HC Deb 26 March 1947 vol 435 cc1283-9

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

This Clause deals with a slightly different matter from the other Clause which we have been discussing. Under this Clause power is taken to make interim orders for reduction of pay of both soldiers and officers for the maintenance of their wives. In my opinion, the provisions are entirely sound, and I do not think anyone would seek to obstruct their passage, but perhaps I might say a word about the background of this Clause, because I think it is relevant. I have some personal knowledge of the matter from having had something to do with its administration during the war. One of the great difficulties which were experienced during the war was the fact that we took soldiers away from their homes and families, and very often away from any ready means of communication. When those circumstances arose we found that there was often a delay in receiving letters, and that occasionally there were unfortunate comments by mothers-in-law and others, which put into the heads of some men overseas ideas which were totally unjustified and which led them to take action they would never have taken if they had been aware of the facts.

6.0 p.m.

The result of that was a very serious interference with morale. It did not only operate in the case of the single individual who might get suspicious of the conduct of his wife during his absence. I heard of one case—and I have no reason to doubt that it was true—of a unit fighting in North Africa, which had two or three really unfortunate cases of infidelity by wives occurring at about the same time. The result was that these cases became known throughout the unit, and practically every man who had experienced delay in receiving his mail, or for other causes which normally would not have raised any suspicion in his mind, jumped to the conclusion that his wife was misbehaving in this country. The loss of morale in that unit was so great that it could not be sent into battle at a time when it was needed.

It was obviously imperative during the war that some action should be taken to correct that. What happened was that a man, on getting suspicious, lost his temper and gave instructions that the allowances paid to his wife should be withdrawn immediately. In a case where the wife was entirely innocent, that resulted, of course, in great hardship. But even where the wife was not entirely innocent, the result of the withdrawal of the allowances was thoroughly bad, for this reason. If the woman had been, to use a vulgarism, "carrying on" with a man, if her allowances were stopped and she was left entirely destitute, she very often had no other course but to accept the advances of any man, to throw herself into his arms, and to part finally from her husband. Our experience in such cases was that usually, if misbehaviour had arisen only by reason of enforced absence, when the husband returned to this country and got to know the facts, and the wife made a clean breast of it, they were reunited and no permanent harm was done. Therefore, the right way to deal with that situation was to provide some such machinery as is now included in this new Section of the Army Act, to enable the allowances to be continued temporarily so as to prevent a sudden breach before an attempt at reconciliation could be made. For that reason powers were taken under regulations, as was possible during the war, to do exactly what is proposed to be done by Clause 6 of this Bill.

The question which I wish to raise is this. The opening words of the new Section 145A of the Army Act say: Where an application has been made to the Army Council… I take it that that application could only be made by or on behalf of the wife. In other words, the Clause as it stands would operate only after the wife has complained; that is, after the allowance has been cut off. That is locking the door after the horse has got out of the stable. I should have thought it was desirable to take powers of this sort at a rather earlier stage. In other words, not to have to wait until the wife has been cut off and has complained in order to put the allowance back, but to take power to say to a soldier who applies to have the allowance stopped: "No, you shall not stop your wife's allowance until the case has been investigated and some further action taken on it." It may be that the Clause is wide enough to cover such a case. It may be that the administrative machinery is such that a wife can be told; "Your allowance is going to be cut off," in order to give her time to complain before the action to stop it is taken. If that is the position, I should like an assurance from the Government.

Major Legge-Bourke

There is one aspect of this Clause to which I should like to draw the attention of the Committee. Where an officer has been made to pay an interim order under this Clause, and is them found to be not so bound, as far as I can make out from past experience the officer—and the soldier who has previeusly been affected by this Clause—has had to stand the cost, whether or not the order is eventually made permanent. By this Clause officers are now brought under the same conditions. I am not trying to single out officers at all. But it does seem to me that some alteration should be made to the Act to enable some repayment to be made, both to officers and to other ranks who are found not to be bound in any way, despite the fact of having paid an interim order. I thought seriously of putting down an Amendment on this matter, but it is not a very easy one to draft. I am not at all certain exactly what is the practice of the Army Council in this matter. I rather think the right hon. Gentleman may have powers, as it stands, to adjust this matter without amendment. I should like to hear more on that, and, if it is necessary for some Amendment to be moved, I hope it may be done before the Bill finally passes from us.

Mr. Bellenger

The hon. Member for South Hendon (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), who has considerable knowledge of these matters, has explained the procedure which operated during the war, I think under the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulation. The purpose of that Regulation was to ensure that, as far as humanly possible, a soldier supported his wife and his legitimate children, and that he did not by any arbitrary act leave them destitute. The Committee knows that we are putting the officer in the same position as the soldier, under Clauses which we have already passed. The marriage allowance which the State paid to a soldier was drawn by the wife of the soldier through the post office. The marriage allowance in the case of the officer was drawn by the officer. That explains why the last portion of the hon. Gentleman's speech, in which he suggested that there ought to be earlier action taken to prevent the wife being left destitute, cannot apply to the officer in the same way as to the soldier. In the case of the soldier, the receipt of the money is effected by the soldier's wife through the post office; in the case of the officer, the officer makes what allowance he considers necessary to the wife, and if he does that he receives the marriage allowance direct.

During the war we found that this machinery which was instituted as a temporary measure, worked very well. It saved quite a number of marriages; and it certainly saved quite a number of women and children from being left destitute, for reasons which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, or in cases where the soldier himself had decided to transfer his affections somewhere else and to ignore his duties and responsibilities to his lawful wife. Perhaps the Committee will permit me to explain, quite briefly the procedure, when a soldier decides that he wants to terminate his allotment, which enables his wife to draw her marriage allowance. When he goes to his commanding officer and says he wants to stop that allowance—for whatever reason; and quite often he does not give a reason at all, but merely says he wants to stop it—a period is enforced, during which he is not allowed to stop his allotment. If his compulsory allotment is not stopped the marriage allowance is issued. During that period attempts are made at reconciliation between the soldier and his wife, and in many of those cases, as instanced by the hon. Member for South Hendon, where the soldier had received false or alarming reports of the misconduct of his wife while he was away, it was found that the soldier was persuaded by evidence or reports supplied by many voluntary institutions—by welfare officers, the Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Families Association, and other helpful voluntary organizations—that there was not the slightest reason, as far as the conduct of his wife was concerned, to warrant him stopping her marriage allowance. Then, during that period, reconciliation took place, and nothing else happened, except perhaps a contrite letter from the soldier to his wife saying how sorry he was for ever believing the reports about her.

Of course, there are cases—and, unfortunately too many of them—where the soldier is determined to cease contributing to his wife's maintenance. In those cases, if the wife took the normal procedure and obtained a court order, the evidence was all sifted as between the soldier and his wife. Where the wife did not go to the court for an order, but came or wrote to the War Office, then that particular branch of the War Office which I mentioned previously this afternoon, themselves adjudicated on the case and decided whether there was any reason for the soldier stopping the allowance. But, if the wife—and it is the wife who takes the initiative—says that her husband has stopped her allowance and can make out a prima facie case—which is the provision this Clause covers—then, in that interim period, we take powers to force the soldier to make that allotment to his wife, which will enable her to draw the marriage allowance while the case is being considered. That is the purpose of the Regulation which was instituted during the war. We found it worked very well indeed. Incidentally, it has mended many marriages; and in those marriages which have not been mended, it has put the position on a firm basis as to who was in the right and who was in the wrong. We want to continue that permanently, so far as the Army Act is permanent, and that is the reason why we have introduced this Clause today.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that information, and I am very glad to hear that the machinery with which I was familiar during the war is still continuing. However, I should like to ask him: Is he satisfied that he has completely covered the gaps between the time the paymaster receives notification to withdraw the allowance and the time the wife can apply? This new Clause only becomes effective on the late application by the wife, and if there were a gap it would mean that the wife would, in fact, be without an allowance for whatever period the gap lasted.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger

On the whole, I am satisfied that the period between the notification by the paymaster to the wife that her allowance has been stopped by her husband, and the opportunity given to her to make application to the War Office, is such that, during that period, she is not left destitute.

Mr. Grimston (Westbury)

The right hon. Gentleman has not replied to the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). I think he made it quite clear. We do not in any way oppose this; we welcome this Clause; but there is the point that there may be cases where a soldier or an officer is really entitled to stop the allowance, and the War Office force him to continue it pending their investigations. In cases where those investigations prove the soldier was right, the man will have been forced to contribute his compulsory allotment by the War Office in circumstances in which he should not have been forced to do so. Can any provision be made, in cases such as that, for repayment to be made? It may be that the War Office may take some considerable time in investigating the case, and in all that time the soldier will be forced to make an allotment that he is entitled to withdraw.

Mr. Bellenger

I am seized of the point. It is in the case of the guilty wife, where the husband would be held to have been justified in stopping her allowance. I think it is only reasonable that a husband, who has taken his wife for better or for worse, should expect to allow a little time to elapse before her guilt is established. It would have to be established in a court of law. I do not think, speaking for myself, that a husband should suddenly cut off his wife, even though, perhaps, she has been guilty of misconduct. At any rate, it should be proved conclusively. I do not know what the position is in civil law, but I should have thought a wife who is entitled to pledge her husband's credit, can continue to do that until the husband takes steps to stop her doing so, and that must entail a period before he can give notice to the world that he will not be responsible for his wife's debts. I think it only fair that there should be some reasonable period during which the case can be proved. I do not think, without further examination, that it is causing any great injustice to the officer or the soldier to say to him, "You are not to stop maintaining your wife until we have had reasonable opportunity of seeing who is at fault."

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.