HC Deb 13 April 1948 vol 449 cc767-70
10. Mr. Lipson

asked the Secretary of State for War why the release of men in groups 68, 69 and 70 serving in Palestine has been deferred and, as the later groups will also be affected, will he cancel the deferment.

13 Mr. Driberg

asked the Secretary of State for War (1) if he is satisfied that there is no surplus of engineer clerks in the Chief Engineer's Branch, G.H.Q., M.E.L.F.; and it he will specially investigate the establishments considered necessary in this and other branches, in relation to actual needs, with a view to the more economical use of clerical manpower and the release of R.A.S.C. clerks now overdue for repatriation and release but retained in the Middle East as operationally vital;

(2) if he is aware that no employment in their own Corps could be found for a draft of R.A.M.C. clerks who arrived recently in the Middle East, and that many of them are being employed as office orderlies, collecting and delivering mail, etc.; and if he will ensure that all such men, with suitable clerical qualifications, shall replace R.A.S.C. or other clerks due or overdue for release but retained as operationally vital;

(3) if he is aware that some R.A.S.C. clerks at G.H.Q., M.E.L.F., are working only 38½ hours a week; that their Easter holidays were from 1.15 p.m. Thursday, 25th March, to 8.15 a.m. Tuesday, 30th March; that on that day they worked from 8.15 a.m. to 1.15 p.m.; that clerks whose release has been deferred on the ground that they are operationally vital spend many duty hours gardening, having nothing else to do, and have, since the deferment of their release, been allowed as much as two weeks' leave; and if, in view of this evidence of under-employment, and other data submitted to him, he will order a more thorough investigation of the current or threatened deferment of the release of hundreds of such clerks in group 67 and subsequent groups.

Mr. Shinwell

It is natural that the decision to defer the release of a number of soldiers of various trades should cause concern to the men affected and to their relatives. I fully sympathise with this feeling, but as I have already explained in answer to previous Questions, it is essential to defer temporarily the release of a relatively small number of individuals. I have examined the total numbers so deferred in the Middle East, and they are surprisingly small in relation to the deficiencies in that theatre and the serious operational problems for which the theatre is responsible.

I do not agree that there is underemployment of soldiers in the Middle East in any general sense; indeed, the majority of the troops are extremely hard worked. The work done cannot be assessed in any statement of routine hours, since there can be no limit to the hours worked when conditions, for example, in Palestine, demand it. The 38½ hour week referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) conforms with the agreed routine hours of work for clerks at G.H.Q., M.E.L.F. It is not considered that these hours are too short in view of the conditions under which the men are working and of the fact that they are routine hours which are no doubt greatly increased when operational conditions require it. An Easter holiday as stated does not seem at all unreasonably long. G.H.Q., Middle East, is controlling the theatre of Palestine, in which operations are actually taking place. It is accordingly unsound to measure the requirements of G.H.Q. in relation to periods of leave or routine hours worked. The work is necessarily of a fluctuating nature. This is to some extent true of all Military duties in the field. The fact that a soldier is only standing by, by no means implies that he is not performing a necessary military duty.

Steps are continually taken to adjust deficiencies and to find men from the least pressed corps to assist those which are short. I am satisfied that only when all such measures of readjustment have been taken does the Commander-in-Chief resort to ordering the temporary deferment of individuals.

In announcing release programmes, it has always been pointed out that the temporary deferment of individuals may be necessary. In no case have these deferments been for more than three months and the majority have been for far shorter periods.

Mr. Lipson

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that sympathetic reply, may I ask for an assurance that, so far as these men are concerned, the terms will not be more than three months; and can he say how many are affected by the deferment?

Mr. Shinwell

As regards the guarantee of the period of deferment, I made it quite clear in the Department and to those responsible for administration in the Middle East that there can be no question of deferring men beyond three months. That is clearly understood. As far as the numbers are concerned, they fluctuate, but the most they have been at any time is about 300.

Mr. Driberg

Might I ask three reasonably short supplementaries in one? Can my right hon. Friend consider having some more thorough investigation made, possibly by someone independent of the Command, of this question of underemployment at G.H.Q., M.E.L.F.; secondly, when he refers to the deferment of individuals, will he bear in mind that it is, in fact, done on a group basis, en bloc, several hundreds at a time; and, thirdly, will he always bear in mind that the phrase to which this House assented was "operationally vital" and not merely "administratively convenient"?

Mr. Shinwell

I can hardly direct those who are responsible for operations in the Middle East, and particularly in Palestine, to engage at the present moment in an exhaustive inquiry. It would be asking too much. As regards whether the method of deferment is group or individual in character, it obviously fluctuates. Sometimes it is purely individual but sometimes groups must be taken as a whole. As regards deferment on the basis of being "operationally vital," I have given this very careful consideration. I am in full sympathy with the men and the relatives concerned, but I am satisfied that the Commander-in-Chief is doing his best in very difficult circumstances.