separated from their families and their homes? There is a very good case why they should be allowed the privilege of being with their near ones at this time. There are those men who have not had the misfortune to be prisoners of war, who have spent six years or more overseas in the service of this country. I believe these men deserve more consideration than the War Department is apparently willing to accord them.

One or two objections have been raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War to proposals which I have put before him in the form of Questions. The first is that this concession could only be granted to people at home, and therefore it might be taken exception to by the men overseas. That may be a valid objection in other cases, but surely it cannot apply in this case, because the vast number of men at present in this country are men who have come home from overseas, and surely they are the men who are entitled to every kind of consideration. The second objection, and the more valid one in all the circumstances, I think; is the question of providing transportation for a large number of men at Christmas time. That is probably a difficulty, but I would urge this course upon the right hon. Gentleman, even though it presents a difficulty, because it is time that something that was difficult was done for the ordinary soldier. Whilst it is true that during the war the soldier had to be the disciplined victim of official convenience—because that was the inexorable demand—that situation does not apply today, and the right hon. Gentleman should warm his heart and do something for these men.

I want to make one other point in this plea to the right hon. Gentleman. I believe there may well be at this time a very serious infringement of military discipline if consideration is not given to the plea that I am making. I do not urge that upon him as a reason for weakening, but I do say that many men who have served this country, and served it well, will not find it in their hearts to stay in camps and other places when they know that they could be by their own firesides with their women and children. That is a consideration which might be looked at by the right hon. Gentleman. It is extremely difficult for anybody who has not been in the Services to appreciate the intensity with which a man looks to getting home to his wife and family. Those of us who have been in the Services will agree that it is impossible to appreciate the strength of this feeling until one has been with these men. Even now that I have left the Service for but a few months, I can recapture the intensity of feeling that I had to get home when I was in the Service.

I do urge upon the right hon. Gentleman to give this opportunity to these men on this occasion. It would be a crime against every law of human thought to keep them away from their families and dependants at this time. The Secretary of State for War has an opportunity for bringing joy to hundreds of thousands of homes. He has a unique opportunity, because seldom has one man been in a position to bring so much happiness to so many people. I hope he will be able to say today that he has warmed his heart, and that he will see that these men who deserve so well of this country receive the consideration which is their due.

4.9 p.m.

Mrs. Paton (Rushcliffe)

I am one of those who had the misfortune to put down a Question and to have rather an unsatisfactory reply, so that I want to ask again this afternoon if the Minister of War cannot really change his mind on this question. For two days now we have been discussing in this House a world embracing subject, and we have had epoch making speeches. Now we come down to a very simple subject which is, nevertheless, important to the individuals and to the families themselves. I have had two lands of letter on this subject. I have had letters from rather ageing parents who for five years have not enjoyed the privilege of having their sons at home with them at Christmas time. These sons have sometimes been in German prison camps, and the general question at the end of their letters is: Is it not time that these boys of ours had their Christmas with us at home?

The second type of letter is from the man himself. One particular type, I feel, should have the sympathy of the Minister of War. This is the type of letter from a man who has not had the privilege of being at home with his own children since he was married. One man says: I have been away for four Christmasses and I have not yet had a chance of having a Christimas with ray young boy. Christmas time is really a family festival. I know that if the Minister of War can see his way to allowing these men to go home, now that they have come back from foreign parts, and to take their share in the family at Christmas time he will receive the gratitude of all serving men and their dependants.

My particular request is for those who have been in German prison camps and have had to have their Christmases behind barbed wire fences. I want the right hon. Gentleman especially to have his mind on those men, and to realise that Christmas time is the occasion for family reunions. I ask him to allow these men to come home. It may seem rather incongruous to ask a War Minister to be a Father Christmas, but we are asking the right hon. Gentleman to be Father Christmas to these men and their families, who really do feel that the time has now come, since we are at peace, to bring them the joy of family reunion and the happiness which comes at Christmas time.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Beverley Baxter (Wood Green)

None of us on this side of the House doubt the great natural kindliness of the right hon. Gentleman. Those of us who were in the last Parliament admired his spirit many times. I would reinforce what my hon. and gallant Friend has said and what the hon. Lady has just said. We realise that the men feel a sense of grievance. Could we not adopt the suggestion which was made by the Leader of the Opposition in connection with demobilisation and give them some compensating leave to do away with that grievance? Could we not get these men to their homes, those who are in this country, before the Christmas rush of travel begins, and bring them back afterwards?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman realises, as we all do, that there are, through nobody's fault, great bodies of troops in this country who are underemployed. We cannot bluff them into feeling that they are fully employed because there is not enough work for them to do, once the urgency of war is done. You cannot be training Territorials and Regular troops all the time in peacetime, and they have too much time to think and to resent. I urge the Secretary of State for War to consider the suggestion which has been made. No one with any sense of responsibility wants to cause acts of indiscipline in the Army, but responsible Ministers must go a long way to see that they do not, by lack of action, induce the very thing that they want to avoid. Quite apart from the great happiness which could be caused by a favourable decision at this moment, there is a lot of good, plain, hard argument to be said in favour of this proposal.

4.14 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Rees-Williams

I would like to add my request to those which have already been made to the Secretary of State for War. This Christmas will be the first that I have spent with my family since the Christmas of 1938. I do feel that many men who have been away from home for years and who are not, as I am, fortunate enough to have been demobilised, would like to spend this first Christmas of peace in the bosoms of their families. In this matter, as in so many others, I hope the Secretary of State will let a little fresh air into the musty atmosphere of the War Office, and I hope that he will bring a little of the human spirit into that antiquated and out-moded institution. I believe that in this matter he may have to meet some objections from the brass hats. I hope to show this House in due course that they have misled him over the question of the retention of officers, and I have no doubt that they will try and mislead him over this matter if he will listen to them. But I believe the present Secretary of State is a man who does feel for the soldier, and who will be prepared to listen not only to the soldier but to the soldier's wife and family, and, in the case of those soldiers who are not married, to the soldier's sweetheart. I will say no more at this late hour, except to add my urgent request to the Secretary of State to listen to the very moving appeal from the hon. and gallant Member on the other side.

4.16 p.m.

Flight-Lieutenant Beswick (Uxbridge)

I would like to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just spoken and with those of the hon. and gallant Gentleman on the opposite side in regard to the kindliness of the present Secretary of State for War. One thing has really appalled me since I have been in this House and have listened to Questions, and that is to see how little his real kindliness has been able to get over to us in the answers to Questions that have been put to him. There was no more hated name at one time among Servicemen, particularly overseas, up to the time of the General Election, than that of "Jimmy Grigg" as he was called. There was no better way of arousing irritation and annoyance among men serving overseas then than by talking about James Grigg. It may well be, as I see now, that we misunderstood that man, it may well be that he was being misled in the same way as, up to now, our present Secretary of State has been misled, but I say that there is now an opportunity for an assurance to go out to the men that a little bit of humanity is being introduced into the regulations which come from the War Office. All those negatives on demobilisation, compassionate postings and the rest, and the statement that it was impossible to retain at home prisoners of war who have spent three or four years in prison camps, seem to me to be defeatist. I feel we can do better for these men if we apply ourselves to it. If the Secretary of State will apply himself to it I am sure we can give these men a fair deal this Christmas time.

4.18 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Lawson)

I am much obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Bucklow (Lieutenant W. Shepherd) for giving me an opportunity of making a statement upon this matter today. This is a subject which, as is evident from what has been said in the House today, fills all Members with sympathy. No one except those who have been away for many years can understand the position of the men better than myself, because I have seen many of them, I have seen the conditions which they suffered during the time they were in prison, and I know something of their troubles and tribulations at first hand. I was very pleased indeed to find that even the soldiers who had been away for long years were ready to yield their places on the ships to the prisoners of war, so that they could go home and be succoured by those they loved.

So far as some of the prisoners of war are concerned, I am glad to be in a position to give an assurance on this matter of Christmas leave. But I want to make it plain to the House that there is, it is quite true, limited accommodation; there is limited transport, and we have to be governed by that factor. We have also to take into consideration that there are men who have been fighting under very grim conditions, living in a very testing climate, and who also have been away from home without seeing their children for long years. I think I may make this personal point—I feel I have done some little at any rate to see that some of these men from long distances get home to be with their children for the first time, in some cases, for five or six years.

I hope the House will forgive me if, in the interests of accuracy, 1 pay some attention to the script in making this statement, because this matter has received very serious and sympathetic consideration, and I hope T shall not be thought too ambitious if I- appear somewhat in the guise—perhaps in rather pale pink garb—of Santa Claus today as far as the Service men are concerned. In past years, the difficulties of the railways have led the Services to impose special restrictions on Service travel during holiday periods, such as Christmas. The normal flow stopped on certain days during the Christmas period; as the House knows, there was no travel at all for Servicemen. This has been carefully reviewed by the three Service Departments and the Ministry of War Transport, and it has been agreed that the special restrictions should not be imposed this year.

All concerned in those discussions were anxious, as Christmas is such a special time, to make special arrangements to enable more than the normal flow to be away from their units. It is here that the restriction imposed by the unavoidable shortage of trains made itself most felt. It would clearly be foolish to give leave to such a number of men as would be likely to cause complete congestion on the railways. My right hon. Friend the Minister of War Transport has, however, agreed that some addition to the normal quota of privilege leave can be accepted. The effect of this arrangement is that instead of stopping traffic for Service men and women on certain days before Christmas, there will be no stoppage this year, and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas the number allowed to travel will exceed that of normal days by one-half.

I should perhaps add here that men who are fortunate enough to be stationed near their homes and do not need to use the railways to get home will be restricted only if their commanding officers cannot spare them from essential duties in their units. The above applies to the men of the three Services in general. Many of them will have spent Christmas at home, if not last year, at any rate in the past few years. Special consideration obviously had to be given to those men who have spent a long period overseas continuously. These are prisoners of war and returned Python personnel. The Prime Minister dealt with the prisoners of war in an answer he gave the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Flight-Lieutenant Teeling) on 15th October. Prisoners of war liberated from territories previously held by the Japanese, other than those who are on Regular engagements or have elected to serve on, will be either on disembarkation leave or on release leave at Christmas time this year. Prisoners released from other theatres have been granted the following leave:

Royal Navy: 14 days plus 7 days for each 6 months in captivity.

Army and R.A.F.: A minimum of 42 days' repatriation leave.

On posting to units at the end of this leave, personnel take their place on the normal leave roster, and it would be unfair to give them further special treatment not enjoyed by others. As for Python personnel, arrangements have. already been made for an extension of leave to be given to all Python personnel who arrive in the United Kingdom on or after 13th November which will enable them to spend their Christmas at home. This applies to both Army and R.A.F. personnel. Naval personnel who arrive during this period will normally have earned sufficient foreign service leave to carry them over the Christmas period. The Python personnel have left their Commands overseas for good and have been replaced. There are, however, in this country, other men from abroad who are on leave and who will return to their duties overseas when their leave is over. Those who would normally leave their homes on 24th or 25th December will be given a short extension to ensure that they spend Christmas at home.

The above shows in brief what the three Services have been able to do to enable as many as possible of their officers and men to spend their leave at home this Christmas. Instructions to this effect are being sent out by the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry. A problem like this cannot, however, be solved by instructions alone. There may be many who have been unable to get Christmas leave in past years, including some who have been on long service overseas. It is, however, within the discretion of a commanding officer to allow men who have missed Christmas leave for three years to defer their leave until Christmas provided that the normal Christmas quota is not exceeded.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember that there are many more motor cars, that there will be plenty of chances to hitch-hike home, and that the Serviceman in Great Britain has such a homing instinct, that he will get home somehow, if given the opportunity.

Mr. Dribcrg (Maldon)

Could the Minister say what is the approximate percentage of the men serving in the United Kingdom who will be able to spend their Christmas at home?

Mr. Lawson

I could not say.

Lieutenant Shepherd

Could the Minister give some idea of the percentage of men that will be involved?

Mr. Lawson

I am sorry I could not say that, but I have drawn attention to the fact that the normal number of people travelling now, which is very large, compared with what it was some months ago, has to be stepped up by some 50' per cent. I should say that it means a considerable increase, compared with a normal time.

Major Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Could the right hon. Gentleman say what will be the maximum percentage of personnel of a unit permitted to be away for Christmas, or is there no maximum under his concession?

Mr. Lawson

I cannot say, but there is no maximum, and, naturally, commands will do their best to get all the men possible away, particularly in this country, in present circumstances.

Lieutenant Shepherd

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has done. I was going—

Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. and gallant Member cannot make a second speech.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Cuthbert Headlam (Newcastle-on-Tyne, North)

I had not the advantage of hearing all that the right hon. Gentleman said, but I would ask him if he is doing everything in his power to ensure Christmas leave for the troops in Italy. Is it a matter of transport, or are special efforts being made to get them home?

Mr. Lawson

The men who come home on repatriation leave, and so on, must have proper consideration and cannot be set aside but, within those limits, it is arranged for these repatriated men, that instead of being sent back, when otherwise they would be returning, they will probably be staying at home in many cases and having their Christmas dinner with their families.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth)

Is the right hon. Gentleman bearing in mind the great importance of the New Year festival for Scottish troops?

Mr. Lawson

There is no need to remind me of the New Year festival, because we share that in my part of the world equally with the Scots.

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.