HC Deb 19 December 1955 vol 547 cc1806-14

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

11.20 p.m.

Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)

Private Barten, concerning whom I regret having to trouble the House for a few moments, was, prior to being called up for National Service, employed as a stockman at Littleham Farm, near Faversham, Kent. The farm consists of 110 acres, much of it arable, and was acquired by Private Barten's father in 1946 when it was in anything but a Grade A condition. The farm is now certified Grade A, as a result of the efforts put in by Mr. Barten and his sons. I was on the farm as recently as yesterday and became confirmed that, apart from the retention of some 50 head of cattle on the marshes, which should of course be in yards fattening and making manure, the farm appears to be extremely well managed, although it is true that the root schedule harvest is somewhat behind.

Private Barten has been troubled since birth with deformed feet and has continuously been under medical advice and specialist attention. In consequence, when he went for his medical examination for National Service he was put in a very low medical grade. He reported to his unit on 1st September and was then placed in medical Grade II, was excused training and informed that he would have to spend six weeks in his billet. He was excused route marching and "square bashing." This was the position when his mother appealed to me to get her son discharged. At that time, the health of Mr. Barten senior was such that he could do no work on the farm, although it was harvest time. I should like here to thank the Under-Secretary and those responsible in his Department, and also the commanding officer of Private Barten's unit, for the assistance they then gave; harvest leave was granted, which helped tremendously over the harvest—although it nearly landed Private Barten in jail, because, a mistake having been made, the police arrived on the farm to arrest him for being absent without leave, but the mistake was discovered and that was put right.

After his return from harvest, he was informed that he was to be supplied with special shoes, excused route marching and placed in a medical category which restricted his duties to those not having a front-line rôle. However, even with special shoes Private Barten experiences pain when he walks only a moderate distance. In these circumstances, it was decided to press for his discharge, as obviously he would never make a satisfactory soldier, whilst he was indispensable as a stockman. The reply given to me by the Under-Secretary in answer to a Question I put on 22nd November was that, whilst admitting Barten was not fit for front-line soldiering, he would be retained in the Service on restricted duties. This I considered, and still consider, to be unsatisfactory. Hence this debate.

Meantime, Private Barten had a slight attack of polio that has left him with ear trouble, and he has only recently been discharged from hospital. At Littleham Farm it has been impossible to retain stockmen. Apart from being in short supply, stockmen who are single will not take on the week-end work, and as there is no cottage available it is impossible to get a married man to stop. Mr. Barten senior remains ill and under medical care. Cattle which would normally have been retained are being sold, and only four breeding sows are being retained.

Mrs. Barten, nearly 60 years of age, has to work long hours on the farm trying to keep things going. She is helped by another son and an elderly employee. This son is not capable of looking after stock.

We are constantly being told how important agriculture is, what a fine job it has done in increasing production of food since before the war and what service it is rendering in saving imports and so helping us in our economic difficulties. Concern is also expressed at the loss of 25,000 workers yearly from the land; yet here is a highly-trained and irreplaceable farm worker doing odd jobs in the Army while no one can be found to do the skilled job which he is capable of performing.

A few weeks ago we were discussing a county cricketer who had foot trouble and had been released from Service. I suggest that a skilled farm worker of this kind is even more important than a professional cricketer. This is not a case that has been brought to my notice as a result of publicity in the Press. It came to my notice only because Batten's parents found themselves in desperate straits. Let me read an extract from a letter sent to me by Mrs. Barten. She writes: Regarding the call-up of my son Private C. W. Barten, this is causing serious hardship on the farm. My husband is under the doctor for nerve trouble caused by strain and overwork. My son had been trained for stockman and we have 17 head of cattle to put in the yards, but my husband is unable to look after them; so they are still on the marshes and will have to be sold unless we get relief. We have tried to get someone in my son's place but have been unable to get anyone as they won't do weekend work and we have no house to offer a married man. She goes on to say what type of farm work she has to do at her advanced age to keep things going. It seems strange that at a time when the Government have found it necessary to ease the position of the farm worker in regard to call-up, a man so useless as a soldier but so useful on a farm should be retained in the Army.

I have been at some pains to verify the facts which I have presented this evening. Because of what I have said—and perhaps because of additional information that he has received as a result of these recent inquiries—I hope that the Minister will agree to look into this case once again.

11.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

It would, perhaps, be useful were I briefly to recapitulate Private Barten's medical and military history as seen from the War Office side. I do not say that it disagrees, as far as the facts are concerned, to any material extent from what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Faversham (Mr. P. Wells) has told us—it is, perhaps, a matter of emphasis—and when he has heard what I have to say, the hon. Member may take a rather different view of the case.

Before he was called up, Private Barten applied to the Ministry of Labour and National Service for exemption or for deferment on the ground that he was an agricultural worker. His application was turned down. When such a decision has been taken by the Ministry of Labour, the War Office can only consider releasing a man if there has been a material change in his circumstances since the decision was taken—if his home conditions have changed, or if there has been a deterioration in his health.

Private Barten's record is as follows. He appeared before a medical board of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, at Chatham, on 5th May last, and was placed in Grade 2 because of a slight deafness in his left ear. That board had the benefit of the advice of two specialists. He was examined, first, by a consultant ear, nose and throat specialist who was concerned with Barten's deafness; and it was on account of that deafness that the specialist recommended that he should be placed in Grade 2.

Secondly, he was examined by a civilian consultant and orthopaedic surgeon, who was concerned with a slight abnormality of the feet, and especially of the left foot, but who, having taken that into consideration, reached the conclusion that the functioning of Private Barten's feet was within the limits acceptable for National Service. The hon. Member mentioned a well-known cricketer, but it does not necessarily follow that the state of his health was the same as that of Private Barten. Each case is considered, and very carefully considered, on its merits.

On 1st September Private Barten joined the Army and was once again medically examined. On this occasion the findings of the Ministry of Labour medical board were confirmed. As the hon. Member has said, Private Barten was once again placed in Grade 2, but the medical officer considered that it might be necessary to make some adjustment to Private Barten's medical category because of the condition of his legs. It was decided, I am informed, that they would first see what his reaction was to Army life.

The hon. Gentleman said that after his first examination he was excused all training and that he was told to stay in his billet for six weeks. That is the first I have heard of that, I must admit. I have no knowledge of either of those things. I will certainly look into the matter. The hon. Gentleman did not tell me about it, nor have I heard anything from the unit to confirm the hon. Gentleman's statement. My information is that the decision of the medical officer who examined him was that provisionally he was to be left in the category in which he was placed by the Ministry of Labour but that they would keep an eye on him and that it might be necessary to reconsider his medical category later.

A week later, on 9th September, as the hon. Gentleman knows, Private Barten was sent on special harvest leave. Even if he had been relegated to his billet for six weeks, which sounds to me a little improbable, he was sent on harvest leave.

Mr. P. Wells

About the six weeks, will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that that was reported to me by Barten himself?

Mr. Maclean

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will certainly look into that. As I say, he was sent on harvest leave, so that that point is not really material to the case, and for the time being, there were no further opportunities for medical examination.

Three days after he returned from leave on 18th October he was examined by his medical officer, who then arranged for him to be seen by the Command specialist in physical medicine. That examination by the specialist took place on 26th October. The specialist decided that there should be a slight lowering in Private Barten's medical category. My information is that it was as a result of that examination on 26th October by the specialist that Private Barten was excused from route marches, heavy drill and wearing boots. From then on he was allowed to do only modified physical training and to wear Service pattern shoes. Adjustment of his medical category took effect from 27th October.

I think the House will agree from what I have said that it is quite clear that from the outset this case has been very carefully watched indeed. Both the Ministry of Labour and the Army go to very great lengths to ensure that there should not be any mistake in cases of this kind, that men should be in exactly the right category, and that they should not be required to do any more than they are capable of physically.

To sum up the present state of Private Barten's health. I am advised that he suffers from two disabilities. The first is a slight deafness, due to an old ear disorder which is now healed and from which he does not suffer any longer, except for the slight deafness. The second is a slight degree of deformation of the foot which, while it prevents him from wearing boots, undertaking route marches, or taking part in the more strenuous forms of physical training, does not make him otherwise unfit.

Indeed, that is shown by the fact that he is able to lead the civilian life of an agricultural labourer and that proves that he is by no means a weakling. It is therefore quite clear that Private Barten is fit to continue his National Service. He is not even in the lowest grade. He is fit to continue his National Service within the restrictions imposed by his medical category, and it is clear that in these circumstances there are no medical grounds for his discharge from the Army.

The hon. Member for Faversham has said that Private Barten is quite useless as a soldier. That is not so. In order to show why, I should like to recapitulate our policy in this matter, which has been made clear in the House many times already. The fact is that the day-to-day life of the Army involves the discharge of many tasks which are not of a strenuous nature and which can be perfectly well carried out by men who are not 100 per cent. fit and are not necessarily fit for the strenuous existence of a front-line soldier. These jobs must be done by somebody. If we dispense with the services of National Service men who are not 100 per cent. fit and we have in the Army only men who are 100 per cent. fit, these general duties which at the moment are being done by men in the lower grades would have to be done by fit soldiers, to the detriment of their training and of their duties as combatants.

It is therefore, quite wrong to say that men like Private Barten are useless in the Service. On the contrary, they are serving a very useful purpose indeed and have a very important part to play in Army life in that they do useful work and release fitter men for more arduous duties. The hon. Member for Faversham has mentioned the farm which belongs to Private Barten's family. I understand that it is a farm of about 110 acres of which rather more than half is pasture and rather less than half arable. At the moment, it is run by Private Barten's father, who is helped by his mother, his brother and one employee. I gather that there are about 50 head of cattle, 200 poultry and a few pigs. Therefore, it is not really a very large farm and there is not at first sight any reason why it should not be kept going by that number of people.

Mr. Wells

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 30 head of cattle had to be sold as a result of this call-up and that four breeding sows are now being kept in the hope that these people will be able to obtain assistance and start pig breeding again? There would be more stock on the farm than there is at present if this call-up had not caused the stock to be depleted as much as it has been.

Mr. Maclean

Yes. I fully appreciate that, and I am afraid that it is a fact that National Service is bound to inflict certain hardships on the young men who are called up and their families. I am afraid that is something which has to be accepted and which has been accepted all along since National Service was first instituted. But our criterion in these matters, once the decision has been taken by the Ministry of Labour that a man shall be called up, is that we only release a man when it is clear that his absence will cause the family business or firm, or whatever it may be, to collapse altogether. From what the hon. Gentleman said, it is quite clear that Mr. Barten's farm is not in any immediate danger of collapse. If there were to be any drastic change in the situation, if, for instance, Mr. Barten senior's health were to deteriorate, or if any other disaster were to overtake this family—and I sincerely hope it will not—then I should be only too glad to look into the case again.

Mr. Wells

On that point, Mr. Barten senior is at the moment unable to work. He is under the doctor's care now.

Mr. Maclean

Yes, but I am still not convinced that that is likely to produce a complete breakdown of the farm, or that it will be necessary to sell the farm. But if the hon. Gentleman will let me have particulars of Mr. Barten's present illness, I will certainly have a look at it, though it does not seem at first sight as if that were likely to prove decisive.

I think that this a pretty clear case and one which is covered by a clearly-defined policy which has been in force for a number of years. First of all, the question of whether or not a farmer should be called up is a matter for the Ministry of Labour, and that is therefore in the hands of my right hon. and learned Friend, the Minister of Labour. We reconsider whether a man should be released only if he quite definitely shows that since his call-up there has been a radical change in his situation. Secondly, there is the question of Private Barten's health. Quite clearly there can be no question of his being released on health grounds. He is perfectly fit to do the job he is doing, which is a useful job and which releases a fitter man for more active employment. In that way he is being as useful to the Army as any other National Service man.

Finally, there is the question of the farm. From what the hon. Member said, and from what I have been able to ascertain, the farm is not in any danger of collapse. There is no danger of Pte. Barten's parents being forced to sell their farm and stock simply on account of his absence. They are managing on their present labour resources.

So I would say that it is a clear case in which there is no margin of doubt. We are always ready to look sympathetically at borderline cases and, if we can, stretch a point to let men go, but in this case I really do not think there is any margin of doubt on any of those scores.

There is no question that he should not have been called up—he was rightly called up—there is no doubt that his health is good enough to allow him to stay in the Army, and there is no doubt, at present at any rate, that his parents are managing to carry on with the farm in his absence.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Twelve o'clock.