HC Deb 10 April 1946 vol 421 cc2054-62

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

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Collins (Taunton)

I want to make an appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour on behalf of a body of men who have rendered yeoman service to this country but who, in my submission, have been most unfairly treated. I refer to those men who, either prior to the outbreak of war or during the early war years, volunteered for, or were directed to service within, the National Fire Service or the War Reserve Police, and who were subsequently transferred to the Armed Forces. The Coalition Government decided that service in the N.F.S. or the police would not count towards demobilisation from the Armed Forces, and I hope to show that this is a gross injustice, which I sincerely trust will be remedied by the present Government.

It will be remembered that many of these men, in response to appeals broadcast at the time, volunteered for enlistment with the Fire Service and War Reserve Police. In the early months of the war there were very few air attacks, and many of these men were withdrawn from the Fire Service to enter the Armed Forces, particularly the Army. The intensive air bombardment of this country did not start until September, 1940, and during the next eight or nine months, firemen and police were very much in the front line. During that time a great many tributes were paid to their service. During this period, September, 1940, to May, 1941, I myself lived at a factory in Shoreditch, London, and I am in a position to speak at first hand of the courage and endurance displayed by these men and their cheerful indifference to danger. It is a fact that, during the blitz, casualties in the N.F.S. and the War Reserve Police were at a higher rate than in the Armed Forces. Many of these men were killed and large numbers were badly injured.

During this period of intense strain on the heavy defence services, many of the firemen who had earlier been transferred to the Forces were allowed to rejoin the Fire Service and take part in the defence of our towns and cities. These men later returned to the Army. Many of these firemen were badly injured during the Battle of Britain and subsequently recovered. On making application for readmission to the Fire Service, they found conditions had changed, the danger had temporarily passed, and the lists were closed. They were enlisted again into the Armed Forces. These men, whose service to their country has been as great as any other members of the community, find that, for demob- ilisation purposes, the service in which they were actually wounded like front line troops does not count towards demobilisation.

In 1942 and 1943 the main danger of air attack appeared to be at an end, whereas the need for men in the Armed Forces was greater than it had ever been. Consequently some thousands of the N.F.S. and War Reserve Police transferred from these Services to the Navy, Army or Air Force. In all these cases, however, only service with the Armed Forces counts towards demobilisation. The position, therefore, is that we have men who answered their country's call for volunteers, and others who, on being called up for National Service, were directed into the Fire Service and the police and were not consulted as to the service they would enter, but were chosen just as the need arose. Later, and quite rightly, when another need arose, they were directed into another branch of the Services. Surely they have a right to say that they have given continuous service, and have done their best whatever uniform they were wearing. This case has been argued before, and the usual answer is that the N.F.S. and War Reserve Police are Civil Defence Services, and are comparable to direction into ordinary civilian employment. But this is not the case.

The first point is that the force of which they became members was a uniformed and disciplined force. The next important point is that they did not receive civilian rates of pay. Their pay was equivalent to that of a private soldier married and with one child, and was in fact negotiated on that basis. The N.F.S. men were indeed worse off financially than many men in the Forces. They did not receive additional allowances for additional children. They had less privileges by way of leave —14 days in a year. Their families were not granted the same travel facilities, and, in many other ways, they were worse off than the private soldier. This service therefore cannot be compared with civilian employment in munitions.

Not many months ago, members of the Royal Air Force who were temporarily directed to work in aircraft factories, were allowed to count such service towards demobilisation. In that period when they went back to the factories, they were on rates of pay very different from those of the men in the N.F.S. or War Reserve Police. I could quote a very large number of cases of individual hardship—thousands of them—but I content myself with one or two. In the first case, an N.C.O. now in Germany in the Army, entered the Fire Service on 17th March, 1939, as a part-timer He was well below the age of compulsory enlistment, but he reported for full-time duty on 1st September, 1939. In due course he registered in his group and was earmarked, at his own request, for service in the Royal Air Force. He heard no more on that score until April, 1942, when he was called to Acton for interview and compulsorily enlisted although already serving in the N.F.S.

On 16th September, 1943, when he had served four years, he was given notice terminating his engagement, and was instructed to report for military service. He had served for four years in the Fire Service, and now, after a total of six and a half years' service, excluding part-time service, he is in demobilisation Group 53. If his duties in the N.F.S. had counted, he would be in Group 29. Unless my hon. Friend can see his way to make the alteration for which I ask, this man will have to serve a total period of between seven and eight years—and he was a volunteer.

Another case concerns a writer in the Royal Navy. I would emphasise that these are typical cases. This is a man to whom I gave a lift going home late at night, and it was thus I happened to hear his story. He was a prewar special constable. He tried to volunteer both for the Army and Air Force when war broke out, but was not accepted, because he was in a reserved occupation. When the reserved age changed, he was called up. As he was over 30, and had had police experience as a special constable, he was directed to the War Reserve Police on 28th March, 1942. His service was in Bristol, which was not the least favoured target of the enemy's air attacks on this country. He remained there until 28th December, 1943. In his own words, the time spent in Bristol in the police force was as arduous, physically and mentally, as any he experienced in the Navy, except for a period of three months on Russian convoys. That man is now 36 years old, and is a writer, in Group 42, in the Navy. His demobilisation is still subject to considerable delay. If his police service had counted, he would be in Group 32, and if he had remained with the police he would already have been demobilised.

These are only examples of which I have personal knowledge. I could give many others, some of them much worse. Those I have mentioned are typical examples. It is well to note that a large proportion of these men are aged about 36 or 37, and have small businesses or responsible jobs in industries which badly need their services. I compare their demobilisation position with what it would have been if other circumstances, entirely beyond their control, had operated. Had they remained in the Fire Service or the War Reserve Police Force, which was entirely beyond their control, they would, today, be demobilised, or would be shortly due for demobilisation. Secondly, if instead of being directed into either of those two Services, they had gone into the Armed Forces—the decision was not theirs —they would already be due for demobilisation, if not already out of uniform. Two other comparisons are suggested. If they had been directed to work in the mines, their entire service would have counted towards their release. If they had been registered as conscientious objectors, their entire period of registration would have counted, and they would have been released at the same time as the last man in a comparable group in the Armed Forces. I am not objecting to either of those two examples—the Bevin boys or the conscientious objectors—but I say that common justice demands that the Government should, immediately, review the previous decision in this matter, and arrange for former members of the N.F.S. and War Reserve Police now in the Forces to be regrouped and credited with their full period of service.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour will deal with this matter on its merits. I do not think that the case I have put forward can be disputed. I have in my employment three men. One, who was a conscientious objector, is now back in employment; another, a member' of the N.F.S. who was not transferred out of the service, is also back in employment; but the third, a member of the N.F.S. transferred to the Armed Forces, is still overseas. I say that is inequitable. It is less than justice to these men and do most earnestly hope that my hon. Friend will see that they get justice.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

There is a more serious aspect of this situation. Many members of the N.F.S. are not covered by the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act. They are not entitled to get their jobs back on demobilisation and are therefore in a very anomalous position. The object of that Act was to make provision for the reinstatement in civil employment, on demobilisation, of certain persons who were in the service of the Crown or in Civil Defence forces. It applies to male persons who had after 25th May, 1939, entered on a period of whole-time service in the Armed Forces of the Crown. When the Measure came before Parliament this very question was raised and was dealt with by the then joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, who pointed out that some members of the Forces were intended to be covered by the Act, and some were not. I had intended to quote his observations on that occasion. but for reasons of brevity I shall not do so. This question came before the Ministry of Labour more recently. On 22nd November, the present Minister was asked whether the Act applied to men who were conscripted for the N.F.S. and also to men who joined voluntarily, and I must quote his reply: He said: 'Men compulsorily enrolled in a Civil Defence Force under the National Service Acts after l0th April, 1941, acquired reinstatement rights under those Acts and were therefore brought within the scope of the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act, 1944. While it could have been inequitable to have deprived such persons of their rights it was not considered practicable to bring within the scope of the Act, the many other classes of persons, including volunteers for the National Fire Service and other forms of Civil Defence who had performed valuable services during the war. He was then asked: Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that it is a little unjust to treat volunteers less favourably than conscripts. He replied: I am not prepared to express an opinion, But I can say that anything that is to be done will have to be done by amendment of the Reinstatement Act."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1946; Vol. 416, c. 593.] The position is that that Act has not been amended, and so conscripts are in a better position than volunteers. I am not going to say anything about amending legislation beyond quoting—

Mr. Speaker

It would be out of Order on the Adjournment to discuss amending legislation.

Mr. Hughes

I am merely pointing out the existing state of the law, for the purpose of making it clear that these men of the N.F.S. are in an anomalous position and that something should be done to remedy that position.

10.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ness Edwards)

This case has again been raised, I think for the twentieth time, since the end of the European war and I should like to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) that our demobilisation programme has proceeded and that something more than 2,250,000 men and women have been demobilised under the present principle. My hon. Friend now comes along and asks, as a practical proposition, that the whole grouping of the present forces shall be altered, in order to provide for the case he has put before the House this evening. I can conceive of nothing more calculated to slow up the rate of demobilisation than to accept the hon. Member's suggestion. The second point is that my hon. Friend has chosen the extreme case. He has referred in appreciative words to the tremendous debt we owe to the War Reserve Police and the members of the N.F.S. who served in the blitzed areas. But he made no reference to the Police Reserve in rural areas, who never saw a bomb, nor to members of the N.F.S. who never saw a fire. If we accepted his proposition I wonder what the "Desert Rats" would say who would be retained in the Army for a longer period, because the service of a member of the War Reserve Police or Fire Service in rural England for a fairly comfortable period counted for demobilisation purposes. I should have thought as an employer of labour, who had men working in a factory in the blitzed areas, the hon. Member would see that these civilians in his own factory endured the same bombing, and showed the same courage and resolution in maintaining our production in the blitzed areas, as any member of the N.F.S. or War Reserve Police.

Another point is that the hon. Member's plea is limited to the War Reserve Police and the N.F.S. He says nothing about the full-time firewatchers, or the dockers—the dockers in Liverpool—who showed as much courage as the men in the Armed Forces. There is as much to be said for the service of those in the blitzed docks counting for demobilisation, or even that of the men in the mining industry, whose hazards were greater, at that time than even the risks of the men in the Army. There is as much to be said in their case as in that of a member of the War Reserve Police who kept the cattle off the streets on market days in some little town, in a rural part of Britain. That, I agree, is going to the other extreme. But why was regard not had for the warden service in the blitzed areas; why was no regard had for the nurses—the very young nurses—who manned the first-aid posts in the blitzed areas and then went into the W.A.A.F. and the W.R.N.S? Then I have not mentioned the light and heavy rescue gangs. There is no plea for them tonight, but merely for the very narrow category of the War Reserve Police and the N.F.S.

In the first place, I think it would be impracticable to concede my hon. Friend's application at this point of our demobilisation. In saying that, I yield to no one —and I am sure that everyone in the Government takes the view that we yield to no one—in recognition of the tremendous courage these men showed during that very trying period. But what we have to remember is that that was also the courage shown by the housewives in London; it was the courage shown by the average people, in and out of uniform, in the blitzed areas; and once we depart from the principle of counting only full-time service in the Armed Forces, in calculating demobilization group numbers, we get on to a slippery slope. My hon. Friend has argued for members of the N.F.S. and the War Reserve Police in the blitzed areas. Must we stop there; can we stop there? We cannot. We must go to the docker; we must go to the nurses and the light and heavy rescue gangs, we must take the whole of Civil Defence and the men and women who were in the munitions factories, in the most hazardous sections of that employment. Then the miner will come along, and the docker, and all those who were in the blitzed areas. I think in particular of the gas workers in London. These men worked in a situation of grave danger and they would be entitled to come along, as a matter of justice and ask to be treated in exactly the same way as members of the N.F.S. who served in the rural areas.

That is the answer, I am sorry that we cannot accede to the request of my hon. Friend. On the face of it, there appears to be justice in the claim but to do justice to these men, in that sense, is to cause injustice to many others. At the same time, it is impracticable, as we have demobilised half our Army. To come along now and do this thing would only delay the process of demobilisaton and perhaps delay the demobilisation of many of the very men on whose behalf my hon. Friend has made his request.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nineteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.