HC Deb 25 November 1955 vol 546 cc1892-902

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I am very glad to have an opportunity to raise a matter which is of great importance to us all because it concerns the welfare and well-being of a great many young Englishmen who are serving their Queen and country in defence of the free world. My intention is to draw the attention of the House to complaints which have been made to me about conditions in H.M. Troopship "Empire Fowey" during her voyage from the Far East which ended at Southampton in August.

About the middle of July I received a letter from a constituent of mine, Mr. Peter Wright, then a corporal in the Royal Air Force. The letter was written on board "Empire Fowey" at sea and posted on to me by air mail. I propose to give the House an impression of conditions in the ship as they were conveyed to me by my constituent.

I should first like to draw the attention of the House to the question of the ventilation in the "Empire Fowey." My constituent was sleeping in H.2.B deck, which is at waterline level, and all the scuttles were, therefore, permanently closed, and men were sleeping in cots side by side in tiers of three in blocks of 18. Most men preferred to sleep on deck. My constituent says of the morning after: Entering troop decks after a night in the open has to be experienced to be believed. He goes on to describe the filthy smell of sweltering humanity which was quite overpowering even with the majority of the men sleeping on deck. And he invites us to: Imagine this situation … with the majority sleeping below owing to bad weather conditions in the Indian Ocean. I want next to draw the attention of the House to the question of the recreation space in the ship as it appeared to my constituent. He says: There is one recreation room for all troops below the rank of corporal. Well over 1,000 personnel, I believe. At a rough estimate, I should think the recreation room could cope with 150–200 actually seated. The remainder sit on the floor. If the weather is fine the deck can be used. Cattle would be better catered for. The final subject on which I wish to quote from my constituent is the most important one raised. I should like to give my constituent's impression before I comment. He says: And now for the final ghastly subject of food. Never in my whole life have I encountered such 'swill'. The menus indicate a fair choice; but the quantity and quality— There words fail him.

He then sets out a time-table of meals in the ship and gives representative menus. The first point to which I want to draw attention is one which I consider to be most serious. The last meal of the day in the "Empire Fowey" was at 18.00, which is 6 o'clock in the evening, and breakfast was between 7.30 and 8.15 a.m., which left a gap of 14 hours during which the men were without food.

My constituent gives two typical menus for breakfast, lunch and tea. He says, most fairly, that they were quite acceptable and that the quality was either satisfactory or fair. But then for supper the menu was curry and rice, two slices of bread and a cup of tea with the alternative dish, a slice of ham. He comments: You will agree … that curry and rice is not an accepted dish to the majority of people. In fact, I would go so far as to say that only 50 per cent. of the troops ate this meal. Now for the alternative dish. One piece of ham was offered to me. In actual size 2 in. x 1½ in., a mere fragment; not forgetting two slices of bread and a cup of tea. This is supposed to last a man "14 hours." It couldn't happen in prison. I do not know how he knew that, but that was his view.

He went on to give another representative menu which, again, he said was quite satisfactory for two of the meals, but on the last meal of the day he says this: The vegetable salad consisted of potatoes, carrots, swedes, and peas. —a peculiarly revolting mixture, I always think, which, I am told, is called Russian salad, but people eat it and it is quite a legitimate part of a meal to serve. But my constituent's complaint is this: The whole horrible mess was absolutely rotten, not just a faint smell, but a strong sour, putrid, odour that could be detected three feet away. The Orderly Officer was not available. The Orderly Sergeant stated that nothing could be done. It was pointed out that the men would have nothing to eat except one slice of corned beef, and one slice of spam. This was to last for 14 hours … Messing representatives have had their say, but alas nothing has happened. All complaints have been formally presented to the proper authorities, all to no avail. He goes on to say: The time now is 10 p.m. and the men are, naturally enough, complaining of hunger. I never thought the British Services would ever reach this sad state of affairs. I have read out those passages, because I think it is rather difficult to envisage in this atmosphere the state of mind of the men in that ship and I think that we should be ready to recognise just how strongly they did feel.

As a matter of fact, I think that my constituent wrote a very temperate letter, but the House cannot fail to realise the intensity of the feeling aroused. I think that the Minister will agree with me that a letter like that is something that any hon. Member is bound to take very seriously indeed. I immediately arranged to go to Southampton and to board the "Empire Fowey" when she docked. I should like to say how very greatly I appreciate the helpfulness and courtesy extended to me by officers of my right hon. Friend's Department and also by officers of the Royal Air Force and Army who met me.

I was given every possible facility and allowed to see all over the ship and to talk with anybody I wanted. I had a private interview with my constituent immediately and with the Royal Air Force corporal who had been appointed to the committee set up to consider the men's complaints and with responsible officers of the Services and ship's company and the Ministry's own representatives on the troopship. I saw the cafeteria, the recreation rooms and the troop decks and saw the men having their evening meal dished out to them. They had two herrings and mashed "spuds"—which I was told were the best served that trip—tea, bread, jam and butter. I spoke to a number of men, quite at random, and a number of officers and I was eventually most hospitably entertained to dinner, in the officers' dining saloon—and it was one of the best meals I have ever had.

As a result of this letter from my constituent, the visit I made to the "Empire Fowey" and inquiries I have made since, I should like to make certain suggestions to my right hon. Friend. First, on the question of ventilation. It is a very small point, but could my right hon. Friend consider arranging for more frequent changes of mattress covers in these ships to prevent fouling of the air? That would, I believe, be constructive and helpful. Also, I should like to ask him how often the air in a troop deck accommodating 150 men is changed every hour by the forced draught system. Is my right hon. Friend really satisfied that the present system of ventilation in the Ministry of Transport's troopships is satisfactory? If not, what plans has he for raising the standard?

Secondly, on the question of recreation space, I recognise that the standards have been agreed by all Departments since the war and I know that any change would involve a great deal of expense and difficulty; but I would ask my right hon. Friend whether he is really satisfied that these standards are satisfactory, especially bearing in mind that it is only in these recreation spaces that men are allowed to smoke. I speak with personal feeling and experience on this subject. During the war I served for some time in the lower deck of the cruiser H.M.S. "Achilles", and I served in a flotilla leader in the oldest type of destroyer flotilla for nearly a year, also in the lower deck. So I have had some experience of cramped conditions, though I must say that in my experience we all bore it very cheerfully because we were happy to be in the Service of our choice.

I submit, however, from my own experience and from my observations on board the "Empire Fowey" that the present conditions are intolerable for peace-time trooping. I ask my right hon. Friend really seriously to consider this and to say whether he could not possibly use his influence to have the standards revised.

Thirdly, on the most important question of food, my general impression was that the men were justified. I think that the quality was poor, there was not enough of it, and the men were hungry and angry. I spoke to a young National Service officer whom I happened to see and who spoke most frankly to me. He was not the type of officer one would expect to make any criticism of this kind, but he said, frankly, that he felt that the men had had a thoroughly raw deal and that he had every sympathy with them. I was grateful to him for his frankness, and I think that the House ought to take this unsolicited piece of evidence into consideration.

I ask the Minister not to offer us any prevarications about seasonal fluctuations, potato peelers and points of detail, because I suggest—and I am quite convinced—that the trouble is much more simple and much more radical. I maintain, and I submit to my right hon. Friend, that the present messing rate of 5s. per day for sergeants and other ranks is totally inadequate. The messing rate of 7s. 9d. per day for officers is, I submit, quite adequate, if the excellent hospitality that I was given is any criterion by which to judge; but the men are obviously not now able to be fed as they should be fed as regards either quantity or quality on the present rate.

I believe that this rate was fixed in April, 1952. Since then the price of food has risen by between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent. and it is high time that the rate was revised. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us that it is being revised. Any other answer will be mere prevarication, and men in troopships will continue to be both hungry and angry, which is a state of affairs neither of us wants.

The final question I want to ask is one in which I should like to take the matter a little further. I ask the Minister whether, in these days, he really thinks that trooping by ships is satisfactory. I am inclined to suggest that the method is clumsy and wasteful if we want to move troops about the world today. Perhaps the time has come to scrap these ships and to concentrate solely on air trooping which, I think, would be more efficient and more economical.

Those are the four questions which I wish to put to my right hon. Friend. In conclusion—as you said the other day, Mr. Speaker, those are dread words, but I do not think you need dread them just now—I want to make two points. I hope that this debate may result in a satisfactory answer from my right hon. Friend and that it will benefit future passengers in Her Majesty's transports. I hope, also, and this is most important, that the House will, in supporting me, reassure all National Service men that not only are they entitled to make representations to their Members of Parliament when they are in uniform, but that such representations as they may make to their Members of Parliament are seriously and sympathetically considered by responsible Ministers.

4.15 p.m.

The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) has said, and I agree, complaints of this nature are ones which should be taken seriously, not only by the hon. Member concerned, but perhaps even more so by the Department which is responsible. Let me say at once that I am grateful to my hon. Friend, both for the very prompt action which he took on receipt of the complaint from his constituent, and also for the very early steps which he took to inform me personally of these matters.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points on the general question of trooping as well as on the specific complaints which arose from one particular voyage of the troopship "Empire Fowey." I think that it would be convenient if I dealt fairly quickly with the general issue and then descended, or ascended, according to the point of view, to the particular.

The "Empire Fowey" is one of ten troopships in regular operation. Five of these, including the "Empire Fowey," are the property of the Crown and are managed on behalf of my Department by shipping companies. The other five are the property of shipping companies on long-term charter. Regarding my hon. Friend's question about the future of sea trooping, I would say to him that so far as one can foresee, this will be necessary for a good many years to come.

After all, we are in many cases concerned in sea trooping with the movements of troops and their families who are going abroad for considerable periods and taking their household goods and heavy baggage with them. In those cases where families are moved together there will be a very long future for sea trooping; though air trooping, of course, will be used, and that is a matter in which I am sure the House is interested. But while we have our wide commitments all over the world, I am perfectly certain that sea trooping has a long-term future. It is in that confidence that two fine new troopships are under construction at the moment, and one is due to be launched at Glasgow this week by a very famous shipyard.

The "Empire Fowey" herself is a very fine ship. She was the NorddeutscherLloyd liner "Potsdam" before the wax, and she ran on a very high-class service between Germany and Far Eastern ports. At the end of the war she was taken over as a prize, and after no less than £2 million had been expended on re-fitting her, she came into service as a troopship. As she was in port at Southampton last Saturday, I took the opportunity of visiting her. She sailed again last Monday on another voyage. I can say from personal observation that she is an extremely fine ship, and that the P. & O. Company, which managers her on my behalf, is intensely keen to maintain and improve the standards of running for which that company is justly famous in all its ships throughout the world.

I come now to the specific complaints, all of which relate to the voyage which this ship undertook from the United Kingdom to the Far East between 27th May and 1st August this year. I should say, if only in fairness both to the manager and the staff of the ship, that so far as I know, this is the first occasion on which any serious complaint has been made about the conditions for troops travelling in her. She has a very distinguished seaman as her Master, and an extremely keen and enthusiastic staff in all departments, and they are very properly sensitive about the high standards which have always been set.

My hon. Friend referred to the ventilation on H deck. As he said, quite correctly, H deck is the lowest troop deck. It is situated not very high above the water line, and it is not therefore possible to open the ports at sea. Consequently, it relies on artificial ventilation.

During the voyage in question, it became very clear that the ventilation on H troop deck was inadequate, and before the ship sailed on her present voyage steps of a very substantial nature were taken to improve it. In the first place, a hatchway leading from the upper deck to a hold has been opened up so that there is access to air and light direct from the troop deck to the hatch within the centre of the ship. That has the advantage not only of admitting natural ventilation to supplement the artificial, but also of admitting a much greater degree of daylight. That was done by removing coverings round the main body of the hatch.

Secondly, new and additional blowers have been opened in the main ventilation trunking, and, as a result, the artificial ventilation has been very substantially improved. When I visited the ship at Southampton on Saturday, though troops were not due to embark until Monday, the ventilation was in full blast, both for test purposes and also for the equally useful purpose of securing that the bedding on the troop decks was properly aired. So far as the mattress covers, about which my hon. Friend also asked a question, are concerned, arrangements have now been made that these shall be changed every ten days. That will, I think, be a considerable improvement in obviating the smell which can develop on crowded troopships if these items are not changed frequently enough.

I now come to the question of food. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about the great importance which should be attached to that question, particularly, perhaps, when the soldier is embarked in these ships on a long voyage, when, as I think the House knows, questions of food always assume even greater importance than they do on shore. There are two aspects of this matter. First, there are the messing rates, and, secondly, the particular arrangements on this ship. I hope that my hon. Friend will not accuse me of what he described as prevarication—I do not think that he was using the word in the precise dictionary sense—if I follow up the precise details in relation to this ship.

The first trouble was undoubtedly the potatoes. The ship sailed on 27th May at a time when, for seasonal reasons, it was impossible in this country to victual her with potatoes in sufficient quantity for the homeward as well as the outward voyage. Therefore she had to load potatoes for the homeward voyage in Japan. The Japanese potato is a very inferior and poor relation of the English potato. It is, I understand, somewhat soapy in taste, and very unattractive. However, that could not be helped.

What could have been helped were the steps taken to mitigate the difficulty. The potato is an essential bulk item in diet, and when potatoes are, as they undoubtedly were in this case, deficient in quality, it is wise catering to put other bulk items—pastry for example—into the diet. A considerable lack of enterprise was shown by the catering staff, not from any lack of will, but because of a certain lack of imagination in adapting the menus to meet the circumstances caused by the deficiency in the potatoes.

The House will be glad to know that, as a result of the great attention given to the matter by the shipping line which manages this ship, changes have been made in the catering staff. At Southampton on Saturday, I met an extremely keen chef who, with his colleagues will, I am certain, be able to make much better use of the materials available than was the case on the voyage in question.

My hon. Friend went further and raised the fundamental question of messing rates. It is obvious that however skilful and enterprising a catering staff may be—I was going to use the metaphor that they cannot make bricks without straw, but that might be an unfortunate metaphor—they cannot produce results above a certain level if they cannot buy sufficient of the more expensive and, therefore, generally—in this imperfect world—more attractive items of diet to insert in the menus.

At the moment we have under consideration the question of the adequacy of, not only the lowest messing rate, to which my hon. Friend attached greatest importance, but also the others, which have to bear a certain relativity to the lowest. I am not in a position to announce the result of that consideration, but I can say that investigation has shown that some increase in the messing rates is now justified, although the actual amount of the increase for the different classes has not yet been settled. I am sure that that will contribute substantially to maintaining the generally very high level of messing which, I am proud to say, is maintained in these troopships.

I now pass very quickly to the other criticisms made by my hon. Friend. There is no question that the amount of space allotted to the soldier has increased, and the amenities available have improved, very considerably in recent years. My hon. Friend referred to his war-time experiences. I had the experience of travelling in an 11,000-ton troopship which had 3,500 men on board, so my own standards in these matters may seem somewhat low. On a very recent occasion, however, I was told, by a senior Army officer connected with trooping, that in his own experience which included travelling in a troopship as a private, a sergeant, a junior officer and now as a senior officer—the general standard of amenity had, in proportion, risen more in troopships than in any other aspect of the Army's life.

Those who, like my hon. Friend, have seen such fine ships as the "Empire Fowey," will realise the force of that contention. It is, of course, the fact that in conditions aboard ship, whether in military or civil life, it is rare to have quite the amount of space available as is available to most of us on shore; that is one of the inherent conditions of sea travel. But when one is dealing with a ship of the tonnage of the "Empire Fowey"—she is a 19,000-ton ship—I should not have thought that a total capacity, in all classes, of 1,658 was excessive.

We proceed according to standards and scales agreed with the Service Departments, which are the bodies that ultimately, through their Estimates—approved by this House—provide the funds. While it is always possible to proceed, as we are doing, with improvements—especially in amenities, such as cinemas, canteen facilities, and so on—it is always a fact that we should like to do more, and when the new ships to which I have referred are in service, I think that we shall find that they will set a very fine example of what can be done.

Certainly I would say, in fairness to those engaged in the trooping service, that although there were errors and omissions in this voyage of this troopship, I believe that those errors and omissions have now, in substance, been put right, and that in general we can claim that the trooping service has carried on with a very keen understanding of the responsibility of taking large numbers of troops—many of them young National Service men who may not have wished to be engaged in the Armed Forces at all—and transporting them abroad. The trooping service is very conscious of this considerable responsibility. Although, naturally, it is the occasion when something goes wrong that attracts attention, it is worth recalling that we carry about the world many thousands of troops successfully, and without complaint.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Who decides what the capacity of vessels like the "Empire Fowey" should be? Is it the right hon. Gentleman's Department or the War Department? I have had frequent complaints in that connection.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

It is, of course, decided in accordance with the scales that are agreed upon between the Departments concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.