HC Deb 09 May 1946 vol 422 cc1321-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

8.16 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I desire to raise this evening the question of the provision of facilities for visits by relatives to soldiers who are dangerously ill in the Central Mediterranean Forces. Under that somewhat dreary designation, there is concealed the to a good many hon. Members surprising fact that if a soldier in the British Army becomes dangerously ill or is injured when serving with the Central Mediterranean Forces, which, of course, includes Italy and Austria, there is even today no provision of any sort for his relatives to visit him, whereas, if that soldier were similarly situated while serving with the British Army of the Rhine facilities would be provided. I must confess that when, in circumstances which I will describe briefly to the House in a few moments, I discovered that fact, I was somewhat surprised, and I suggest that there are comparatively few hon. Members, however well versed they may be in military regulations, who are aware of that surprising discrimination.

I propose to do two things: first, to put to the House a specific example of the working of this War Office decision, and to address a few observations on the general principle. I very much regret that the Financial Secretary to the War Office, who, I understand, is to reply, is not yet here, as I know that he was in the precincts of the House earlier today and was fully aware that he was required here this evening. I hope it is no indication that the War Office regards this matter as of trifling consequence. Be that as it may, even in the absence of the Financial Secretary, in accordance with the procedure of this House I must put the case, and I can only hope that the hon. Gentlemen who somewhat sparsely occupy the Government Front Bench will be in a position to invite his attention to the facts when and if he is good enough to honour the House with his presence.

The facts of the case, which will, no doubt, illuminate the mind of the Financial Secretary, now that he has arrived, are these. Towards the end of January of this year Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley, who live in the Royal and ancient borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, were informed by the military authorities in Italy that their son was dangerously ill at 92 General Hospital in the city of Naples. The Financial Secretary will be aware that the term "dangerously ill" has a precise military significance. In the course of the month of January, they received further disturbing reports that this young soldier, who was aged no more than 19, was suffering from the complaints of uraemia and nephritis, which I am advised are exceedingly serious matters.

In any event, at the end of January Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley received, through the War Office, a signal from the Officer Commanding, 92nd British General Hospital, Naples, in which that officer recommended Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley to come to Naples to see their son, and advised them to contact the War Office for arrangements. I would repeat, because it is not without significance, that as far as can be ascertained, that message was sent by that officer through the War Office to Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley. In accordance with the advice therein contained, Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley called at the War Office upon the 1st and 2nd February They were there informed by the relevant officials, perfectly accurately, that no scheme of any sort existed under which these two parents could proceed to the bedside of their dangerously ill son, notwithstanding the fact that they had been advised by the Commandant of the hospital to contact the War Office with a view to making these arrangements. It requires no words of mine to conjure up the state of mind in which those two people were when they were informed by the War Office that no provision could be made for them.

That being so, it so happens that those two people saw me, as the Member representing their constituency, on the afternoon of Saturday, 2nd February. On their behalf I got into touch with the War Office. I appreciate that the War Office, in common, no doubt, with other Government Departments, is perhaps in one of its less dynamic phases upon a Saturday afternoon. Be that as it may, I attempted to contact the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, and the senior officials of that Department without any conspicuous success, although I was able to contact the Private Secretary's Office, "Q" Movements, and the Welfare Directorate. As a result of those inquiries—I need not weary the House with the details—I was given the following information: first, perfectly accurately, that no scheme of any sort existed to enable relatives to proceed to Italy; secondly, that, notwithstanding the fact that there was at that time a regular troop train proceeding from England via Calais to Novara in Northern Italy, and a daily aircraft proceeding to Rome, there was nobody then in the War Office with authority to place two civilians, either on that train or on that plane. On my pressing the matter further I was informed that no person other than the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War himself had authority to place two civilians upon that troop train.

On my inquiry, in those circumstances—for certainly in no other circumstances would I have sought to trouble the right hon. Gentleman personally—as to where the right hon. Gentleman could be contacted I was informed that, it being Saturday afternoon, he was somewhere in the County of Durham and that he was not on the telephone. I was further informed, as the result of further inquiries, that neither the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for War, nor the Noble Lord who then fulfilled the duties of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary State for War, nor the Financial Secretary nor his Parliamentary Private Secretary were available. Therefore, the position was left, that in the absence of a scheme and in the absence of anybody in the War Office who could take the colossal responsibility of putting two civilians on to a troop train, nothing could be done. It is right and fair that I should say this. As the result of the courteous and helpful attitude of a certain military officer of the Department I very soon ascertained that there was no physical, as opposed to administrative and financial barrier to Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley proceeding to Italy. As the result of certain information which I elicited I discovered, by contacting the Air Priorities Board in St. James's Street, that Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley could be placed upon an aircraft proceeding to Italy provided that their fares, to the extent of £140, were guaranteed. The parents being, as the House will no doubt have already gathered, people of no great substance, that amounted, in fact to a prohibition. However, as it so happened the Air Priorities Board were persuaded to accept the personal guarantee of the Member for the constituency.

We have there a position which is, to my mind, all the more unsatisfactory, that there was at that time, and there is today, no physical barrier to parents proceeding to Italy. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley were in the plane in a matter of a few hours. However, there was this state of affairs, that the War Office were not prepared to raise a finger to help. Unless the parents of men so situated are either rich or able to elicit assistance from some direction their sons can die in a military hospital in Italy without the War Office raising a finger to take their relatives to them. That is all the more surprising in view of the fact that there is now, and has been for many months past, a perfectly adequate system in operation if the soldier happens to be ill with the British Army of the Rhine instead of in Italy. As a result of that case—I apologise for wearying the House with an individual instance, but it does seem to me to be a vivid illustration—we see two things. First, there is no physical circumstance preventing relatives of the very few men, fortunately, in these days, dangerously ill in that theatre proceeding there; and secondly, that there can be no administrative impossibility in instituting a system, which has been functioning for many months in respect of the rather larger Army on the Rhine.

Now for the general principle. I raised this matter with the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State immediately after it happened, and I have no doubt that the Financial Secretary is fully furnished with all the facts, since his Department has had them for some months. On 19th February I put a general question down to the Secretary of State in this House, and I received the following reply—I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT of 19th February: Major BOYD-CARPENTER asked the Secretary of State for War when he proposes to introduce arrangements under which relatives of soldiers in Italy who are dangerously ill will be able to visit them. Mr. LAWSON: The possibility of introducing such a scheme is at present being examined."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th February, 1946; V. 419, c. 946.]

That is nearly three months ago, and no one, presumably, can charge the War Office with any undue precipitancy in coming to a decision. From an administrative point of view it is a very small matter. The numbers—perhaps the Financial Secretary may be able to give them—of soldiers dangerously ill or injured in the Mediterranean theatre at the moment must be extremely small. There is, as we know, and the House will forgive me for repeating it, regular troop train communication with Italy. For civilians the Paris-Rome express is already operating, and there are air services to Italy. Indeed, I understand that hon. Members of this House were in that country during the Easter Recess. The numbers are small, the physical difficulty is negligible, and the only obstacle—and here I hope the Financial Secretary may be able to tell us something—appears to be the inertia of the War Office. I would not have troubled the House this evening with this matter were it not for the fact that though, as the Financial Secretary knows well, I have been raising this matter with his Department for the last three months, it has been impossible to get any satisfaction. It therefore appeared to me right and proper that the final constitutional method of appeal, a discussion in the House of Commons, should be given to this question.

I hope that the Financial Secretary may be able to tell us, not, as the Secretary of State said three months ago, that the matter is under consideration, not even that it is under active or urgent or continuous review, but that he will give a pledge to the House that he is going to do it. If he does not, I think, in fairness to the House, he should be able to tell us precisely why he cannot, because unless there are circumstances which it is somewhat difficult to imagine, it seems extraordinary that the War Office, which successfully moved millions of troops across the world in great and successful operations of war, should find it overwhelmingly difficult to move a handful of individuals over no greater distance than from this country to Italy.

There is another aspect to it. We are passing, to some extent at any rate, into an era of voluntary recruiting. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, I think, hope and believe that it will be increasingly possible to recruit our Army by voluntary enlistment, and every effort is made, in attractive books of the sort I have in my hand, to attract men into the Services. But the treatment of the human needs of the men in this way does more to discourage recruiting than can be counterbalanced by thousands of these attractively written pamphlets, because to the mind of the modern younger generation it strikes a depressing echo of the old, past attitude in military matters, that the pressing vital needs of the soldier and his family are things to take a secondary place to administrative convenience. The Financial Secretary should consider this matter; if he will not consider it on human and moral grounds, he should consider it from the point of view of its effect on voluntary enlistment. I appreciate, and I think all hon. Members do, that in time of war it is sometimes necessary—it is only too often necessary in the interests of the State—that men should be called upon to die in a foreign land, far from their friends, homes and families. That is part of the cost of war. But it is not necessary, it is not inevitable, that such things should happen upon the European continent a year after VE-Day. This House, not the Government, is ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of these young men, whom this House by its own action has compelled to go into the Forces of the Crown. This House would be neglecting its responsibility towards them if it did not insist upon urgent and immediate action by His Majesty's Government.

8.34 P.m.

Mr. Anthony Nutting (Melton)

I am very glad indeed that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) has been able to raise this subject tonight, thus having a good deal more luck in the ballot for the Adjournment than I had myself. I hope that he will forgive me, and that I shall not be out of Order, if I raise a similar question of extreme compassionate importance which is rather the reverse of the subject raised by my hon. Friend. What I should like to urge is that more generous facilities should be granted to Servicemen who are the relatives of people who are dangerously ill at home. I took the opportunity before this Debate started tonight of mentioning to the Financial Secretary to the War Office that I should like to raise this subject, and he kindly consented to give me an answer in general terms, in spite of the short notice.

As I understand them, the present regulations regarding this aspect of the matter entitle only the next of kin nearest home to be sent home on compassionate leave, in the event of dangerous illness occurring at home. That is not only unfair and unjust; it causes a considerable amount of distress and hardship to the sick person's relatives who have the misfortune to be farther away. I have had in my own constituency several cases of extreme hardship on this score. The next of kin who have happened to be further away, even though perhaps only five or ten miles further away, have been debarred from getting to the bedside of their dangerously ill parents, or brothers or sisters, as the case may be.

I had a specific case like that mentioned by my hon. Friend. It was the case of a young man who was dying at home. He had exactly five days to live. He had a particularly favourite brother out of the family of three, but it so happened that that brother was in Germany. He had a sister who was in the A.T.S. at a distance of something like 50 miles from home. Only the sister could get home to her brother before he died. The brother who was in Germany was debarred from doing so by the strict enforcement of these regulations. The case, naturally, came to me as the Member for the constituency, and I took it up with the War Office. I took it up, fortunately, in the middle of the week, and not, as my hon. Friend took his, at the weekend; and I was able to get, at least, the help of a private secretary. The private secretary confessed that there was no power on earth that could force the military authorities overseas to send home that favourite brother before his brother at home died.

I submit that that is a most unsatisfactory, unsympathetic, and unfair state of affairs. I do hope, now that the necessity has ended for interpretating all these regulations as strictly as they had to be interpreted during the war, that we can have a more sympathetic approach on the part of the Government. Obviously, it was necessary in time of war to enforce these regulations strictly, and it was inevitable that extreme hardship of this kind should arise. But now, surely, a year after VE Day, we can relax these regulations, so that the relatives who are asked for by those dangerously ill at home may be allowed to go home from their Service station, wherever it may be. The Minister, when he replies, may refer to the question of transport. Transport is a consideration of importance, but there was that Question asked yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) about a certain passenger on an aircraft from Italy who, as far as the Under-Secretary of State for Air was able to say, had no reason whatsoever for a priority seat in an aeroplane. If that is the situation which is allowed on the airways of Transport Command, surely the transport difficulty cannot be so acute. Transport cannot make all that difference as not to allow of a relaxation of these regulations. Although this matter has been raised at short notice, I hope that the Minister, who no doubt will be able to reply only in general terms, will reassure us that at least he will look into this question and consider it sympathetically. I can assure him, if he will do so, that he will be doing a lot to assuage much extreme hardship.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I have been surprised and a little horrified, listening to the revelations of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in regard to the question of parents and others proceeding overseas to visit sick soldiers. Speaking entirely for myself, I have had many occasions to be grateful to the War Office, and to the hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary—perhaps I may infringe the strict etiquette of this House, and call him "my hon. Friend"—for providing facilities in the reverse cases I have brought to their notice, so that soldiers have been able to come home to visit their sick parents and relatives. I am most grateful for what has been done in my own cases, and I think it fair and right to put that on the records of the proceedings of this House. I am grateful, not only to the War Office, but also to the Admiralty and Air Ministry. Therefore, I am very disheartened to hear of the unsatisfactory condition of things in the reverse case of parents and others visiting sick soldiers abroad. By and large, my experience has been a great deal more fortunate than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Melton (Mr. Nutting). So far as I am concerned, the War Office have endeavoured to put humanity first and routine second, and I feel sure that if the Financial Secretary can give a reply tonight positively affirming that principle, he will receive a sympathetic reception from all sides of the House.

8.44 p.m.

Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

I intervene, only for a moment, in order to indicate that we on this side of the House are equally concerned on this subject. I should like to refer to the matter from a different angle. It happens that I am directly interested in this subject, because I was in the Welfare Department of the War Office for some period during the war, and also because my brother, who is a surgeon and is in Italy at the present time, has written to me on the subject, and I have been in communication with the Secretary of State. It is a fact that, even now, large numbers of soldiers are gravely ill, and suffer from complaints which are unlikely to be alleviated during any reasonable period. It is also a fact that there has been great difficulty in obtaining transport to get these men home. Some of them, unfortunately, are unlikely to recover. I hope that my hon. Friend will indicate that, at least, His Majesty's Government are determined to do everything in their power to get transport to bring these men home—just as they are going to try to get transport for the purposes for which hon. Members opposite desire transport to be allocated—and that he will give particulars of the transport position, which will enable us to explain to our constituents the reasons why His Majesty's Government are unable, on any particular occasion, to provide transport. The slogan which I would suggest to the Government on this subject would be, "Demobilisation in the light." Welfare arrangements for the troops generally should be made in such a manner that we can understand the circumstances of cases in which it is necessary to circumscribe them, in the in- terests of transport, or in the overall interests of the country.

I was much impressed by what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) said. I feel that he behaved with great generosity in indicating, on the Floor of the House, that he had been treated so well by the War Office. I think that this has been the experience of other hon. Members on all sides of the House. We feel that a great effort has been made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to meet the point of the hon. Gentleman who opened this Debate—and to whom, also, the House is much indebted—and that they have shown that the War Office does fully appreciate that personal problems are inseparable from the question of the efficiency of the Army as a whole. I hope that my hon. Friend will give a conciliatory and friendly answer to this Debate, and that he will indicate, first, that in no circumstances will financial considerations be allowed to come into this matter, and, secondly, that His Majesty's Government will provide transport in all cases where there is a risk of death, either to enable parents to go overseas or to bring men home.

8.47 p.m.

Colonel Wheatley (Dorset, Eastern)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), and other speakers on this side of the House, who raised this matter, with which, as a welfare officer for five years, I have been brought into close touch. We must remember that we are dealing with an Army of conscripts, which is quite different to the prewar Army. Relatives have not contemplated their sons being so far away for so long, and they do not understand the Army way of doing things, in the same way as the parents of volunteers did in the old days. A man, in those days, went into the Army and that was the end of it. In these days of conscription, the whole psychology involved in the question has been altered. Many a time, I have had a distracted mother come to me and say, "How can I get to my son who, I hear, is dangerously ill?" It has taken some time, but I am bound to pay my tribute to the War Office. When I, as a welfare officer, communicated with the War Office, I got an answer immediately. Sometimes these matters go to the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association, and there may be delay. There is also the reverse case, in which a father, dying in England, asks that his son may be sent home, and there has been a great deal of delay. What is the reason for the delay I do not know, but I would like the Minister to give instructions that units will not hold up any case of a man who asks to come home because his parents are dangerously ill. In the war the exigencies of the Service had to come first, but now that is all over and I do hope that the Minister will give instructions that if a unit receives information that a parent of one of the men in the unit is dangerously ill, and has been asking for him, priority will be given to that man to go home, and arrangements will not be delayed.

I am glad that the question of transport has been mentioned. A man going home on such a mission should not be delayed because there is no room on the transport. Room must be found. We have had cases brought to our notice where room has been found for people travelling for what reason we do not know, but always with a large amount of baggage. It seems that such people are able to get passages, and it should be possible for room to be found for men going home in such circumstances as I have indicated. It should be remembered that there will not be a tremendous number. In fact there will be comparatively few, but the manner in which they are treated will have a great effect on the bringing of volunteers into the future army. If the War Office wants to create a good impression not only in regard to pay—it is not everything—but in regard to other conditions it will have to be shown that the Army administration is humane. If it is shown that the administration is going to think of the individual, the Government will have a much greater chance of getting recruits than it will if the Army gets a bad name or is shown to be bound up by regulations and red tape. The provision of facilities to bring a man quickly home to sick relatives is just the sort of illustration that will impress the country.

Another point which should be borne in mind is that as far as possible arrangements should be made for those who have to go abroad to visit sons who are in Army hospitals. Generally these people are ignorant of travel and many of them have not travelled very far from their own villages. If they are able to get through without great difficulty or trouble it will have a great effect. I hope the Minister will bear in mind the difference between our prewar Army and the present Army. We have now as I said earlier a conscript Army and that has altered the situation and must be taken into consideration.

8.54 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I wish to support the eloquent plea put forward by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). First perhaps I may be allowed to say something on my own behalf. Like the hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) I have served in the War Office, in a department which was concerned with this policy. I do not think my hon. Friend is altogether fair in laying the blame for this matter upon the War Office. I have no doubt that if it lay with the War Office alone to settle the policy to be followed in this matter, facilities would have been forthcoming long ago. The difficulty is not the obduracy of the War Office; it is the difficulty first of getting the three Service Departments into line, because the War Office cannot be given a special advantage which is not available to the other Departments, and, after all, there are other Departments vitally concerned. I suspect that the Ministry of Transport is one of them, and there is no doubt that the Treasury is the Department which has the last say in this matter. Therefore, this is not a charge which I should bring against the War Department. It is a charge which I should bring against the Front Bench opposite for failing to co-ordinate their policy quickly enough and well enough to provide the facilities for which hon. Members in all parts of the House are asking. If the charge came to be analysed the responsibility would probably lie with Treasury unwillingness to supply the funds.

I confess that this is an example which makes me wonder why hon. Members opposite are so much inclined to favour a policy of nationalisation, under which a large proportion of the workers of this country would be employed by the State. This is an example of just the kind of thing which they will find when the workers become employees of the State. In a case such as this, if these individuals were employed by a great private corporation—a shipping company, or what you will, with employees spread about the world—these facilities would have been forthcoming almost instantaneously. But when the people concerned have to look to the State, before the question can he settled it has to be agreed between four or five Departments and, finally, the cost has to be approved by the Treasury. They have to wait for months, and meantime nothing is done. The responsibility rests fairly and squarely on the Front Bench opposite. It is for them to co-ordinate policy, and to do so as quickly as possible.

There are two small points which should be made on the merits of the proposal which has been put forward. I understand from the researches that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, that a private individual, provided he can raise the necessary funds, would have no difficulty in obtaining permission and a passage to travel from this country to Naples, or anywhere else in Italy.

Mr. Blackburn

That is not so; the hon. Member did not say that.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I understand from my hon. Friend that he knows of a particular case. In fact, the individual in regard to whom this case has been raised did, by means of private funds, go without the assistance of the War Office.

Mr. Blackburn

The hon. Member said that people would have no difficulty, but they would have to get priority for passage. I understand that priority was given in this particular case. There was the other difficulty, in regard to which I am with the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I hope the hon. Member will moderate his language on this subject, because we are all trying to deal with this matter in an atmosphere of cooperation.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I entirely accept what the hon. Member opposite says but, on the other hand, the Party he supports have been responsible for policy in this matter for months past, and nothing has been done. We are here to put forward complaints, and to see that suitable action is taken. These cases have been occurring for some time past; indeed, the case on which this Debate has turned occurred in the first week in January. So, I think we are entitled to say that it is a matter of urgency, and to complain that action has not yet been taken. As I was saying, it is possible for a private individual, who has means at his disposal to obtain a passage and travel on a journey of this sort, without the assistance of a Government Department.

If an individual has not got money and has to rely upon public facilities, he or she cannot at the present time make the journey. It is exactly that sort of discrimination which leads to complaints and seriously interferes with morale. At the present time the dependants of those who are serving feel that they are put in a disadvantageous position compared with those who have the financial means to make the journey. In those circumstances, there are bound to be complaints and loss of morale.

On the merits of the case that has been made, I do not think there will be any difference of opinion in the House. I knew of cases during the war in which the presence of a near relative, a wife, a parent or a brother made all the difference between life and death. A person who is seriously ill may reach the stage of an illness where he may die simply because of a lack of the desire to continue to live. It may be that when some near and dear person comes into the sick room and can be made known to the person who is dangerously ill, that will so revive his efforts that he will just be able to turn the corner and survive the illness. That being so, this is an extremely limited class of case. It is a matter of the utmost urgency. I ask the Financial Secretary to give us a favourable reply, or at any rate to tell us that he will take up the cudgels most energetically with the other Departments who have to be brought into line, so that we may get a favourable decision at a very early date.

9.2 p.m.

Lady Noel-Buxton (Norwich)

I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for East Dorset (Colonel Wheatley) did not wish to give a wrong impression about the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association. He said that sometimes it delays matters, although I am sure he did not mean to say that. Having worked for the Association for three and a half years, and having had many of these cases and expedited them, I thought it right to explain this matter and to pay a tribute to the work which hon. Members know the Association is doing.

Colonel Wheatley

I did not wish to create any impression that I was criticising the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association. As a welfare officer, I worked with it intimately for five years, and I have admiration for the good work it is doing. I meant to imply that families go to the Association and that there is delay between the families, the War Office, and the unit.

Lady Noel-Buxton

I am glad I gave the hon. and gallant Member for East Dorset a chance to make that explanation, because I think he will find, when he reads his speech in HANSARD, that the implication was that the Association was the cause of the delay. As many mothers and wives have found the Association very useful on these occasions, I thought it right to give the hon. and gallant Member an opportunity of explaining the matter. Knowing the Army welfare work he has done and having worked closely with Army welfare officers, I knew that would be the case I would like to support what has been said in this Debate. There have been cases where it has been definitely an advantage for the War Office to send relatives to the men. I think the relative should be sent not only when the man is found to be really dangerously ill and dying, but when there is a distinct danger of death or even a chance that he may die. The will to live is often inspired by the presence of a near relative.

I am sure doctors would say that they have often completely given up a man but that he has started to recover from the moment his wife or mother arrived, and I wish very strongly to support the pleas that have been made in this House. I hope we are pushing at an open door. I raised this matter at Question time a little while ago, and I hope we shall have a reply from the Financial Secretary to the War Office tonight which will satisfy all hon. Members who are in agreement with me.

9.6 p.m.

Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

I wish to revert to the question of transport because it seems to me that a great deal of this difficulty may be attributed to the problems and burdens of transport. I think it very important to get a full picture of the position before the Financial Secretary to the War Office replies. There is no doubt that during the war, transport, particularly air transport, was difficult, but now that peace has come the position should be very much changed. On behalf of the parents and the families of my constituents, and of all those people who may have sick relatives abroad, I make the plea that the Minister should explain to them what is the difference in the transport position, between war and peace. On this point I draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the arrangements made by the Americans in this respect. I think it is without doubt that their transport arrangements are far better than ours. If I may take an example, the case of the families of Americans serving on the Continent, the Americans have managed to provide transport for the relatives of not only of those who are ill, but of those who are well. The Russians have also done it for nearly 9,000,000 men, and the French are also doing it in their zone in Germany. I think there is a great responsibility upon the Financial Secretary tonight to tell the people of this country through the House the reason, if there is a reason, why transport cannot be made available by the British authorities when it can be made available by our Allies.

9.8 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Bolton)

I rise to say a word on behalf of the various Ministries concerned, based on my experience as an individual. I happen to be the very proud father of five children who have served right through the war, and I well remember being called from my bed by telephone at one o'clock in the morning to a hospital 184 miles away where one of my boys was lying after undergoing a serious operation as the result of a wound. I can verify the statement that the presence of one so near and so dear did create in him the will to live.

I have put very many cases through. I represent the biggest constituency of this country, comprising some 120,000 persons, and I want to say here and now that I have been amazed at the courteous consideration that I have received and the promptitude with which applications to the various Ministries have been dealt with. I served in the last war. I was one of those much maligned quartermaster - sergeants and had the privilege of serving under the Noble Lord, the Father of the House, for four years. My experience enables me to know a little about the difficulties of a man who is suffering from serious injury in the desert, in an outpost, or in some out-of-the-way place. I know the difficulties in the way of having a dying man returned to hospital, where he can be visited by his father, or of the father being able to go out to see a dying son. I know there have been slips and mistakes but as with every other law in this country, a lot depends on the individual, at either end of the line, who is dealing with the particular case.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I think the hon. Member has misapprehended my argument. It was not based upon a "slip up" but on the fact that it is still the established policy of the War Office not to send relatives to dangerously ill soldiers in the Central Mediterranean though they will to the B.A.O.R.

Mr. Jones

I was coming to that point. Times alter and improvements are made. With regard to the point raised by my hon. Friend opposite—any person who raises the interests of serving men is my hon. Friend no matter what party he represents—I have seen the difficulties. I know that parents have been very aggrieved. I had a case, only three days ago, about which I wrote to the Minister. A young married man who was about to be demobilised, was run into by a service wagon in Germany, near the place which some hon. Members recently visited. There was delay before the wife of that man was notified. Upon investigation we found the cause of the delay. The man had left his unit and was on his way. No one knew exactly the point which he had reached and he was eventually found in a roadhouse. That caused two or three days' delay.

I do not want any hon. Member to look upon this matter as a party question. I hope that nobody will try to get any political kudos out of it. Despite all our differences, this is one of the matters on which we can be in 100 per cent. Agreement—the right of a suffering man to have his parents at his bedside and the right of a suffering parent to have his serving boy or daughter come to see him. I know that our Ministers are as humane as any Ministers. Humanitarian instincts are common to us all. There are differences of opinion as to how those instincts can be expressed in industry and other forms of activity. In regard to human suffering, there is something deep down and common to us all There was, I thought, a slight indication that the hon. Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) wanted to gain some little kudos out of this matter.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I was not trying to gain kudos at all. I was trying to spur Ministers into taking action.

Mr. Jones

That may be perfectly true. It all depends on how one accepts what somebody else says. I thought that the hon. Member was trying to gain some slight advantage out of this matter, but I am now satisfied that that was not his intention. This is a matter, as I say, which is very near and dear to us all, and in respect to which we have common bonds, regardless of our political opinions. I hope that this discussion on this humanitarian basis between the very few who have remained in this House will bring about the effect which the hon. Member who, in my opinion, did right to raise this matter, has sought to achieve.

9.15 p.m.

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

I am most obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Jones) for putting the point of view about the humanitarian way the War Office and, I think, every Service Department, do try to deal with the very hard cases. It may be that we are not always 100 per cent. successful. That is not to be wondered at in such an immense machine like the War Office machine, spread all over the world, and I do not think that even hon. Members opposite in putting, as I thought they did very moderately, a very human case would expect the War Office, at a moment's notice, to send relatives all over the world, much as we would like to do so, and much as their soldier relatives who happen to be very ill would like to see their relatives. In dealing with the particular case which the hon. Member for Kingston - upon - Thames (Mr. Boyd - Carpenter) raised, a case affecting one of his own constituents, I thought that, although otherwise his manner and his method of presenting his case were quite fair and reasonable, he was a little in- clined to be hard on the Ministers and their unfortunate unpaid Parliamentary private secretaries. I do not think it is fair to ask that at a week end the Secretary of State, the Financial Secretary, the Under-Secretary of State or their private secretaries should be on duty, and, indeed, the hon. Member knows only too well that even in military formations senior officers like to get away from their duties occasionally and there is left on duty what is called duty officer.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Would the Financial Secretary permit me to interrupt because he is really just putting the point that I wished him to apprehend? I was not taking exception to the Secretary of State or the Financial Secretary having, no doubt, a very well earned weekend. What I was objecting to—I am sorry that I did not make it clear—was that there was no duty officer who, in the strict military sense, could answer for his superior officer. My objection—apart from any rule that only the Secretary of State could authorise civilians to go on a troop train—was that there was no one in the perfectly reasonable absence of the Secretary of State who would be in a position to take that responsibility. That was the whole point of my criticism.

Mr. Bellenger

I thought I heard the hon. Gentleman say that, in spite of the lamentable fact, in his own opinion at any rate, that he could not contact the Secretary of State or his other Ministers, he was able to contact three departments of the War Office, one a very important department in this respect, namely, the welfare department—

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Yes, but—

Mr. Bellenger

What the hon. Gentleman is complaining about, I think, although he did not put it in that way, is that none of these departments could authorise the despatch of his constituents to Naples.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter


Mr. Bellenger

It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that even if the Secretary of State or I had been there, neither of us could have done so. We could not, under the present rules and regulations, have authorised the despatch of these relatives to the Central Mediterranean area because there are no facilities, such as exist in B.A.O.R., to enable relatives to visit cases of sickness farther afield than B.A.O.R.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is the hon. Gentleman really telling the House that if an order, sent by the Secretary of State for War, was given to the military and movement authorities to transport and accommodate these people in Naples, it would not be carried out?

Mr. Bellenger

I am not suggesting anything of the kind, but I am saying that we have to go by certain rules and regulations. The rules and regulations of which I shall have something to say in a moment if the hon. Gentleman will permit me—and I have a suspicion that the hon. Gentleman, who is very anxious to intervene, knows, I will not say as much as I do about it, but knows a good deal about what I am discussing—would not have permitted the Secretary of State to give that order. Whether he would agree with it or not is another matter. I have every sympathy with the point of view which has been expressed, not only by hon. Gentlemen opposite but by my hon. Friend behind me. This is a human matter, which has to be considered in a human way, but there are other factors besides the War Office in this matter, and the hon. Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) said in his speech that there are two factors, one finance and the other transport.

Perhaps I ought to say just a word or two more about the particular case which gave rise to this Debate—the case of the constituent of the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. Fortunately, that soldier did recover. "Dangerously ill" is a particular description of a case, and I think hon. Gentlemen have only asked for these facilities in what are called, in the War Office and other Service Ministries, "dangerously ill" cases. Obviously, we could not think of sending relatives to different parts of the world because their soldier relatives were ill, and we could only think of facilitating their visits to soldier relatives overseas if the purpose of the visit was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Lady Noel-Buxton) said, to assist the recovery of the soldier who was dangerously ill. In so far as this particular soldier was concerned, it is true that he was reported dangerously ill, and let me say to the House—and I think the House will believe me, because I myself have taken quite an active part in matters of this nature during the war—that, in questions of this sort, I am in complete sympathy with a liberal policy being followed by the Service Departments to ensure that everything possible is done to assist the recovery of sick soldiers, whether overseas or at home.

In this country, it is possible to enable relatives to have free warrants to visit sick soldiers. In B.A.O.R., a little while ago, a scheme was started by the War Office—I cannot speak for the other two Services, but I rather imagine that it applies to them, too—whereby relatives can visit soldiers who are considered to be dangerously ill and whom it is not possible to bring home to this country. Soldiers ill overseas are brought home to this country if they cannot be cured over there and if it is advisable to bring them home, and I think it is best for them to be brought home to their own country, if that is possible. This scheme, called D.I.L.F.O.R.—"Dangerously Ill List, Families, Other Ranks"—which has now been extended to officers as well, was inaugurated and has so far been a great success. I am happy to inform the House that it is not necessary to send large numbers of relatives overseas because we have not, I am glad to say, had these large numbers of soldiers who are considered to be dangerously ill. That scheme has worked very well in B.A.O.R.

The real gravamen of the hon. Gentleman's case tonight is not that we have not got a scheme, because the War Office had started the scheme long before any questions were put down on the Order Paper, but that it is limited to B.A.O.R. What the hon. Gentleman asks is that it should be extended to the Central Mediterranean area, and I should not be at all surprised, if, were that to be done, there were demands for it to be extended even further afield. But, I must warn hon. Members, there is a limit to what can be done in this respect. I would not say that finance is an entirely negligible factor. It has been mentioned that it cost a considerable sum of money for these parents to go to Naples. I think the commandant who told the parents that they had only to go to the War Office to get a pass was in error, because he ought to have known that this scheme was limited to B.A.O.R.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Would the hon. Gentleman say who eventually paid for the passage?

Mr. Bellenger

I have not the slightest idea. All I know is that the passage was not authorised by the War Office, and, therefore, could not be paid for out of War Office funds. We have heard from an hon. Member tonight that he gave a guarantee that someone would pay for it. I only know that the British Red Cross Society have assisted in the cost of journeys of this nature. Whether or not they did in this case I do not know.

I am trying to deal with the substantial point of this Debate, the possibility of extending that free system which we have in B.A.O.R. to other areas. I am in complete sympathy with that point of view, and so is the War Office. Hon. Members may ask, "Why has it not been put into operation?" Until the Debate to-night, the matter had not come immediately to my notice. But I have had an opportunity of talking with one of my two colleagues in the other Service Ministries and he informs me that he also is in sympathy. Now all that remains to be done is for my right hon. Friend or myself to see first whether we can get financial approval for the expense which would be entailed.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Before the Financial Secretary passes from the suggestion that this is a new matter, I must remind him that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered a question of mine to the effect that this matter was at present being examined, on 19th February—three months ago.

Mr. Bellenger

And it is being examined. There are many questions today which take a long time to settle. It may be that hon. Members say that these matters take too long to settle, but there are very many important questions which have to be solved and settled by a declining staff in all Ministries, particularly in the War Office. We have done our best to get a large number of people out of the Army by demobilisation. That, obviously, has taken up transport, finance and the time of staffs. Small wonder is it that many matters of equal importance to this in the opinion of hon. Members take, perhaps, too long to settle. The main thing is to get it settled. I will try to see whether this can be tackled as regards finance. If that cannot be done it will be up to the House to take whatever action they think fit but I am in hopes that we may be able to get this very excellent scheme extended still further than the B.A.O.R. Obviously I cannot commit my colleagues in the Treasury, in the matter of finance.

There is another factor which is perhaps a more limiting factor than finance. That is transport. It is not the slightest use hon. Members saying that by a wave of the hand or a stroke of the pen my right hon. Friend can give authority for relatives to go overseas in aeroplanes and so forth. One cannot get more than a pint out of a pint pot and even today, for one reason or another, transport facilities to overseas and from overseas are somewhat limited. At any rate they are not as extensive as we would like them to be or, apparently, as are those of our American Allies.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he was not aware whether the other Services had agreed to the same principles as had the War Office about B.A.O.R. As this affects the relatives of men in all the Services, it is surely most important that this matter should be discussed on a three-Services basis. Will the hon. Gentleman give some assurance that if it has not already been done, it will be done in the future?

Mr. Bellenger

I said I was not able to speak with exactitude about the other two Services in relation to the B.A.O.R scheme. I know that the War Office have that scheme, and as there is one command for the B.A.O.R., I assume, subject to any correction that might follow, that obviously the Royal Air Force and the Navy are included in that scheme. Perhaps I was a little too cautious in saying that I was not speaking for the other two Services. I think the House can assume that it applies in B.A.O.R. in the case of the other two Services. I do not want hon. Gentlemen opposite to get the impression that there is not consultation between the three Services. Consultation is constantly taking place between them but it is mostly on the official level; it is not always necessary to bring Ministers into the discussions that go on between the three Services on this and cognate matters. I do not think there is much more I need say about this matter at the moment, except to express my regret that it is difficult, not only for relatives of soldiers, but even for civilians, to have free passage to those different parts of the world where their friends and relations may be. Only today I was speaking to a Member of this House outside the Chamber, and I was told that to get a passage to New Zealand or to other parts of the world was difficult and took time unless one had very high priority. This also applies to a certain extent to the Central Mediterranean and the Middle East. I cannot promise to do more than to discuss these matters with my colleagues in the other two Services, who I feel sure will cooperate with me in joint representations to the Treasury for that necessary financial approval for the extension of this concession.

I wish to refer to a matter of a different nature, though perhaps it is somewhat similar, which was raised by the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. A. Nutting). He asked whether it was not possible to make facilities for the passage home from overseas of soldiers who want to visit their sick relatives more adequate than they are at the present time.

Mr. Nutting

Would the hon. Gentleman mind if I correct him on that point? What I was seeking was the widening of the scope of the present regulation which limits the person called home to the bedside of the sick person to the nearest next-of-kin. It may not be a question, therefore, of bringing them home from overseas.

Mr. Bellenger

I think the hon. Member is saying in other words what I was about to say, namely, that he asked that we should enable more soldiers to visit sick relatives, wherever those soldiers may be. But there is difficulty in granting all the applications which come to us. They are much more numerous than hon. Members perhaps imagine. We have to weed out what we consider to be the most serious cases. After all, we have to maintain armies overseas. They can only be maintained if men are there. Obviously, if we withdraw from these areas overseas large numbers of men—I said these compassionate cases of one sort or another are fairly numerous—then it is quite obvious that unless we have got the replacements to send abroad we should be draining the armies overseas and would thereby defeat the purpose for which they are being kept there at present. I deal with this matter at the War Office and all I can say is that we give very sympathetic consideration to the hard cases. I have had several letters from hon. Members and hon. Members have told me personally that they think the War Office, at any rate since the end of the war, has dealt very liberally and generously with these applications for compassionate leave to come home to visit sick relatives, or indeed for compassionate leave for other reasons. Of course, there have been exceptions.

I cannot say any more in reply to the hon. Gentleman except that every case must be treated on its merits. It is not possible to lay down a code which will embrace literally hundreds of differing and varying cases. We have to look at each individual case on its merits. Indeed, that is the test of our success at the War Office, namely, that we examine the individual case and do not put that case into a hat with all the others. We ask for the assistance of the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Association, and other bodies like that, to make sure that the case is a deserving one and, if it is, we use all the methods at our disposal—the telegraph, airmail and so on—to give instructions to the overseas commands which will enable them to come to a decision themselves. It is true that we do not issue absolute orders to overseas commands that they shall send certain individuals home. We leave that to the commander-in-chief out there, and he, assisted in turn by a compassionate posting committee consisting not only of officers, or "brass hats"—I use that term in the sense in which it has so often been used to decry the efforts which the War Office have attempted—but of officers and other ranks. They look at the individual case and decide what sort of priority it should have.

I hope tonight I have given an indication to the House that at the War Office we look with sympathy on the extension of this service to other areas than the B.A.O.R. I can give this assurance to the hon. Gentleman who raised the matter that I shall give it my immediate personal attention. Of course, he knows the action he can take if he wants to ascertain what is being done in a short space or time.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In view of the hon. Gentleman's last words, I wonder if he could do this. We had an assurance two and a half months ago that consideration would be given to this matter. I do not want to seem ungenerous with respect to the present assurance, but can the hon. Gentleman give us a promise that he will make a statement as to the results achieved sometime before Whitsuntide? I ask that he should report to the House, either in reply to a Question or in a statement after Questions.

Mr. Bellenger

I think the hon. Gentleman is a little ungenerous in view of the assurance I have given him. He must take a certain amount for granted when a Minister is making what I hope is a conciliatory, sympathetic and helpful statement from this Box. Therefore, I must leave it at that. The hon. Gentleman knows that he has remedies if he thinks that I am not carrying out that assurance, and there I must leave it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes to Ten o'Clock.