HC Deb 10 November 1948 vol 457 cc1646-51

7.55 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Army and Air Force (Women's Service) (Adaptation of Enactments) Order, 1948, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament. I think the House would wish me to say a few words in explanation of this brief order. The order springs from Section 3 of the Army and Air Force (Women's Service) Act which was passed earlier this year. That Act made it possible, by means of an Order in Council approved by Parliament, to make adaptations or modifications in either the Army Act or other enactments so far as seem necessary, in view of the fact that there will now be women serving in the Armed Forces of the Crown as well as men. The Act itself provides for the translation of terms connoting the male sex into their appropriate female equivalents, and this reduces the number of alterations which might be necessary.

The House will see that the first schedule to this order deals with such Amendments as it is necessary to make to the Army Act and the Air Force Act. They are three in number. The first merely refers to the ranks in the Women's Services as an obvious and necessary provision. The second provides the one difference that there will be in the code of punishments for men and women under military discipline, namely, that field punishment cannot be applied to women, because, of course, the physical restraint and heavy work which it involves are not appropriate to women members of the Forces. The third alteration is connected with certain recent changes in the Army Act.

The House will know that where a court has made a maintenance order against a man serving in the Forces in favour of his wife, the military authorities may take certain steps to ensure that the order is complied with. It is, therefore, appropriate that in the unlikely but possible case of a court making an order against a woman serving in the Forces for the maintenance of her husband, the same provisions should apply. Part II of the Order in Council deals with certain alterations that it is proposed to make under enactments other than the Army Act and the Air Force Act. I should say at once that all the proposals confer benefits upon women members of the Forces, or in some cases on the surviving relatives of deceased women members of the Forces; in every case it is a provision which confers a benefit on the women members of the Forces which some previous enactment has conferred on male members of the Forces.

For example, Section 4 of the Pensions and Yeomanry Pay Act, 1884, provides that if a widow of a man who is serving in the Forces dies and if the Service Department has in its possession a sum not exceeding £100 belonging to the estate, the Department may, with the minimum of legal formality, pay that sum to the persons entitled to it. It is quite appropriate that the same provision should apply where the person who dies is not a widow of someone who died in the Forces but the widower of a woman member of the Forces. The Regimental Debts Act, 1893, Section 24, deals with the situation arising should a member of the Forces become insane. The Act gives certain assistance with regard to legal formalities to the wife of such a person in dealing with his affairs, and naturally it is proposed that should a similar misfortune befall a woman member of the Forces, the same assistance in reducing formalities should be available to the husband of that woman member of the Forces.

The Stamp Act, 1891, gives help to the widow of someone who has served in the Forces and who is seeking letters of administration. Once again it is appropriate that the same facility should be available to the widower of a woman member of the Forces. The Finance Act, 1924, confers, in certain circumstances, relief from Death Duties that would benefit the widow of someone who had been in the Forces. Once again the same relief should be available for the widower of a woman member of the Forces. I think that we may take together the last two enactments referred to in the Schedule together, the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, 1944, and the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act, 1944. Both these Acts confer certain rights and benefits on women who were serving in the Women's Forces that were in existence in 1944 when those Acts were passed. But, of course, the Women's Forces that will be raised under the Women's Service Act, 1948, are not, in law, the same Forces as those referred to in these enactments. In order to prevent members of the Women's Forces from losing, through a mere legal technicality, the benefits and rights which those enactments confer, it is proposed so to alter those enactments that they shall provide for women serving in the Forces dealt with under the Women's Service Act, 1948.

The House will see, therefore, that what is proposed with regard to the Army and Air Force Act are simply necessary and obvious modifications. What is proposed with regard to the other enactments is to confer in every case on women members of the Forces or on surviving husbands benefits such as have been provided in the past for male members of the Forces or for their widows. I therefore trust that the House will be prepared to approve the draft order.

8.3 p.m.

Brigadier Head (Carshalton)

We on this side of the House agree with the Under-Secretary of State that the modifications which this order provides are the logical sequel to previous legislation; nor in principle is there anything with which we quarrel in this Measure. There are, as there were bound to be in a short order of this type, certain anomalies which will come out in the course of time, and no doubt any necessary adjustments will be made. There are one or two small points which do arise, but I am not at all certain that they are worth raising at this stage, because they are all of rather doubtful value, and I have no doubt that these small matters of detail will be smoothed out as experience proceeds.

It seems to me perhaps of doubtful value to create a means whereby a court order can be put out to ask a lady indefinitely to keep her husband. I think that such a custom is almost universally deplored in modern society and has often been referred to in most unparliamentary language. In short, we on this side of the House agree to the necessity of this order, and although the Under-Secretary of State will not be able to claim that he has brought to women perhaps the more desirable state of "equal work brings equal pay," he can at least say that "equal work brings equal punishment."

8.4 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I would like to join my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) in welcoming this tidying-up legislation affecting both women and men in the Armed Forces; but there is one point which I think is a peculiar one, and perhaps the Under-Secretary of State can give me an answer on it.

In the Regimental Debts Act, which is the second Act amended by Part II of this order, the case of the insane is dealt with. It is clear that where the wife of a civilian happens to become insane, this order is effective, but I think an anomaly is likely to arise in the event of the husband also being in the Forces. Section 24 of the Regimental Debts Act, 1893, says that the preferential charges may be paid by the wife of the insane person or by any person who, subject to the prescribed regulations, appears to be a relative of or person undertaking the care of the insane or of his property. Those preferential charges are dealt with in Section 2 of that Act and the first of those preferential charges which have to be provided for by the Committee of Adjustment is expenses of the last illness. Section 24 treats an insane person as if he had died on the date he became insane.

If it should so happen that the husband is in the Forces, it does seem a little hard on the woman in the Forces that she should have to provide preferential charges connected with the expenses of the last illness, which I imagine should have been provided free by the Army medical service. I feel it may be necessary to have an additional amendment to the Regimental Debts Act, 1893, in order to cover that point. I am also not at all sure that it may not apply to the amendment to the Finance Act, 1924. I think it is, in the main, cases of the insane which are affected, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to reassure us on this point.

Mr. M. Stewart

By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I say that I think the simple answer to the hon. and gallant Gentleman is that if the expenses of the type he has described, expenses of last illness, or indeed any other expenses, are of the kind which ought properly in the course of service to be met freely, then there would be no preferential charge to be paid.

Resolved: That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Army and Air Force (Women's Service) (Adaptation of Enactments) Order, 1948, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament.

To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of His Majesty's Household.