HC Deb 28 February 1949 vol 462 cc136-64

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

8.38 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am pleased that tonight we have ample time to discuss the subject which I wish to raise on this Adjournment. That is the provision of a clothing allowance for those persons now being demobilised from the Forces. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence will soon be here to listen to the arguments, but I understand that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General will report the facts to him when he comes. This is a matter which will be of increasing importance as the next few months go by, and unless something is done on the lines which I shall suggest later, it will have a potentially dangerous effect on the morale of the National Serviceman and, more important, it will have a decidedly deterrent effect upon recruiting.

All of us who passed through demobilisation centres at the end of the war can speak highly of the organisation set up to deal with those men and to provide them with civilian clothing. I want to pay now a tribute to the efficiency of that organisation. Although I was not fortunate myself in the suit I acquired, nevertheless I believe that most of the people were highly satisfied with the quality and standard of their civilian clothing. The present position is governed by Army Council Instruction No. 892, dated 22nd October, 1947. I had better read it, so that hon. Members may know the facts. It says: Other ranks will be permitted to retain as their own property the following articles of clothing: One pair of part-worn. serviceable boots or shoes; one shirt and tie, vests, drawers and socks in possession at the time of release. Then it says: Clothing on payment.—No civilian outfit or cash grant in lieu will be issued. In special cases where an other rank is able to show that he is not in possession of civilian clothing and is without sufficient funds to provide it, he will be allowed to purchase one suit of battle-dress, dyed blue, and during the months November to March inclusive, a greatcoat, dyed blue … Supplementary clothing coupons will be issued by the civil authorities under arrangements by the Board of Trade. I understand that the practice is for these people to receive 60 clothing coupons.

The Minister of Labour announced the decision to suspend the issue of demobilisation clothing in the House on 21st January, 1947. Later on it was amplified and clarified by the Minister of Defence on 5th May, 1948, when, in reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Stockport (Wing-Commander Hulbert), he said: Men called up in 1947 and 1948 for two years or less will, on release, receive a supplementary allowance of 60 clothing coupons. They will not receive a cash grant for the purchase of clothing; they will, however, be allowed to retain certain articles of Service clothing and, if necessary, to purchase a suit of battledress."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th May, 1948; Vol. 450, c. 131.] That refers to the details I have read out from the Army Council Instruction.

There the matter rested until it was felt necessary to defer demobilisation for National Service men and others for a period of three months. This, with the alteration in the period of National Service of from 12 to 18 months, meant that men would now be serving from a maximum period of two years three months, tapering down eventually to a period of 18 months.. On 15th December last, arising out of this position, I asked the Minister of Defence if he would agree that men who, because of deferment serve for more than two years, will be entitled to an issue of clothing on demobilisation instead of clothing coupons. The answer he gave me was a very uncompromising No, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th December, 1948; Vol. 459, c. 1211.] The Minister based his reply, first, upon the fact that the decision to suspend this issue had been announced a considerable time ago. His second reason was that it would be impossible to accede to this request because of the expense it would entail. Third, that it would be impossible to set up again the proper organisation because it would be far too difficult to do so. Fourth, he said that this concession could not apply to men who had not served as long as other men had served during the war. Last of all, he said that the men would be able to purchase a battledress and would receive 60 coupons. I want to take these points in order and to show that they should not be regarded as major considerations at this time, and that the arguments of the Minister of Defence to maintain his principle that this allowance should be discontinued can in no way hold good.

First, on the announcement that this decision was announced a long time ago and, therefore, cannot now be put right. Whilst this may be true, the decision is only just taking effect. Because of the additional three months' service the men who would have left the Services at the beginning of this year will start coming out of the Forces in March, April and onwards. These are the men who were called up in January, 1947, and, under the present scale, are due for release in April, 1949. When April arrives there will be very many men who are disappointed that they have not received civilian clothes; they will be bitterly disappointed at not receiving a grant to purchase them. They will find great difficulty, out of their meagre savings, in fitting themselves with a complete civilian outfit.

Neither does the objection on grounds of expense carry any weight. It is a very poor arrangement to insist that an expenditure of something like £1½ million is a great deterrent when it is realised that the total Budgetary Estimate in 1949 for the three fighting Services is in the nature of £750 million. I should have thought that, for the sake of elementary justice and the contentment of the men in the Forces, my right hon. Friend could have made out an overwhelming case to the Treasury to get this additional money. My rough calculations are that something like 150,000 to 175,000 men will be leaving the Forces this year, and something like 140,000 next year. Even with the increases in pay which were recently announced, and which we welcome, it is still impossible for the National Service man to equip himself with a full outfit of clothes at his own expense when he leaves the Forces. It is quite impossible for him to save from his weekly pay something like £20 to £25 to do so. Such a proposition is utterly ridiculous.

I am quite certain that when a man, at the end of his service of two years and three months, finds he leaves the Forces with 60 coupons—which, since the changes in clothes rationing have lost their value and are no longer necessary for the purchase of a suit of clothes; when he finds that all he receives is one day's pay and allowances for each month of completed service, he will be very disillusioned and the morale of his unit will suffer as a result. If we rely upon these people to spread abroad to their fellow citizens and families after their release that the Forces have treated them fairly, and so encourage other people to enlist, recruitment is bound to suffer unless something more is done.

I have had a good many letters on this matter, all in the same strain. One of my constituents, who was discharged from the Forces as medically unfit, finds himself without civilian clothes, and with a balance of something like £4 and 60 coupons after his period of service. His father came to see me and protested vigorously against this treatment. His son is permanently unfit for further service. If only he could purchase a new suit of clothes the psychological benefit to him would be immense, but he cannot because he has not the money, neither has his parents. All he was offered was a suit of dyed battledress. This is not the right kind of treatment for someone who was called up for the Services. A good many hon. Members in all parts of the House have had considerable correspondence on this complaint. This correspondence will increase as the men go to the demobilisation centres. At the moment it is only just beginning, but when April comes it will be more like an avalanche of protests against the non-provision of civilian clothing.

The next point is about the difficulty of the heavy administrative commitments which would arise if the machinery were again to be set up. If my right hon. Friend will accept the proposals we have to make, this need not arise. I do not propose and I do not suppose that my hon. Friends will propose, that the whole machinery of the demobilisation clothing centre in the Armed Forces should be set up again. We realise that that played an important part when people were coming out in large numbers, but today it is not necessary as there is more civilian clothing in the shops. We are not asking for that clothing organisation to be reestablished. I am pleading with my right hon. Friend to give a clothing allowance in cash to each person as he is released from the Forces. I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence has now come into the House.

Something like 150,000 people will come out each year. If we give them what they really need to purchase clothing today, assuming that they come out with full entitlement to retained clothing from the Services, at today's prices it would cost something like £15 to £20 to fit them up. When we multiply that by the number coming out it makes a large sum, but, in a Defence budget of something like £750 million, £1,500,000 or even £2 million to satisfy this demand does not seem extravagant and certainly should not debar my right hon. Friend from a vigorous request to the Treasury for this money. I find that under the previous scheme a cash allowance in lieu of clothing to certain men discharged on medical grounds and invalided home was £12 10s. If my right hon. Friend could give the equivalent of that it would be at least something, but I am not pressing for a particular amount, as I have not the exact figures involved. If my right hon. Friend will agree in principle to some cash grant of some amount it would go a long way to satisfy me.

The other argument advanced was that the length of service now could not compare with that of men called up in wartime and that, therefore, it would not be fair to give this clothing allowance to National Service men now. Recently we undertook to increase the length of service by a period of three months and also decided to increase the period of service from 12 to 18 months. This year a large number of men will be released who have been away for something like two years and three months. Obviously, they have outgrown or outworn their previous civilian clothing.

The argument has been advanced that we ought not to provide this clothing because the clothes they had before they were called up will still fit them and in any case if they were not called up they would still have to buy a new suit of clothes after 18 months, or two years. That argument does not hold water, because we all know that people of 18 to 20 years of age are developing rapidly. The Secretary of State for War rightly took pride recently in announcing that after the first six weeks of service—which are the most strenuous—a National Service recruit puts on 4 lb. If he puts on 4 lb. in weight in the first six weeks of service, it stands to reason that in a more static formation he puts on more weight. It is only reasonable to expect that, as he has obviously outgrown his civilian clothing during his service, he should have something at the end of that service, in order to replace his clothing.

The last ground on which it was said that the allowance could not be given is that the man is able to purchase a suit of battledress dyed blue. But that is only so in special cases in which a soldier is able to show that he is not in possession of civilian clothing and is without sufficient funds to provide it. That, to me, is a re-echo of a means test which should not be applied. In any case who wants to wear a suit of blue dyed battledress after going about in khaki battledress for two years or 18 months? But if some one should want to wear one for his normal occupation, who wants to pay 31s. 8d. for it? I hope that my right hon. Friend will confess that that solution is a complete failure and that it has not been used. I hope that he will put something better in its place.

To sum up, I wish, as moderately and as reasonably as I can, to make of the Service authorities the demand that they should act decently towards the National Service man, and at least return him to civil life in no worse a position than he was in when he entered the Services. In order to do that, I am convinced that these men must, for the many reasons I have stated, be provided with an adequate clothing allowance. I hope that if my right hon. Friend goes to the Treasury, he will put the strongest plea for these people so that we can act justly and honourably towards them.

8.57 p.m.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) has been fortunate in the ballot and so has been able to raise this important question. I believe that in doing so he has rendered a service not only to the men concerned but also to the nation as a whole. I say that because it is in the national interest that these men who are called up for service should leave the Services in the right frame of mind, and should feel that they have been well treated during their service and not just discarded when their period of service was over and left to fend for themselves. I do not believe that anyone can doubt that when a man comes out of one of the Services he needs a new civilian outfit. It is to the credit of the treatment he has received during his service and the benefit of that Service that that is so.

Like the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, I have had a number of letters giving details of cases. Parents have written saying that their sons have during their period of service of two years or thereabouts increased in weight by as much as two stones and that their height has increased by three or four inches, so that the civilian clothes which they had before their service are no longer suitable for them. The right hon. Gentleman has a responsibility to these men. He has taken them away from their ordinary vocations, and has, if one cares to put it that way, affected their careers by taking them away for service. They have gone willingly. Everyone must admire the spirit in which they have accepted their national obligations. But that also carries with it an obligation on the part of the Government to see that they receive an equally just deal in turn.

One of the things which these men learn as part of their military service is discipline, something which we hope will be of use to them not only in the Services but afterwards. The maintenance of discipline, however, largely depends upon the maintenance of self-respect. The clothes which a man wears also have an influence on his self-respect. To tell him that he can wear his civilian clothes which he had before his service, which he has outgrown, or that he can be content with a blue dyed battledress, is not the way to get the best results out of the training he has had in the Forces. I would appeal to the Minister to give sympathetic consideration to this plea.

The argument that the pay is such that the men are in a position to buy civilian clothes themselves may be correct in theory, but in practice it does not work out like that. Letters I have received tell me that there are men in the Services who are unable to save. Some of these are men who do not drink or smoke. To a certain extent their money goes on fares home. They go home once in six weeks and it is quite natural that they should. Their parents want them and they are at the age when they want to go home as often as possible. But the greatest amount goes in food. The Minister will say that the Services provide all the food the men require. That again is a theory. We have heard a great deal in this House about the evening meal which Service men get. I am told that the provision of that evening meal is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. If the soldier asks for it he gets it, but it is not automatically provided in a great many units. In any case, there are a great many men who do not complain about the adequacy of the food provided, but they find that it is very badly cooked. Therefore they find it necessary to spend a certain amount of money at the N.A.A.F.I. and other places. The result is that when they come out of the Services they have not been able to save anything.

I would remind the House that some of these men make allowances to their parents. Many of them are the sons of widows or people in humble circumstances, and it is to their credit that they do help their parents. But the net result is that a very large number of them come out of the Services needing civilian clothes and without having saved sufficient money to buy any. It is an obligation upon the Government to see that these men are given a grant, because I agree that is the simplest way of dealing with them. All that is necessary is to add the amount of the grant to what it costs to maintain a Service man for a period of 18 months or two years, or, as in the case of many of these men, two years and three months.

Reference has been made to the extra period of three months' service which these men are being called upon to accept. The fact of this additional three months increases the responsibility of the Government to see that when they come out they are provided with the means to fit themselves for civilian life. Therefore, the sum to be added to the maintenance of a man in the Services by giving him this grant is really insignificant compared with what is being spent over the period. There are also instances of men who, when they come out, will have served two years and three months, but their brothers who served during the time when clothing was provided served only 14 months and received civilian clothing. Therefore there is unfairness comparing one man with another.

The result of refusing to give them this grant is to send these men back to civilian life in a disgruntled mood, which I would submit is the very last kind of feeling we wish them to have with regard to the Army. We expect and shall receive further service from these men, and we should see that they are in a position to enter civilian life properly equipped so far as clothing is concerned in order to make good the loss which they have suffered as a result of their military career; to maintain their self-respect and in every way to be a credit to the Service of which they have been members. That will only be so if my right hon. Friend will accept this request.

The alternative is to throw the burden upon the parents, and that is unreasonable. It is a burden which a great many parents will be unable to bear. If there is only a widow or someone who is comparatively poor, it is impossible for them to find the means to fit out these men with civilian clothing when they are released from the Services. This is the duty and the obligation of the State, and I hope that the Minister will recognise it. This duty was recognised during the war. For all practical purposes the conditions were the same. The reason given then was that we realised that the need for civilian clothes was there when the men were released. I hope that the Minister will not say tonight that the only time when this country is prepared to give a square deal to its fighting men is when we are at war. Cannot we show the same spirit or fair treatment when we make use of the services of these men in peace? They are serving the country to the best of their ability. I hope that my right hon. Friend will show his appreciation. He will get the best out of these men by seeing that civilian clothing is provided.

9.6 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

I am very glad that I have this opportunity to express something of what has been communicated to me by many mothers all over Great Britain on this subject. The mothers feel very sore about this position. I have also had letters from those whom I know in the Services, and they are most bitter. As a matter of fact, the withdrawal of the concession of the free suit is rankling in the minds of our men to such an extent that they are calling themselves, "the forgotten men."

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

Come, come!

Mrs. Mann

I am not surprised at that interjection from the Opposition benches, considering that they have always been such enthusiasts for recruiting and that tonight they have a total of four Members present while we discuss this subject of suits for our National Service men.

One reason why they call themselves "the forgotten men" is that they feel that their case has not been brought to the Floor of the House of Commons. The men who went through the heat and burden of the day were constantly the subject of debate. Those who followed had their case debated in the House of Commons. It was discussed whether they should serve for 18 or 12 months, and then we went from 12 months back to 18. But the in-betweens think that they have aroused no interest whatever in this House. They did an extra three months' service. I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) read from the Regulations that this provision applied to those called up for two years or less. What applied was that they would have a pair of boots, a shirt and tie. I do not understand the next provision that they will have the vests, drawers and socks that they are wearing at the time. Surely, no one is suggesting the alternative—that they shall be deprived of the vest, socks and drawers that they are wearing at the time? That seems to be the only alternative. Certainly, the period of two years or less does not apply to them, because they have had three months thrust on to the two years.

It would be a very nice gesture by my right hon. Friend if he would take action in this matter. I know that he has a very generous, fatherly heart towards all the men in the Services. I appeal to my right hon. Friend, who is second to none in his attitude towards these men, that this means much more than the amount of money that is involved. We talk a good deal about the morale of our Forces, and this is a direction in which we can stimulate the morale of the men in the Services.

I ask the Minister to remember that very many of these men have lost two years and three months of fairly high earnings. I certainly know that some of those in the commissioned ranks have lost very high salaries during this period, and even those in the non-commissioned ranks have made a sacrifice. Not only that, although this may bring nothing but scorn from hon. Members opposite, the earnings of these men meant a great deal to the parents in their homes, who have been deprived of part of those earnings for two years and three months, though there have been no grumbles about it. When their sons come back, the parents are all very pleased that their boys are taller and healthier, and that they weigh very much more than when they left home, but what are they to receive? A mere 60 coupons, and that means nothing today. Anyone can buy a suit of clothes and an overcoat free of coupons, and that is another reason why my right hon. Friend should reconsider this matter.

I ask him to reconsider it chiefly from the point of view of the morale of our Forces, secondly, in regard to the burden placed on the fathers and mothers, who have made the sacrifice of two years and three months of their sons' earning capacity; thirdly, that the boy comes home a grown man, different in weight and in size; and, fourthly, that the price of a suit has been steadily increasing until they can no longer get one for £5 or £6. I hope my right hon. Friend will take all these factors into consideration, and, through his own big, generous nature, make a generous gesture to his fighting men.

9.13 p.m.

Mr. Walkden (Doncaster)

I believe that this is one of the most important Adjournment Debates that has been initiated for many months, and I will tell the Minister and the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) the reason why I think so. It is an extraordinary coincidence that the Minister of Defence, who is replying tonight, was head of the Admiralty in the days of the Coalition Government and resisted the idea of the scheme dealing with men being discharged from the Armed Forces, when the War Office had already given way. I am being perfectly frank about this, and the right hon. Gentleman himself well remembers it. His Department, the Admiralty, resisted to the utmost limit the whole idea of giving to the men of the Royal Navy what it had already been decided should be given to the men of the Army and the Air Force.

The right hon. Gentleman well remembers that, at that time, I attended at the Admiralty to meet some of his friends—I believe they are called the Board of Admiralty—and he was present when we discussed this matter. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), now the Leader of the Opposition, had previously signed a contract with Montague Burton to supply the men of the Navy with suits, and this was later converted into a bigger scheme, which was resisted by the Admiralty, but which finally had to be accepted because the Army and Air Force had agreed to it, in spite of the stupidity of the Admiralty.

I can see that the Minister of Defence does not like what I am saying, but, whether he does or not, I must say this as a preliminary because I believe that the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees has raised a really important issue which we must all face. The fact is that when folks like myself came out of the Services after World War I, we were offered a suit of clothes or, I believe, £2 15s. Od. The suits offered were similar to those issued after the Boer War—the old Martin Henrys. I believe that the suit was worth about 30s. In most cases the men took one look at the suit and said they would rather take the money. As I said to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees earlier this evening, it was not until 1941 or 1942 that anybody, apart from one or two of my hon. Friends and myself, gave any thought to what the men coming out of the Armed Forces should be given by way of an outfit.

I remember the argument we had with the Secretary of State for War, the Secretary of State for Air and also with the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister of Defence. We carried on that argument for month after month; in fact, I believe that I, personally, had 16 Questions down on the Order Paper on the subject. Eventually, however, the Government gave way and decided to give the men, instead of the old Martin Henry type, a suit of clothes which I think the majority of them could wear with pride. As has been mentioned, the man who was formerly discharged from the Army received his ordinary suit of clothes. If he wanted a collar and tie, he had to go to N.A.A.F.I. and pay ninepence for the collar and Is. 3d. for the tie. All the rest of his rig-out he had to buy for himself. To the credit of the Coalition Government, and mostly to the credit of the Labour Members of that Government—I am sorry I cannot congratulate the Tories on this because they resisted it to the hilt—they supported the policy that every man should be entitled to receive a rig-out on his discharge in which he would feel dignified when applying for a job, returning to his home, or meeting his pals in the local. I believe that these rig-outs cost something like £17 18s. per man. If the Minister of Defence will look at the figures, I think he will find that my assessment is a fairly accurate one. It cost the country £42 million.

I charge the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends with making the biggest mistake of all at the end of 1946. We gave these suits to men whether they had been in the Army for two months, six months or 12 months, it made no difference; whether they had been in for four years or five years, it was all the same. Today when a man comes out of the Army he is given a packet of clothing coupons which have no real value whatever. I contend that whether it be the Regular soldier, the National Service man, whoever it may be, if he is away from home and serving in the Armed Forces—Army, Navy or Air Force—for a matter of 12 months, 18 months or two years and three months, it is the right, proper and decent thing to do to see that he has the same kind of treatment as was given to men after 1944. I believe we have no right to make a comparison with the Boer War and with what happened then or with what happened after the first world war. We should say that these chaps are entitled to their suits.

I have sent at least half-a-dozen letters to different Ministers in recent months on this very important issue, but they do not seem to understand it. I think it is a stupid mistake; it is a contradiction in policy, because most of the Ministers who are now in office in this Government were supporters of this scheme in the last Government. Why should there be such a change round as we see today? These fellows need a suit. At the most it might cost, at today's prices, about £15 to fit a man out. Why should we, for the sake of £15 per man, to save a possible £100,000 a year, deny them this suit? Why should we say that these fellows are not entitled to their suits? Why should we say that the women are not entitled to an allowance, because we also gave the women a clothing allowance, as the Secretary of State for Air will remember?

I beg the Government to recognise that this is a mistake. The mistake was first made in 1946. It can be rectified and it should be rectified right away. Just as they did a genuine job of work in supporting the policy during the war, which everybody admired, even though it cost the country £40 million, I believe they should say now, "We made a mistake in 1946 but we will put it right and we will see that we do the decent thing as we did it in 1944." I beg the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Defence and all Ministers who are concerned wih this business of discharging men from the Armed Forces to recognise the rights of the citizen, his right to a decent rig-out and the right to fair treatment for all discharged from the Armed Forces.

9.24 p.m.

Mr. Hoy (Leith)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) for raising this subject tonight. I feel that he and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) put a case which was unanswerable. I should like to add a word in support of the case which they made out. Despite the increases in pay, which we all welcome, I do not believe for one moment that soldiers are so well paid that they can save very much during the course of their service. There are two items which always stand out in a soldier's expenditure and I think I can say that from some experience. The first is that they want to smoke. When cigarettes cost 3s. 6d. for 20 smoking can make a fair-sized hole in the wage of the average soldier. Secondly, when a soldier goes out at night he does not want to be compelled to return to barracks to get the supper which is provided for him. He wants to go to the N.A.A.F.I. or to a restaurant.

Those two items use up a fair amount of the wages he is paid. I have never for one moment believed all these stories about soldiers purchasing with their savings and gratuities businesses, houses, and one thing and another. Their wages do not amount to so much that they can do those sorts of things—and their wages are all they get. Therefore, to ask these men to face an expenditure of this kind when they have completed their period of National Service is to ask too much of them.

The argument of the Minister of Defence is, of course, that this decision was made in 1947—as if we had made decisions in this House which we have never been able to change. The decision that the National Service man should serve for 12 months was changed, in a very short space of time to 18 months. And it was my right hon. Friend who came and asked the House to make that change. Tonight we ask him to make a change of a much simpler kind. We are not asking him to set up all the machinery established at the conclusion of the war in order to fit these men out. We are asking him to pay them a sum of money which will buy a civilian outfit at the completion of their service. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walkden) that £15 would cover this. I should myself put it at not less than £20.

Mr. Walkden

I was thinking of the suit I am wearing at the moment, made by a particular firm—I am not saying which firm, but the right hon. Gentleman will be able to identify it—which cost £13 5s. I was assessing my figure on current prices; that is all.

Mr. Hoy

I do not want to debate this, except to point out that at the end of the war the outfit given to a soldier included, in addition to the suit, an overcoat, shoes, hat, shirt and collar, and so on, so I think that in asking for £20 I am asking for a fair and, I hope, not unreasonable sum.

The first of these men will be coming out in April of this year; very few men have been affected until now, and to make this payment retrospective would not be very difficult. I do not think it is very decent of the Services to offer a man a dyed battledress in lieu of a suit; that is cheap and shabby, and a relic of the old poor law system. After all, this Government has congratulated itself on abolishing the old poor law system, so there is no reason for my right hon. Friend bringing it into the Services at this time.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

We are a very poor country, all the same.

Mr. Hoy

Yes, indeed we are. I am quite willing to admit that we have had to face up to great difficulties. But the nation has faced up to those difficulties and made it possible for us to achieve things that we thought impossible only a year ago. When men are asked by the country to give up two years of their life to the Services, then it is not asking too much of the country in return to pay them this small amount for which we are asking in order that they may fit themselves out with clothing.

I do not want to prolong this Debate any longer than need be. I hope I have said sufficient in support of the case made by my hon. Friend to have impressed the Minister so that he will not give us a flat refusal tonight, but will at least promise to give the matter his consideration. I hope that he will decide to make a cash payment to each man as he completes his service with the Armed Forces.

9.29 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I wish merely to underline the importance of the problem we are facing tonight. The noble Lord, in an interjection just now, said that ours was a poor country. Well, it may be a poor country, but we faced up to our obligations to men coming out of the Services before, and if there is anything we have a right to be proud of it is the treatment accorded to them compared with what was meted out to men after the 1914–18 war. But I am afraid that compared with the treatment so recently experienced, which achieved such popularity, what is happening to the men coming out in April is very shabby indeed.

I ask the Minister of Defence to consult with the Secretary of State for Air, who is now sitting beside him, about what the men in the Royal Air Force today say about this. This morning I had a letter from a parent in Kilmarnock whose son was home on leave last week. That man has gone back to his unit; he has another three months to do; but he, and everyone else in the same position, is going to spend that three months grumbling and grousing and affecting every newcomer to that unit. What applies to the Air Force applies also to the Army.

The morale of the Forces is being driven down by this unjustifiable decision. I say it is unjustifiable because of this. It is all very well to say that the decision was taken in 1947. A lot has happened since then. Decisions were taken ánd have already been scrapped. The men have to serve an extra three months. People who are going in as National Service men will serve 18 months. I consider it absolute hypocrisy to talk about justice being done when we are ignoring the fact that men have already come out of the Army, Navy and Air Force, having served terms less than two years and three months, and have received all the benefits of the civilian clothing issue.

There is the question of expense. The hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann) talked of the generosity of the Minister of Defence. What about the generosity of this House and of this country towards the Minister of Defence in giving him £750 million? I think he would find no complaints from the country or from this House if part of that bill included the giving of fair treatment in the matter of civilian rig-out to the men coming out. The organisation of the civilian issue seems to be put forward as one of the objections, but if we can organise to give a man a uniform when he goes in it is surely not beyond the wit of the administration to give him a civilian uniform when he comes out. I do not like the idea of a cash payment. I prefer to see a man properly rigged out. The argument about administrative difficulty is one which we have heard very often. It should be faced and recognised as part of the duty of the Ministries concerned to see that men go out properly equipped as civilians.

Those men have given up vital years of their lives when they would have been earning money and helping their families at home. It is from about 18 to 21 years of age that these chaps are actually helping their fathers and mothers. After that, they are thinking of getting married and they are starting to save up. Here they are, coming out of the Services at 21. Who is to bear the burden of the civilian clothing? As has already been pointed out, the men cannot save anything in the Army. I was a major and I could not save anything during the time I was there. It will be much worse for these men. The parents will have to bear this burden. This is a poor country and there are a lot of poor people in it. It is the very poor people who have to bear this unjust burden. I ask the Minister of State and the Minister of Defence to think along these lines. These men need civilian clothing. The fact that we give them 60 coupons stresses our recognition of their need. We are shutting our eyes to the impossibility of the men providing the clothing themselves and to the injustice of making their parents provide the clothing. It is the duty and the obligation of the Ministry to provide this clothing. The way these people are being treated at present challenges our British sense of fair play.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I believe it is a custom when the overwhelming voice of the House is expressed in Debate for taking a particular line, for the Minister to yield to it. In this Debate every speaker has urged the Minister to reconsider his attitude. The noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) in an interjection, gave the clue to the opposition, that this is a very poor country. I do not know whether the noble Lord is proposing to elaborate that argument in support of the Minister of Defence, but I urge the Minister not to support that argument with figures or in any other way or to say that the Labour Government supports the reactionary opinion of a noble Lord who says that this is a very poor country which cannot afford to give decent clothing to the men it conscripts.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

The hon. Gentleman is adding words to something I said.

Mr. Hughes

It is open to the noble Lord to elaborate his case—I will sit down with pleasure—but we understood him to say that this was a very poor country. Apparently the noble Lord does not wish to elaborate that, but the interjection was—it will be recorded in HANSARD, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) took it up—that this is a very poor country which presumably cannot afford to give a decent suit of clothes to a conscript.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) has put forward an unanswerable case in saying that it is our duty to act decently towards the ex-Service man and that the ex-Service man needs an adequate clothing allowance. Surely Ministers want something to say on their recruiting platforms? They know as well as I do that their recruiting has been a flop and a failure. In addition to that, is it now going to be said that we cannot afford to give the conscripts a decent suit of clothes. The Minister of Defence should remember that the Secretary of State for War went to Aberystwyth last week on a great recruiting campaign as a result of which he got two recruits—A.T.S. If the Minister of Defence does not now say that he will grant this concession, what on earth is the good of his making great orations and appealing on the recruiting platform?

The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

Do I gather that if these concessions are granted, the hon. Member will come out on the recruiting. campaign?

Mr. Hughes

No, I seek more concessions. When the Minister of Defence proposes that recruits who join as a result of his campaign shall be given decent houses as well as decent suits of clothes it will be time for me, as representing a badly-housed, slum-ridden constituency, to consider his point of view. However. that is not the point.

Let us look at the cost of this. This year 17,000 recruits are being called up from Scotland. The estimate of the cost of this is between £170,000 and £200,000. The estimates given for the whole country are that 150,000 Service men will have to be catered for. That comes out to £900,000 a year. At the very maximum estimate the total cost to the Exchequer would be £1 million a year. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock has said, the House will be asked in a few days time for £720 million, and yet right hon. Gentlemen say that we cannot afford one-720th of that to clothe the conscript. The Minister for Air is coming to this House in a week's time for £203 million. I hope he will tell the Minister of Defence that he is prepared to recommend the concession as far as the Air Force is concerned.

I suggest that when the Government need all the appeals they can get to bring people into the Army, the Minister of Defence, the Secretary of State for Air and the Secretary of State for War would be well advised to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say, If we do not give this concession of £1 million at the present time, we shall make ourselves more ridiculous in the eyes of the Service men and in the eyes of the country than we are now." I am quite sure the Chancellor would say, "This is quite a reasonable case. If you cannot give it, cut down the £720 million to £719 million and the problem will be solved."

9.42 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has taken on himself the task of prejudging the view of the Opposition on this issue. He has taken up a remark made by my noble Friend indicating that we would not be sympathetic to the view put forward tonight. That would be a most improper conclusion to draw, because the adequate and pleasing provisions made for ex-Service men after the last war were made by a Government dominated by those who belong to my party.

Mr. Walkden

But the hon. Gentleman's party opposed the scheme.

Mr. Shepherd

I agree that there is a different atmosphere, and that to some extent the problem is different when one comes to deal with conscripts who have served a relatively short time. However, we ought to bear in mind that these men who serve even a couple of years have immense disadvantages in so serving. They are taken away from their employment at a time which is critical to their earning capacity, and they may well come from homes where the withdrawal of that wage-earner makes a material difference to the family budget. Therefore, if it is at all possible, we should do something for these men. I do not favour the granting of a cash payment, because one could provide an outfit on the basis of mass production and buying at a low price, and I should be anxious, if anything were done, that it should be done on the basis of the Government providing the actual garment.

We on this side of the House are obviously as keen as anybody in the country to encourage as many men as possible to join the Services. In the existing state of affairs, where clothes and other things cost so much money, the Government ought to try to provide something for these men who are making some sort of sacrifice. I know that the Minister of Defence has many problems—most of them are behind him—but I hope he will do all he can to find some means whereby the difficulties which face these men who leave the Forces, and who in the main will have outgrown the clothes in which they went into the Forces, can be resolved. That would certainly be the wish of those who sit on these benches.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

I hope that when the Minister replies he will indicate clearly that he is amenable to reason and to a sense of justice; that it will not take him long to reply, and that his reply will be easy, simple and pleasant to listen to, namely, that he concedes the justice of the case which has been made out and that he will report to the Cabinet accordingly.

I think there is no doubt in the minds of hon. Members—and, certainly, in the minds of Members of the Government—that if circumstances so warranted, the length of the period of compulsory service would be increased by three, six, nine or even 12 months if, in the opinion of those responsible, such an increased period was absolutely necessary for national safety. Therefore, in facing a problem of this kind, the financial cost would assume a very minor place in the consideration of the requirements of the country. In other words, if it was a question of maintaining or increasing the total establishment strength of the Armed Forces, the number of millions of pounds involved would be a secondary consideration.

I put this point and I hope it will have the desired effect. So far as cost is concerned, assuming that the period of service is increased by national necessity for a further three months, and that the average income or payment to these men so retained for further service in the Forces is 35s. a week, I estimate that the extra weekly cost would be roughly £150,000. Over a period of ten weeks it would amount to £1,500,000. Assuming that the total cost to be allowed for the suits of clothing which 150,000 men would require on discharge is £20, I estimate that the total cost over a period of three months' service—costing, as I have said, 35s. per head per week—would be about £3 million. This is only a rough estimate but I hope it is correct.

If the Minister is going to hedge on an amount of £3 million to meet this quite modest request I suggest he should take his courage in both hands and give this boon to all the men coming out of the Services. That would have the effect of advertising the sense of justice held by the Government towards these men and would be the greatest medium of advertisement for the Services which these men could take back to civilian life. I am sure the Government desire to have a contented force of men and a contented body of people not only in the Services, but also in industry. If we are to have a disgruntled element of 150,000 men coming back into industry feeling that they have had a raw deal in the clothing line, that will be a great disservice to the nation as a whole and will have repercussions on the number of men entering the Services as volunteers.

I plead with all other hon. Members who have spoken tonight. I urge the Minister to note the significant point that not one hon. Member has opposed this idea of a clothing allowance. If that is any indication of the feeling of the House, the only fair deduction which can be drawn is that the overwhelming sense of opinion in this Chamber and, I think, in the whole country, is that these men should have a fairer deal in regard to the clothing allowance, either by the issue of clothing coupons or an adequate money amount to give them a decent suit for civilian life, which they can display as a further indication of the sense of justice and fair play of this Government.

9.52 p.m.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) for the way in which he has raised this matter. A number of Questions have been put in the House and my right hon. Friends the Service Ministers and myself have had a number of letters from hon. Members and some from people outside, although I cannot say that the number of communications I have received on the matter has been very large.

It is good that, when a matter of this kind is raised, it should be debated to try to get to the real essence of the position. First I would emphasise the difference between the two classes of men with whom we have been dealing: the pre-1947 men and those who enlisted as National Service men after 1st January, 1947. Those up to 1st January, 1947 have been covered by the general scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walkden)—the scheme formulated during the war, devised to deal with those men in the Services who had been either volunteers or had been called to the Colours under National Service for an unlimited period and the greater part of them undertaking very grave risks in the course of their duty.

These men were to be treated in regard to demobilisation after the war under the age and service release groups. In order that they might get what was reckoned to be justice in that situation, the special scheme was brought in on top of the very generous demobilisation allowances at the end of the war—two months leave and gratuities—to give them an opportunity, after the great stress through which they have passed, to have time to look around, and sometimes to get a rest and to be able to go back to civilian life without any great handicaps. The other class of men with whom we are dealing are those who were called to the Colours for National Service in peace time after 1st January, 1947.

I suggest that those who took the decision to bring that other scheme to an end as from 1st January, 1947, had a good many facts before them which seemed to justify the decision then taken by the Government. The men were no longer called upon for an unlimited period of service but for one which was strictly limited, they were called upon for duty in peace time, and the great majority of them would be confined to Service peace duties. Perhaps the whole debatable point is that, if there is such a difference between the two cases as to justify the great provision made in respect of those called up between 1938–39 and 1945–46 as compared with those called up from 1947 onwards, therefore the decision which was announced to the House in January, 1947, can be justified in principle.

I would also say, with regard to the actual scheme for civilian clothing for the men who were coming out of the Services after the war, namely, all those who were enlisted before the end of 1946, there was another factor in the mind of the Government. That was that at that time supplies of civilian clothing were exceedingly scarce. Most of the men would have had great difficulty in getting a suit, at least without waiting for a considerable time for it. With the large number who had to be demobilised, and the urgent need for getting them back into civilian occupations as soon as possible it was a sound plan to see that an actual provision in kind was arranged for them.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Doncaster did not seem to think that I had nice recollections of the Admiralty position in regard to that scheme because although the Admiralty disagreed for a time with the general proposal to set up depots and with the direct ordering by the man over the counter of what he wanted from the service stores, I never heard any objection from any of the officers at the Admiralty at the time to those men who had been called for war purposes and had served during the war having the benefit of clothing or clothing grants. In fact, the main difference between the hon. Member for Doncaster and the Admiralty was what was best for the men and what would be the most economical scheme in the interests of the State as well of the men, having regard to the volume of turnover which would have to be provided for in the demobilisation of such large forces. I was able, no doubt with the help and stimulation of the hon. Member for Doncaster, to persuade them, and I do not think that there is any need for us to be in any sense at cross purposes about this matter tonight.

Mr. Walkden

And I congratulate my right hon. Friend upon it.

Mr. Alexander

The Minister of Labour and National Service made that announcement to the House about 15th or 16th January at the very time when the first batch of men was being called up for service under the new arrangements. There was therefore adequate warning to those being called up as to what the situation would be in 1948–49, when they came to the end of their service. I do not think it has been suggested by any of my hon. Friends tonight, and there could be no question of saying, that there has been any breach of faith. It was actually announced and, this is extraordinary, at that time I heard scarcely a voice of protest.

Mr. Chetwynd

Will my right hon. Friend admit that he has been consistently questioned over almost the past two years, and that now that these men are beginning to realise they are coming out of the Services is when the trouble will begin? When they are going in they are far too concerned with the new life awaiting them to think about the matter. It is now when they are approaching demobilisation that the trouble will begin.

Mr. Alexander

I am perfectly well aware of the case. I only wish to establish in the minds of my hon. Friends that there was adequate notice to the men—

It being Ten o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Alexander

—of the decision then taken. One reason why the notice was given was, that there was then and is now a severe demand upon us to use all the economy we possibly can. While there may be from the point of view of my hon. Friends a good case for this clothing to be provided, in the present division of places from which men come and the rate at which they are demobilised, it could not justify that huge amount of overheads and the kind of establishment for the provision of clothing made between 1944 and 1948. I could not be a party to restoring that kind of provision at the present time and in the present circumstances.

One of my hon. Friends stated his opinion quite fairly, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). He was very much against the principle of a cash grant. He said, "Never mind about the system and the cost; it is very much better to carry out our obligations to the full extent in making the necessary provision in kind." I wish to make it clear to my hon. Friend that in the present circumstances that certainly would not be possible.

Mr. Ross

Surely it is unfair to compare the overheads to deal with 150,000 men, with the demobilisation after the end of the war?

Mr. Alexander

The general provision of overheads becomes a much higher percentage with a lower number than with a larger volume.

Mr. Walkden

The right hon. Gentleman is exceedingly fair and I congratulate him. He has not recalled when our conversation took place with the Admiralty that his Department were at that time issuing chits, or vouchers, or documents which had a value negotiable at any tailor's or outfitter's shop in the country giving the same rigout. The War Office was giving the A.T.S. £12 10s. in lieu of any outfit at all.

Mr. Alexander

I am coming to that in due course. I am glad the hon. Member has supported what I have said about the Admiralty who at that time were putting up their case against the establishment of clothing stores, because a great many men in the Navy were asking for what they called the freedom of choice of their own tailors. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann)—my lady friend from Glasgow—[Laughter]—obviously she thinks I am very generous—raised the question of coupons. Until recently we got away with a good deal of this criticism, because we said that we had given 60 coupons. I am not sure what happens to the coupons, or whether the men used them all for themselves. If they have friends of the other sex near home, well, I know what happens to my coupons. I never see them. Now and again they are doled out to me a few at a time to meet any of my requirements. Certainly they were highly valued by the men and I am sure that they will be glad to have coupons issued to them for those things which have not been taken off the ration.

Let us deal with the question of merits. We decided that, because of the changed circumstances, we should have to break away from the old practice. That does not mean that National Service men are bereft of any help whatever when they leave the Services. There are two points to be remembered. First, a National Service man on leaving the Service is now given one day's leave with pay for every month he has served. The second point is that, as against the position when we first made the clothing scheme available, there have been two advances in pay. There was the new pay code of December, 1945. In the case of the upward adjustments made last November, while a National Service man will not at first qualify for the increases, every National Service man who has served for more than 12 months will qualify. We calculate that any Service man upon discharge will receive a sum of about £10. With his allowances he will receive about that amount. Those who have received promotion to N.C.O. rank will receive higher sums.

I will not argue about the details of the clothing he is allowed to retain, or cross swords with hon. Members about the value or lack of value of the dyed battle-dress. A good many men are glad to have it, especially those who have to go to some of the rougher classes of civilian work. It would be wrong to say that, if we are to do anything else for the men, we should cancel the choice they have at present of being able to retain these articles. I do not think that it has been suggested that the privilege should be withdrawn. On the question of cost, it is interesting to find that, whenever I come to deal with the Service position, there is never any lack of bidding up from all parts of the House. Whilst I heard hon. Members have a crack or two at the noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), I must say that the bidding up on this sort of thing comes from all parts of the House. When we present a global estimate, hon. Members like the hon. Member for South Ayrshire are loud in their protests at this "huge expenditure from the national Budget and the tremendous waste of all this military business." The hon. Member for South Ayrshire did not give me a straight answer to my question—

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I was asked whether I would go on a recruiting campaign. May I say to the Minister of Defence that I have already agreed to go on a recruiting campaign on condition that I go into the Army and recruit the people out rather than recruit the people in. I will get more recruits in a month than the right hon. Gentleman will get in a year.

Mr. Alexander

It is much more easy at times to disintegrate things than to integrate them for the public good. If the real purpose of the hon. Member is to disintegrate the Defence Forces of the country, I can well understand him. It does not lie with him, surely, to come along with the kind of plea made tonight. Not at all, and when he talks about housing provision for the troops, he should remember the position we are in by reason of the failure of Governments for decades past in regard to both barracks and married quarters accommodation. We have a long way to go before we can offer full amenities, but, if I recollect aright, it was the hon. Member for South Ayrshire who protested in this House against unauthorised persons being turned out of army accommodation in order to provide married quarters for soldiers. It is a curious turning about from one position to another that we seem to get nowadays from the hon. Member, who is trying sincerely to stick to the true line of action, though he is not quite on the true line on this occasion.

I have tried to put the general position as the Government see it before the House. I recognise that there is complete unanimity on the part of all hon. Members who have spoken, almost with one voice, on this matter, indicating that a good deal of importance is attached to it. I recognise that, but I would be quite wrong if I said to the House tonight that, because of the representations that have been made, we are going to change the policy. It would be quite wrong, because I have no authority for saying anything of the kind. What I can say is that we will have the Debate most carefully examined and the various points gone into, though I hope that hon. Members will also keep in mind some of the difficulties which the Minister of Defence has to face in the present economic circumstances. If they do that and will remember that I make no promise, I will undertake to see that the matter is considered.

Mr. Chetwynd

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, would he try to see if a decision can be arrived at before the bulk of the men are coming out?

Mr. Alexander

I do not think that my hon. Friend had better ask me to enter into a pledge on this Debate.

Mr. Lipson

Would my right hon. Friend say whether his final remarks mean that he will make another statement to the House on the Government's policy in regard to this matter, indicating whether it will be changed or remain the Same?

Mr. Alexander

I will only say that I promised that the matter shall be examined, and that it is up to any hon. Member at any time to put down a Question to inquire what the result has been.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve Minutes past Ten o'clock.