HC Deb 14 February 1956 vol 548 cc2323-30

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

11.25 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

In drawing the attention of the House to the very late reply which I received to a letter which I sent to the War Office, in which a constituent made complaints, I think that I had best read the correspondence so that the matter can be understood. I received a letter from a Private Green, who is stationed at Nether-law Camp, Scotland, which reads as follows: Dear Madam, Being a member of your constituency I thought that I would write and ask you if you would look into the appalling conditions in which we members of the Army are living. I took it upon myself to go absent to bring to light this matter by refusing to accept the O.C.'s punishment and asking for a court martial, but I am afraid that we shall get little or no satisfaction. I have not been to Catterick, but from men stationed here I am given to understand that the accommodation here is much worse, the buildings being old stables with some of the rooms below ground level. Thus the walls are continually wet and this means the clothing is always damp, as the walls are our wardrobes, none being issued for the room in which seven others and I have to sleep. I go to bed every night expecting my bed to collapse. Not only that, but four beds in our room were condemned three months ago. They are still being used, one having to be supported by a wooden box. The ceiling is ready to give in over another trooper's bed. I am a Regular soldier and can honestly say I've wasted all my time in the Army. I am unable to carry out heavy duties through illness, and they still won't find me something useful to do. I am fed up asking for a trade of some sort. I can give you a lot more details if needed. Hoping you will take this into your consideration. When I received this letter I felt that it was very necessary that before any publicity was given to it the War Office should have an opportunity of looking into the matter. On many other occasions when I have received complaints I have taken steps to see that the matter was made public. I have done that deliberately because there have been so many complaints from men in the Forces about lack of consideration of their conditions that I thought the quickest way of dealing with them was to make the matter public. But on this occasion I felt that the War Office should be given an opportunity to see whether it was possible to investigate these complaints and let me know whether or not they were correct.

I therefore sent a letter immediately to the War Office, which it received on 20th December. I received an acknowledgment then, and on 2nd January I received a letter stating that the matter was still under investigation and that no details could be given to me but that I should be communicated with later. I waited for the information. On 7th February, that is on Tuesday of last week, I received a letter from the War Office about this matter. The date at the head of the letter, namely 6th February, is significant. If I read the letter which was sent to me by the War Office perhaps the significance of that date will become apparent. Dear Mrs. Braddock, Thank you for your letter of 20th December with which you forwarded the enclosed correspondence from. … Pte. Green.… who complains of the living conditions at Netherlaw Camp. I am sorry that Pte. Green should have felt it necessary to go absent to bring this matter to light. I understand that he was tried by District Court Martial at Kircudbright on 21st December for this offence, when he pleaded guilty, was found guilty and was sentenced to twenty-eight days detention. The finding and sentence of the Court was confirmed on 23rd December and promulgated on 28th December. Pte. Green now has until 6th February to exercise his rights of petition and appeal under the Courts Martial (Appeals) Act, 1951. That is where I draw attention to the date of 6th February, because I did not receive this letter until 7th February, and the right of my constituent to appeal expired on the sixth.

I was very much concerned about that position, and so I rang the Private Secretary to the Minister and asked for an explanation. He could not give me one, and I thought it necessary to have some public explanation and some public apology both to myself and to my constituent. Had I received this letter in time to write to him, I might have been able to give Private Green some advice about appealing, because the further contents of the letter completely vindicate every one of the statements he made about the conditions at the camp. I do not believe that a man would go absent without having taken every other course open to him in order to draw attention to such conditions; and I should have been notified in plenty of time of the latest date on which he could appeal.

I will proceed with the letter in order that the House will know what the War Office had to say about the statements made by Private Green in his letter: I have, of course, made enquiries about the conditions of the camp. The Ministry of Supply, as tenants of the camp, are responsible for the barrack accommodation, which consists of converted farm buildings. These are in an unsatisfactory state and are scheduled for replacement; I understand that the building 01 new barracks is expected to start next year. The particular barrack room occupied by Pte. Green had been out of use for a year, but had to be taken into use again in July last year in order to cope with an increase in the number of living-in personnel. Efforts to combat the dampness, including the installation of new stoves, have however been made and I can assure you that the walls are not, as Pte. Green mentions, 'continuously wet.' I am afraid that Pte. Green was not supplied with a proper locker as there has been a shortage of these at the camp and there has been some delay in obtaining them. They have, however, now arrived and have been issued to all personnel in the camp. Pte. Green's complaint that his bed was unserviceable is, I must confess, justified. It was found on investigation that some of the hooks fastening the wire mattress to the frame were missing; had he complained in the normal way, however, the bed would, I can assure you, have been changed. Private Green said in his letter that these beds were condemned three months ago, but it was only when he went absent as a last resort that any notice was taken of the complaint.

The letter goes on to refer to the complaint about a trade. I am not concerned about that because it will be dealt with later. I am more concerned about what happens when a man makes a complaint. Obviously the terms of the letter from the War Office are sufficient to justify the complaints made by Private Green in his letter to me. I am put into a very difficult position if, when I send a letter to the War Office, especially in circumstances of this sort, I do not get a reply in time to communicate with my constituent.

As soon as I received this letter, I sent a copy to Private Green. I told him that I was not satisfied with the date on the letter and that I was sorry that I had not been able to communicate with him before, because of the lack of information, but that I intended, if I were selected to raise a subject for an Adjournment debate this week or next, to raise the matter in the House. I said that I hoped that if he had any objection, he would let me know.

I have received no reply from him. I do not know—perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell me—whether a man serving 28 days' detention, as he obviously is, can immediately receive a letter sent to him or whether that a decision about that is left to his commanding officer. Private Green would have had time to have replied. Perhaps he thought that I intended to raise the matter later.

I am concerned, when the facts in a letter are found to be almost identical with those in the War Office reply, that it is necessary for a man with a good character—and I have no reason to believe that this man has not a good Army character—to go through the whole procedure of court martial, with the right of appeal and the rest of it. Surely men who are in the Forces are entitled to some consideration if their conditions are bad, and if the War Office knows that they are bad. There should be some way of saying,"We disapprove of your going absent, but we will look into this matter." The man said that he went absent as a last resort and to draw attention to the conditions. There should have been some other way of drawing attention to the matter. I have strong feelings about this, and I am wondering exactly how to express them. I have a feeling that this business of having a reply only the day after the opportunity for making an appeal has passed is a sort of premeditated low cunning. I am sorry to have to say that, but I feel that anybody who was typing that letter—and the Under-Secretary signed it —should have noticed the date. Did the Under-Secretary not notice the date? Did he not see some reason to call for an explanation?

If constituents write to an hon. Member and make a complaint that requires investigation, surely the hon. Member is entitled to have plenty of notice of what the situation is. This case was not in Malaya or Cyprus or Malta; it was in Scotland. If it takes from 20th December until 6th February to reply to an hon. Member's letter about conditions under which men in the Forces are serving, to what other conclusion can an hon. Member come but that there is some special reason why information has not been sent in time for further action to be taken?

I hope that the Under-Secretary can assure me that my suspicions are not founded. I can assure him that he will have to give me concrete evidence to disabuse my mind of the thought that the letter was deliberately withheld so that I could not advise my constituent whether he should appeal against the sentence of the court martial.

I hope that those at the War Office who are responsible for dealing with complaints of serving men, whether Regulars or National Service men, will ensure, when there are legitimate complaints, that men do not have to resort to writing to their Member of Parliament and that, if they do, the Member of Parliament will not be ignored right up to the date at which the man's right of appeal expires. I am using fairly strong language because I feel annoyed about the matter. If I have to send a letter again to the War Office I shall think twice about publishing it before I send it.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will be honest about this. I have already had a word with him on the subject. In view of the fact that this man could not make his complaint in any other way than by going absent, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider the possibility of reducing the sentence passed on him.

11.41 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) for raising this question and giving me the opportunity of clearing up the points which she has made. I hope to be able to clear the War Office of the charge of low cunning which she suggested motivated its actions.

Certainly no obstacle has been placed in the way of Private Green writing to his M.P. In fact he is back at his job at Netherlaw, but had he still been in detention there would have been no obstacle placed in his way. We make a point of seeing that no soldier is prevented from communicating with his M.P.

The hon. Lady said that she wrote on 20th December and received an acknowledgment, followed by an interim reply on 6th January and a detailed reply on 6th February. I agree that is a long time to wait for an answer and longer than we usually take to answer letters from Members of Parliament, but in this case there were reasons for the delay.

It was a complicated case involving several different aspects; the disciplinary aspect, and the fact that Private Green was about to be court-martialled; the question of accommodation; whether or not Private Green should be employed as a tradesman or a non-tradesman, and the question of Private Green's medical category. It concerned more than one Government Department. It concerned the Ministry of Supply who are responsible for accommodation and also for the administration of personnel. Therefore it was impossible for us to go ahead without consulting the Ministry of Supply at every step, which naturally held up matters. I can say that on the very day on which we received the hon. Lady's letter we started inquiries, and those inquiries were continued right up to the time of my writing to her.

The hon. Lady has suggested that the effect of this delay was to interfere with Private Green's right of appeal or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, to prevent her from advising him on that point. Here I must say that I really do not think that there was very much on that aspect of the case which the hon. Lady could have told Private Green which he did not know already. He did, as the hon. Lady knows, plead guilty at his court martial.

Before I go on with that point, I might just mention the court martial. The hon. Lady asked whether a court martial was necessary. As she said, I think at the beginning of her remarks, that issue was forced by Private Green himself; he refused to accept his commanding officer's summary punishment, and from then onwards the court martial became automatic. There was, therefore, no other course open to the authorities concerned. What is more, he pleaded guilty at the court martial, so it does not seem likely that it was his intention to appeal against the finding of the court. Under the Courts Martial (Appeals) Act, no appeal is admissible against the sentence in any case, and, as I have said already, it would be exceptional for a convicted person to appeal against the finding, having once pleaded guilty to the charge. But that does not mean that all redress against the sentence is closed to Private Green. It is still open to him to petition any reviewing authority against the sentence through the normal channels, under Queen's Regulations.

Mrs. Braddock

The War Office does not tell me that in the letter. Why tell me only one part of it and not all of it?

Mr. Maclean

Well, Private Green must have known that.

Mrs. Braddock

But I want to know it.

Mr. Maclean

I am telling the hon. Lady now.

It is open to him to petition against the sentence, if he so chooses. If, in spite of having pleaded guilty, he had wanted to appeal, he was well aware of his rights. In the first place, he was informed of his rights by this notice which I hold in my hand, which was posted on the door of his cell during the period of his detention, and which is large enough, in all conscience, for anybody to see. He could have obtained, as he is informed in this notice, a War Office pamphlet which would have made the whole position clear to him; and he could also have consulted his defending officer, who could have given all the information he desired, or his commanding officer. So that, although the letter was not answered as soon as I should have liked to do, that fact, and the fact that the hon. Lady was not informed of the situation until 6th February, did not in any way prejudice this soldier's interests.

I should, perhaps, deal with one or two other aspects of the case. The hon. Lady suggested that Private Green's motive in going absent was to draw attention to the adverse living conditions of himself and his fellow soldiers. That is not altogether borne out by the facts of the case, because in entering his plea of "Guilty" at his court martial, Private Green made the following statement: I was granted a 72-hour pass from after duty 1st December, 1955, until 1000 hours, 5th December, 1955. I went to my home in Liverpool with every intention of returning to camp on time. When I got home, I found the comparison of home comforts to those at Netherlaw Camp very hard to bear, and I could not force myself to return. I can quite understand that; I have been on leave under similar circumstances myself, and I know what he means. But it does not look like a deliberate act in order to force an issue. It looks much more as though he had not felt like going back when the time came.

On the question of accommodation, I have already told the hon. Lady, in my letter, that we do not regard the buildings and accommodation in this establishment as satisfactory, and neither does the Ministry of Supply. Ever since 1949, in fact, they have been scheduled for replacement. They have to compete for priority with numerous projects, but we hope that within a few weeks a contract will be placed and work to provide better accommodation will be started.

I have already said that I think Private Green's complaints of the conditions of the walls and the dampness are exaggerated. In any case, we have done everything we can, with this unpromising material, to improve matters. The same applies to lockers. We were short of lockers. The cupboards which were provided instead were unsatisfactory, but the soldiers in the unit in question, including Private Green, have now got lockers.

As to the beds, Private Green's bed was certainly in a bad state, but he did not request that it should be replaced, neither did the other soldiers whom he has mentioned. Had they asked for it, those beds could have been replaced. The hon. Lady suggested that these complaints have only been met because the matter has been raised by her publicly, but on the issue of the beds the whole matter could have been cleared up within a few hours if Private Green and his comrades had chosen to go through the normal channels, which is very often the case.

As Private Green himself complained, it has not been found possible to train him for a trade because of the state of his health. That is bound to be a disappointment for him, but we have no choice in the matter. He has, therefore, gone back to his job at Netherlaw as a general duties man. His health is a snag. He is in a category which barely comes within the standard of fitness required of Regular soldiers. In conclusion, I would say that in view of his dissatisfaction and in view of the marginal category in which he finds himself, if he were to make application for discharge from the Army it would be sympathetically considered.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Twelve o'clock.