HC Deb 28 March 1956 vol 550 cc2311-20

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

11.35 p.m.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

In raising this case, I want to say to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service that I have seldom been more convinced that an administrative decision was both wrong and unjust than I am now.

Mr. Hooper, a man now 64 years of age, who is partially disabled, is attempting to run a smallholding business which has been in his family for nearly a hundred years. He has a considerable investment capital commitment in this holding of something over £2,000. It is a heavily mechanised holding, and production is highly intensive. Between 300 and 400 tons of potatoes are produced every year, which from a holding in all of not more than 34½ acres is a very considerable figure. In addition to that, over 100 pigs are reared annually.

Today this man's son has been called up. He is, therefore, left with the help to run this holding—and as I have said, he himself suffers from a considerable degree of disablement—of his 15 years old daughter who has just left school and one man aged over 60. I make it perfectly clear to my hon. Friend that it is quite impossible for the business to continue in the absence of this young man who is the only person on the holding competent to run and maintain the very considerable amount of machinery.

So far, at this point at any rate, the boy having been called up in January, operations continue, but now Mr. Hooper is faced with the necessity for doing the sowing and he is unable to carry that programme out adequately even though his son may from time to time be able to help him whenever he may get leave from the Army. The son is aged 20. I may say that I visited the holding myself last weekend, and I am perfectly satisfied that this young man's right place to work on this holding from which both the nation and he himself and his family will benefit.

Although I realise that it is not a cardinal factor in the matter, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider the frame of mind of this young man who is called upon now to do two years' National Service, knowing at the same time that his absence from the holding will mean the wreck of what should be properly his future livelihood. It is obviously right in these cases that one should have prior regard to the national interest. The national interest here, I suggest, demands quite clearly the highest possible agricultural production.

Only recently we have been informed that the potato guarantee is to be raised, and I would remind my hon. Friend that under the stress of war this holding was thought sufficiently good to warrant not only the employment of Mr. Hooper himself and his son but four other men two of whom were of military age, and yet now his own son cannot possibly be spared, although this boy is far more vital than anybody else.

I suggest also that, quite apart from matter of production, considerations of fairness demand that this young man should be deferred because, if a comparison is made between this and other cases, I believe that this is a glaring instance of a gross error of judgment.

I first came to know this case in the summer last year. The change in the Regulations covering deferment appeared to have been designed specially to cater for just such a case as this. I should like to quote here the opinion expressed to me, both verbally and in writing, by a responsible, intelligent and sensible branch secretary of the National Farmers' Union. I am bound to say that I might well have put it in the same words myself. He wrote: I should not have spent so much time myself on this case had I not felt convinced that it was one where deferment should be granted to the son and had I not felt that the three main conditions for deferment were fully met, i.e., that the holding was making a very significant contribution to food production, both because the soil is some of the best in the country and because it was worked intensively and expertly; secondly, that it was quite apparent from the other staff employed that they were not suitable or willing to do the son's work, and to drive and manipulate the specialised machinery; and thirdly, that my experience over the last four years of the labour position locally made me certain that it would be virtually impossible to obtain a suitable replacement for the son. I should like to ask my hon. Friend what investigation took place. Is he satisfied, is the agricultural advisory panel satisfied, that this holding makes a substantial contribution to food production? Is he satisfied that the holding is properly run? Is he satisfied that the presence of this young man is essential to the holding? I believe that no one would challenge the first two points, but I suspect that my hon. Friend will have difficulty in accepting what I tell him now—that the presence of this young man is clearly essential and that no replacement is available.

What ground had the agricultural advisory panel in denying the vital necessity to the holding of Mr. Hooper's son? I am in some difficulty because I have been told by the War Office that compassionate release cannot be granted unless the Ministry of Labour change their minds. On the other hand, I am well aware, and have been reminded by my hon. Friend, that the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour ceases as soon as a man enters the Forces. It is difficult to know where to turn. One is simply echoing from one Department to the other, without ever getting a satisfactory or conclusive answer from either.

I want to know who can take some action now to save this holding and its production. I want to know from my hon. Friend whether he maintains that this advisory panel—and I realise that people do good work on such panels—is infallible. I suggest that in this case it has failed, and blatantly failed. I say to my hon. Friend that if the panel's opinion is upheld in the face of all the other evidence submitted to him from other quarters, then to me it will be disquieting proof of how little an hon. Member is now able to do to redress a genuine wrong.

This decision and the advice given by the panel in this case makes a mockery of the Regulations and of the policy that lies behind them. Adherence to the present position will show that more respect is paid by the machine of Government to a panel which is administratively fallible than is paid to the claims of justice and common sense. I repeat my conviction that here is a holding on which food has been produced very intensively and with considerable skill. By this action the key man upon whom the whole functioning of the holding depends is being removed.

I very much hope that even if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service cannot meet my request tonight he will hold some consultation with his right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for War and will suggest, at any rate to the Secretary of State for War, that this young man's presence in the Forces is a mockery when it involves the loss which it undoubtedly does, both personally to his family and ultimately to his country.

11.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Robert Carr)

My hon. Friend has treated the case of his constituent with passion and perhaps even with fierceness. I do not complain about that, because I know from our previous correspondence and conversation how strongly he feels about the case. I recognise that in this, and in many other cases, National Service imposes a very real hardship, and I share strongly my hon. Friend's sympathy with the hardship that is suffered. Nevertheless, we must realise that this possibility of personal hardship is inseparable from the need for universal National Service.

My hon. Friend spoke about the danger of Mr. Hooper's business having to be closed down. I must tell him, though I certainly take no pleasure in doing so, that the hardship associated with National Service may indeed even involve the closing down of a business and, except in the case of an agricultural business, the owners of that business would not even have the possibility of deferment. Had this, for example, been a greengrocery business rather than a business producing vegetables, the owner would not even have had the chance of applying for deferment of his employee.

Therefore, the starting point from which we must consider each individual case is that the duty to perform National Service is universal and all men are liable to be called up, in spite of the fact that that may cause sacrifice and hardship. Here the agricultural industry is in a very special position, shared, to any comparable extent, only by the coalmining industry and the Merchant Navy. Agricultural workers born in and after 1933, although regarded as normally available for call-up, may be granted deferments for limited periods, provided that certain stringent conditions are fulfilled. Such deferment is granted by administrative action under the discretion of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service.

The exercise of this Ministerial discretion is obviously a most complicated and difficult task. Clearly, it would be impossible for my right hon. Friend personally to assess the merits and qualifications of each case. For one thing, and this is particularly true in agriculture, so much depends on local conditions, which vary greatly from one area to another. To ensure the maximum fairness in assessing the merits of a large number of claims for deferment, it is necessary to lay down certain tests which must be satisfied, and to devise machinery by which those tests can be applied in each case.

All the time we must remember that the consideration of these applications for deferment has to be given against the background of universal liability; in other words, that in the case of each and every applicant, the presumption must be that he shall do his National Service unless the case for an exception is most clearly proved. It will always be an extremely difficult and invidious task to draw the dividing line between those who qualify for deferment and those who do not.

However good the machinery, however efficiently and conscientiously it is applied, there will always be the cases which fall narrowly on one side of the line or the other, and about which there will be claims of inconsistency and hardship. The best we can do is to set up the most fair and efficient tests and machinery that we can devise, and my right hon. Friend and I believe we have done that in the case of agricultural deferment.

In the first place, there are three basic tests laid down, against which each case must be judged. The first test is that the farm or holding must be making a significant contribution to food production; the second test, if the first is passed, is that the production of the farm must be substantial in relation to its size—in other words, the farm must be efficiently run; and the third test is that the departure of the man in question would lead to a substantial loss in food production.

Since the conditions in agriculture vary so much from one area to another, it has for long been the practice to apply these tests locally and not centrally, and the machinery used for this is as follows. The body which actually makes the decision is the local National Service deferment board, and there are thirty-one of these boards throughout the country, dealing with agriculture. This board—and this is the crux of the matter—is advised by an agricultural advisory panel. The board consists of officials of my Ministry, but the panel consists of equal numbers of local farmers and farm workers. There are normally at each panel meeting two farmers and two farm workers, but if necessary this number may be reduced to one on each side. There must, however, be a balanced representation actually present at each meeting.

In attendance at a panel meeting would be the convener of the panel—a whole-time official of my Ministry—and another official with a knowledge of the labour supply position in the area. But the recommendation of the panel on whether deferment should or should not be granted is made by the agricultural members alone. These agricultural advisory panels are the essence of the system. They provide the deferment board with an independent and technical assessment of each case. That is arrived at with the help of factual information, provided by the county agricultural service about each case. In addition the farmer himself also supports his application with facts and arguments.

So the panel has before it the factual information, given by the farmer, checked by an agricultural officer, and with the farmer's arguments in support of his application. If there is unanimity both within the advisory panel and between the panel and the deferment board, then the case is settled locally, as has happened in the case we are discussing. It would be contrary to the basic principle of the arrangements to over-ride such unanimous local decisions. If, however, there is a lack of unanimity either within the panel or between the panel and the board, then the case is referred to the headquarters of the Ministry of Labour and National Service which, in turn, consults the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture before a final decision is made.

Now I should like to look at the way in which this machinery was applied in the case of Mr. Hooper's son. The son registered for National Service in March, 1954—two years ago—in the normal way, after reaching the age of eighteen. His father at once applied for his deferment, but that application was not even eligible for consideration because at that time the deferment of agricultural workers of that age was confined strictly either to stockmen or otherwise to men employed on small farms where there were not more than two full-time workers in addition to the farmer himself.

On this farm there were four workers at that time, so the case did not come within the scope of consideration. That rule was altered only in October, 1955, and so it was only then, for the first time, that Mr. Hooper's application for the deferment of his son became eligible even for consideration. By that time, it must be remembered, the majority of farm workers, other than stockmen, of the age of Mr. Hooper's son, working on farms like his, with more than two employees, had already been called up. The only reason why Mr. Hooper's son had not been called up earlier with the others was that he had been given two periods of six months' postponement of call-up on grounds of business hardship, granted, let me emphasise, for the sole purpose of providing an opportunity for making alternative arrangements.

While not in any way wishing to belittle the extent of any present hardship which is being suffered in this case, it is only fair to remember that nearly two years elapsed between registration and the date when Mr. Hooper's son was called up. This in itself is by no means a negligible consideration against a background of the principle of universal National Service. One is bound to ask whether in that period the maximum effort was made to train a replacement for Mr. Hooper's son.

But there could, let me repeat, have been no question of deferment in this case had the conditions of eligibility not been changed in October last year when, for the first time, all workers on farms of all sizes, not only the smallest, became eligible for consideration. This change of Regulations brought the case within the scope of consideration, and quite properly, Mr. Hooper, senior, made an application for his son's deferment on 14th October, 1955. The deferment board, according to the machinery already described, referred the application to the agricultural advisory panel. The panel considered the case on 2nd December, 1955, briefed with information from the farmer and from the agricultural officer, and that panel unanimously recommended that the application should be rejected.

My hon. Friend asked what was the basis of that advice and which tests had been applied. I should like to tell him that the panel agreed that the farm was making a significant contribution to food production. It also agreed that the production of the holding was substantial in relation to its size. The point which it disallowed was the need for Mr. Hooper's son in the conduct of that business. The panel unanimously took the view that the business could be conducted without him. This unanimous advice was accepted by the deferment board and, as I have said, since there was complete agreement at local level, that decision was implemented.

What my hon. Friend is really asking is that the Minister should override that unanimous decision of a local deferment board, a decision which has been arrived at on the unanimous recommendation of a panel of farmers and farm workers from that locality. I cannot believe that that would be a right and proper thing to do. The Minister can have neither expert nor local knowledge, and it is because he must rely on technical advice from some independent quarter that the present system has been evolved, with the agreement not only of the agricultural Departments of State but with the agreement, too, of the industry itself.

I recognise that my hon. Friend tonight has advanced what to a layman may sound strong technical arguments as to why the presence of Mr. Hooper's son was essential to the farm, but the fact remains that the advisory panel specifically and unanimously expressed its expert opinion in the opposite sense. It said categorically that the farm could be run without the son. I must ask my hon. Friend to consider what the Minister of Labour could do in such circumstances. There is conflicting opinion on a technical point; but the technical advisory service set up for this purpose was not divided. It was unanimous. Two farmers and two farm workers from the locality, with the facts before them, were unanimous in a contrary view. I feel bound to conclude that Mr. Hooper's application was considered in the light of all the relevant facts, and on the best advice available, and that my right hon. Friend had no option but to refuse to grant deferment.

That decision having been taken, and Mr. Hooper, junior, having been called up, as he was on 19th January, for service in the Army, he passed out of the jurisdiction of my Ministry into that of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for War. If, unfortunately, the fears so strongly expressed by my hon. Friend, about the effect of Mr. Hooper's call-up turn out in due course to be justified, the only possible remedy appears to be for him to apply to his commanding officer for compassionate release. If there is at any time a significant change in the circumstances of the case which appears to warrant discharge from the Army on compassionate grounds, then I am assured that the Secretary of State for War is always willing to consider the matter.

I am sorry that I cannot give my hon. Friend further help than that. I feel great sympathy for the case he has advanced, but I hope he will realise that this matter has been looked into with the greatest possible care. I hope he will also realise that when there is conflict with technical advice from the agricultural advisory panel of farmers and farm workers, having both expert knowledge of agriculture and close knowledge of the area concerned, with which the local board has agreed, my right hon. Friend must accept that advice. To do otherwise would upset the basis of a system which we believe is the one most calculated to give fairness in drawing a difficult dividing line between those who just qualify and those who unfortunately just do not qualify for deferment.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Twelve o'clock.