HC Deb 02 March 1948 vol 448 cc193-5
28. Mr. Sharp

asked the Secretary of State for War how many demobilised soldiers have been asked by Records Officers to return the last page of the release book isued to them so that their military character could be downgraded; who will benefit by this alteration; why it is considered necessary; and what degree of response has been shown to such requests.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

In November, it was decided to increase from three to five years the minimum period of service necessary to qualify for the award of an "exemplary" character. It has been found that the character assessment in a small proportion of the release certificates since issued has failed to take account of this change, owing, presumably, to delays in the notification reaching commanding officers. In order to avoid unfairness to other men who were released at the same time, the recipients of these certificates were asked by Officers in Charge of Records to return them for correction; the great majority have done so. Steps have been taken to ensure that no further certificates will be wrongly completed.

Mr. Sharp

Can my hon. Friend say why it was considered necessary, for correction purposes, to send for release documents which had already been issued? Is he aware that many of the parents of these men have been brokenhearted on finding that the men's characters were not as good as they had otherwise been led to believe, and can he say why an A.C.I, issued in October, which became effective in November, was not known to CO., R.A.S.C., Hastings, in the case of men demobilised in December, and why he had to send for such documents in January? Will my hon. Friend look into the efficiency of his own Department?

Mr. Stewart

If the hon. Member will give me particulars of the case to which he has referred, I will certainly look into it. I have already said that steps have been taken to ensure that this mistake is not repeated, but I think I may also explain that the reason for making this recall of certificates was in fairness to other men who had had certificates correctly completed. I could not accept the suggestion that parents of men have been heartbroken. All that is involved is that, with an "exemplary" certificate, positive conditions have to be fulfilled, and, in the case of these men, it was merely a matter of time which was not fulfilled. No compulsion was exercised to get the certificates returned, and 90 per cent. of the certificates were returned voluntarily.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the assessment of the character of a soldier is the duty of his commanding officer, and nobody else? How can the Officer in charge of Records, even if there has been a mistake, change the commanding officer's assessment?

Mr. Stewart

The assessment of military conduct is governed by standards laid down in Army Council Instructions. The other parts of the assessment of character, commonly called the testimonial, were not called in question at all.

Major Legge-Bourke

In view of his statement, will the Under-Secretary ensure that employers are made aware that in cases where "exemplary character" has been altered that does not necessarily imply anything derogatory to the man?

Mr. Stewart

I will make sure that is known.

Captain Crowder

May I ask the Minister whether it has been the practice for the words "exemplary character" to be scratched out and something else put down, or is a new certificate issued?

Mr. Stewart

I do not speak with absolute certainty, but I think it has been the practice to issue a new certificate. I will, however, look into the matter.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Regulations say how a commanding officer will arrive at his decision; they do not alter the fact that the commanding officer is the man who has to do it.

Mr. Stewart

But it is laid down that the grade "exemplary" cannot be given unless certain positive conditions are fulfilled. Even if they were fulfilled, it would still lie in the discretion of the commanding officer whether or not to grant the grading "exemplary," but the positive condition must be fulfilled, as laid down in Army Council Instructions.