HC Deb 29 January 1947 vol 432 cc1075-84

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

10.59 P.m.

Mr. Benn Levy (Eton and Slough)

I am unwilling to add to the burdens of a Minister engaged in the vast and vexatious problem of demobilisation, more especially when it has, so far, been effected with considerable smoothness and efficiency. There is, however, one anomaly which I think should be ventilated because, although it may be regarded as a small one, it is none the less of very great importance to those men who are suffering from it. I refer to the case of men who, during the war, were directed into civilian occupations and then, when the war was over, found themselves called up for a period of peacetime soldiering, possibly for another two years. In many cases that means that men have been subjected to conscription in one form or another for an uninterrupted period of no less than seven or possibly eight years. That is much too long. It is too long relatively to others, and it is too big a bite out of a man's life. I have one example very much in mind of a man who joined up within a few weeks of the outbreak of war, went to France, was evacuated from Dunkirk, and within a few months of his return was drafted to a civilian occupation for which he had some special qualification on W/D reserve. He spent the rest of the war engaged in that capacity, away from his home—he was a married man with a child. After the war, six months after VE day, he was called up again. His group number is 57, and I have his letter here. He says: I shall have wasted eight years of my life, as anything that I may have learnt in the Army is of little use to me in my trade, which is drop-stamp forging. I am a married man with one child, and I honestly believe I have done my share in this war. I honestly believe he has. The unfairness of it can be even more dramatically illustrated by another instance which is so apt as almost to seem hypothetical, but I assure my hon. Friend that it is a genuine case. It concerns two young men who were friends, both engaged at the same time in the same business under the same employer, a coal distributor, and who both attempted to enlist at the same time as volunteers. One of them was accepted, and the other was turned down on the ground that his work was of national importance. He tried twice more to volunteer—indeed, he tried each of the three Services—with no success. Then in July of last year, at precisely the same time as his friend was demobilised and came out ready to start his life afresh, this young man was redrafted for a period of years in the Services. That is indefensibly unfair. Nobody pretends it is fair, and certainly none of the Ministers with whom I have been in correspondence at various times has suggested that such a state of affairs is fair. One would have thought that the commonsense solution, therefore, was to equalise demobilisation on the basis of length of conscription and not on the basis of what was done during it, and to put everybody on the same basis.

What are the arguments against this? What are the arguments in favour of continuing this discrimination against one unfortunate class of men? The only arguments I have heard are two. One is really an argument based on false sentiment. In the old days, before conscription was general, and before war was total, there may have been grounds for investing the serving man with a special aura of esteem and even privilege, as a patriotic volunteer for special danger; but in total war, when everybody is told what to do, when to do it, and what not to do, the question of volunteering slips into the background. And as far as danger is concerned, the cruel, unromantic truth is that in this last total war many a soldier's grandmother endured greater danger than the soldier himself. I suggest, therefore, that my hon. Friend cannot base himself on that particular argument. The truth is that some soldiers had a tougher war than some civilians, and some civilians had a tougher war than some soldiers; and that is as far as honest generalisation can go in the matter.

Now if that be accepted—and I do not think that anyone, save possibly an elderly lady novelist, would dispute it, which rules out my hon. Friend— then the logical conclusion is that there is no reason why the civilian should be subject to direction any longer than the soldier. The decisive factor should be not what a man has been conscripted to do, but how long the has been conscripted and that knocks the stuffing out of the only other argument which I have heard, and that is the argument which admits the gross unfairness, but claims that it is inevitable unless the rate of release is to be generally delayed; an argument which says in effect that "We can only be fair to Jones, if we are unfair to Smith. We can only appease A by victimising B." My hon. Friend has said as much, in so many words, when he stated: To do justice to these men …is to cause injustice to many others."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2062.] That seems to me to be a piece of unworthy and uncharacteristic defeatism on the part of my hon. Friend. I do not think for one moment that the problem is as insoluble as that. All that would be necessary would be to enlarge slightly the earlier release groups, to introduce a Regulation enabling men to rate for demobilisation on the basis of the date upon which they were originally con-scribed. I fully understand that my hon. Friend should be reluctant to do anything which might be calculated to delay release, but how far would this in fact delay release? Would it delay it by days, or by weeks? What is the number of directed civilians who would be involved? I have been unable to find out that figure, but I should not think it would be very large.

After all, it might equally well be argued that the release rate has been delayed by the exemption from call-up of men born before 1929. All the arguments in defence of that exemption can be used in defence of what I have proposed— every one. The main argument is that the quantity concerned is not sufficient materially to affect the release rate. I should have thought that precisely the same thing was true there. But if it is so great that it would substantially affect it, may I make an alternative suggestion?

There is a time coming shortly when justice can be carried out quite painlessly; because if there is one thing which the recent White Paper on Economic Considerations has made blindingly clear, it is that it will not be possible much longer for us to sustain an Army of a million and a half men. That means that when the decision to cut comes—and I hope that the cut will be both big and soon—there will be an acceleration in the rate of release and at that moment I would ask if the Minister will not put these men to whom I refer on a fair and equal basis with their military colleagues. It could be done at that time without raising any resentment or breaking any promises. That is an alternative proposal which I would like to put before the House. So what I am asking my hon. Friend to do is to consider making the necessary regulation now and to announce it as soon as it is made, or, alternatively, as second-best, to do it at the time when the next acceleration of demobilisation takes place.

May I say one final word? If there are only a few men involved—and I do not know the number concerned—then so much the easier the remedy. If a great number is involved, then so much greater the injustice. That is my case. I have no doubt my hon. Friend will have no difficulty in answering me, so I should like to confront him with a more formidable opponent, namely, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, who, on 10th April last year, replied to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) who raised this question in a more limited form, confining himself to the N.F.S. and Police Reserve. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour on that occasion very properly rebuked him because his claims were not more comprehensive and did so in these words: He says nothing about the full-time fire-watchers or dockers—the dockers in Liverpool—who showed as much courage as the men in the Armed Forces. There is as much to be said for the service of these men in the blitzed docks counting for demobilisation, or even those men in the mining industry, whose hazards were greater at that time than even the risks of the men in the Army."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2061.] How unanswerable are those few eloquent words! I range myself confidently beside the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, and I urge my hon. Friend to satisfy us both.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

May I follow up what my hon. Friend has said in regard to one particular case—that of the volunteers for the mines? It seems to me that they are in a peculiarly unfortunate position. In any other Service these men would not have been penalised by volunteering. Those who did not wait to be chosen by ballot are not permitted to count their service in the mines against service when they were subsequently called up. Again, I take the opportunity, as has already been done, of quoting the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, to make clear what the position is. He said in a letter to me: It is true that the period spent in the coal mines by optants and volunteers as distinct from ballotees is not taken into consideration when assessing their release in Class A. I would urge upon the Parliamentary Secretary to consider that those who volunteered for the Army, those who volunteered for the Navy, those who volunteered for the Air Force, if they had not volunteered, might have been chosen in the ballot for the mines. If you are going to include volunteers in one service, why should you exclude them in the other? I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies to my hon. Friend he will deal with that point.

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

I want to emphasise what has already been said by the hon. Member who initiated this discussion. I have referred several cases to the Minister in connection with "Bevin Boys" and the calculation of their service. I have had a letter today which, I think, illustrates admirably the inequality of the treatment meted out to these men. I would refer briefly to the details of this case. This lad says:.

I received my papers on 18th May, 1943, stating that I could choose service at the coal mines I chose the mines and was accordingly drafted to the Lilleshall Company's pit on 24th May, 1943. I remained there until 13th May. 1946, when unfortunately my health broke down, and my doctor advised me that I must get from underground. Arrangements were made with the colliery management for me to work on the pit top. He continued to do this until September, 1946, when the colliery company gave him 14 days' notice to terminate his employment, because they had to reduce their staff on the surface. He then sought employment with another local employer. He secured employment as a bricklayer's labourer. A few weeks later, on 6th November, 1946, he states: I received my papers to attend the medical board for His Majesty's Forces, and consequently I was called into His Majesty's Navy and I have been serving there since 4th December, 1946. My group number at the time of entry into the mines was 54. When I was called up, I was informed by the naval authorities that all of that group number had been demobbed, and they apparently did not know just what to do with me. But now they are hinting at giving me a new group number of 75. Therefore, as this lad states his case, he has served three years on instruction, and on the choice offered to him by the authorities, in the mines. The case I think stands out clearly, that that service in the mines should count as service in the Armed Forces is counted, and should be taken into full account, in determining when the lad is to be demobilised.

11.25 p.m.

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

This matter has been raised by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr Benn Levy) with that skill which we expect of him. I shall not refer to lady novelists. He has done so very expertly, but he made one serious mistake, though I am sure it was not intentional. He referred to the OFFICIAL REPORT of 10th April, and appeared to quote what I said; but he did miss out the first part of the sentence which was: On the face of it, there appears to be an injustice.… On the face of it. That was the matter which was being argued, and I think that, in the general Debate, I proved that there was no injustice at all.

Mr. Levy

I am sorry to interrupt. But when it comes to leaving out things, the hon. Gentleman too has left out a bit. I cannot of course read out his whole speech. The words "on the face of it" do not precede what I quoted, but another sentence altogether. The sentence reads: On the face of it there appears to be justice in the claim, but"— and this is what I quoted— to do justice to these men is to cause injustice to many others."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2062.]

Mr. Ness Edwards

My hon. Friend merely proves what I am saying. I read the part which had not been quoted, and left the rest to my hon. Friend, who made the original quotation. This matter has been discussed in the House on many occasions. I well remember that in the last Parliament it was accepted by the whole House that the fairest and simplest principle for the demobilisation of men in the Forces was that of age and length of service. That is well-known in the Forces, and I am satisfied that any departure from that general principle would leave this House open to the charge of bad faith to the men in the Forces. That is, to my mind, an overwhelming consideration. The men in the Armed Forces of this country can understand that principle, and in what turn they come out. That understanding having been established, there should be no departure from it.

Mr. Levy

I want to extend that principle, not to depart from it.

Mr. Ness Edwards

If we are to take into account something other than paid service in the Armed Forces, we are departing seriously from the principle of age and length of service.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas


Mr. Ness Edwards

I must ask to be allowed to proceed. I have only six minutes in which to reply.

Mr. Thomas

May I put a question to the Parliamentary Secretary? If it is agreed that these lads were directed into civil employment for service to the State in a time of emergency on certain conditions, what reason is there that compulsory service, whether military or civil, should not be calculated for demobilisation?

Mr. Ness Edwards

That matter was debated in the House when the announcement was made by the Government, and the House came to the conclusion that age and length of service in the Forces was to be the basis for demobilisation. That undertaking having been given, there ought not to be any departure from it at this stage. Let me deal with the practicability of the matter. We have already demobilised more than four million persons from the Armed Forces, and it cannot be suggested that, in order to do justice to the men who have been demobilised, this proposal could be made retrospective. That is impossible. Therefore, coming at this stage, when the vast majority of the men affected by this type of argument have already been demobilised, it seems to me to be an impracticable suggestion.

Now I come to the question of equity. The suggestion has been made that men who were tied to jobs, or directed to jobs in civilian life, drawing civilian pay, some of which was fairly substantial, should be treated in exactly the same way as men in the Armed Forces. That raises the next point. What about the men who were already in the industry to which these men were directed? Are we to count their length of service to include their period in the industry to which the other men were directed? Some men were directed into the mines; others were already in the mines, and wanted to join the Armed Forces. The suggestion now is that the men who were directed to the mines, and who drew civilian pay, should have that period in the mines counted for demobilisation purposes, but that the fellows already there, and who eventually went into the Forces, should not have their service counted because they were not directed.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas

The point, surely, is that these men were definitely called up for military service and were given the choice to go into the mines instead of the Armed Forces, and therefore, on that principle, their service should count on the same basis.

Mr. Ness Edwards

I can quite appreciate the point. This was a voluntary action on the part of persons called up for national service.

Mr. Tiffany (peterborough)

Were there not persons who wanted to volunteer and join the Forces, but who were informed that they could not do so, but must go to certain directed jobs?

Mr. Ness Edwards

That is quite true. Certain men were directed to certain jobs, but I must be permitted to deal with one question at a time. Let me deal with the point that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas), namely, the question of the men who opted to go into the mines. Many a man knew when he opted to go into the mines that that service would not count for purposes of demobilisation

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas


Mr. Ness Edwards

I think my hon. Friends should allow me to make my case. This matter was discussed very fully in the House. It was known generally throughout the country what were the terms with regard to demobilisation. Speaking from memory, it was in 1944 that this whole scheme was announced Everybody then knew what were the consequences of whatever action he took, and it was known that if a man went into civilian employment, and got civilian rewards for his national service, that service would not count for purposes of demobilisation if eventually the man was called to the Forces.

I come now to the second question that was raised, by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Tiffany)—the case of men who wanted to join the Armed Forces, but were prevented from doing so, and were directed into certain forms of employment. In all those cases of direction of labour—and they covered something like six million people in this country—these people drew civilian rewards for their work. In the case of their having to keep two homes going, when they were directed to jobs, they received from the Ministry of Labour lodging allowances and grants to meet their position, in accordance with scales laid down by the House. Therefore, I think the position is quite clear. If we are to have a simple principle that can be understood by everybody, we cannot depart from this policy of age and length of service. I come now to the final point that was raised by my hon. Friend, and that is that, in considering the speeding up of demobilisation, further consideration should be given to the question of those men who were conscripted for civilian service and military service—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November,1946.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.