HC Deb 10 February 1954 vol 523 cc1325-32

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

10.24 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)

The matter which I wish to raise this evening with the Admiralty concerns a young man from my constituency, Mr. Gerald Popple. He is identified in the Navy as "G. B. Popple, A/E A.4 D/MX923737, and I sincerely hope that from that definition the Minister will be able to identify this young man.

In August, 1953,I was asked to inquire why this very promising young man was rejected for commissioned rank despite his very high technical and professional qualification. The person who raised the case with me expressed the opinion that after a careful study of the details I might come to the conclusion, already reached by others, that here was a glaring example of class distinction in its most snobbish form.

Having been connected for many years with promotion boards and appeals boards in the Post Office, I can fully appreciate how difficult it is to assess relative merit to the satisfaction of all the candidates and parties concerned. I have, therefore, approached this case with caution and reserve, but I confess that the more I read and hear about it the more disturbed and dissatisfied I am at the decision of the selection board. I have been in correspondence with the First Lord of the Admiralty, but, unfortunately, he sees no reason why the decision of the final selection board should be varied.

There certainly seems to be a prima jadecase for further inquiry. I am satisfied—as are many others—that an injustice has been done to this lad, which could have been avoided if there had been an avenue of appeal to a higher naval authority. Had there been such an avenue of appeal—an appeals machinery or a tribunal—I should not have raised the matter, because I am a firm believer in people making use of all the machinery provided for them. But there is no machinery; at least, that is the information conveyed to me by the First Lord in reply to Questions I put to him late last year.

I have not time to deal at great length with all the qualities and qualifications of this youth, and I am not sure that it is necessary to do so, because the Admiralty do not seem to dispute his technical and professional skill. I want to give the House a brief outline of the background of this case, which makes it so necessary to have an inquiry into this matter. Gerald Popple was one of the boys who took notice of the Royal Navy posters. There are thousands of these to be seen on hoardings, saying, "Join the Royal Navy," "Make the Royal Navy your career," and so on. This boy took those posters very much to heart and decided that, after leaving school, he would make the Royal Navy his career.

Strangely enough, not only was the boy fired with this ambition to become an officer in the Royal Navy, but his father and mother also adopted the same line. They were most keen for him to do so, and they were prepared to sacrifice many things in their own home and their own lives to make it possible for him to follow this course of action. In June, 1952, he joined the R.N.V.R., and studied part-time at day and night school classes in order to pass the required technical and professional examinations which would equip him to become an officer in the electrical branch of the Royal Navy. I would remind the House that we are talking about the electrical branch of the Navy and not about the physical training department. I assume that in the electrical branch a good deal of technical skill and knowledge are required.

As a result of those studies, early in 1953 he became a graduate member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, which, I think, was a pretty good achievement, bearing in mind the time available to him for his studies. This status made him eligible for a commission in the R.N.V.R. He did not then take a commission in the R.N.V.R. because he wanted to continue his studies. He did so, and passed with merit examinations set by the City and Guilds of London and examinations set by the technical colleges of Ashton-under-Lyne and Old-ham; and from my personal knowledge of the area I can say that both are excellent and well-known technical colleges in that part of Lancashire. He was called up and entered the Royal Navy as an electrical artificer. We all agree that at this point here was excellent material available on entry; even if he had no more training at all, he was excellent material on entry into the Service. Not only that, but he seems to have done very well after joining the Navy, because on 14th April—a matter of two or three months later—he was instructed to attend a pre-selection Admiralty interview board with a view to undergoing training for commissioned rank. This first board was composed of senior naval officers. I ascertained that fact from the First Lord of the Admiralty by Question and answer. Clearly, these were men of experience in the Navy. They recommended that he should undergo an eight weeks' initial officers training course at H.M.S. "Collingwood." Two other ratings were also recommended at the same time.

During the eight weeks' course this boy Poppleseems to have done exceedingly well in his technical and electrical courses. There were two intermediate tests before they came to the final test. One was on electrics and electronics, for which he got 84 per cent. and was at the top of the list. In the next, on high and low power, he got 79 per cent. and was again at the top of the list. In the final test, which was the aggregate of them all, he was only 0.5 per cent. below the top.

On completion of this course he went before the final selection board, which, as I understand the situation, seems to have consisted of rather less senior and perhaps less experienced officers. I gather from the information which has been given to me that in the main this board was concerned with what sporting proclivities the candidate had. Those of us who were in the Army in the 1914–18 War, and possibly those who were in the Army in the Second World War—I was in the first, from 1914, but I was not in the second—know that those who were able to play football or any other game soon discovered that they were selected for various appointments.

This board was a sporting board. One member suggested to the boy Popple that perhaps, after all, he was more of a studious type than of a sporting type. I do not know what was the purpose of that question. One is tempted to ask whether the Navy does not want brain as well as brawn. When we are dealing with the electrical branch of the Navy, I should think that at least there should be a place in the consideration of things for somebody with brains as well as somebody with brawn.

This interview lasted exactly 10 minutes. According to a letter which I received from the First Lord of the Admiralty, The final selection board formed the opinion that although his technical knowledge is of a high standard, he lacked the personal characteristics which are essential in any naval officer. I have known many naval officers, past and present, and I cannot say that I know of any particular type or personal characteristics. I do not know what the First Lord or the selection board had in mind when using that phrase. But the phrase used afterwards to Popple himself by the officer in charge was that he had failed because he lacked personality, quality of command, and leadership. That is the issue, as I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree. Therefore, if I can prove to his satisfaction that this man, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, was not lacking in these qualities, I assume that it will be the subject of a further inquiry after this debate.

Before starting the officers' training course at H.M.S. "Collingwood," Gerald Popple, as senior rating, of petty officer status, had to drill and instruct other new entry ratings in elementary seamanship and parade ground work. My information is that he performed his duties to the complete satisfaction of the permanent instructors in the area, who thought that he possessed good powers of command and control. They thought he would do well as an officer and were most surprised when he was rejected.

The second course was in September, 1953. A week or two after he was rejected by the selection board, he was drafted to the Royal Navy Petty Officers' School. At the end of this course, his report showed—that he lacked leadership, command, and expression? Not at all. On the contrary, he was declared "good" in all three requirements. I am given to understand that that in itself is rather unusual on this strict course. He was competing against Regular petty officers, some of whom had 12 years' service, and yet he seems to have excelled even in this company. I am almost afraid of using my third piece of information, because as things have turned out, it seems to be a message from another world. I said that the father and the mother had joined with this boy in his ambition. They had sacrificed their own comfort and many of the things that working-class people would like to get, in the interests of the progress and development of this boy. But the father died just after Christmas, and he is no longer here to take that interest which he took in the future and in the affairs of his son. Although I have hesitated a good deal before using the words that he used to the First Lord of the Admiralty, I think I should be disloyal to that still silent voice that has come to me if I did not do so.

This is what the father wrote on 28th September to the First Lord of the Admiralty: With regard to his personality, I have spent a few days at Fareham… Fareham is a long way from Droylsden, possibly 230 miles, but this man came all the way from Droylsden, in Lancashire, to Fareham, paying his own fare, accommodation and out-of-pocket expenditure, inquiring into this question. He had held conversations with all ranks who had been in close contact with his son during his course at "Collingwood." He said: I was assured that his personality, bearing, cleanliness and smartness were beyond question. These people when informed by my son that he had been turned down on the grounds of insufficient personality were as equally astonished as I was. Had my son failed on a technical point I would have been satisfied, but on personality grounds it is very worrying—knowing as we do that it is of the very highest. He concludes his letter: The disappointment of my wife and myself is beyond all words. To see the whole of our life's work to give our son the opportunity to pursue the technical career he had embarked upon, and its ultimate aim achieved, which he wanted to attain by his own efforts, refused because we had not been able to send him to a public school in order to acquire this personality which seems to be so much more essential than technical ability in this modern age. I am sorry that I have taken longer than I had intended, but my appeal to the hon. and gallant Gentleman is to have this case re-examined to see whether, in the light of this evidence which I have sought, in a very imperfect way, to put before the House tonight, it is possible to crown this lad's honest endeavour and ambition with the honour he has so amply justified.

Mr. Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that at the selection board there were two other ratings along with this boy. Could he tell us what happened to them?

Mr. Williams

Yes, both of them were selected.

Mr. Nicholls

Does that not disprove the suggestion of snobbishness?

Mr. Williams

If I knew the origin and the background of the other two, it would be very much easier to answer that question.

10.42 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Commander Allan Noble)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) for the moderate way in which he has raised this matter, because it is quite obviously a subject on which he feels deeply,and I should like at once to say how sorry I am to hear of the death of the young man's father. I had not heard of it before, and I am sure that the House would extend its sympathy to the family.

I am very glad that I have the opportunity of replying to the points raised by the hon. Member, because it is obviously very much easier to do so in a debate like this rather than by Question and answer at Question time. I hope I shall be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House, that nothing unusual has, in fact, happened in this case.

This National Service man's technical qualifications were, as the hon. Member says, formidable. The hon. Member quoted some of them. This boy had obtained the full Technological Certificate of the City and Guilds of London Institute in Electrical Engineering Practice, and he had a National Certificate, with endorsements, for Electrical Engineering. These qualifications automatically brought him before this interviewing board for consideration as to whether he should have pre-selection officer training.

As the hon. Member said, this board consisted of more senior officers than the second board. That was because the tasks of the first board are looked upon as being more difficult than the tasks of the second. They have got to interview boys and young men direct from civil life and the Navy has had no experience of their officer-like qualities and potential. That board just passed this young man. He was the bottom of the three and the lowest mark of the day. So I think that one may say that the board gave him the benefit of the doubt, because he did not do very well. At the same time, of course, I would not for one moment say that his technical qualities were not extremely high. He then went off and did this two months' course, and, again, he did well in his technical subjects, but my information was he was below those in his group and below the average in what are called personnel selection tests and other tests carried out in the training establishment.

He had the second board after he had finished the course. These more junior officers had to make a choice and to recommend young men who had spent some time in the Navy; more was known about them then than when they were examined by the more senior board earlier. Once again this young man's technical qualifications were in no doubt. It is interesting to know that the president of this board had himself entered by the way that this boy was trying to do—he had been an electrical artificer himself; and one other officer on that board had gained his commission through the lower deck, so they cannot have had anything against this type of entry.

The hon. Gentleman said that they asked questions about sport. I am sure the House will realise that questions about sport, his experiences in the training establishment, his outside interests or his hobbies at home were asked to enable the board to get into general conversation with the young man. I see hon. Gentlemen nodding in agreement. Those questions often lead to the boy opening a conversation on something that really interests him. However, as a result of that interview, the board did not feel able to recommend him as an officer and they had a considerable discussion about the young man after they had interviewed him.

In the one or two minutes left, perhaps I might differentiate between the word "personality" and the characteristics required by a naval officer. Everyone will realise that a naval officer must have considerable character and power of command and sense of responsibility, because he has to lead and inspire his men not only in Service matters but also in their personal affairs. I hope that this young man will not consider it a slur in any way that he has not come up to the high standard required by the Navy. We cannot all be officers and I am certain that his high technical qualifications will be of greater value to the Navy and the nation in his present position.

As to whether he can have another chance, the object of these National Service commissions is to pre-select young men early in their naval service. He has done over half of his. Should he want to persevere in the Navy—and I hope he will—he can either join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve when he has finished his National Service, or he can become a Regular rating, and both those Services have their own channels for promotion to officers. I hope that if he really feels that he wants to go into the Navy he will not let this stop him at this stage.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

Will the Minister answer the question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. H. Nioholls), whether the other two ratings had the same background of State education as this boy?

Commander Noble

One came from a grammar school and one from-Bancroft's School.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven Minutes to Eleven o'clock