HC Deb 17 February 1959 vol 600 cc330-8

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

9.50 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

The case I am raising to night affects my constituent, Mr. C. P. Beck, who lives in the Whitchurch area, near Cardiff, and who is today a schoolmaster. At the outset, I should like to make it clear that Mr. Beck has always told me that he regards his complaint as a matter of principle. He is not so much interested in any sum of money which he may or may not receive from the Admiralty. He is much more concerned that the services of chief petty officers like himself and with similar records of service should be appropriately recognised by the Admiralty.

I should like to express my appreciation of the courtesy shown by both my noble Friend and by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, and, indeed, by permanent members of the Civil Service in the Admiralty, during the very prolonged correspondence which has preceded tonight's debate. As my hon. Friend will be aware, more than eighteen months have elapsed since I first brought my constituent's complaint to the notice of my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty. My hon. Friend will also be aware that about ten years ago there was correspondence about the same subject matter at a time when the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards) was the Civil Lord.

May I outline the facts of this case? My constituent, Mr. Beck, joined the Navy about 1928, on a 12-year engagement. Of course, before his 12-year engagement terminated, the 1939 war ensued, and, like so many other people, he was obliged by force of events to serve for five or six years beyond his original engagement. His total service, therefore, extended for more than seventeen years and culminated only on his demobilisation in November, 1945. I would also like to remind my hon. Friend that, like so many other men who were in the Navy at that time, his period of service included six years' active service in war time.

Mr. Beck attained the rank of chief petty officer, and, all in all, I venture to suggest to my hon. Friend that he had what we could describe as a first-class record. Indeed, I have seen his certificate of service, which shows 15 efficiency awards out of about 16 possible annual assessments. His certificate also reflects an unbroken record of good character. Mr. Beck, I understand, also held additional or higher educational certificates which were above the qualifications normally required for a warrant officer. He holds the Long Service Good Conduct Medal, and I might mention, in this connection, that the payment of the bounty which usually accompanied the award of this medal was inexplicably withheld in the case of my constituent through an unexplained technicality.

During his seventeen years' service, he acted as assistant schoolmaster and was on the instruction staff of a naval school of accountancy, where his duties included lecturing to a considerable number of officers. I know that my hon. Friend appreciates that my constituent would not desire to exaggerate the quality of his service. Many others did as well as he, and many others attained comparable rank, but I should imagine that my hon. Friend will agree that his was an excellent and credit-worthy record of service.

The time came at a certain stage in the war, I think it was 1943, when there was an urgent need for more commissioned naval officers, and large numbers of chief petty officers were invited to apply for commissions, and many did so. The terms under which these petty officers accepted commissioned rank were embodied in an Admiralty Fleet Order of 1943, and this itself has been the subject of a great deal of correspendence between myself and my right hon. Friend, and indeed my hon. Friend and his predecessor. Also this Admiralty Fleet Order was referred to by my constituent when, in my company, he visited the Admiralty in March, 1958. He was then assured that this Order could and would be produced to him, but as far as I am aware this has not yet been done.

The importance of this arose from my constituent's conviction that the chief petty officers who took up temporary wartime commissions under these arrangements did so knowing that they could expect no special pension or gratuity after the war. Indeed, as my hon. Friend will agree, they assumed the opportunities and responsibilities of commissioned rank with their eyes open. Yet at the conclusion of their service after the war these temporary commissioned officers received what my constituent considers wonderfully preferential treatment. In most cases they had shorter aggregate service in the Navy than chief petty officers like Mr. Beck who did not take commissions.

Perhaps I may illustrate some of the benefits which accrued to those commissioned in this way. For example, if the total service of one of the temporarily commissioned officers exceeded fifteen years—twelve years non-commissioned followed by three years as commissioned officer—he received a pension of at least £2 a week. If his total service was under fifteen years, and, therefore, he did not qualify for pension, he received £100 for each year in commissioned rank and £50 for each year's service as a rating. Thus a temporary officer in the R.N.V.R. with twelve years' service—two years as officer and ten years as a rating— received a gratuity of £800.

We might contrast that with the small payment of £100 which was the only payment received by Mr. Beck when, after seventeen years' total service, he returned to civil life after the war. He therefore returned to civil life six years later than he had anticipated when he took his twelve years' service with the Navy in 1928.

I would point out to my hon. Friend that my constituent, and men like him, therefore entered some other trade or profession—in the case of my constituent, the teaching profession—that much later, and to that extent they are prejudiced by the fact that they will not receive the superannuation which they would have received had they concluded their engagement at the end of twelve years, as they had every reason to expect when they first joined the Navy.

I hope I speak without exaggeration when I say that on these facts it seems to me that the treatment of Mr. Beck, and chief petty officers in his category would appear to be extremely unfavourable in comparison with the treatment accorded to the other chief petty officers who, for only a very short period in their total service, enjoyed temporary commissioned rank. As Mr. Beck says, in comparison he and others in this category were treated rather meanly by the Admiralty.

I want to point out two other things.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Gower

I stress the very different explanations for the disparity in treatment put forward by the hon. Member for Stepney about ten years ago, when he was the Civil Lord, and more recently by my right hon. Friend the First Lord. I also pointed out that in recent correspondence which I have received from the Admiralty emphasis has always been laid on a pension. I am asked to stress that at no time did Mr. Beck specify a pension. He has specified only the poor treatment generally given to men in his grade, men with comparable length of service and comparable final rank as chief petty officers. He feels that a gratuity on a slightly more generous scale would have met the case.

That, in brief, is the case I wanted to put to my hon. Friend. It may seem unusual that after all these years and after prolonged correspondence I should raise the matter, but, as I said earlier, my constituent regards this not as a matter of a sum of money, but as a matter of principle. He feels that his service and the service of a limited number of men like him merited a more generous recognition by the Admiralty, a recognition more appropriate to the sort of service which those men rendered in peacetime and war-time, a recognition more commensurate with the sort of treatment accorded to others in similar circumstances, but who, for only a year or two at the end of their service, enjoyed commissioned rank. I thank my hon. Friend for having courteously considered the matter in correspondence, but I hope that he will be able to give more promising information about the case tonight.

10.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) on the very reasonable way in which he has spoken this evening on behalf of one of his constituents. Like him, I want to run over the history of this case, although I do not dissociate myself from what my hon. Friend said. Broadly, it was absolutely correct.

Mr. Beck entered the Royal Navy on 6th November, 1928, and signed on for an engagement of twelve years. That engagement expired in November, 1940. and he, like many others, did not reengage to complete time for pension, but, because of the war, was retained from then until the end of the war. In his wisdom, he decided not to apply for a commission of any kind and he continued to serve as a rating until November, 1945.

When his application for immediate release to Class A Reserve was put forward, it was immediately granted. As my hon. Friend said, he had a total service of seventeen years and twenty-one days. He received the war gratuity of about £93 for the services he gave beyond his normal period.

I am the first person to concede that he had in every way an excellent record. His reports were outstanding but, unfortunately, in this uncertain world the rate of pension and the rate of gratuity one gets do not depend on the reports one gets. I am afraid that that is not within my power nor was it within the power of the previous Government. These conditions were laid down and did not depend on whether service was above or below average. I fully concede that Mr. Beck had an admirable career in every way and that he served the Navy and the country well, but that does not allow me to vary the conditions of the gratuity on that account.

The history of this representation has been long and I commend my hon. Friend for his resolution and for the manner in which he has followed the matter through. The present phase started in November, 1957, when my hon. Friend wrote to the First Lord and when the case was thoroughly examined by my Department and the First Lord personally, both then and until March, 1958.

in March, 1958, at Mr. Beck's request, the First Lord agreed, as he was away at the time, that Admiral Norfolk, who was Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel (Personal Services)—a complicated title— should see Mr. Beck in association with my hon. Friend. I think that interview lasted approximately one-and-a-half hours. The case was very thoroughly examined. In reply to further representations all aspects of the case were gone into in considerable detail, both Depart-mentally and also by the First Lord. The matter came before this House on 10th December, 1958, when my predecessor, again after making thorough investigations into the case, had to give what my hon. Friend might describe as an unsatisfactory answer.

I think that the foregoing has all shown that considerable time and trouble have been taken at all levels in this case. That only bears out the credit due to my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has pursued it.

I think that we ought to consider the terms of Mr. Beck's engagement, particularly as it concerns gratuity. When Mr. Beck engaged in 1928, the regulations did not provide for payment of gratuity at the end of his engagement nor at any point subsequently, even if he re-engaged to complete time for pension.

I concede what my hon. Friend said that pension was not the predominant or even the major factor in this instance. Had Mr. Beck re-engaged at any time he would have had no entitlement to pension without completing twenty-two years unless, of course, he had been invalided out; then he would have been under these terms entitled to a pension. Throughout that period and throughout his war service from 1940 onwards he had a perfect right to re-engage at any time after completion of ten years of reckon-able service. At any time after 1938, he could have re-engaged and completed his time for pension. Even after leaving the Navy in 1945, he could have applied to re-enter in order to complete his time for pension and probably he would have been accepted, because people were going out all too fast and the Admiralty were looking for this type of man to come back and serve in the Navy. It was open to Mr. Beck to re-engage in 1938 and this was brought to the notice of men in his position by Admiralty Fleet Order 365/45 of January, 1945. Mr. Beck was released on 26th November, 1945, and shortly after his release a new scheme of gratuities was introduced under the 1945 Pension Code of 19th December which provided for payment—and this point I wish to underline—only in respect of service after introduction of the code.

I think Chat there must have been some misunderstanding on this point in the earlier discussions, because I think that Mr. Beck felt that if he had not gone out in November but had held on until December he would somehow be entitled to a gratuity. That is not so. He would have had to serve for a full year after the start of this scheme, brought in by the former Government, before he would have qualified for a gratuity, in fact at the end of the year he would have qualified for only £25.

I now come to the point referred to by my hon. Friend concerning the payment to ratings granted temporary commissions. In his wisdom Mr. Beck decided not to apply for a temporary commission. He raised two main points of comparison —which were repeated tonight by my hon. Friend—between his case and that of ratings of similar or even shorter service who applied for temporary commissions. The first point is that gratuities payable to ratings granted temporary commissions were very much more generous, but they were paid under a special scheme, because it was felt—very wisely, I think—that people who had graduated from the lower deck to commissioned rank could not, at the end of the war, reasonably be sent back to the lower deck again. They had expected to serve a useful life in the Navy, in many instances of up to twenty-two years, and they had been granted commissions. There was not then a need for more commissioned officers of this character and therefore, to some extent, the Navy had broken a contract with them, and because of that it paid them a gratuity on reasonably generous terms. This gratuity was intended to compensate them for the loss of opportunity to complete a full career as ratings in the Navy, which they had forgone by accepting the extra responsibility of officers.

As I have said, Mr. Beck decided not to apply for a commission. It may be that he would have been granted one. and so he may be regarded as unfortunate. But everyone in his life makes decisions which, in retrospect, seem to him to be wrong decisions. It may be that at times during his career in this House my hon. Friend has wondered whether it was wise for him to enter Parliament. I know that I have felt like that during the period when we had many all-night sittings, which went on rather too long for some of us. But Mr. Beck made his choice and continued to serve on the lower deck, and he served there very well.

My hon. Friend did not refer to the axeing scheme, but it arises from the considerable correspondence in the matter. I understand that Mr. Beck feels that he has been dealt with rather dustily as compared with those people who were compulsorily or even voluntarily axed under the scheme. Mr. Beck pointed out that C.P.O.s with the same length of service were being discharged under the current axeing scheme with a very large capital sum and a pension. But circumstances whereby men with less than twenty-two years service are receiving capital payments and pensions are special ones. These men signed on for, and reasonably expected, a full pensionable career, not only in the Navy, but in all the Armed Services. Through no fault of their own the Government decided to reduce the size of our forces, and their careers were brought to an abrupt end. The country and the House have said that because of the very special circumstances they were reasonably entitled to rather special treatment.

But in 1945 the position was very different. Far from axeing people forcibly, we were trying to persuade as many of these good men as possible to stay on in the Navy. Therefore, they were not being compulsorily thrown out; they were being asked if they would sign on and continue to serve. It was Mr. Beck's decision to go, and not to serve.

My hon. Friend has said that he wonders whether, in the interests of justice, we ought not to have retrospective legislation. I suggest to the House and to my hon. Friend that not only Beck but people in the other Services may have felt that they had an unfair rub of luck during the war, but there is clearly no question of retrospective legislation to grant gratuities to men in Beck's position. His was a contract freely entered into and freely terminated, in 1940. It is true that because of the war he, and millions of others—myself included—served on until the end of hostilities, when he chose to go and not to stay. His service had been extended during the years of the war, and he was released at the end of it. At all times during those years he was free to sign on and to complete his time for a pension.

I will now summarise some of the arguments which I have tried to place before my hon. Friend. Mr. Beck does not qualify for a pension—I think that is recognised, and it is not a matter for major debate this evening because he did not complete twenty-two years' service, nor was he invalided out. He does not qualify for a gratuity, other than the war gratuity of just under £100. because he gave no service after 19th December, 1945. when the new scheme was introduced. Nor did he hold, or even ask to hold, a temporary commission.

My hon. Friend said that Mr. Beck was unfortunate because he made a later entry into civil life, in his case into his profession as a schoolmaster. I concede that he did, but that argument applies to between 2 and 3 million men in this country, and women too, who served and, therefore, started later in life than many of their contemporaries.

I am sorry that perhaps the "rub of the green" or the fall of the dice should come in this way, but, in spite of the very persuasive manner in which my hon. Friend has pressed this case over a very long period—through correspondence, through interviews, through Questions in the House and, finally, through an Adjournment debate, for all of which I commend him— I am afraid I have no power to go back and alter the regulations under which Mr. Beck left the Service in 1945.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Ten o'clock.