HC Deb 25 November 1946 vol 430 cc1372-82

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

9.56 p.m.

Mr. George Wallace (Chislehurst)

The purpose of the Adjournment Debate tonight is to call attention to the position of young married soldiers who are forced, because they are under the age of 21, to apply for war service grants instead of being allowed to receive a marriage allowance like any other soldier, or any other member of the Forces. The purpose of the Debate can be summed up as follows: To redress an injustice to a small number of men—I think that only a small number are affected—to save irritating delays to their wives and needless inquiries and probing into personal finances and personal matters, which is the root sore of the business we are trying to adjust. This matter has received a great deal of publicity in the Press, including, for instance, the "Star," which has shown a humanitarian approach to the problem and has instanced a number of hard cases. I noticed also that in the "Daily Mirror," a few days ago, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions rather let the cat out of the bag when he stated that even when war service grants are applied for they are not normally payable to childless wives unless they are about to become mothers or are prevented by ill-health from working.

Why should we penalise these youngsters if they have honoured the sacred act of marriage and have not avoided any obligations thereby? In any case, who are we, who are the Service chiefs, who is anybody, to say at what age a young couple should get married? That is my complaint. This matter has been raised before, and not only by myself. I was fortunate enough to put down a Question which was reached first on the Order Paper. Other Members have done their share in drawing attention to this question. I raised the matter in the House on 15th October, when no indication was given of any change of view. I have received letters, and so have many other Members, and I will wager that in each case the wording of those letters was exactly the same, without any exception. We were told that the man should apply for a war service grant. But on 15th October, a rather interesting situation arose, which will embarrass my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, because, under pressure of supplementary questions, he gave a very interesting reply.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

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

When asked if it would be simpler to make direct payment, the right hon. Gentleman replied that it would be simpler, but that there were various administrative difficulties in the way. What are these administrative difficulties, because I am sure that, if they are hard to solve, the House, at any rate, has a right to know what they are? To carry this a little further, if it is simpler to do the job, why not do it, and let these people have their marriage allowance, like others serving in the Forces?

I come to my next point: Should a young soldier marry at an age below 21? I say this, I have said it before, and I will say it again: If a man is old enough and fit enough to be called up for service, he is old enough to marry, with all the responsibilities which that entails. In granting these war service grants, a grudging admission of this fact is given, otherwise the grants would not be in force. I say that the act of falling in love cannot be regulated by any regulations or orders. It is something we cannot control. [An HON. MEMBER: "Even the Labour Government."] I would like to quote from a number of letters which I have received. As hon. Gentlemen know, when one asks a Question it sometimes receives publicity and one gets a flood of letters. and I am not an exception in that respect. I enjoy getting them. Let me quote a letter I have received from a lance-corporal. This lad hopes to get married on 22nd December. I hope that before we leave this House tonight, the right hon. Gentleman who is to reply will have indicated that we will give this lad a decent wedding present. In his letter, he stated: I was called into the Army at 18 years of age, and 10 months later, still at the age of 18, I met and fell in love, in an ordinary kind of way, with a girl who is now my fiancee At the age of 20, we plan to marry on December 22nd, 1946. We have been engaged since April and have courted each other since August, 1945, 14 months all told, which will be 16 by the time we marry. I have been in the Army since the latter end of 1944 and I would have married at the age of 19, before 30th June, 1946, so entitling me to the marriage allowance had it not been for our padre who advised me to wait for fresh developments which never came about.

I would like to read an extract from another letter which I have received from a lass in Yorkshire, but I have to use my discretion because, like most Yorkshire people, she has certainly got down to frank facts. She writes: Although my husband is not 21 until 6th April, 1947, he and others of his age have done service overseas. He has been at Arnhem, France and Germany and yet because of his age he is not what they would call a fully trained soldier.

I do not know what she means by that, He cannot have an allowance for his wife. While our husbands are in His Majesty's Army, we must receive an allowance from His Majesty's Government large enough to meet with the demand put before us.

A constituent of my own, Mrs. Sims, very frankly sums up the whole situation as follows. This lady says: Whilst I am aware of the existence of the War Service Grant, I am in no way interested in this grant, for I maintain that all serving men and their wives should receive benefits on an equal scale.

That is fair enough. I want to be very brief, in order to give a chance to other hon. Members who wish to speak; I know that many of them are hon. and gallant Members—I do not know if I can claim the privilege of "gallant," because I was in the ranks. I appeal to the Secretary of State, on these grounds, to make this concession and save the Ministry of Pensions unnecessary work. The Ministry of Pensions has quite enough to do in dealing with the legacies handed over from the Service Departments in the shape of disabled men, and we know that these disabled men are waiting for their appeals for pensions to be heard. Why not take over this responsibility, and so release the people at the Ministry of Pensions to deal with these claims? We should on principle grant a marriage allowance to any man in the Forces, whatever his age, as a right, and not probe into his private affairs; and we should not say to a man, You are old enough to fight for your country, but you are not old enough to have a wife." That attitude is morally wrong. I make an appeal to the Secretary of State as a family man. I have seen him with a child underneath his arm, at least, in photographs. I appeal to him as a family man myself to look at this matter from a sympathetic, human point of view, and if he has a routine brief, to scrap it, and to give the boys in the Forces and their wives something to hope for in the future.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton)

Last week the Secretary of State for War replied in the following terms to a Question that I put to him: There is at present provision for a married soldier under 21 Who is not eligible for a marriage allowance to claim a war service grant it he is a non-Regular or a service grant if he is a Regular. The scheme for dealing with applications for these grants is now working satisfactorily. The conditions of service, including provision to be made for families of the men to be called up in peacetime, are now being examined."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th November, 1946; Vol. 430, c. 79–80.] That reply dealt with three kinds' of grants—service grants, war service grants, and what we might term peacetime grants for conscripts of the future. With regard to service grants, is the Minister really satisfied with the present position? For men up to the age of 21 they obtain only 25 per cent. of the marriage allowances paid to those over 21. Why should that be so? It seems to me to be grossly unfair. It is just as expensive to keep a wife and child under 21 as it is over that age. Officers in that position are unable to get marriage allowances until they are 25, that is to say over the rank of flying officer. That means that if they become captains or flight-lieutenants after the age of 21, they would have to go back to the position of getting the 25 per cent. until they are 25, having been granted marriage allowances when they became 21. There is, incidentally, a means test attached to this. too.

With regard to war service grants, which affect all conscripts at the present time, I cannot find any scale laid down as to what is to be granted. There is a maximum of up to four-fifths of the ordinary marriage allowance, but I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us on what basis the allocation is made up to this sum. There seems to be no set scale. There is in this case a very definite means test. I have no time to read the numerous letters I have received from people who strongly resent this means test being used for their families. Finally, I come to the question of what is to be the position in peace-time. No one knows when peace will come, and it seems to be a long way ahead.

All three Services are very keen that this anomaly should be eliminated and that young people under 21 should be allowed the same benefits as people over that age. I think that the Treasury is the bugbear at the present moment. The Treasury is causing the trouble and J would not hesitate to say that the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are making themselves responsible for a considerable amount of illegitimacy in the future, and the use of contraceptives and so on. We are going to pass an Act under which young men will be conscripted into the Forces. If there is no marriage allowance they will not get married, but they will lead the lives of ordinary human beings. I think that all religious bodies in this country will shortly be up against the Treasury in this matter unless something is done, and I hope that very soon the Secretary of State for War will be able to tell us that this completely disgraceful situation has been got rid of.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am sure the whole House is grateful to the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. G. Wallace) for raising this important matter, and I hope that all that hon. Members have to say will convince the Secretary of State for War that this is a grave scandal and a blot upon the administration of the Armed Forces. I only want to deal with one small point, and that arose in a supplementary question which I put on 15th October. The Secretary. of State for War then said that these men did not in the main lose pay over having a war service grant. That, in my opinion, is a monstrous insult. In reply to another Question the Minister of Pensions said that there have been 683 Army applications, 261 in the Navy and Air Force and of these 522 allowances had been met. If these people are rot losing by it what did the other 422 people get?

Again, the normal marriage allowance under the code pay is 35s. a week plus a qualifying allotment of 10s. 6d. I have one case, which is a most important case, where a young fellow, who got into trouble at an early age, was sent to Borstal. He was married and had one child. He was released from Borstal to go into the Army, and now that he is under 21 his wife, having gone through the degradation of a means test, and even after most sympathetic consideration by the Assistance Board, has been given 24s. a week for herself and the child, whereas the normal allowance is 35s. a week. It seems to me that that is putting temptation in the way of these young people, and, on the other hand, the War Office is making quite a handsome profit on the deal.

I think the only reason why the present system is maintained is because it goes back to the days when the soldier had no rights as a human being and could be ordered here, there and everywhere by the War Office. The only reason in my view why the War Office will not give way is that they do not want soldiers to have what is called entangling alliances. These people when called up are already married and it is only just to give full rights to the soldier, including his proper marriage allowance. I hope that as the result of the pressure brought to bear upon the right hon. Gentleman he will see his way clear to adopt a more just, a more humane and a more magnanimous approach to this whole question.

10.14 P.m.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

I want to add my voice to those that have been raised in this issue, and I would say to the Secretary of State for War that no excuse will be of any avail tonight in satisfying the minds of Members of this House as to the injustice that is being perpetrated by the refusal of this allowance. I was struck by one case in which one of the most impertinent letters I have ever seen was sent from the Paymaster to a woman appealing for the allowance. I sent that letter to the War Office. The Paymaster said, in reply to that application, that as far as the Army was concerned she, as a married woman, was living in sin. The War Office did not give me a very satisfactory answer. There was no allowance to be paid to this woman, but the young man, who was her husband, had 21s. a week deducted from his allowance, to make up what the War Office should have paid in the ordinary course to herself and her child.

I am not one to deny that the War Office and the Government have done much to bring about improvements for the serving man, but surely this act of justice could be granted very easily since it applies to a very small number of men in this country. When it is decided to have permanent conscription, and to call up all boys of 18 there will be a growing number of young men concerned. Whether we like it or not, they believe in their own minds that if they are men for the purposes of shouldering arms and defending the country at 18, they are also men for the purpose of marriage, and are entitled to the allowances that go with marriage. I hope that the Secretary of State for War, on behalf of the Government, will grant justice to these men and women and cede to them what every soldier should be granted without any request.

10.16 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

I have only two brief points to put forward. First, that this is a problem for all three Services and not merely for the soldier. Secondly, that the new pay code did not envisage this situation but was conceived against the background of the regular Forces, when young men would go into the Services with their eyes open, knowing quite well that there would not be a marriage allowance under a certain age. Now it is different. The young men are called up from other jobs and are not making the Services their career. There is nothing to stop them being married before they are called up, and their families should be provided for when they are married. I hope that the Secretary of State for War will be able to undertake to alter this Regulation.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I do not wish to take up the time of the House by reading letters I have received, or even by giving instances of young girls who have interviewed me in my constituency, but I can assure the Minister that there are quite large numbers of men concerned in the City of Birmingham. I understand that in prewar days a soldier had to obtain the per- mission of his commanding officer before getting married, but the Army is not yet on a peacetime footing, and, as has already been said, in the future with a peacetime Army we hope to make things far different. I do not wish to go over the temptations which have already been mentioned by hon. Members, but there is no doubt that it is an incentive to a young man to absent himself from his regiment, as has already been the case with a number of men, when he knows that his wife is having to undergo the degradation of a means test. I say quite frankly to the Minister that something must be done to alter the degrading position in which these girls find themselves placed under the present system. I hope the Minister will, as has been suggested, give an anniversary present or, in the case of those who hope to get married, a wedding present to the girls concerned by the appropriate modification of the Order issued in June last.

10.19 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Bellenger)

I think the House will agree that I have given ample opportunity for various points of view to be put from different parts of the House. I think that first I should dispel the illusion in the minds of some hon. Members that this matter applies only to the War Office. The hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Teeling) did say that it is in relation to the Regular Army that this matter arises. I was surprised to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Shurmer) that there are large numbers of these persons under 21 who axe married. My information is all to the contrary. During the war, when we had very large numbers of men conscripted into the Forces, the very small percentage of men who were married under 25 years of age was surprising. One hon. Member gave figures to show that the numbers were not as large as my hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook indicated. Nevertheless, I am prepared to argue the case on entirely different grounds from the question of whether the numbers are large or not. Hon. Members wish me to deal with the matter as an issue of principle. I HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] First, therefore, let me say that the rule applies to all three Services. The War Office is considered to be "the nigger in the wood- pile." If it is so at all. it is only one of three niggers. In this case, as in other cases affecting the War Office, all three Services are affected. What is the position in all three Services? It is based upon the Regular Army. It may surprise hon. Members to know that none of the three Services—Navy, Army or Air Force-desire the regular Serviceman to be married under 21. The reason is obvious. The young man on whom will fall the duty, in the main, of volunteering for regular service will have to undergo a strenuous training, and will be sent to different parts of the world. It is not possible, particularly in these days, to send wives with husbands. It is not only the entitlement to marriage allowances that arises out of this question, but the entitlement to other things that are granted to the married soldier.

Married Servicemen, upon what I may roughly term the strength, are entitled to free passage for their wives and children and so forth. Hon. Gentlemen will realise, in arguing the case for marriage allowance, that whatever may be the result of it, many other things would follow.

Mr. Shurmer

Does my right hon. Friend mean that this does not apply to the men who have joined, but to those who may be conscripted for 18 months or two years? He says that this applies to men in the Regular Army who are to be drafted abroad.

Mr. Bellenger

No, Sir. It is based in the main upon the fact that we do not desire marriage for young men under 21, who volunteer for the Regular Forces [Interruption.] I have not much time left in which to explain my case. The fact remains that we do not want married soldiers to volunteer for the Regular Army under 21. We do not think it is fair. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the conscripts?"] I am coming to that part of the case, if hon. Gentlemen will allow me to proceed. We do not think it is fair that young men should volunteer to serve in the Regular Army, and then have a marriage engagement, when they are under 21. It follows that where we have the two systems, Regular Army and conscripts, we are in a very difficult position if conscripts get marriage allowances as of right when they are under 21 and married, and if the Regular Army cannot get them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I should have thought hon. Members would have realised that that position immediately creates an anomaly. It is because of that anomalous situation that we are having this argument tonight.

Let me tell hon. Gentlemen what the arrangements are at the present time. The marriage allowance of a private soldier over 21 is 35s. per week, whether he has no children or any number of children, and provided he makes an allotment of 10s. 6d. per week. The married soldier under 21, if he is a Regular soldier and if he has children, may get a Service grant—[HON. MEMBERS-"May?"] The non-Regular Service man may get a grant up to a maximum of £3 a week under the war service grants scheme. [HON. MEMBERS: "May get it?"] Many of them, if they have civilian commitments, can get it and did get it during the war—[An HON. MEMBER: "But why the limit of 21?"] I was trying to explain to the House as reasonably and as lucidly as I could that this arose out of the situation of the Regular soldier whom we do not want to be married under 21. If hon. Gentlemen will follow me, they will see that that situation has created an anomaly in the case of those who are called up when they are under 21 and are already married. I am quite prepared to admit that that situation, which has created an anomaly, is not an entirely satisfactory one—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—I am glad that so far I carry hon. Gentlemen with me. That situation was based on the Regular Army which I would impress on hon. Gentlemen will be the backbone of the Service in years to come and for which we have to legislate at some time or another. That situation has produced another one in the case of the conscript, and the main burden of the argument of hon. Gentlemen is that it is not entirely satisfactory from the point of view of the married soldier aged under 21 who is called up to serve the State.

Hon. Gentlemen have appealed to me as a married man myself. I do not go all the way with hon. Gentlemen who talk about marriage under 21. It is true that the State should not say at what age a man should marry—or a girl either—except to lay down the minimum age of consent, but if we are to express our opinions as to whether it is desirable for men to marry under 21, I would say, with a sense of responsibility, that in civil life the percentage who marry under 21—they do not, of course, get any marriage allowance from their employers in civil life—is very small indeed and that most young men believe that they should at any rate be able to establish all the conditions for a home before they do marry. All we have tried to do in the Services is to relate Service conditions as far as we can to civilian conditions. That has brought us into this situation where those who are called up for the Services and who are under 21 and are married cannot as of right get a marriage allowance—

Mrs. Braddock, (Liverpool, Exchange)

What are you going to do about it?

Mr. Bellenger

It may surprise hon. Members to hear that I have never been entirely satisfied with this position. It may not surprise hon. Gentlemen to hear that I do not always get my own way even though I am in the Government. Back Benchers and Front Benchers do not always get entirely what they want.

However, I have listened with a good deal of sympathy to the arguments which have been advanced by my hon. Friends and by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and I may tell them that before this Debate was arranged I was engaged with my colleagues from the other two Services in looking more closely into this matter. I think that we shall arrive at conclusions which are not too far apart from the views of hon. Members who have spoken tonight. All I can say at this stage is that we are looking closely into the anomalous situation which has arisen because of the situation of the Regular Army, and I hope that the result of our investigations will be to bring us much nearer to hon. Members than we have hitherto been. I can go no further than that tonight.

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