HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc3046-60

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)

I wish to express my thanks for being given the opportunity to raise the matter of which I have previously given notice and which, unfortunately, I was unable to raise when the House was counted out the other Friday. I must apologise to the Civil Lord for having brought him here on this nice spring day when, I have no doubt, he would rather be taking some relaxation from his recent arduous labours.

The matter to which I want to draw the attention of the House, although not a matter affecting very large numbers of people, is one which affects the credit of the Admiralty itself. I am not suggesting that it is not a difficult matter. The origins of it go back a very long time to the early days of the war. An appearance of injustice has been given, and many of us feel that an injustice has been done, and I think it is right that the matter should be raised to see if we can have it rectified.

It concerns some of the employees of the Admiralty who serve in the dockyards abroad, and particularly those employees who were serving in Hong Kong at the beginning of the war. They include a number of different grades of employees, many of them craftsmen, and I have been asked to raise this matter, in fact, by the Amalgamated Engineering Union, for among them there are several of its members.

The facts are these. These employees, who are normally home based, when serving abroad in one of Her Majesty's dockyards, receive in addition to their normal civil pay a supplementary allowance paid in local currency to compensate them for the cost of living abroad. The condition is, of course, in the form of a normal contract, to which they are in fact entitled. In 1940, in the conditions at that time, the employees in Her Majesty's dockyards were asked if they would join a dockyard Defence Corps. I do not know the exact details of the Corps, but I presume it was not very dissimilar from the Home Guard which was established in England at that time and in which many of us served. Certainly, it was a Corps which was intended to be willing and able to defend Her Majesty's dockyards in Hong Kong in case of attack.

In 1941, after the entry of the Japanese into the war, the situation was very serious indeed, and the local dockyard officials made very strong representations to all employees who had not already done so to join this force. One can well understand that the men employed out there were only too willing to do so, and a very large number of them joined the force in order to repel the invader.

As hon. Members may recall, it was on 8th December that the Japanese invaded the Colony. In view of what I am going to say, I think it is important that I should make one point here. It cannot have been outside the knowledge of the Admiralty, to put it mildly, that the Colony was in considerable danger, and that there was the possibility not only of attack but that it would not be possible to defend the Colony. It was, at any rate, strongly to be presumed. I do not say that many of us were not shocked by the events which took place so rapidly at that time, but the Admiralty, at any rate, must have been in possession of the facts of the situation.

It is important to emphasise this, because the argument has been advanced that the Admiralty were unaware of the conditions existing in the area at the time and did not foresee or anticipate the possibility that the Colony might, in fact, be captured. This is important when one considers the sequence of events. When those men joined this Corps they were assured that they would still be treated as civilians and they would continue to receive their ordinary rate of pay and their colonial allowance. There was no question of them receiving Army pay and allowances as the Corps was not regarded, either by the men or the officials who persuaded or invited them to join, as an army unit, but simply as an emergency Defence Corps.

This assurance was given in Hong Kong, but some of the men, apparently realising the complications that might arise and wanting to make sure, as people do, did make specific representations to the dockyard authorities. As a result, it is know that the Commodore at Hong Kong sent a special signal to the Admiralty on 17th December, 1941, which was just over a week before the Colony was actually captured.

According to the information received from the Admiralty, this signal read as follows: To dispel anxiety regarding maintenance of evacuated families request immediate confirmation that Civil Dockyard European personnel now mobilised in Dockyard Defence Corps will receive full civil pay including Colonial Allowance. I think it is important to note the words, "including Colonial Allowance." In reply to that message a signal was received from the Admiralty on 24th December which simply said, "Confirmed." Two days after that, on 26th December, the dockyard, unfortunatley, had to surrender and all the men who were there were captured and interned.

I do not think we need go over the appalling conditions which all those who were taken prisoner in the Far East, whether serving men or civilians, suffered in these camps, the great brutality, privation and suffering which they went through. Those who did not die of disease certainly suffered terribly from these conditions. One member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, about whom representations have been made, suffered a very severe injury to his spinal cord, was an in-patient at a hospital until the Colony was relieved, and cannot walk now without wearing a metal caliper splint on his right leg and without the aid of a stick. That is only one case among many hundreds that could be mentioned.

Those who were fortunate enough to survive were released four years later and when they returned to England, quite naturally, in view of the signal that had been exchanged, they applied for the arrears of wages and colonial allowance to which they were entitled, their right to which had been confirmed in the signal sent from the Admiralty to the Colony a couple of days before the invasion actually took place. But to their intense surprise and disappointment the payment of the allowance was denied and a very long period of negotiation then ensued.

In 1948, the Admiralty agreed to pay these men this colonial allowance, but only for the period from the date they joined the corps until the date on which they were interned, which was merely from 7th to 25th December, 1941. In spite of the fact that the whole of this matter had been—as was thought—fully confirmed and was fully understood both in the Colony and in London at the time, when the corps was first formed, and despite the assurance given by the Admiralty in their signal it was first of all repudiated altogether and then a change was made, the Admiralty relenting to the extent of this very small number of days—18 days. It is clear that the Admiralty at that time had some doubt as to the rights and wrongs of the case.

I suggest that it is quite clear that there is very serious doubt as to the rights and wrongs of the case, and the way it has been treated has given rise to a very strong feeling of injustice on the part of the people who have suffered in that way. It is rather interesting to note that one of the reasons put forward by the Admiralty for not being able to accede to what appeared to be the natural rights of the men is that they were—as they put it—addressing themselves to the situation at the time.

I do not understand what that means. Perhaps the Civil Lord will be able to explain. As I have already stated, a signal, confirming the men's understanding of their conditions of service in the corps, was sent only two days before the dockyard surrendered, and it is quite incredible to think that the Admiralty were not aware of all the conditions appertaining at that time in the dockyard. After all, if this comparatively minor signal—not perhaps minor to the men but to the country as a whole—and a reply could have been sent at that time, one must assume that a very much larger number had been sent and were passing between the Admiralty and the Commodore about the military conditions in the area.

Therefore, I do not think that this particular excuse can be taken as a very serious one. I cannot understand, in particular, the argument put forward in a letter which the Admiralty sent to one of the men in 1947, from which I will quote: As regards the signal quoted there is no question but that the intention to credit Colonial Allowance was based on two points (a) that the decision had no regard whatever to the position of the staff in the event of capture and (b) their status for the period in question would be that of civilians. I do not understand that. This question had never been raised before. The Admiralty had never made any conditions about their confirmation of the conditions under which the men would serve, that they would receive their civil pay and that they would receive colonial allowance.

In view of the fact that the Admiralty must have known the critical position that existed in the Colony at the time one might well have thought that they would have taken into account all the possibilities, including the very likely—almost probable—possibility that these men would be captured. Yet a signal was sent without any qualification, and, naturally, the men concerned considered that the Admiralty were bound to adhere to their decision, just as any other employer would be legally bound to do.

I suggest that the attitude of the Admiralty has really been contradictory and even after this time, admitting the difficulties there may have been in the situation, I think there is a case for rectifying what is, after all, not likely to be a very expensive matter but one which is giving cause for great dissatisfaction and a great feeling of injustice among a number of dockyard employees.

Although these men had their colonial allowances credited to them for the period from 7th to 25th December, 1941, the Admiralty, looking at it again, afterwards decided that they were not entitled to it, and that they should not have been given it—and they took the necessary steps to recover the money although it had already been handed over. But in 1948, in view of representations, the second decision was reversed and the men were allowed to retain the colonial allowance for this short period.

When the men volunteered to join the Corps in 1941 they were provided with arms and uniforms, but their colonial allowance continued to be paid up to the period when they were captured. I cannot see any justification for the Admiralty refusing to continue to pay the colonial allowance merely because the men were taken prisoners of war. The men concerned feel very strongly about this and they feel that the Admiralty must have been so fully aware of the position that they should never have made the promise in the first place if, in fact, they were not going to carry it out or, if there were any conditions attached, arising out of the military or any other situation, or any other factors, they should not have sent the signal and should not have confirmed the conditions. If the Admiralty feel they have made a mistake, even after this length of time and after the representations which have been made, I believe that if they change their minds and make this concession it will create a considerable amount of good will.

When they were taken prisoners-of-war, the men had not only to live under difficult conditions but they had to live in camps and hospitals where the cost of living was quite high, if not considerably higher than when they were living under normal conditions in Hong Kong. Some of their families were interned. Others were evacuated before the surrender. Many of them incurred very heavy debts and liabilities which they have had to meet since their release.

I suggest that the Admiralty have placed themselves in a rather invidious position in this case. I do not say they can be accused of bad faith, but I suggest that there is still time for what appears to be a wrong to be righted. It could, of course, have been dealt with in another way. A request was made that the matter should be submitted to arbitration, but this, too, was refused, I believe after a good deal of cogitation. There was no other way by which the men could have ventilated the grievance—it could not be ventilated in a court of law—and that is why they have, finally, asked me to raise the matter in the House.

Although the story is complicated, both in the changes which have taken place in the Admiralty's view of the matter and in the decisions which have been taken, I believe the facts are, nevertheless, clear. It is a fact that the promise was given quite clearly and unequivocally in the signal which was sent before these men were captured. It confirmed the decision which the Admiralty had taken about the conditions under which these men should serve in the Defence Force. I ask the Civil Lord whether he cannot now agree to make this concession or, as I would prefer to put it, to grant the rights which these men demand.

Mr. Speaker

May I say, in the interests of hon. Members who are to follow, that it would be convenient if this discussion could be brought to an end at a quarter to four.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Edwards (Stepney)

I am very sorry to have to intervene in this Adjournment debate, but I think it would be wrong if I did not accept responsibility for all the complaints which have been uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu). As the House knows, I held the post of Civil Lord of the Admiralty from 1945–1951 and I was as much responsible for the decision about the civilian employee members of the A.E.U., and perhaps other unions, as any other person, and certainly more responsible than the present Civil Lord.

No doubt the Civil Lord will provide an answer in accordance with the facts with which he has been presented, but I want, too, to provide an answer and to say that this matter has received the most careful consideration, and when I was Civil Lord I met a delegation of Members of Parliament from the A.E.U. on this issue. I thought I had been able to satisfy them, as a Labour Minister, that the treatment which had been meted out to these people in Hong Kong was right and proper under the circumstances.

I have to speak from memory, because I cannot look through the records, but there is one thing I can say without fear of contradiction. What is being asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton is something more than was given to the soldiers and sailors who were prisoners of war and something more than was given to the civilian employees in Singapore who were taken prisoner by the Japanese. These men were treated no differently by the Japanese, whether they were taken prisoner in Singapore or in Hong Kong, but what is being asked is that something more should be given to those in Hong Kong simply and solely because some form of signal went out from Hong Kong. Something more is being asked not on the rights or the merits of the case of the civilian employees in Hong Kong, by comparison with other civilian employees, but simply in order to take advantage of a signal. I strongly disapprove of any such attempt.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton would have to agree with me that he is arguing for something from the Admiralty which was turned down until 1951, and which would give a small number of members of his union some preferential treatment—something over and above that which was given to those other people who had the misfortune, during the war, to be taken prisoner as members of the Services or who were civilian employee internees. That, I think, is quite wrong.

We should not try to obtain concessions for any one section of people by comparison with others simply and solely because pressure is brought to bear from either here or there. As I say, I am sure there is quite a good case to be made out by the Civil Lord. He has the job of replying to the debate today instead of me, but from my recollection I would say that, as a result of their being given military status, most of the civilian employees interned from Hong Kong received far more money than they would have received had they been on civilian pay plus colonial allowances, and far more benefit. There may be one or two cases where they did not receive quite the same amount of money as they would have received had they been paid the colonial allowance plus their civilian pay but, if my memory is correct, we can say that scarcely one of them was worse off as a result of being given military status.

I want to tell the House that I accept my share of responsibility for this decision. Naturally, when I have taken a decision myself, when in office, I want to stand by it, whether I am in opposition or whether I am a Member of the Government. I hope that the Civil Lord will be able to agree with my view that the men in Hong Kong referred to today have been treated every bit as well as the other men employed by the Admiralty. I see no special reason why they should have preferential treatment because of a signal which may have been sent—possibly wrongly, although I do not necessarily say that—to Hong Kong in very difficult times.

3.29 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

We surely have an unprecedented position today when a previous Civil Lord finds it necessary to come to the Opposition Front Bench in order, presumably, to defend the present Government. It is a curious constitutional theory which places an obligation upon those who held office in the past to defend the Government after they have left their office.

Let us put this matter in its right perspective. This is a claim which the Amalgamated Engineering Union have never given up since 1946. From the point of view of the trade union, it matters not, in our argument for our members, whether my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards) is in office or whether an hon. Member from the Conservative Party is in office. Abstract justice is not conditioned by the fact that there is an affiliation between the trade union and the political party. That would be an entirely wrong conception of trade unions.

This is a case in which national arbitration has been refused. It is a case which was prosecuted throughout the time of the last Government and, when we failed to get industrial satisfaction, the A.E.U. Members of Parliament went to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stepney about it. May I say that had my hon. Friend not left office, this Adjournment debate would still have taken place?

We may still have the same answer today from the Government, but I do not see any reason why a Member of the Opposition should rush in to defend the Government. I feel sure that my hon. Friend has made a better defence of the Government than the Civil Lord himself will make. Abstract justice, or the claim to justice by a trade union, is not conditioned by the political complexion of the Government, and my hon. Friend seemed not to understand this and to have an entirely wrong conception of the trade union's position.

When the men got that signal, that their colonial allowances were to be honoured and that their conditions were to be fulfilled, they assumed that the Admiralty's signal bore the authority of the Government. Indeed, broadly speaking, when subordinates carry out the policy of superiors—and this is so even in private affairs—the superiors consider themselves bound by their subordinates' decisions—if an order is given and taken. These men, when they got that signal, thought they were going to fight the Japanese, not the Admiralty—as they had to do for years and years.

It seems to be assumed that we are looking for some political favour—or that we were, because a certain political party was in power. I ask the Civil Lord to accept from me that that is not so. We are trade unionists pressing a case, irrespective of politics, to the ultimate limit. If our case is turned down today, we appreciate that we can go no further, but we hope it will not be, because it has to be remembered that these men were prisoners in the hands of the Japanese and that they were hardly done by and injuriously affected by this misunderstanding.

We owe it to these people to press their demands on their behalf, and it is purely accidental whether we happen to be behind the Government or in Opposition, and that has nothing to do with the case. I hope that, on reflection, the Civil Lord will find himself in a position to say that he can concede this case.

3.32 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Wingfield Digby)

I think that the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards) was quite right to intervene on this matter, and to explain to the House the reasons that led him—after very careful consideration, as I know—to take the decision he did during his six years of office. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) was quite wrong in saying that the hon. Member for Stepney was defending the Government. He was not, of course. He was defending the decision of the late Government, because the late Government made up their minds on this matter and stuck firmly to their point of view.

Since I came into office I also have looked at this matter, and I can assure the House that I have come to it with an unprejudiced mind. But I have reached the same decision on the matter, as to the merits of the case, as did my predecessor, the hon. Member for Stepney. Of course, we are in some difficulty in this case in that the events referred to took place so long ago—11 years ago; and, unfortunately, during that time a lot of evidence has disappeared. It is no longer possible to confirm all the facts.

As the House has already heard, there was a meeting last summer of Members of Parliament opposite—as long ago as last July—on this subject. I was interested to see that at that meeting the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) did appreciate, according to the record of the meeting, one point which he omitted from his speech—the point which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stepney made so well—that the real request here is for a special case. It is a request for treatment better than that received by any soldier or sailor or airman—

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

This is a case put forward for carrying out a point made with the Flag Officer in Hong Kong at that time, who gave an assurance to these members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union that the allowances would be paid. That is the issue.

Mr. Digby

I think the issue is whether these people, for a special reason, should be given better treatment than any soldier, sailor or airman who fell into the hands of the Japanese—or any civilian either—in Hong Kong or Singapore, or elsewhere. That is the issue we cannot burke—as to whether the facts justify such treatment.

Reference has been made to the colonial allowance. Of course, the purpose of that allowance and its military equivalent is to offset the higher cost of living in certain places overseas, and we must remember that when we are discussing whether or not it should have been payable in these circumstances.

I would remind the House of the agreement which is signed by an industrial employee who goes to a dockyard overseas. Article 7 says that he will undertake that he will be trained in the use of guns and small arms and will aid in the defence of the dockyard—Hong Kong in this case—or other place of his employment in any capacity ashore or afloat in the vicinity of the port, and that in the event of war or emergency occurring he will continue his service and become subject to naval discipline.

It is true that, at the time when these events were happening, there was some doubt at the Admiralty as to the nature and conditions of the Hong Kong Dockyard Defence Corps. For example, as far as I can judge, it was not clearly realised at the Admiralty that it had been merged with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps. That is not altogether surprising.

It was at the height of the war. People here were naturally thinking very much in terms of the Home Guard at home, and it was naturally assumed, I think, that the conditions in the Corps were rather similar, and that it would be a question of doing the same there as the Home Guard did here—living a civilian life and and serving part-time.

Let me remind the House of the sequence of events, which were extremely rapid, because they have a very great bearing on this case. On 7th December there was Pearl Harbour. On the following day, 8th December, the Corps was mobilised. On 17th December the signal was received from Hong Kong. On 22nd December the reply was sent, and only three days later, on 25th December, Hong Kong fell. It will be seen from this that the circumstances were somewhat confused and moving very fast; and, of course, there was preoccupation at the Admiralty at the time with very serious events in other parts of the world, apart from Hong Kong.

The hon. Members for Edmonton and Leeds, West, have referred to this signal which was sent, and the text of it has already been read out. The fact of the matter is that it was not clear as to what the real intention was in sending that signal. It was not clearly realised that, in sending that signal, it was intended to ask for special treatment for the Corps—because it would have been special treatment in the circumstances as we now know them.

For reasons which it is not possible clearly to define after this lapse of time, it is now certain that there was a rather vital omission from the actual text which was sent out, and it was not exactly the same as that which was received. The words which were left out referred to the balance of civil pay. I will read the text: To dispel anxiety regarding maintenance of evacuated families request immediate confirmation that civil dockyard European personnel now mobilised in Dockyard Defence Corps will receive"— and here come words that were left out— balance of civil pay including Colonial allowance. The words "balance of" were left out. Had the signal been received in the full form at the Admiralty there is no doubt it would have been clearly understood that the question at issue was that of balance of civilian pay for those serving whole-time in this Corps.

Mr. Hobson

The hon. Gentleman does not deny that the signal was received?

Mr. Digby


Mr. Hobson

Therefore, he will not deny that it was reasonable for the men at the other end to accept the signal at its face value in the way that has been stated?

Mr. Digby

I think that there was genuine misunderstanding on both sides, in perfectly good faith. It was certainly not clear to the Admiralty, at that very late stage of affairs in Hong Kong, that an attempt was being made to get special treatment on the question of the balance of civil pay. Had that been understood, the reply, I think, would certainly have been different.

There has been some comment on the brevity of the reply. But when we remember that this was only three days before Hong Kong fell and that it was essential to keep signal traffic to an absolute minimum in those very difficult days, it is not in the least surprising that the Admiralty should have attempted to make the shortest possible signal. Of course, we know that the signal that had been received was mutilated, probably for the same reason. There was a definite confusion as to the exact status of the Corps, and there is no doubt that if the Admiralty had understood the position fully the reply would have been quite different.

That leads me to events after the war. It is interesting to note that on the repatriation of these men to Australia they were treated as civilians. That shows that the Admiralty were quite consistent on this point, and it shows that the Admiralty did believe that they had always been civilians, and that there had been no question of treating them as soldiers—in which case the question of balance of civil pay would have arisen.

In 1946, at the request of these men, they were treated as soldiers. They could not lose under this arrangement and, in point of fact, figures which I have show that a great many of them gained considerably. For example, in the case of a Departmental clerical officer who was a single man, the net gain was £115; for a second-class draughtsman who was a private, it was £357; and for a clerical officer who was a sergeant, it was £334 13s. 6d.

Mr. Hobson

What about the dockyard labourers?

Mr. Digby

I have not got any figures out for industrial employees, but I am told that in most cases their gain was greater than that of non-industrial employees, because their civilian earnings were on the whole lower—so they gained more, not less, than in the particular cases I have quoted.

I think that I should make another point. Some of those employed in the dockyards were anxious to join the Corps but were refused because it was thought that their job was too important. The men who did join were, in fact, in a better position than those who were refused permission to join although they had volunteered. They were in a better position than Army or Air Force personnel who were there. Although such personnel were in uniform and had military rank, they have not had the same treatment as has now been accorded to the members of the Corps. Full Army lodging allowance has been paid tax free, for the term of captivity; and they also received Japanese campaign pay and all the other requisite allowances.

The question of the colonial allowance as opposed to military status was not raised until 1947, and it has, as I have said before, been discussed. I must make it clear again that all civilians lost certain allowances on capture, and this applies to all civilians throughout the Far East who were captured by the Japanese. The reason was that the colonial allowance was given to offset the higher cost of living in particular cases overseas. I must also stress that all soldiers lost their equivalent allowance, which is the local overseas allowance.

The request, therefore, is for special treatment that can only be justified by the telegram. The Admiralty do not feel, however, that the wording of the telegram is sufficient justification, for the reasons I have given, for this special treatment for these men as opposed to all other prisoners of the Japanese.

I am sure that the House has the greatest sympathy for all those who fell into the hands of the Japanese. It has been argued that expenses in captivity might have been greater for the members of the Corps than for soldiers and sailors. I have looked into that point and I do not think that it bears very much investigation. In fact, only about one-tenth of the men concerned still had their families in Hong Kong, as 400 to 500 families had already been evacuated in 1940, either back to this country or to Australia.

With regard to the families in the United Kingdom, they were, of course, receiving from their husband's pay to the amount that was designed to meet the cost of living in the United Kingdom. That argument also applies to those in Australia, although there were special arrangements in Australia, particularly from 1941 onwards, for making extra grants in special cases of hardship; but there was no question, so far as the families who were left in Hong Kong were concerned, of being able to send extra food to the camp in which the women and children were interned.

In conclusion, I must stress again that this matter has been exhaustively and sympathetically examined over a period of five years. I have gone into this matter very carefully, and I cannot see sufficient reason to reverse the decision of the previous Government. I do not think that many fresh factors have emerged in the interesting discussion we have had on this matter this afternoon.

I must say again how sympathetic we are to these men in view of the ordeal they went through, but I do not believe that we should be justified in giving them better treatment than that received by the soldiers, sailors and airmen, and those other civilians who were captured, unless we were absolutely certain that we had a cast iron case for so doing, and I do not think that such a case has been made out.