HC Deb 07 December 1951 vol 494 cc2755-65

1.50 p.m.

Mr. T. Driberg (Maldon)

As hon. Members who have had any extensive dealings with it will know, the War Office is a considerably more humane and reasonable institution than its critics sometimes credit it with being. I hope that we shall find it so today, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War for attending personally to reply to this brief debate.

The questions which I have to ask him relate both to a general policy and to the particular case of a constituent of mine who has been serving in the Army in Germany. Perhaps I may outline the case of this constituent, whom I will identify simply as Guardsman Smith, in order to illustrate the argument on policy. Guardsman Smith finished seven years' Colour service in August last. He would have been due for release on 15th August if, like other Regular soldiers, he had not been held back on account of the emergency. He is 24 years old, and has been serving in Germany for six years.

Some time ago Guardsman Smith got engaged to be married to a German girl. On 10th May last he came home on leave. His fiancee came to England at the same time, having got all the necessary papers and permits to enable her to do so—medical clearance, police clearance, and permission from the British civil authorities in Germany to come to England for the purpose of getting married. On 1st June she and Guardsman Smith were married near his home in Essex.

All this might have been in order but for one serious omission on Guardsman Smith's part. He had not got his commanding officer's permission to marry a German girl. He knew that such permission was necessary. I am not disputing that there was a breach of discipline here. However, when he got back to Germany after his marriage he found that he was being punished for his admitted breach of discipline with a penalty far more drastic than he had realised he was incurring. This penalty took the form of posting to the Middle East, in order, presumably, to get him as far away as possible from his newly married wife. He is now in England awaiting a draft to the Middle East.

Now, as I say, I do not argue for a moment that if there is a breach of discipline no penalty should be imposed; but up to quite recently it has been found possible to deal with this particular breach of discipline in a less severe way than this, and—I would emphasise this point particularly to the right hon. Gentleman—it is surely an essential part of the concept of punishment that it should be deterrent. Obviously, no deterrent can be effective, or can fairly be applied, if its existence is unknown to those whom it is intended to deter from a certain course of action.

I have had letters from the Secretary of State about this case, and in those letters he has made it clear that this new procedure, whereby the penalty is posting to another command, was introduced in April of this year. Guardsman Smith assures me that no indication of this new procedure had appeared in his company orders before he came home on leave to get married. Remember—I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to remember this—he came home on leave on 10th May.

I wonder if it has been found possible to check the actual date on which this new procedure was definitely indicated to all the men in Guardsman Smith's company? In one of his letters the right hon. Gentleman said that Guardsman Smith "ignored the consequences of his action": my view is that he was ignorant of the consequences of his action—which is not quite the same thing.

I propose at this point to read out the four points of this new procedure—or, rather, the four conditions which a soldier who wishes to marry a German must follow—as given me by the Secretary of State: First, he must put in an application to his commanding officer; second, he must obtain a satisfactory medical, security, and police clearance in respect of his prospective wife; third, he must wait six months, during which period he must have at least one leave in the United Kingdom"— in order, I presume, though I have not verified this, to enable him to discuss his proposed marriage with his family and parents, which is, I think, reasonable and fourth, he must still have 11 months to serve in the Rhine Army at the end of the waiting period. It is, perhaps, worth noting, in passing, that essentially—although, I admit, not formally—Guardsman Smith had fulfilled at least two, possibly three, of these conditions; but, of course, he did not make formal application for permission to be married.

The Secretary of State also argues in one of his letters to me that this man is in the same position, after all, as a soldier who has married a British wife and is posted overseas; he also is separated from his wife, and, perhaps, has to wait quite a long time for her to join him overseas. This seems a rather shallow and an irrelevant argument: we could apply it to a solidier who marries a British wife and then commits some disciplinary offence. He would not, I presume, be punished by being posted overseas—even though this same argument could be applied to him. After all, too, such separation at least occurs in the ordinary course of duty: it is not imposed as a punishment.

Furthermore—and this seems to me substantial—Guardsman Smith and his wife are, as the Secretary of State admits in one of his letters, "less fortunate than those men who evaded the Regulations before the present procedure was introduced." That does seem to me rather hard and a bit unfair. Here is Mrs. Smith, who is back in Germany now, living there, and having on all sides of her, perhaps—at any rate, she knows of a number of cases—other German women who have married British soldiers whose husbands are with them still, living happily there in Germany, although they also failed to get permission to get married.

I do not want to exaggerate the number of such cases as that, though it is obviously rather hard on the people concerned. I do not want to exaggerate them because I should like to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that this problem has itself, perhaps, been somewhat exaggerated. How many, in all, did evade the Regulations? I had a Written Answer on 27th November from the Under-Secretary of State. I asked him for some figures, and he told me in his answer: Since 1947, permission to marry a German woman has been given to 7,342 soldiers … in 1950 and 1951, 12 men were refused this permission. Three hundred and five cases of soldiers who have married without permission since 1948 are recorded. Posting to another theatre, where the soldier has married without permission and it has been ascertained beyond reasonable doubt that he knew that this would be a breach of regulations, has been carried out in 37 cases since this procedure was introduced in April, 1951."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 140.] So there are 37 soldiers who have been penalised in this particular way, and there are getting on for 300 cases in which such a drastic penalty has not been imposed. But, surely, 300 is itself a very small number of cases of this particular breach of discipline, in relation to the total number of Service men in Germany over the last six years. I do not know how many the total number is, but no doubt it will run into six figures, and 300 cases of this particular offence seems relatively very small.

Again, the Secretary of State, in defending this disciplinary code, refers, in one of his letters, to the difficulties of the post-war situation in Germany, and of soldiers of immature age in unfamiliar surroundings. Many parents of young soldiers will be grateful to him for saying that and will agree that young soldiers do need some protection in these circumstances; but I would suggest that in such a case as that of my constituent—a man of 24 who has been serving in Germany for six years—such considerations really do not apply in quite the same way.

Surely a reasonably experienced adult ought to be able to marry anyone he wants to marry. I suggest, therefore, that if it is necessary to retain this particular disciplinary code, it should be applied only to soldiers, say, under 21 years old.

It does seem strange that six years after the war, at a time when Anglo-German relations are entering a new and friendlier phase, it should be thought necessary to introduce this rigorous new procedure. In any case, it would hardly seem to be in the general interest of the Army, or of morale or discipline in the Middle East, that postings to the Middle East should be regarded purely as punishment. It also seems rather uneconomic to post soldiers there, if they are due to be brought home for release in the fairly near future, as, I gather, Guardman Smith will be.

One other serious point that occurs to me is this: is this action that has been taken, in introducing this new penalty, legal at all? I raise this point on two grounds. Can this procedure be made to apply to marriages taking place in England? After all, to take a more extreme case, supposing that a soldier or an officer comes home on leave and meets a German girl who is semi-permanently resident in England—a student, perhaps, or a refugee—is he committing an offence if he gets married to her on his leave here? She is not domiciled in Germany for the time being.

Secondly, and even more important, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why this new development is not an infringement of paragraph 589 of King's Regulations? This is the well-known paragraph which says: An officer will not introduce or adopt any system of punishment that is in any respect at variance with these Regulations. These preceding Regulations contain, of course, no reference at all to the use of posting to another command as a punishment.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can evade that particular point, even if he were disposed to do so, by saying that this is not a punishment or penalty in the strict sense of the word, but merely the exercise of a right that a commanding officer has, because in his letters to me, as he will remember, he did refer to this as a penalty or punishment.

Any interference by the State in the private domestic lives of individuals, whether they are soldiers or civilians, is regrettable. Everybody will remember the great emotional indignation that was aroused by the so-called case of the Russian wives, which, of course, I do not compare with this particular case: it is different in all sorts of respects. In some circumstances, as in the circumstances of the occupation of former enemy territory, such interference is necessary; but surely it should be reduced to a minimum and reduced progressively, and not suddenly increased, as it has been in the last few months.

My final point is this: There may be now, as I notified the right hon. Gentleman a day or two ago, a compassionate element in this particular case. Mrs. Smith is ill—I gather quite seriously ill—in Germany, and she may be in hospital for some weeks. Would it be possible for this reason to delay the posting overseas? I hope that for all these reasons— perhaps some are stronger than others, but cumulatively, I think, they make quite a strong case—the right hon. Gentleman, in answering my questions, will be able to tell us that he will reconsider this general policy, and also that my constituent will be given the benefit of any doubt that there may be about his actions. I urge him, in all the circumstances of this case, to temper justice with mercy.

2.6 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I believe, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman believes, that Europe can only be defended if we defend it in partnership with the Germans. That partnership can never be real while we enforce a species of colour-bar against Germans, and treat their women as women of an inferior character against whom our troops have to be protected.

Where we have men who are under the age of 21, it becomes reasonable, both in this country and in other countries, to protect them against unwise marriage; but where men are of age, it is profoundly insulting to the Germans or to any other nation that special protection has to be provided against their women. The relations that have to exist between us and the Germans if Europe is to be a defensible and united conception are injured, and injured irreparably, if this type of Herrenvolk attitude is adopted by ourselves.

I have one other very short point to make. The exigencies of the Service inevitably injure marriage. We know that distant postings do more than anything else to destroy marriage—there are constant cases and the right hon. Gentleman must know of them in every constituency—and by this Regulation we are deliberately using postings to destroy marriage. We are, by our deliberate action, tending to destroy marriages because the War Office is seeking to set apart those whom God has joined together, and that is an action which, I believe, is morally intolerable and ought not to be permitted.

2.12 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

I should like, at the outset, to thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), who initiated this debate, for not overstressing the problem by attempting to compare it with the Russian wives or anything of that sort. I think that in the short time I have available I should address my remarks to two aspects of the problem. The first is the reason for the institution of this rule, and the second is its particular application to Guardsman Smith.

This scheme was introduced because we had a considerable Army of a very low average age compared with that of other Armies, especially when compared with the old Regular Army, in Germany. The War Office has a definite responsibility, I think, to parents in this matter. There are young men at an unusually young age going away for two years in a foreign country, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman might agree with me, that, especially so far as the very young are concerned, if we had a referendum to the parents they would on the whole approve of this scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman has outlined, these rules were laid down—asking for the permission of the commanding officer, waiting for six months clearance and so forth—and the scheme started. In its initial stages it worked, and there were comparatively few cases of complete contradiction of the scheme by men getting married without consultation.

The hon. Member quoted some figures to support his view, but what I would point out was that between February and October, 1950, there were no less than 160 evasions. That was a very steep rise compared with the total he mentioned, which was around 300 for all the period of the scheme. There was every sign that the scheme was being bypassed and ignored.

As a result of that the whole question was discussed in the War Office to see what could be done, because I do not know of a worse thing than to have a rule and to have it so framed that it is evaded continuously, because that makes the regulation ridiculous. In other words, if there is a rule and the people are not keeping it and there is no sanction or punishment for that failure, then that is the worst kind of rule. That was gone into very carefully in the War Office, and the conclusion was that because men were frequently disregarding the Regulation they should be posted.

May I say a word about this question of posting? At first sight it sounds an immense interference with something that is of a very sacred and intimate character, but, in fact, the man who gets married, having ignored the regulations, is posted might go to the Middle East, the Far East or to some other station like Gibraltar. So far as his wife is concerned, he is in the identical position of a man who has a British wife. Supposing the hon. Gentleman were posted to Gibraltar tomorrow he would have to wait some months in the queue before he could get his wife out to him. The man in Germany with a German wife when posted is in the same position.

Mr. Paget

Surely the difference is this—in the one case it is a regrettable necessity that he is separated from his wife by the exigencies of service; in the other case he is posted deliberately to separate him from his wife as a penalty. That seems to me an immoral and—if I may use the word—a wicked thing to do.

Mr. Head

I would point out to the hon. and learned Gentleman the reason why this situation has arisen in Germany. Supposing we abolish the whole of this law, what would happen then? Supposing the hon. and learned Gentleman were to marry a German wife. He would be living with his wife the day after the wedding somewhere near his station. Then his wife in time might have a baby. That is what has happened in many of these cases. The women have started having children, and it was found that they were living in accommodation in great squalor, and they have been allowed, ipso facto, to jump the queue in the matter of married quarters and amenities over others in Germany who are married and are anxious to have their wives with them.

Mr. Woodrow Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

The whole point here that this punishment is unauthorised, and is illegal according to the King's Regulations. Surely the proper course for a man who disobeys orders is for him to be brought before his commanding officer, and, if necessary, tried by court-martial and given punishment for disobeying orders. But we should not give punishment in this summary way.

Mr. Head

I am interested in the comments of the hon. Member because I think the regulations were introduced when he was at the War Office. That may be a small point, but this is not unauthorised punishment and the men have been warned of this action and that postings can be made at any time of the year.

Mr. Driberg

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the legal aspect, will he deal with my point about paragraph 589, which seems quite specific?

Mr. Head

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the legal side of this was gone into before this punishment was made known to all ranks. On that side it is perfectly legal.

Having explained something about the introduction of the scheme because of the steep rise in evasions, may I now refer for a moment to the case of Guardsman Smith? Everybody who has anything to do with the Army knows that there are rules and regulations and always there are cases where one feels that under particular rules an individual is occasionally treated rather hardly. As far as Guardsman Smith is concerned, I appreciate the fact that his wife has been ill; that he was married in England; and that he was maintained in the Service an extra year owing to current regulations. All these reasons are such that one would say that he was a man who has been unfortunate. I think the experience of everybody is that if a rule is once introduced to stop a particular project it has got to be adhered to.

In this particular case to which the hon. Member referred, the man did get away with it and had no penalties. That was before the introduction of the rule on 1st April, 1951. Those men were men who had contravened the regulation before that date, and in any rule or regulation, when trying to control a particular matter, a start has got to be made somewhere. Therefore, injustices are found because some one does the thing a few days beforehand and gets away with it, whereas the man who does it a few days after the introduction of a regulation gets penalised.

Mr. Driberg

But did he know about it?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman has raised the question of this man knowing about the matter. First of all, it is quite definite he knew that permission was necessary. As far as the penalties are concerned, I know it is my experience that in any Regiment what might be called a "buzz" gets round about things which affect the day to day lives of soldiers, and this is one of those things. If Guardsman Smith says he did not know about it I would not stand here for a moment and say he was not speaking the truth. The order did go out from B.A.O.R. on 22nd March, and if he knew nothing about it it is most unfortunate, but there it is. The regulation went out and we cannot help applying the law from the date of its promulgation.

The hon. Gentleman also said—and for this again I have considerable sympathy—that Mrs. Smith is ill in Germany at the present time. I have inquired about that, and I am glad to say—I am not making a point of this—that she came out of hospital last Sunday and has now recovered.

I appreciate that the hon. Member is doing his job as a Member of Parliament, and if I may say so doing it very thoroughly, in order to help Guardsman Smith. To the hon. Gentleman I will say this—supposing I were to say, "Very well, in this case, I will waive the rule for Guardsman Smith and allow him to go back to Germany to be with his wife" what would happen? Very soon it would be known that in this particular man's case I had waived the rule, and there would be many demands for similar considerations. I would be starting a line which would probably make this Regulation ineffective.

I have looked into the question of these regulations. It is outwardly a harsh one, and one to which I personally understand the repugnance of hon Members. We must remember that Germany is full of young men and quite recently it was obvious that the rule was being avoided. We had the alternative of blinking our eyes at the upward rise of evasions or taking some steps to see that it was really effective. We took those steps, and Guardsman Smith has been unfortunate but the rule must stand.

Mr. Driberg

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, and while thanking him for some of the things he has said, may I put this point? Is it not quite obvious that if Guardsman Smith had known about the new severe penalty he would not have done as he did, that is, get married without permission? Would it not be possible to make it quite clear that the regulation must be complied with in future, but that in a borderline case—last April—when it was genuinely not known about, there might be reconsideration?

Mr. Head

I would point out to the hon. Member that in Guardsman Smith's unit seven other men have also ignored the regulation and have been posted.

Mr. Driberg

Since that date?

Mr. Head

Yes, since that date.

Mr. Driberg

Does not that indicate that they had not been told about the new and more severe penalty? Might there not have been a slip-up in the company office, or something of that nature?

Mr. Head

All I can say is that these regulations go out, and it has been my experience in the Army—I referred to this before—that a "buzz" goes round and the facts usually get to a man if he does not happen to read about them. The information is usually known throughout the battalion very soon. I do not for a moment deny Guardsman Smith's remark that he did not know, but it puts regulations on a very different basis if we say that we will let a man go if he did not know.

Mr. Wyatt

Was the man given a summary trial, and was the evidence properly sifted?

Mr. Head

The question of a trial does not arise. There are regulations concerning permission to marry, and it has been stated that if the regulations are not observed the man concerned will be posted. There is no trial. Even if we leave aside the penalty, Guardsman Smith, as the hon. Member acknowledged, knew perfectly well that he had to ask permission to marry, and he married without asking for that permission.