HC Deb 12 May 1950 vol 475 cc815-26

Motion made, and Question poposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kenneth Robinson.]

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Heathcoat Amory (Tiverton)

The matter I want to raise this afternoon is a simple one. I want to ask the Secretary of State for War if he will terminate the ban on discharge by purchase at present in force, applicable to certain technicians in the Army and, in particularly, to clerks. I will not dispute the shortage of technicians and clerks in the regular Forces and, as a temporary measure after the war, I could have understood fully the necessity for this course, but I cannot believe that it can be easily justified five years after the end of the war. It seems to be hard on the individuals concerned; I suggest it is unnecessary, and I am quite sure it is inexpedient in the long run.

I am quite aware that discharge by purchase is a privilege and not a right, but before the war it was a privilege that was rarely withheld, and I suggest that this is right. I do not know whether the Minister will defend this ban on the grounds of cost, namely, that a good deal of money has been spent on these people and we cannot afford to release them. I do not think he will say that, but if he does, I would reply that the proper remedy for that is to adjust, if necessary, the sum payable on discharge. As far as hardship to the individual goes, I am a little doubtful whether it is a good plan to encourage young men of 17 to sign on definitely for such a long period as seven years. I doubt whether many people of that age know their own minds and, after all, the years from 17 to 25 are vital ones from the point of view of a final career.

In order to show how it works out in a specific case, I will give the facts of the case which has prompted me to raise this matter. I have sent the Minister full details already. It concerns a young South African who in 1944, when the war was in progress, volunteered for the Army. He was then 17 and his mother was in. this country. He did not, I believe, obtain his father's consent, but I presume that he obtained the consent of his mother. On leaving a public school he signed on for seven years in the Army and five years with the Reserve. His object at that time was, of course, to serve the country. He also hoped to get a commission and to make the Army his career.

Subsequently, he was not selected for a commission—I am not entering into the rights or wrongs of that—and shortly afterwards his mother returned to South Africa. I suggest that her departure and the fact that he was not selected for a commission altered his whole prospects and accounted for his loss of interest in the Army as a permanent career. As a result, he wanted very badly to take up an alternative civil career in South Africa, for which a period of six or seven years' training was necessary. When, therefore, in March, 1948, the system of discharge by purchase was restored, he rejoiced. There were, however, exceptions among which was the trade of clerk.

This young man, I understand, found himself a clerk against his will. He did not volunteer to become a clerk, but when he was serving in B.A.O.R. he was detailed for "Operation Quill" and was subsequently trade-tested as a clerk. On return to his unit he persuaded his C.O. to allow him to become an instructor, but when his unit closed down he was posted as a clerk to the R.A.C. depot at Bovington, and there he has been as a clerk ever since. During that time of over two years he has been trying to get his discharge by purchase so that he could go back to South Africa to take up a civilian career.

I suggest that hardship is involved to this man because, first, in time of war he volunteered at the early age of 17; secondly, he never wanted to become a clerk and, therefore, he never wanted to get into this particular job in which he is being discriminated against; and thirdly, he is a South African national who enlisted over here because his mother was here at the time, but she has subsequently returned to South Africa. I should have thought that all these things together afforded ample grounds on which he could have been given a compassionate discharge.

I have said that it is no longer necessary to maintain this ban. In the case of a very technical job like that of a radar mechanic I could understand it, but the job of a clerk is not very highly technical. I know that in the Regular Forces most soldiers who enlist probably do not join from any desire to become clerks. If they want to become clerks they would remain in civilian life. There are, I suggest, other ways of dealing with this situation. If the clerical jobs cannot be filled, one of the ways to overcome this is to increase the pay and attract more people for the job.

I wonder whether full use is being made in the Army of National Service men to fill jobs of this kind. After all, National Service men represent a wide cross-section of the community and I should have thought that there were plenty of young men amongst them who could be trained very quickly to fill clerical jobs in Army units. Commanding officers might say that they cannot train these men in the time. I have some experience of this and sympathise with them—I know the troubles of finding the right people for established posts—but I suggest that if the young National Service men cannot be trained for the relatively simple job of clerking in the Army, apart from the key posts, the whole administrative system wants tackling to see whether the jobs cannot be simplified, just as in commerce and industry jobs of this kind have to be devised so that skilled labour can be diluted.

Lastly, on the question of inexpediency, we all want to do everything we can to stimulate recruiting and to increase the supply of technicians in the Army. I suggest that the worst way of setting about that is to erect a ringed fence around the particular job. That did not work in agriculture, it did not work in mining, and I am sure it is the worst way of improving the prestige and status of the job which one wants to do if one is to attract people into it. It is so easy for people to say, "Don't get into that job or you will be caught." That is, perhaps, the strongest reason for removing the ban today. A man with a grievance is the world's worst recruiting agent.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to urge on the Secretary of State for War my hope that he will have the imagination to look beyond the immediate difficulties and to terminate a discrimination which, I think, is rather unfair—I will not say it is unjust, but unfair—and very inexpedient today and not at all helpful to recruiting. If the right hon. Gentleman is not willing to do that, I ask him to give particular attention to the individual case I have mentioned and of which I have given details—the case of a young man who has been very severely handicapped, a young South African—in taking up the career to which he is to devote himself. In his case there is no question of his continuing in the Army for a permanent career and it seems to me that there are grounds for his discharge for compassionate reasons.

4.17 p.m.

Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory). One of the unfortunate things in democratic government is that the justice of a case is multiplied by the number of votes it commands. We are speaking of a very small number of people, but they are people who should be treated as fairly as anyone else.

There is no doubt that the War Office have a difficulty about these skilled trades and even about clerks. I would have supposed that the normal course they would have followed would have been to make the job more popular, to make it an attractive rôle, so that people would enter it with pleasure and be eager to serve in that capacity. Instead of doing that, the policy of the War Office has been to deprive clerks of the ordinary privileges which are common to practically everyone in the Army, except for a very few special trades. That is working entirely contrary to what should be the purpose of the War Office, to make it an attractive rôle. It makes it a very unattractive rôle, and men feel that if they get in they cannot get out. There is a sense of imprisonment and frustration.

Is clerking such a technical calling that it is impossible to train people as clerks? The training would be most useful to them when they leave the Army. The Army is full of schools; there are more schools than battalions, yet it is apparently admitted that they are unable to train enough soldiers to be able to do the not difficult work of clerking. That is a confession of failure.

I would remind the Under-Secretary of State of another man who is a sergeant clerk and is not allowed to purchase his discharge. He also is an engineer. So many are engineers. They come on a seven and five engagement and are kept in the Army against their will. This man's parents run a family firm of very old standing and it has a big export trade to Canada and the United States. It was expected that his elder brother would act as a traveller in the Western Hemisphere to earn more dollars. He was serving in the Navy and was killed during the war and then they wanted the younger brother to do that work. He joined an infantry regiment, not to be a clerk, but to fight the Germans and Japanese. He was made a clerk. He now wishes to come out of the Army. I know that the policy of the Government is not to help family firms, although those firms earn a good many more dollars than do the nationalised establishments. This young man is now wanted very badly in the business in order to help to earn dollars.

He is kept in the Army as a clerk because the Army will not allow him the privilege which is normally expected by those who serve, a privilege which he would have had if he had remained in the infantry and had not been turned into a clerk. He joined the infantry and had no idea that this fate was in store for him. Had he not been required in the family business through his brother having been killed in action, he would probably have served out his time without any complaint. As it is, he is now badly wanted in the family business. It is of far greater national importance to earn dollars in the United States than to work as an ordinary clerk in the Army. That is primarily why he wishes to leave the Service.

It is a distressing thing that this period of suspension of the privilege to this class has continued so long. The War Office are making a grievous mistake in putting up a bar against that particular calling in the Army. They seem to be doing everything to discourage people from becoming clerks. Having heard what my hon. Friend and I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some encouraging response by saying that the end of the period of suspension of this privilege is drawing nearer.

4.22 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Amory) put his case in very gentle but extremely persuasive terms. I am sorry that his opening speech should have been followed by the attempt of the hon. Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross) to import quite unnecessary political prejudice into this Debate. He suggested that it was no part of the policy of the Government to assist family businesses. One of the most common reasons for granting compassionate discharge or the compassionate right to buy one's discharge is that a family business is in jeopardy. If the hon. Member for Londonderry had studied the problem at all, he must be aware of that and must know that the need to help family firms is kept constantly in mind.

Sir R. Ross

If the hon. Member had studied the letters which I wrote to him he would have understood that that reason was given. He entirely ignored it. Hence, although I gave him every opportunity of meeting me, he brushed that reason aside and said that he could not consider it.

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Member is not entitled to assume that, because it has not been possible to grant permission in a particular case in which he is interested, we have no regard for the needs of family firms. Wherever it can be established that a family business is in jeopardy that is a case for compassionate discharge. The hon. Member will not expect us to take seriously his allegation that there are more schools than battalions in the Army.

To return to the real case which is under discussion, it has been admitted that this discharge by purchase is not something which anyone can claim as a right. I must part company with hon. Members in their use of such words as "unfair," "grievance" and so on. What is the position? A man voluntarily enters into an engagement to serve in the Army for a certain period of years. He knows that he may be called upon to perform a variety of duties while he is in the Army. No one in any walk of life can say that he has a right unilaterally to break a contract into which he has entered voluntarily.

It is, of course, the duty of the Government and the War Office to release a man from his engagement if that can reasonably be done without damage to the Army and the national interest, but a man who has voluntarily entered the Army cannot really say that he is being treated unfairly because he is not allowed, solely of his own wish and for his own purposes, to break the contract into which he has entered. There was at one time a statutory right to buy oneself out of the Army in the first three months of one's service. That was the only statutory right that has ever existed and it is in abeyance while the emergency lasts.

Under the non-statutory scheme introduced by Army Council instruction some time ago, we have so arranged it that the old statutory right does now exist in fact, although it has no statutory basis. So we have gone beyond what we had any statutory obligation to do, and made discharge by purchase possible and practically automatic in the first three months. But we have not been able to say that it could be accorded to everybody who asks for it. We have had to require that after a man has passed his first three months he shall then serve for three years before he can ask for discharge by purchase; and further, that if he fulfils the three years' condition he will only be able to obtain a discharge by purchase provided he does not fall into certain banned trades.

It has been suggested that we have put a black mark against the trade of clerk and only a few other trades. Indeed I wish that were so, but unfortunately the lists of trades which we have had to ban is a fairly large one. It includes bandsmen, electricians and a variety of others. But can it be said that we are putting a black mark against those trades? It might be said with equal justice that we have done our best to help those whom we could possibly spare. The list is subject to constant review. Whenever we find it possible to do so we say, in respect of a trade on which so far we have imposed a ban, that we have solved the difficulty and that the ban is now lifted.

I have with me an appendix to the Army Council Instruction which, as so frequently happens, is covered with a number of alterations made at later dates, and nearly all of them are in the direction of a greater relaxation. The list is subject to constant review. Even if a man is in a banned trade, we are prepared to waive the ban in compassionate cases. Commanding officers and the War Office have, in particular cases, gone to great pains to try to secure compassionate releases as soon as they could be granted.

I do not think, therefore, that the contention of the hon. Gentleman that the rule is hard or harsh can reasonably be defended. We have endeavoured to keep these restrictions down to the minimum required by necessity. It is true that some clerks perform very simple duties, but a high proportion of them require a good specialist knowledge of the problems of the particular Arm to which they belong; and that is the reason why we must have a certain number of them who are Regular soldiers. The clerical work of a unit or headquarters cannot properly be done unless there is a certain Regular element among the clerks to ensure continuity. We have not neglected the potentialities of National Service men. In a great many Arms the number of National Service clerks is up to three or four to one Regular clerk. We cannot extend that to the point where all the clerks are National Service men, for the reason I have mentioned, that we must have that continuity which is essential to the proper performance of the work.

A man who decides to be a Regular soldier does not normally do so because he wishes to be a clerk. That has been a psychological fact which Armies have faced for a very long time. It is a problem of their organisation. There is always likely to be a genuine difficulty in finding sufficient men for this trade among Regular soldiers, and at the present time the deficiency in clerks in practically every Arm is very serious indeed.

We have not been idle in trying to find remedies. So far as is possible, and it is possible only on certain occasions—for example, in static formations at home—we have made use of the services of civilians Then, of course, the Women's Royal Army Corps provide part of the answer but, as is well known, their total size is only a small fraction of the Army and they also provide us with women who render very valuable and highly specialised services other than those of clerking. Thus, the amount of help we can get from that source is equally limited.

There is another thing we must do when we find that a deficiency in a trade is so serious that we cannot extend to that trade the general right of buying themselves out. We have to bear that situation in mind when we are selecting people for various trades at the time of their entry into the Army and we have to search among the new entrants for those who are of the right temperament, qualities, education and background to be trained for any of the trades on the banned list.

All those remedies we have employed, and we continue to employ them. I could not give the hon. Member any precise date on which we shall lift the ban on clerks, but I would draw to his attention the point which I have already mentioned—that some trades which were banned a few months ago are not banned now. We have never regarded the list as rigid or as unalterable. We are aware of the vexation which the ban causes and we should certainly be very happy to lift it as soon as it is operationally possible to do so.

Turning to the hon. Member's second point, I do not think it can be contended that the ban is unnecessary. It was also suggested that it was inexpedient. The hon. Member suggested, I think, and one naturally appreciated what he said, that when we tell a man he has to do a job and that he cannot leave it, that will react unfavourably on the zeal and efficiency with which he does it. In particular he mentioned the case of this young South African.

Mr. Amory

He and others. That was the point I was making—not only him, but others.

Mr. Stewart

Since the hon. Member mentioned that specific case, I should like to say a few words about it. This young man entered into a voluntary engagement. When he signed the attestation paper he knew he was engaging to serve for seven years.

Sir R. Ross

Could he have engaged on any other terms?

Mr. Stewart

He engaged for seven years with the Colours and five with the Reserve, and I believe he could have engaged for five and seven, although I am not certain on that point. At any rate, he entered into this engagement voluntarily. He was disappointed in not getting a commission and we shall naturally share his disappointment, but I do not think it can possibly be argued that because a man finds, when he enters the Army, that he does not get on as well as he hoped in his chosen profession, be is therefore entitled to say that he will leave it before the time of the conclusion of his engagement. I think the hon. Member's parallel with the ringed fence around civilian industries lees not hold, because it has always been accepted as a principle in the recruitment of the Army that a man goes in for a certain fixed period and that he cannot expect as a right to leave the Army before the end of that period in the way that one leaves a civilian occupation. I do not see how we can escape from that.

Nor could I see, as I looked at this case, that there were those outstanding compassionate circumstances which have justified the waiving of the ban in many cases. I felt that if we allowed the ban to be waived in this case, then there were very many who could plead at least as serious compassionate circumstances and the whole object we have in mind would be lost. I sympathise with men who find themselves doing an uncongenial job, but I do not believe that the main run of men serving in the Army today, merely because they have been disappointed, will allow that fact to cause them to do their duties in a lackadaisical or inefficient manner.

It is on that note that I should like to conclude. I believe that HANSARD is more widely read in the Army nowadays than it was in time past, and I hope that what I have to say may reach not only this House but some of the men whose position we have been discussing. The word "clerk" may suggest, to those unacquainted with Army life, merely a minor, repetitive job of slight significance; and it may well be that some of the clerks themselves who had hoped for more lively or more varied employment may take at times a jaundiced view of their duties. But such a judgment would be far from the truth.

I have been profoundly impressed in the time I have held my present office with what an enormous contribution good clerking can make not only to the efficiency of military operations but also to the wellbeing of the men in the Army. We desire that soldiers should be free from vexatious delays and from unnecessary journeys, that the problems of their leave and their pay should be expeditiously handled, that, where the need arises, their private and family matters should be fairly, sympathetically and sensibly considered. We cannot attain these things if the work of clerking is in untrained or incompetent or idle hands, and the man who is working today as a clerk in the Army is entitled to take a pride in the value of his work, and to realise that by the proficient performance of his duties he not only strengthens the Army in its primary task but contributes very vitally to the happiness and well-being of his comrades.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes to Five o-Clock.