HC Deb 03 July 1957 vol 572 cc1264-74

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

12.8 a.m.

Mr. Frank Anson (Salford, East)

In the next quarter of an hour, I propose to show that thousands of National Service men, their widowed mothers and their young sisters and brothers, are suffering great misery and real hardship; and, further, that in the next four years thousands more young men who will be called into National Service, and their families, will suffer the same unhappiness.

This needless suffering will continue unless the Minister reaffirms certain clear undertakings given by the Government three months ago—which, I regret to say, are now in doubt—and, in addition, promises to make clear to the young men involved what the relaxations really are.

I believe that the call-up is a curse to the vast majority of men concerned; but in certain cases it is a complete tragedy. It is to these that I want to refer.

On 4th March the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service, winding-up the debate on National Service, made an announcement which brought widespread relief, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I read it, because I do not want in any way to distort what has been said. This is what the Parliamentary Secretary said: The circumstances in which exceptional hardship can arise are, of course, many and variable, but our experience has shown that there are certain classes of cases where exceptional hardship would be likely to arise from call up and where alternative arrangements are often most difficult to make. Those include such cases as that of the man with a relative physically dependent upon him, that of the man who is the mainstay of an orphaned family, that of the widower with a child or children to look after, that of a man living alone with a widowed mother. Alt these cases will be considered very sympathetically. I can assure the HOUSe."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th March, 1957; Vol. 566, c. 148, 149.]* That was a most welcome statement. I have read it scores of times and I can see nothing in it but a clear, cast-iron undertaking.

A month later the Government not only confirmed this relaxation but went further and extended the relaxation to men already doing their National Service. On 2nd April I asked the Secretary of State for War whether he has considered the recently amended National Service Regulations permitting the postponement of call-up in certain cases. I then set out the categories which I have just mentioned, and continued asking him whether National Service men at present serving in the Army will be allowed to apply for postponement of further service in such cases of exceptional hardship. The Secretary of State for War replied: Broadly speaking, grounds which would justify the postponement of call-up for National Service would justify the release on compassionate grounds of a National Service man who was already carrying out his National Service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 216, 217.] So far, so good. Then on 10th April and 5th June I asked the Minister of Defence if he was aware that there were many National Service men in these categories which I carefully listed in my Question, and what steps he was taking to inform them that they now had a right to compassionate release. On neither occasion did the Minister suggest that my list of categories was incorrect, but he did say that he did not think that any steps to publicise the relaxations were necessary since he had no reason to think that National Service men were not well aware of the grounds on which they could apply for compassionate release. He agreed to ask the Service Ministers to ensure that conditions for compassionate release conformed with those governing postponement of call-up but he did not accept my suggestion that he should publish in all units of the three Services an announcement that applications for compassionate release should be sympathetically considered in the categories which I listed.

*See col. 1274 for reference to correction. I cannot accept that these men are aware of the relaxations. They do not know, and I have some evidence of it here. When the Minister declined to post the notices in the units I wrote a very brief letter to the News Chronicle, the Daily Herald, the Manchester Evening News and the Evening Chronicle. I was astounded at the results. I was deluged with letters, pitiful letters, from widowed mothers of National Service men all over the country. I have a few of them here. They regarded this as very wonderful news. In the newspaper industry one letter is accepted as representing the views of a thousand people who felt that way but did not bother to write.

Here is a typical letter. I am a widow living alone—with no income except widow's pension and National Assistance. My son has been in the army for 14 months and it has been a hard struggle and a lonely life for me. I am 62 and my health is very unsettled. My nerves are getting worse as I don't sleep at night being alone in the house. Here is a letter from a National Service man: My mother has not worked for some time. Her arthritis has now spread to her neck and back. For this she wears a special collar which the hospital has made for her. Her total income is £2 4s. 6d. plus my allowance of £1 4s. 6d. Finally, another mother writes: I myself am all alone, my family having passed away. I am a registered disabled person, having had epilepsy for twenty years. When I have such occurrences, I have to manage at home as best I can, which is a great worry to my son. Does the Minister think that people in such circumstances should be left on their own? if he agrees that they should not, I would say to him that these mothers and sons would still have been unaware of the relaxation which the Government have made if they had not chanced to see a small letter in the newspaper. There must be thousands of similar people who still remain ignorant of their rights and who are suffering needlessly.

If Hitler were about to invade the country, there would be some justification for the Government's attitude, but that is not the situation and these young men, all of them having useful jobs at home with which they could support their families, are mostly wasting their time completely in "square bashing", peeling potatoes or simply sitting on their backsides. I hope the Minister will not reply that where there are sick mothers, National Service men can secure release. I stress that in the categories which I have listed, there was no condition that the widowed mother be ill. There was no reference whatever to that.

When I sought this Adjournment debate, my intention was to press the Government to change their mind and to put up in all units a simple notice announcing the conditions for compassionate release, and to ask that men registering for National Service should be told these conditions on their call-up notice. Both of these things could be done quite simply, and it could then no longer be said that the Government were concealing from the men vitally concerned the information which they have already given to the House of Commons. I plead with the Minister to agree and thus to relieve a mass of human suffering.

Now, however, comes the alarming turn in the story. It arose after I had asked for this debate but it adds greatly to the seriousness of the matter. I recently wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for War about a Salford war widow who had a young daughter at school and whose son had been a year in the Army. The family falls precisely into one of the categories I have mentioned, one of the classes specified by the Government. Incidentally, this widow's total income for herself and her small daughter, including the allowance from her son, is the enormous sum of £4 8s.; but that is not the point with which I am concerned.

I assumed that that young man would be released without delay. To my dismay, I received a letter dated 22nd June from the Under-Secretary of State saying: Nevertheless, we are unable to release a National Service man who has been available to the Army because his next of kin is ill unless the next of kin's condition is considered critical or when some other form of extreme hardship exists. I repeat that on no occasion in their earlier statements did the Government make any mention of illness being a condition. I maintain, therefore, that the Government either did not mean what they said or are "welshing" on their undertaking.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not accusing the Minister personally of dodging the issue, but I do accuse the Government of going back on what were clear and important undertakings only three months ago. I hope that the poor recruiting figures have in no way caused this backsliding, as I regard it.

I feel extremely bitter about this matter, but not half so bitter as the widows and their sons will feel when they find out the truth. I hope that this evening the Minister will be able to clear up the matter in a way which is satisfactory not only to me but—much more important—to these thousands of decent people.

12.20 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Julian Amery)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence has asked me to reply.

At the outset I want to make a distinction between two types of compassionate cases—those which are eligible for postponement before call-up, and are dealt with by the Ministry of Labour, and those which are eligible for release by the Service Ministries, which, in the main, I propose to deal with this evening. We in the Service Ministries and in the Ministry of Labour try to adopt the same approach and to keep in step.

First, I want to say a word about the background against which these releases or postponements take place. The Government's intention is, as the hon. Member knows, to run down the Army over the next five years, so that the last National Service man will be called up in 1960 and will be out at the end of 1962. This cannot be done at once. It is only as the new weapons and the new types of transport aircraft are phased into service that new dispositions can be adopted and the call upon manpower reduced.

As the need for manpower falls so fewer men will be called up. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has explained how the reduction of the intake will operate. I want to stress that when his plans have taken effect those who are still called up will be needed by the Services and will have a job to do. We shall not have any more men than we need at any one stage. There will be no superfluity. Therefore, we shall not be in a position to give blanket releases for whole categories of individuals.

What we can do, are doing, and will do, is to accept applications for compassionate release where there is real hardship. Our standard of the degree of hardship which justifies compassionate release is broadly the same as that adopted by the Ministry of Labour in granting compassionate postponements. In both cases our approach has been considerably more generous—as I shall try to show—since the laying of the White Paper on Defence.

Tonight and on previous occasions the hon. Member has sought to make two points. First, he has tried to establish that the Government are committed to automatic release of certain defined categories of compassionate cases. He has also asked, consequentially, that wider publicity should be given to these categories, so that young men who come within them may know that they have what he holds to be a right of release.

First, I want to say a word about the question of automatic release of certain defined categories. On 12th February my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour said that he would consider cases of domestic hardship with the fullest sympathy, and on 4th March my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour made a statement which the hon. Member quoted in detail, and which I therefore will not quote again. The hon. Member called this a clear, cast-iron undertaking The point I want to make is that my hon. Friend did not say that all individuals who fell into the categories described in his statement had a right to postponement by the Ministry of Labour and therefore release by the Forces. All he said was that individuals in these categories often suffer hardship and that where hardship was established very sympathetic consideration would be given to appeals for compassionate postponement.

On 19th March the hon. Member asked the Minister of Labour if he would exempt from National Service all men who were the main breadwinners—for example, the sons of widowed mothers with one or two children. My right hon. Friend replied that he could only say that applications in such circumstances would be most sympathetically considered but that he was not prepared to accept the hon. Member's suggestion that postponement should be automatic to anyone in such circumstances. He refused that suggestion on the ground that it would produce absurd anomalies. The main breadwinner of a widow with one or two children might be a millionaire.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Question which he put to the Secretary of State for War. All that my right hon. Friend's answer shows is that our practice and that of the Ministry of Labour are in line. The Question which the hon. Member put to my right hon. Friend shows that he misunderstood the position. He asked the Secretary of State for War …"whether he has considered the recently amended National Service Regulations permitting postponement of call-up in the case of…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT: 2nd April, 1957; Vol. 568, c. 216.] and he cited several cases. Where he went wrong is that postponement under the Amended Regulations is not granted to individuals in the circumstances described merely because they are in those circumstances, but only where the circumstances give rise to hardship. What is true of postponement of call-up applies equally to release.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of Private Wrenn, about whom he corresponded with me. That is a perfectly fair example from which he has drawn the wrong conclusion. Private Wrenn is the son of a widow who has a 15-year-old daughter at school. The hon. Member argued that she is in the category to which the Parliamenary Secretary referred and claimed that her son should therefore be released. My hon. Friend merely said that the categories which he described were illustrations of cases where hardship often occurs.

Our view in the War Office is that in this case there is no exceptional hardship. I have already sent the details of income, and of medical and other circumstances to the hon. Gentleman. I think the income figure is a little higher than the one he gave, but I do not want to bring Mrs. Wrenn's private affairs into public notice. Whether or not the hon. Member agrees with our assessment—and we are always ready to consider any new evidence that he or Mrs. Wrenn may care to send us—Private Wrenn's release could be considered only if hardship could be established. It could not be considered simply on the ground that his mother is a widow with a child. Hardship is the test.

The run down of the Army has made it possible for the Ministry of Labour and National Service and the Armed Forces to interpret hardship more generously than hitherto and to grant compassionate postponement or release accordingly. We know from our experience the categories in which hardship most often occurs, but we do not accept that because a case fits one of these categories there must be hardship and therefore release. We believe that it is wrong to treat individuals in categories. Hardship takes many different forms and we think it wiser to judge each case on its merits.

A word on publicity. The hon. Member urged that wider notice should be given of the grounds on which compassionate release is granted. He seemed to think that young men in the Services were not fully informed of their rights and of the help they could receive. I therefore think it right to say a few words on this matter.

When a man registers he receives a leaflet explaining his right to postponement on compassionate grounds. When he joins his unit he is seen by his commanding officer or by another officer acting on his behalf. The hon. Gentleman gave some examples of young men who did not seem to know their rights. Let me give him an example which occurred the other day and which was dealt with in the office this morning. A young man was called up on 23rd May. He had made no application for postment. Both his parents were blind. His commanding officer saw him, learned his story, and at once wrote to the Association for the Blind who reported that the parents felt that, in spite of their predicament, they had no right to ask for a postponement. The commanding officer therefore wrote to the War Office suggesting his release. Release has been granted and today the young man in question was discharged.

As this example shows, a young man would be encouraged to interview his commanding officer and to bring to the attention of the Army any circumstances which tend to make him unhappy. Then, until he leaves his unit, his welfare is the business of his officers and, if he needs help, he can ask for it. The procedure for application for compassionate discharge is well known to all units and each will have a copy of the relevant Army Council Instruction. A soldier can apply to his commanding officer for compassionate release and the commanding officer can apply direct to the War Office, thus cutting out the usual chain of command and channels of communication. In the War Office all applications are dealt with by a small staff of experienced soldiers and civil servants who are very experienced in this work. They in their turn are helped in their local inquiries by the police, doctors, S.S.A.F.A., the Forces Help Society, and similar organisations. I should like to pay my tribute tonight to all of them for their help.

National Service, of course, involves a degree of hardship for most of the young men involved. Some of this, the financial hardship, is alleviated by National Service grants. There is also compassionate leave, and when it seems necessary for domestic reasons we may keep a man temporarily in this country. There is also the Dilfor Scheme under which we fly relatives and soldiers to the bedside of next-of-kin who are dangerously ill. Altogether some 15,000 compassionate cases of all kinds are dealt with by the War Office every year.

Since the hon. Member gave notice of the debate tonight, I have reviewed the whole record of the War Office in the matter of compassionate releases. I have also made inquiries of my colleagues in the Admiralty and the Air Ministry. I have no doubt after making this review that our record in the past has been a good one. I am equally satisfied that we are keeping in step with the Ministry of Labour and carrying out the Government's decision to adopt a more generous approach to cases of hardship than was possible hitherto. This, it may be said, is only my opinion. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. My inquiries show that in the four months 1st March to 30th June, 1957, 56 per cent. of applications for discharge on compassionate grounds submitted to the War Office were approved as against only 28 per cent. in the same period last year. Here I think is the final answer to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member and the proof is that the Government have kept their word.

Mr. Allaun

May I address two brief questions to the Minister? While agreeing that there has been a relaxation, does the Minister deny that there are large numbers of instances of hardship where the young man is unaware of the relaxation? Secondly, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour stated that exceptional hardship is likely to arise in the case of a widow with one or more children. In the Wrenn case—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is, within reason, entitled to ask a question, but he cannot make another speech.

Mr. Allaun

I was finishing, Mr. Speaker. Why should that case be refused when it is as hard a case as any of a widow with one child, apart from sickness, and sickness was not referred to in any way by the Government?

Mr. Amery

If I may I will take the second question first. There is no undertaking that all widows with a dependant child would have a son in the Forces released. All that my hon. Friend said was that hardship was often caused in certain categories. In fact—and this is an unfortunate confusion—what he actually said in that debate was "a widower" and not "a widow." As a result of a printer's error, the word "widow" crept into the Daily Report. I do not want to make much of the point, but the hon. Gentleman will find in the Bound Volume of HANSARD that "widower" was the word used.

The essence of the point is that real hardship must be established. If the widow, for example, was a very rich person, there would be no question of release. In the case of Mrs. Wrenn—and this is a marginal case—the opinion of the Department, after consultations with local sources of inquiry, and so on, has been that there is no real hardship.

The hon. Gentleman may think that we are right or that we are wrong. That is a matter of opinion between himself and us. The point I want to make is that it is only if real hardship is established that release would be justified and not simply because the soldier in question is the son of a widowed mother with a dependant child. Could the hon. Gentleman refresh my memory about the other question he asked?

Mr. Allaun

Yes, certainly—

Mr. Speaker


Question put and agreed to.

Adjosurned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to One o'clock.