HC Deb 07 June 1946 vol 423 cc2396-401

3.44 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

From U.N.R.R.A. one may pass without too great a jerk to B.A.O.R. I wish to refer to the continued delay in arranging for British officers and men in Germany to be joined by their wives. It is rather appropriate to raise this matter on the eve of the day on which representatives of those soldiers and airmen will be marching through London to celebrate victory. On rfith April the Secretary of State for War said: A scheme has been worked out, but the availability of transport and accommodation and other conditions in Germany must be the dominant factors in reaching a decision as to when the scheme can be started."—[OFFICAL REPORT, 16th April; Vol. 421, C. 419.] A month later, on r4th May, the Financial Secretary to the War Office said, as evidence, no doubt, that this question was engaging the attention of the Government: I am attending a meeting on this matter this afternoon. "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th May; Vol. 422, c. 1664.] That announcement raised both this House and the long suffering soldiers and airmen in Germany to the very tiptoe of expectation. But it was three and a half weeks ago, and nothing whatever has happened. Before we separate this afternoon, I do hope that His Majesty's Government will give a definite statement as to when the scheme for allowing these wives to go will be brought into force. I am quite sure my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office, who himself served in Germany during the last war, has done his best. What is holding this thing up? Cannot the Secretary of State, or my hon. Friend, or some one else, go to Germany with full powers to settle this matter on the spot, instead of continuing what appear to be interminable inter-Departmental communications? British wives are already in Austria. In Berlin, Russian wives have been there for some time—at least, I have been told that Russian generals have their wives there; in the Soviet Army, the rank and file do not enjoy the same privileges as the officers in the matter of wives. American wives have been in Germany since 2nd May, and almost the first four American wives to arrive happened to be Britishborn—a fact which increases the bitter feeling of British officers and men. French wives have been in Baden-Baden for some months. British officers and men alone are compelled to go on living a monastic life, which does not exactly encourage them to respond to the invitation of His Majesty's Government to join the permanent Army.

The Minister said, in the statement which I have quoted, that there was a shortage of accommodation in Germany, but I am told that in Berlin, at least, there is plenty of accommodation. There seems to be proof of that in the fact that quarters for married women were actually cleared two months ago, and after a census had been taken, which showed that only 300 officers and men wanted to have their wives out, some of these quarters were actually released. In most towns, I am also told, there is no greater difficulty than there is in Berlin, although I admit that in some it may not be possible to provide accommodation at present. Are we to be told that because it is impossible to have wives in all places,- we cannot have them in any? I am quite sure that the troops themselves would not adopt that dog-in-the-manger attitude. On the contrary, I am sure that it would give them all great satisfaction if a start could be made, because then they would realise that a genuine attempt was being made to provide them with something better than promises and hopes.

To return to the statement of the Financial Secretary, he said that there were other considerations which were holding the thing up, besides accommodation. What are these other considerations? Will the Minister tell us? Is it the risk of civil disturbances in Germany? What about the hundreds of girls—I am told that there are hundreds of girls—who are serving with the Control Commission, both in Berlin and elsewhere? There seems to be very little substance in that objection.

I would ask the House to remember that many of these soldiers and airmen have been separated from their wives for no less than six years. Are the wives to sit at home at a blank undefined future, when all around them in England they see families being reunited? Quite obviously, the nation is losing a chance of adding to its languishing population, and I am quite sure that the babies would prove to be of good stock.

The men in the Control Commission, both Service men and civilians, are subject to the same " no wife " rule, and this is having the inevitable effect of restricting recruitment for the Control Commission. How can you expect civilians to go out under those conditions and sign on for a term of years? Why should those whose short-term contracts have expired renew their contracts if they cannot get any promise on this matter? I am told that because of the failure to give any definite promise, the Control Commission is losing men with very valuable experience gained during the last 12 months.

This morning I attended the opening of the Germany Under Control Exhibition, in Oxford Street, when the Chancellor of the Duchy, the Commander-in-Chief in Germany, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Sholto Douglas, and Lieut.-General Sir Brian Robertson delivered excellent speeches on the control system. If the facts are anything like the pictures in the Exhibition the control, both military and civil, must be very good, but I suggest that it would be better still if wives were allowed to join their husbands.

3.50 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Bellenger)

The House will forgive me if I rise at this moment because time is limited and not only the hon. Gentleman who raised this matter but others, particularly those serving overseas, would like an answer from the War Office who are mainly responsible for any arrangements to be made in the event of wives being permitted to go to B.A.O.R. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) has been good enough to refer to previous statements of mine in the H; use, and I think that that reference showed quite clearly that my own personal views are in sympathy with those lie has put forward, and with the views of those overseas in B.A.O.R who wish their families to join them. I think I can say that in general His Majesty's Government are in sympathy with the wish of those who have been long separated from their families at home to have them out there, but the matter is not so easy as would appear on paper, or, perhaps, as I myself, with a more optimistic outlook in these matters, imagined when I first began looking into this case. In the War Office we have been going into the detailed arrangements— the operational side of it if I may call it that—of the possibility of what may very well be a considerable movement of wives and children from this country to the B.A.O.R.

Mr. Keeling

What is the figure?

Mr. Bellenger

It is rather difficult to arrive at a definite figure, because although we put out questionnaires to the officers and men serving in the British Army in Germany, at the moment many of them have not made up their minds; they want to see what is going to be offered to them. Indeed, if any scheme were arranged it would have to be limited obviously to those who had a certain period still to serve in the B.A.O.R. It would be most uneconomical and unwise to allow families to go out there to join their husbands and fathers if those husbands and fathers had only a very short time to remain in Germany before they came home for release. I will mention some of the difficulties that have to be overcome before any scheme like this can be embarked upon. The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the numbers of girls and women on the Control Commission in Germany and in Berlin, and used that as an illustration to show that, if girls can be sent over there in those circumstances, it would naturally be quite easy to send soldiers' wives and families out there.

Mr. Keeling

I did not use it as an illustration of that, but merely to show that there did not seem to be any substance in the suggestion that women might be the victims of civil disturbance

Mr. Rellenger

They might not be the victims in that sense but it is much easier to handle uniformed bodies of women or any military personnel or personnel under some control or discipline than it is to allow wives and children to join their husbands in scattered parts of Germany where the British units are serving. It may be an easier matter for the Control Commission, but I rather doubt that, as the situation in large towns, like Berlin, from a security point of view is not, I regret to say, satisfactory today even for military personnel. Therefore, I think it is the duty of the Government to take every precaution before they allow wives and children to go over to the B.A.O.R.

As evidence of our desire at the War Office—and it meets with the general approval of the Government—to see the reuniting of families where part of the family is serving overseas, we have, as the hon. Gentleman said, inaugurated a scheme in Austria and a very limited number of families have already gone out to Austria. I can well imagine the feeling aroused in the minds of those in the country next door to Austria when they themselves have not similar facilities. I can only say that the problem in Germany is quite out of proportion to the problem in Austria. For example, the number of troops serving in Germany is very much larger than in Austria, and I think that from a security point of view the situation is not so settled in Germany as it is in Austria, although even in Austria it is not all that we could desire.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is plenty of accommodation in Berlin for families. I do not know whether he has visited Berlin since the war. I have myself and I should not have thought that there was plenty of habitable accommodation in Berlin; there are a good many ruins there, especially in the centre, but I should not have thought that there is enough accommodation for the masses of German people who want to live there or who have to live there. Again, never let us forget that if our families go to Germany they will have to live in close contact with the Germans. We know the situation among the German population as regards their food difficulties, and it is not going to be an easy matter for young people or for women folk to be comparatively well fed themselves—as they will be if they go there under Army auspices—and to see the unfortunate position in which the Germans are.

I do not, however, want to over emphasise the difficulties because I know from my own personal correspondence that many of the troops out there are quite prepared to say, " We know the difficulties just as well as you do and we are prepared to take any risks, if there are any, such as they may be."In concluding my remarks today I should like to say that whatever the troops may think about the reasons, His Majesty's Government know much more than they do and are in possession of facts and information which lead it to go perhaps a little more slowly than many would desire before it can come to a decision to lay on a plan of the nature such as the hon. Gentleman has suggested in his speech today.

As I said in my opening remarks, His Majesty's Government are sympathetic with the idea, and I may say that the problem is being still further examined from certain aspects. There is the educational aspect, for example. which is very serious; if children go over there we cannot allow them, as it were, to run wild. They must have their education continued if they are going out for any length of time, and matters like that add up to make this a very difficult problem. All I would ask the House to do is to accept my assurance that the mind of His Majesty's Government is very wide open and sympathetic to the project of sending families overseas to the B.A.O.R., but that we are not yet in a position to give a definite decision.