HC Deb 10 June 1953 vol 516 cc412-20

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

12.55 a.m.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)

I am obliged to the Secretary of State for War for staying for this debate. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, with whom I have been conducting correspondence in this case, will soon be enabled to resume his duties.

I am raising this case because I believe a man and his family have been unjustly and almost callously treated by a Government Department, and because I believe the case as a whole raises issues of principle concerning compassionate grounds for release from the Armed Forces and release from doing National Service. The facts of the case are not in very great dispute. Driver Steel is a National Service man who joined the Army last September, and his father, a Birmingham resident and a constituent of mine, is almost totally blind. There was some early dispute in the correspondence, but I trust that has been satisfactorily settled.

Mr. Steel needs his son as his right hand, his eyes, his business brain. He is entirely dependent upon him for the conduct of his business. His son's business acumen is remarkably well developed for one 19 years old, and he has been absolutely in charge of the business under his father's supervision. He is needed to write the cheques, make the purchases, to do the selling and all the extra jobs associated with a one-man business.

The business is a waste paper concern which Mr. Steel built up over a period of about four years to a turn-over of from two to three thousand pounds. It is a business which he particularly badly needed to make successful because the father is in considerable financial difficulties through some previous misadventures in business. Indeed, he is now confronted with the removal of his furniture by the sheriff's officers in order to settle debts on earlier business ventures. It is a distressing position for the man personally.

When this business was at its height his son was called up. The father tried to manage for some time with employees, but, naturally, in such a relation as between a blind man and his son it was difficult to find a replacement. He found no one who could guide him in making purchases—and in that business one has to make selections visually—and to do all the extra work involved in a one-man business. The result is that his business is derelict, the premises are derelict and are being continually broken into, the motor lorries are falling to pieces through neglect, and the business is only worth the few pounds its equipment would fetch as chattels. Finally, the father himself is now left to tune pianos and live on National Assistance. Indeed, his total income amounts to about £7 a week, half of which is accounted for by National Assistance.

In my submission, there is a very strong case for releasing this National Service man. It does not only depend on the state of the business; it depends on the fact that we are here dealing with a blind man who in this country is usually given some extra consideration in matters of compassion. I approached the War Office, and in letter after letter I have been refused this man's release. This raises, first of all, the principle of the case itself, and then the wider principle of when release is to be given to such National Service men. My first indictment of the War Office in this case is that I believe that the Minister or his officials in advising him have dealt quite inadequately, callously and indifferently with the needs of a blind man.

Never in all the correspondence I have had with the War Office on the subject— and I have a good deal of it with me in the Chamber tonight—have the particular needs of a blind man been mentioned, and never has it been suggested that matters might be stretched a little to help a man afflicted in that way. Indeed, the War Office have dealt with the matter by saying, first of all, that if release were given in this case, all normal men, so to speak, with no affliction would so organise their businesses as to be dependent on their sons in order to save them doing their National Service.

That is a disgraceful way of dealing with the question of a blind man. I am not interested in what would happen in a normal case, because I am sure that in a normal case nobody would expect compassionate treatment. I am surprised that there has been no suggestion of what can be done to help a blind man. A most astounding sentence in one of the letters from the War Office states that the father should never have started the business five years ago when he knew that he might become dependent on his son.

As I said in my reply to that letter, what a ludicrous homily to address to a man in this year of 1953. What a ludicrous thing to say that five years ago, when the son was just leaving school and it was expected that National Service would be only a temporary measure, and when a blind man could expect some measure of compassion, he should never have started the business in the first place.

Therefore, my first indictment is that the War Office has been totally inconsiderate over the whole case. My second indictment is that it has shifted its ground. In the early correspondence, it implied that there was no indispensability in the relationship between the father and the son. After I had gone to considerable trouble to find out the real facts and had sent them in further letters to the War Office, the Minister shifted his ground, and in a subsequent letter he admitted the indispensability, and then made the excuse that the man should not have started the business in the first place.

The whole matter has been very badly handled indeed. It has not been handled in the way that a great Government Department should handle a case of compassion involving not only a small business, not only a man in considerable financial difficulties, but also a blind man in whose case we in this country usually try to make an exception whenever we can. In response to pressure from me, the Minister offered to give the man leave, not release, to start the business again, or—which I thought was almost an insult—to wind it up. Taking the best offer, to let him start it again by giving the National Service man leave, I would point out that this man would not be able to keep the business going without his son. According to the Minister's definition of "leave" the young man would have to go back once the business had been started, when the process of decay of the business would begin again.

What does the Minister's offer mean? Why cannot we have release on the understanding to it will only go on so long as the business is restarted and is successful? Secondly, what does "leave" mean? I forwarded to Driver Steel the letter from the Minister, the final sentence of which reads: If he applies to his commanding officer I will ensure that this application gets sympathetic consideration. What does it mean? Driver Steel has seen his commanding officer with that letter, and was told that the officer commanding could do nothing about it. All he could do was to give him 10 days' compassionate leave. Had the instruction gone through? If it had, why was it not carried out in the spirit in which I am sure the Minister intended it to be?

Lastly, on what grounds can one reasonably expect to get release for a National Service man when some such consideration as blindness or other dependability of father, mother or very near relative is involved? Of all the cases I have had to handle since I came into Parliament I have not found one more strong than this, and I have not been more shocked by the attitude of the Minister. I do not think he meant it, but some of his letters gave such an impression of indifference and callousness to the state of this man and his need for his son that the right hon. Gentleman cannot really defend it. I hope that this morning—as it now is—the Minister will reverse his decision in this case and will give some guidance how one can in future expect such cases to be dealt with by the War Office.

1.8 a.m.

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

It is the hon. Member's job, I appreciate, as it is the job of all hon. Members, to represent the case of their constituents, especially when they are in difficulty. By the way that the hon. Member made his speech I appreciate that he feels deeply on the subject. He certainly has not been failing in his duty as a most conscientious Member of Parliament representing a difficulty which has arisen within his constituency.

I, also, have my duty, which is to look at these cases not purely as individual cases but from the point of view of the administrators of a scheme which is almost universally unpopular, in the sense that National Service has never been welcomed in the country because under it young men are taken away from their normal lives for two years of compulsory service. The hon. Gentleman referred both at the start and at the conclusion of his speech to the question of principle. In replying to him I had better deal, first of all, with that point.

Remember that we are dealing with, and that the discussion relates to, exemption of a man from National Service, from his two years' obligation, on compassionate grounds. That opportunity is one which many people seek and for which we get many representations. Therefore, we have to consider very carefully all these representations, remembering certain principles. By and large, although perhaps over-simplifying, these cases fall into two categories. The first is where a parent is a widow, or where neither parent is in work, and would be destitute without the employment and support of the son. The second is where the absence of the young man—an only son, perhaps, or where two sons are called up simultaneously—would cause undue suffering to parents because of special circumstances of ill-health.

Now, how does this work out in practice, when there is destitution or serious suffering through ill-health? In almost all cases, it works out in this way. When the young man reaches 18 years, and is due for call-up, he states his problem. He states it to the Ministry of Labour on registration. Every young man who goes for registration is given particulars of the scheme, and is told that he can apply for deferment, which is given at six-monthly intervals, normally up to a year.

That is the normal way in which action is taken under the two headings to which I have referred. A young man is given the two periods of six months, and in the majority of cases, if it is a question of support, some alternative arrangements may have been made or, if it is a matter of ill-health, there may have been an improvement, or assistance may have been given by the authorities. So, there is a period in which the young man may be able to solve his problem. In the majority of cases, the problem is taken up by the deferment but, there may be an alteration of circumstances, where a young man is called up, through sudden deterioration in a parent's health or in a parent's circumstances.

In this particular case, there has, I think the hon. Gentleman will agree, been no sudden alteration. The conditions obtaining when this young man was called up have obtained since the start of the subject matter four years ago. I do not think it entirely fair to label the War Office as having a heart of stone, although it is understandable that one should feel great sympathy, for we are concerned here with a blind man; and, ipso facto, that this case should receive immediate sympathy.

I should like to deal with it chronologically. I am just as sympathetic as the hon. Member, but I must point out that Mr. Steel has not suddenly become blind. He first went to a blind school at the age of seven, and his whole life has been based and lived on this affliction. It is not something which has made him suddenly dependent on his son. He has been trained since 1927 as a piano tuner, and that is the main means of his support. He suffers a most tragic affliction, but it is not a sudden, or a new one. Four years ago, he started up in the waste paper business. It is a perfectly proper thing for him to have done, but he started in 1949, and the National Service Act came in during 1948. Of course, he may have thought that National Service would have been temporary.

As the years went by, and as the date for Master Steel's call-up got nearer, the possibility must have loomed larger and larger to Mr. Steele senior. That, I think, is fair. In September, 1951, young Mr. Steel became due to register and he was warned by the Minister of Labour. Now, he did not register, and he was only registered in the following May, in 1952, as a result of a "follow up" by that Department, so he had another period when he knew he ought to have registered and had not. I am only stressing this interval as a period in which some arrangement or attempt could have been made to meet this problem which had been coming to them over the years.

He was registered in May, 1952. When he did so—and this is of importance in this case—no application whatever was made for deferment. The hon. Gentleman told me in his letter that Mr. Steel junior did not apply for deferment because he thought deferment for another six months was only putting off the evil day. The point is, when in these grave difficulties, why not put off the evil day and have six months in which to try to do something to meet it? Saying it was only putting off the evil day was a tacit assumption that he had got to do his two years' service. When a man says he cannot serve because his father is in such distress, in 90 per cent. of such cases he applies for deferment. I leave it at that; I only state it as being of significance in my opinion.

What happened next chronologically was that Mr. Steel senior wrote to the War Office in February, 1953. When the letter arrived it was quite clear to us in the War Office that what we had to consider was, first, "Can Mr. Steel senior support his wife and family on what he is now doing?" Secondly, "Is he, as a blind man, being caused exceptional suffering because of this affliction by the absence of his son?" Those were the two questions before us, and I should like to take each in turn.

The first thing we find out is what Mr. Steel is earning. Now his pay for the year before our inquiries was averaging £7 8s. 4d. a week. Although I do not claim that is luxurious pay, I think the hon. Gentleman would agree it is adequate pay on which to keep a wife and daughter of nine. That pay is made up by his earnings from what he has been trained to do from 1927 as a piano tuner, supplemented by a grant from the Birmingham Royal Blind Institution acting on behalf of the Birmingham City Council. Whether the hon. Gentleman quarrels with me or not, I do not think one can say that this man is destitute on £7 8s. 4d. a week. So the next thing we have to see about is his affliction for blindness.

Mr. Chapman

What about the business?

Mr. Head

I am coming to the business. I am not trying to shirk it. On the question of his blindness, as I said, it started tragically at the age of six. His son's absence may be difficult for the business, but the sudden deprivation of his son is not so serious on account of the blindness as might seem at first because it is an affliction he has had for a very long time.

Now I come to the wastepaper business, which was started four years ago by Mr. Steel senior. It is not for me to go into it, but the hon. Gentleman has rather put this case as though the wastepaper business were a matter of life and death to Mr. Steel senior and was the means of his supporting his family and of his financial affairs being satisfactorily arranged. I query that, for this reason. First, as far as I can make out—I am not talking about future expectations, which I cannot judge—the wastepaper business has so far made no profits.

Mr. Chapman

Quite the reverse.

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman says "Quite the reverse," but I am assured that that is not so. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the grant of £3 13s. a week or more from the blind institution is entirely a grant to make up pay, and if the business had been making a profit that would have been deducted from the grant. But no deduction was made.

Mr. Chapman

Certified accountant's certificate.

Mr. Head

All I can say is that there is something wrong, because this grant is made to make up a total of £7 8s. 4d. I was informed by the Blind Institution that no profit was made by the business. However, I will not argue that point although it is curious that he was drawing an emolument to make up his pay to the limit.

When this business was started the call-up of the young man was coming nearer and nearer. There were three other employees in the business which was one that, if it appeared essential that Mr. Steel junior should be there, could have been wound up. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we should exempt Mr. Steel because, although there are three other employees, Mr. Steel as the driver is essential.

Mr. Chapman

He is not just the driver. His father is absolutely dependent on him for the business side.

Mr. Head

Yes, but I am saying that the father was blind when he started the business. This thing had been coming closer and closer. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, if I am to exempt that young man, many other young men in this country could be in a position in which their fathers might be made dependent on them.

Mr. Chapman indicated dissent.

Mr. Head

But that is a fact. If Mr. Steel senior had suddenly gone blind, I would have said, "Here is a case of a man with a sudden affliction who has been thrown on to the support of his son," but this could be seen coming and Mr. Steel senior is drawing £7 8s. 4d. a week, which is sufficient to support his family.

Neither of the two counts—the support of the family and undue suffering from his affliction—were sufficient to enable me to grant exemption for this young man from his two years' National Service without creating a precedent which would mean that many others could claim this concession. I say again that the normal way in which these matters are dealt with is by deferment at the initial stages when the War Office does a lot of sorting out. But no deferment was claimed. It was coming. It was evaded the first time. National Service was accepted the second time and only subsequently was this claim made.

If Mr. Steel had been destitute or had been suffering greatly through his affliction, the War Office would have been far from hardhearted. I say again that if any help can be given in the immediate difficulty by compassionate leave, it shall be granted, but I cannot exempt this young man from his obligation of two years' service which is unwelcome to many people.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past One o'Clock, a.m.