HC Deb 02 April 1947 vol 435 cc2160-73

10.17 p.m.

Major Bruce (Portsmouth, North)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 11, after "pay," to insert "and pensions."

Perhaps it will be for the convenience of the Committee if at the same time I deal with my next Amendment, in line 12, and also with my Amendment in line 21. My purpose in moving this Amendment is very limited. It is devised to afford some protection to the wives and children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, of naval personnel who have deserted their dependants and placed themselves beyond the reach of British law. There is a further limitation to the purpose, in that it is applicable only when those personnel who have placed themselves beyond the reach of British legal process are themselves receiving payments from the British Treasury by way of pension or retired pay in respect of services they have previously rendered to the country. The effect of the first two Amendments in my name gives the Admiralty the power to make deductions from retired pay and pensions of ex-naval personnel for the maintenance of wives and children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, of the persons concerned. The third Amendment ensures that this power is limited to those cases where the naval personnel concerned are, in fact, outside the range of British legal process, both actually at that time and for the period during which they are outside the scope of British legal process. That is the broad purpose of the Amendments.

It may be said that this matter affects a very limited number of people indeed. I would imagine that the number of naval personnel in this country, whether officers or ratings, who have been regulars and are in receipt of pensions from the British Treasury, and who have nevertheless deserted their wives and children and left them chargeable to public funds, is very small indeed. Therefore, I cannot pretend that the Amendments have any large- scale social effect. But that is all the more reason why we should consider the question very carefully in Committee, because it is one of the characteristics of the British House of Commons that, from time to time, it does interest itself in some of the rather smaller problems of limited sections of the community. I am most anxious that the introduction of this Amendment should not be represented—and, I must say, it is capable of such representation—as being a further limitation or restriction on the position of the ordinary naval man, whether officer or rating. The bulk of our naval personnel, whether officer or rating, maintain their wives quite satisfactorily; and from the inquiries I have been able to make they would be the first to support such a Measure, which would ensure that justice was obtained for that small but unfortunate class of persons, namely, the wives or children of naval personnel who are deserted in these circumstances.

I am aware, of course, that there will be objections to this course. It may be objected that a deduction should not be made from the emoluments paid to personnel formerly serving in the Service, because that would mean that they were being treated on a basis different from that of the ordinary civilian. After all, when a person leaves the Service he is supposed to be entirely free, and there is a good prima facie case to be made out for saying that we should not effect any further deductions from any emoluments which the State pays him. Indeed, I believe it is one of the principles which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty will probably adduce tonight. Therefore, I should like to point out that it is subject to 'an important limitation, and that the Amendment is designed to give power only for the Government to make deductions if the person places himself beyond the range of British law; and, any such deductions that are made are, of course, subject to the ordinary safeguards in the Bill—safeguards which will be added, I trust, in the course of the evening by means of certain Amendments to be moved by the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, possibly at the suggestion of certain hon. Members opposite and myself. That is the first objection, which I do not think is a valid one.

The second objection is that it would be impossible for the Admiralty to do anything in this matter unilaterally. The Admiralty can, of course, point out, quite logically, that they are not the only Department affected by this particular type of provision. It might easily be said that there are Civil Service personnel not in the Admiralty who, after having performed their service in this country. and after having been in receipt of a Service pension, nevertheless go abroad, deserting their wives and leaving them chargeable to public funds, and there is no possibility of redress. Therefore, the Financial Secretary is quite entitled to say this evening: "Well, of course, it is not only the Admiralty who are involved. There may be numerous other Departments." It may be said in the course of the Debate that there are, as I understand, 21 Departments who may conceivably be involved by any precedent which is now set. But one has to commence establishing precedents somewhere. I had always understood that it was the proud tradition of the Navy that they were the initiators of reforms in this regard. It is a matter of which a great point is often made by the Minister of Defence, quite legitimately.

I am bound to point out that there are cases where the Admiralty have taken 'steps on their own account, without offering to consult, at any rate on the face of it, with the other Departments concerned. For example, there were the welfare committees on the lower deck, which seems to be an excellent reform, and which we have every reason to suppose was initiated by the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty. Of course, on other matters they have been behind, as, for example, in granting free passages abroad; in that instance they were behind the other two Services. But here is a chance for them to initiate a reform. I should like to emphasise—I do not want to detain the Committee too long—that there are certain safeguards. In the first place, while a naval man is himself serving, the Bill provides adequate safeguards; and when he is out of the Service, demobilised and at home, he is, of course, subject to the normal processes of British law, when orders made against him for maintenance can be executed. Therefore, all the provisions of this Amendment do not apply, even while he is abroad. After he has been discharged he is able, as a British subject, to keep in touch with his Consulates—and there are British Consulates all over the place, for which this country pays quite a large sum of money—and he should be able to make his own representations felt back to the Admiralty. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that, if we should get a position where the State is required to pay to an ex-officer or an ex-rating a certain sum, and he is living outside the country, that it is a little incongruous that he should at the same time be compelled to provide for the maintenance of the deserted wife and legitimate or illegitimate child, without having any right of recovery from the emoluments paid to the person concerned.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

I should like to support this Amendment, but shall do so only very briefly, for I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Portsmouth (Major Bruce) has covered the ground pretty thoroughly. The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary said on the Second Reading that he would look into this point, and I hope he will tell us tonight that he is able to include it in the Bill. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North Portsmouth has said, this is to be used in the exceptional cases of the officer or man who goes abroad, where he cannot be got at by an Order, leaving his wife and family destitute in this country. I myself, as I said on Second Reading, know of such a case, in which great suffering has been caused.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. John Dugdale)

I am sorry, but I shall have to disappoint hon. Members. I shall do so for the following reasons. I did say, in my speech during Second Reading, that I would give the matter very careful consideration, because I realised that it was important, not, I agree, to many people, as the hon. and gallant Gentlemen have said, but to a few; that those people are of themselves important; and that we should do them justice. I said I would look into the matter and consider it, and I have done so; and I find several difficulties, which, I think, are insuperable and several very good reasons against making the change.

What are those reasons? First of all, the pensioner is in an entirely different position from the serving officer or the serving man. In the second place, his pension is only part of his income. It may, in fact, be only a very small part. He may be getting a quite large income from some business in which he may be working; and his pension may amount, in many cases, only to £1 or £1 10s. out of a total income of £5, or £10, or more. We feel that, if there is to be any distraint on his income, it cannot be made by the Admiralty alone; that it would have to be made by the person or organisation from whom he is receiving the greater part of his pay. In other words, it would have to be made through the civil courts. I think that that, in itself, is a quite sufficient reason.

I will now give another reason. It would be very difficult, we feel, to limit such rules simply to this one class of person. Not only are there cases in which the pensioner is abroad and his wife at home. It may be that the reverse is the case, that the wife is abroad and the pensioner at home. In order to be fair, therefore, we should have to extend this particular Amendment even further than was suggested, and that would be difficult. My main objection. however, is that in the case of a rating and in the case of an officer who is serving, that man is sent abroad by the Admiralty; it is for that reason that we have introduced legislation with regard to those men. The pensioner, on the other hand, is not sent abroad by the Admiralty. The pensioner is therefore in a totally different category from the serving officer and the serving rating. I may add that the other Services did not take power to do this in the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, and I am afraid that, much as I sympathise with individual cases of hardship, of which there may indeed be a number, I am unable for the reasons I have given—and they are not, I imagine, the reasons which the hon. Gentleman thought I would give—to agree to this Amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

I must admit that I am absolutely horrified by the answer we have had from the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty. When all the various excuses he has made are taken away, his reply simply means that the Admiralty is unwilling to assume that responsibility which any Department should take for people who are either on its active list, or to whom it is going to pay a sum in respect of services rendered. The hon. Gentleman said, first that he thought it difficult, where civilian pay and Service pay might be involved, for him to be charged with the necessity of making this deduction from the naval pay alone. That seems a most astonishing statement. As I understood the somewhat flamboyant speech which the hon. Gentleman made during the Debate on the Navy Estimates, it was devoted to one thing, and one thing only; and it was that people who are in the Navy, or who have passed out of the Navy, are the responsibility of the Admiralty. And indeed with that I agree, for if any great Service Department is going to say that while people employed by them may be their charge, once those people have passed out of their service the Department have nothing to do with them, then I would say that such a Department or Service would fail to secure the confidence of this country. What the hon. Gentleman has said tonight is in effect "We may he able to make provision for the wives if they are deserted by their husbands so long as the people concerned are employed by the Admiralty; but if they are retired, we wash our hands of them." If the Financial Secretary is serious or sincere in any of those things he has said about the welfare of the Navy, then he has made a most atrocious statement tonight. He has deliberately said that when any person has retired, so far as the maintenance of his wife is concerned, the Department wash their hands of it. If that is consonant with anything he said in the Navy Estimates Debate, I am indeed amazed. He said there might be a question whether the wife was abroad, and the husband at home or the husband was abroad and the wife at home. What has that to do with it? Surely there is one simple principle, and one only—is the Admiralty going to try to look after a wife who is deserted, whether the husband is in its service, or in receipt of some sum because of the services he has rendered to the Admiralty.

That is the only question which the Financial Secretary has to answer. He has made no effort to answer it. He has produced a series of bogies in some effort to justify the situation. I say with great seriousness to him that all this Amendment is designed to do is what he himself suggested on the Second Reading of this Bill. He then stated that he was introducing a Measure which he hoped the other Services would follow. He said he would try to do something to improve the lot of the ordinary person who served under the Admiralty. The one thing he can do on that is to guarantee, that whether a man is employed or is in receipt of a pension his dependants will be made secure in his or her future life. The hon. Gentleman would be the first—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer on occasions has not been backward in doing it—to point out how insecure a naval rating's life is. Here is a chance to do something concrete. I am, I must admit, astonished that on this practical question the hon. Gentleman has hidden himself behind a camouflage of excuses, excuses which cannot even bear questioning here, still less the examination of the country. I ask him to reconsider the matter. All the reasons he has given cannot stand up to examination by the Services on which we as a country depend for our existence. Therefore, I ask him to accept this Amendment, and to do something which will be more valuable than all these words he has given us so easily from the Despatch Box, to produce a better service in the Admiralty.

Major Bruce

I regard the explanation we have been given as in no way satisfactory. I invite the Committee to put themselves in the position of an unfortunate wife of approximately 45 to 46 years of age who suddenly finds herself at the conclusion of the war—her husband having been demobilised in another country and having elected to remain there—completely and utterly destitute. I invite the Committee to consider what steps she is able to take. The first thing that she does is get in touch with the Board of Admiralty to find out the address of her husband. That information the Admiralty do not appear to be able to give. The next thing she does is to ask the Admiralty's advice about what can be done. Then, of course, there is nothing that can be done except the initiation of litigation in the country in which the husband is resident. That is all very well for a wife who has an independent income of some few thousands a year, who can possibly go to the country concerned and initiate litigation to provide for her maintenance or that of her children as the case may be. But there are people in this country, and in my own constituency, and I am quite sure in the constituencies of my hon. Friends, who have not got the money to do this. All we are telling them here tonight is that there is nothing we can do about it. At the same time we are paying out to the husband from the British Treasury sums either by way of retired pay or by way of pension. These sums we say are inviolate, and we can claim nothing against them for that amount which we require to pay by way of public assistant to his wife. I cannot regard this position as satisfactory. There is no suggestion from the Government Front Bench or from the Solicitor-General of what steps are open to the Minister to secure for ordinary British citizens this elementary redress. I submit that the Committee should consider this matter very seriously. Although the number of people affected is very limited, nevertheless they are entitled to the benefit of our deliberations and decisions here. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think again about this.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas (Hereford)

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary has listened to some very powerful arguments from both sides of the Committee. His answer has not satisfied either side. May I suggest to him that he should take the opportunity of considering these points which have been stressed strongly by this Committee beween now and the time when this Bill goes to another place and see if it is not possible to accept the Amendment and insert the necessary words in the Bill? I hope we can have satisfactory answer, and that the Financial Secretary will consider this at a later date.

Mr. Dugdale

I am afraid I cannot promise to do that. But I will tell the Committee that I have considered this matter most carefully, and I really cannot accept the Amendment, for the various reasons I have given. I may add that it has never been suggested, so far as I know, in the case of any other Services, or in any other Government Department, that this should be done, and quite frankly, for many reasons, it is impossible in spite of my great willingness, to consider the matter any further. I would also like to point out that this has nothing to do with welfare for the men, which I referred to in my speech during the Debate on the Estimates. It is a question of whether it is possible to effect a deduction in the case of a certain class of people in respect of their wives. It has nothing to do with the main question of welfare for sailors, and, having considered the matter with very great care, I must say that there is no hope that an alteration will be made.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Dugdale

I beg to move, in page 1. line 21, at the end, to insert: Provided that no deduction from pay shall be made under this subsection greater than will leave to the person from whose pay the deduction is made (subject, however, to the making of any other deduction authorised by or under any Act) not less than four-sevenths of his pay if he is an officer, and otherwise not less than one-third of his pay if he is not below the rank of petty officer, or, if a marine, the rank of sergeant, and otherwise not less than one quarter of his pay. Here, I hope, I shall be able to satisfy the wishes of the Committee. During the Debate on the Second Reading of this Bill, I said I was going to see if it would be possible to place a check on the amount taken from officers and ratings. It will now be possible to place a limit such as I suggested, and there is a limit below which a man's income cannot go. He will be able to be assured that, although a certain proportion will he taken by way of allowances, a fixed amount will be left, and I would point out to the Committee that this will be in the Bill, and will not be operated by Order in Council. One of the difficulties experienced was that there had not been agreement between the three Services, but the Committee will remember that the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill has since been introduced. In that, there is a limit, and we propose the same limit for the Royal Navy. I hope that hon. Members will feel that we have been able, in this matter, to give satisfaction to their desires.

Commander Noble

I am very glad that the Financial Secretary has seen his way to put down this Amendment, because it covers the point of the Amendment on the Order Paper in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre), namely, in page 1, line 14, at the end, to insert: but so that there shall be left (subject however to the making of any other deduction authorised by or under any other Act) to an officer not less than four-sevenths of his pay, and to a seaman or marine not less than one-fourth, or, if he is a petty officer, Royal Marine warrant officer, or non-commissioned officer not below the rank of petty officer or sergeant, respectively, not less than one-third, of his pay. This is a concession for which we asked on Second Reading. It covers a most important point, and is of great importance. It was quite wrong, in our opinion that, in this Bill, an officer or rating should be committed to an unlimited liability. I hope that this will be a precedent, and that such important matters will be included in all Admiralty Bills in future, and not left to operation by Orders in Council.

10.45 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, in the course of his speech, referred to the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman was present during the recent Debate, or whether he read the report of the proceedings in HANSARD. He may remember that on that occasion I asked his colleague the Secretary of State for War whether the amount referred to in the corresponding provisions now inserted in the Army Act was to be gross or net. It will make a very substantial difference with Income lax at 9s. in the £. It is not clear that it is to be four-sevenths of the pay of an officer which is to be left in his pocket. It may be that after the deduction of Income Tax the actual amount left in the officer's pocket would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of two-sevenths of his pay only. I think we should have some statement from the Government of their intentions in this respect. It was a question which the Secretary of State for War was not able to answer. I hope, therefore, that after the lapse of a week, the Admiralty may have been able to make good this deficiency in their knowledge and that some explanation will be given to the Committee this evening.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

May I ask the Financial Secretary one question? He has covered the points of the Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble), except that of the Royal Marine warrant officer. He will he aware that the position of the Royal Marine warrant officer depends on whether he is serving under K.R. and A.I. or K.R. and A.R. Could he tell the Committee in which category the Royal Marine officer will come?

Mr. Dugdale

With regard to the point just raised, as the hon. and gallant Mem- ber is aware, a warrant officer in the Marines ranks rather differently from a warrant officer in the Navy, he would come, therefore, on a lower scale than the warrant officer in the Navy. He would come under the rating scale, rather than under the officer scale.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Can I have an answer to my question?

Mr. Dugdale

The point raised was whether we knew the amount that would be left in the pocket of an officer. This is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would, therefore, have to be four-sevenths gross, and if it carried tax, that would have to come off; but in the case of a very large majority of ratings—I should think all ratings—and a very large number of officers, the tax, if any, would be exceedingly small.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Dugdale

I beg to move, in page 1, line 21, at the end, to insert: (2) No deduction from pay shall be made under the last foregoing subsection in liquidation of a sum adjudged to be paid by an order or decree of any court unless such authority as may be specified by Order in Council under section three of the said Act of 1865 is satisfied that the person against whom the order or decree was made has had a reasonable opportunity of appearing himself, or has appeared by a duly authorised legal representative, to defend the case before the court by which the order or decree was made; and a certificate purporting to be a certificate of the commanding officer of the ship on which he was or is serving, or on the books of which he was or is borne, that the person has been prevented by the requirements of the service from attending at a hearing of any such case shall be evidence of the fact unless the contrary is proved. I am glad to be able to say that I can keep the promise I gave on Second Reading. We are inserting here a provision that every man shall have the right to appear in court before any deduction is made, and we shall not make a deduction, if there has been a court order, unless in fact the man had the chance of appearing before the court when the matter was raised.

Commander Noble

We pointed out in the Second Reading Debate that Subsection (2) of Clause 1 re-enacted a Section of the Naval Discipline Act, but, in our opinion, it left out a most important part. We are very glad that the Financial Secretary has seen fit to move his Amendment which gives officers and men a very necessary safeguard, and one which we would rather see in the Bill than left to an Order in Council.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Dugdale

I beg to move, in page 2, line 13, after "Ireland," to insert: and an Act of Tynwald. We are now including Acts of Tynwald with Acts of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. The existing provisions in the Naval Discipline Act only refer to Acts of the United Kingdom, but the regulations extend to Northern Ireland and Tynwald. This provision will refer to courts in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man, and Orders in Council to be framed under Clause I of the Bill. The Army and Air Force have taken similar action in the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre

We were assured during the Second Reading Debate that this Measure was to bring the Navy into line with the Army and Air Force. It seems very odd that the Financial Secretary should have suddenly discovered the Isle of Man. No doubt there is very good reason for this, and no doubt this is the right point at which to bring it in, but what on earth has the Isle of Man and an Act of Tynwald to do with His Majesty's Navy? Can the Financial Secretary quote a single occasion in the past when Tynwald has had any application to the job he is now undertaking? Or is this another death-bed repentance? Is he trying to bring the Navy into line with what the other Services have done, after having said that he was setting the lead? Can he tell us what effect Tynwald has on the Admiralty, or the Admiralty on Tynwald?

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre), when speaking of the Isle of Man, overlooked the fact that some people from the small, but great, island—great from the point of view of history—have served in His Majesty's Forces. I wish to ask the Financial Secretary if there have been full consultations with the House of Keys and Court of Tynwald about the incorporation of the Amendment in this Bill.

I am one who speaks for the rights of small nations and small minorities. It is important that the Manx people should have the fullest expression given to their point of view, and that in this House we should never, by anything we do, seek to override the decisions or legislative enactments of that ancient but small part of this Realm. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest and Christchurch made a point about the "deathbed repentance" of the Financial Secretary in seeking to induce this Committee to agree to this Amendment. He also asked, although I do not suppose that the Financial Secretary is in a position to give that information, about the position of other members of the Armed Forces from the Isle of Man. I hope he will be able to reassure the Committee that there has been full consultation on this point with the administrative body and Executive of the Isle of Man.

Mr. Dugdale

The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie) has explained far better than I could have done, the importance of ensuring that even though the Isle of Man is a small country, people who happen to have orders enforced in those courts are just as much entitled to consideration as those who have orders enforced in courts of much bigger countries. Not only has there been consultation, but the House of Keys are anxious that this provision should be included in the Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made:

In page 2, line 19, leave out "and."

In line 20, after "section," insert: (which relates to the service of process)— (a) after the words 'any Act,' in each place where they occur, there shall be inserted the words '(including an Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and an Act of Tynwald),' (b)".—[Mr. John Dicgdale.]

Mr. Dugdale

I beg to move, in page 2, line 25, at the end, to insert: and in Subsection (4) of that Section (which provides that the Section shall not apply to officers) for the words 'This Section' there shall be substituted the words 'So much of the last foregoing Subsection as provides for the service of process on the commanding officer or by sending it to the Secretary to the Admiralty, and for the leaving therewith of sufficient money to enable the defendant to attend the hearing and return therefrom.' The present provisions of Section 98A of the Naval Discipline Act do not apply to officers. By Clause 1 of this Bill, the new provisions about deduction from pay in respect of the maintenance of wives and families will apply both to officers and ratings. It is, therefore, necessary that those provisions remaining in Section 98A should now be applied to officers. It has been thought advisable, however, that the service of process through the commanding officer or the Admiralty should not be applied to officers. This follows the provisions of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, which does not apply the special arrangements for the service of process to officers.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.