HC Deb 28 January 1970 vol 794 cc1660-86

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

9.15 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The threat to abolish the rum issue in the Royal Navy is a matter of considerable gravity, and I make no apology for raising it in the House today.

As a wartime sailor in the Royal Navy who remembers with pride and affection the comradeship of the lower deck, I am glad to have this opportunity, as a Member of Parliament, to bring before the House the views which have been expressed to me in the many letters on the subject which I have received from serving sailors. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to see some of my hon. Friends here to support me in this debate. I shall be more than delighted to offer them sippers or gulpers at a more appropriate moment than the present.

It is clear from the volume of correspondence which I have received and from recent reports in the Press that the decision of the Admiralty Board to abolish the rum issue has aroused deep anger and resentment in the Royal Navy. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will, I know, carefully consider the case put to him tonight. I hope that, as a result of the argument deployed, he will feel able to review the Admiralty Board's decision and reprieve the Navy's rum ration.

I shall not deal with the long and distinguished part which the daily tot of rum has played in the history of the Royal Navy. The history of our Navy is the history of our nation. Our freedom and our system of democracy have evolved and developed over the centuries behind the shield of the Royal Navy, a navy manned by men of courage, skill and endurance.

All are aware of the enormous changes which have taken place not only in the technology of the Navy, but in the standards and conditions of life aboard ship. But not only the ships and the weapons have changed. The men of the Navy have changed, too. Education and the need for technical skills have contributed to a dramatic rise in the standard and the expectations of those who serve on the lower deck.

The case against the abolition of the rum issue is not based upon a desire to defend or to hang on to tradition. To be fair to the Admiralty Board, it does not say that because the press gang, hard tack and the rope's end went out long ago, so ought the rum ration. To be fair to the Under-Secretary of State, it was made abundantly clear to the House on 17th December that the abolition of the rum issue is not an economy measure. If were an economy measure, it would be absolutely intolerable, and the Navy would be right to make its voice heard with great vigour.

For the basis of the decision, I turn to the official announcement on 17th December last year in a Written Answer to a Question put down by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew): The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual's tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people's lives may depend."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1969; Vol. 793, c. 341.] If that were true, if it could clearly be shown that alcoholic drink in the small and controlled quantities that are available to the lower deck was a danger to operational efficiency of the Navy and to the lives of those who served in the Navy, there would be a clear case for following the practice of other navies and banning all alcoholic drink from ships of the Royal Navy at sea. If the Admiralty's case is right, the Navy should be dry of all spirits, but I do not believe that the Admiralty's case is right.

What is the truth of the Admiralty Board's claim? What evidence is there to support their contention?

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

They were drunk at the time.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I may well be able during the course of my remarks to demonstrate that there is more probability of an officer being drunk on duty than of a member of the lower deck being drunk on duty.

Has it been established by medical evidence that rum is detrimental to health? I must tell by hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that there is some evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Roebuck

Hear, hear.

Mr. Wellbeloved

There is some evidence from people who serve at sea in Her Majesty's ships and in the Merchant Navy that a tot of rum can have a stabilising effect upon the stomach, and this is indeed a matter of considerable importance.

Imagine, Mr. Speaker, the Fleet about to engage the enemy in a tempestuous sea. [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker

This is a serious debate. If there is too much interruption, I may have to hang an hon. Member from the yardarm.

Mr. Wellbeloved

We were about to engage the enemy, Mr. Speaker; let us proceed upon that course.

A tempestuous sea is raging. Men are piped to a meal before action. If they can take their tot, they can consume their food; if they consume their food, they are able to face the coming action with greater strength and greater determination. If the medical evidence is not there, will my hon. Friend explain why the Admiralty Board took this decision?

What research has been carried out into the operational efficiency of those who take rum compared with temperance ratings who take the 3d.-a-day grog money in lieu? Is there any evidence of a careful scientific evaluation to show that temperance ratings are more efficient in the discharge of their duties than those who take the rum issue? Let my hon. Friend tell the House the facts. What evidence can the Admiralty Board offer to justify a dry lower deck stripped of its rum issue with a wet wardroom with spirits still available?

Is there any evidence available to show that the rum tot affects the operational efficiency of the Royal Navy? Certainly there is no evidence readily available. My hon. Friend's Department had the greatest difficulty searching out the details to reply to Questions which I tabled this week asking for figures of men charged with and found guilty of being under the influence of alcohol while on duty in the Royal Navy. It is clear from the letter my hon. Friend sent to me and which I received today—and I am grateful for the promptness with which he arranged that reply—that no statistics spread over a reasonable period exist which could substantiate the Admiralty Board's decision. Indeed, it would be difficult, under Section 28 of the Naval Discipline Act, 1957, to produce meaningful statistics.

Under that Section, a seaman in the Royal Navy could be drunk at home on leave and be charged. The Section says: A person is drunk within the meaning of this section if owing to the influence of alcohol or any drug, whether alone or in combination with any other circumstances, he is unfit to be entrusted with his duty or with any duty which he might be called upon to perform, or behaves in a disorderly manner or in a manner likely to bring discredit on Her Majesty's service. That is a very wide Section. No wonder no meaningful statistics are available.

The statistics available really do not mean anything. We have statistics for officers charged between 1960 and 1969 with being under the influence of drink while on duty. Only 18 cases are reported, a small and insignificant number when we consider that 10,000 officers are engaged in the Royal Navy. We would need to examine with considerable care the records of the courts-martial of these officers to see whether the offences were committed on duty or whether some were committed while the officers were on shore leave. I doubt whether any concern drunkenness while the officers were on leave. The important thing is the cases which were brought to trial, and I hope my hon. Friend will make available the records for study.

In any group of men who live closely together an esprit de corps springs up, and it is not beyond our comprehension and understanding to realise that, if an officer became intoxicated while on duty, he would be in a much better position for his colleagues to protect him, to put him in his cabin and tuck him up in his bunk, unnoticed, uncharged and unconvicted.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

This has happened on the lower deck as well, because I have helped to put a colleague to bed there.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I know that esprit de corps exists on the lower deck. I have put to bed and been put to bed myself. But the risks are greater on the lower deck, because officers and petty officers are on duty. The risks of exposure, of being caught, charged and convicted are immensely greater for the lower deck than for the officers. No wonder there is a wide difference between the statistics for the seamen on the lower deck who have been charged and the officers of the ward room who apparently and fortunately have escaped that fate.

I also draw the attention of the House to the fact that, as far as one can ascertain, very few of the ratings involved committed the offence during the course of duty. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has acknowledged this in his letter. I believe that I have given a fair summary of it, but I can quote it if necessary.

Mr. Roebuck

Let us have it.

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend writes: I am afraid that Punishment Returns do not enable us to say the extent to which these offences"— the offence of being under the influence of drink while on duty— were committed on or off duty, but there is, I think, little doubt that relatively few of them took place on duty. It is clear that, among the very large number of seamen charged, very few cases involved the offence being committed while on duty.

Can my hon. Friend tell us how many of those who were charged on duty were habitual drunkards? The Royal Navy is no different from any other section of the community. There are alcoholics in every walk of life. One could get 20 or 30 or 40 alcoholics in the Royal Navy who would distort completely the statistical returns on drunkenness. How many within the total have been convicted time and again for the same offence? The statistics available are meaningless and I am sure my hon. Friend acknowledges this. Perhaps he can tell us what is the basis of the decision. It is obviously not health or drunkenness. What is it? What is the evidence?

In view of the lack of positive evidence for the Admiralty Board's decision, it is obvious that the matter cannot be left as it is, with this threat of the abolition of the rum ration. The Admiralty Board and my hon. Friend have a responsibility to publish the facts, if facts indeed exist, upon which the decision has been based. Parliament and the Royal Navy are entitled to know the reasons for the decision.

On Monday, 19th January, my hon. Friend was asked what consultations were undertaken before it was decided to abolish the rum issue. He replied that opinions had been sought from a cross-section of officers and men in commands at home and abroad. I challenge him and the Admiralty Board to publish the details of the method and the scope of these so-called consultations, and, above all, to publish uncensored the views expressed among the men.

Is it true that suggestions were made that rum should be issued to men as they came off duty rather than when they were going on duty? Provision is made for such a course in Queen's Regulations. Queen's Regulation 4923, paragraph 4, says: The time at which the spirit ration is to be issued daily is to be decided by the Captain, having regard to the nature of the ship's service, the employment of the ship's company, the climate, and any other relevant circumstances. Thus, there exists within the existing Queen's Regulations power to put in operation the very sound and sensible suggestions which, I am informed, were made during these so-called consultations. What a pity that those suggestions were not adopted.

This is a serious matter, because my hon. Friends will have seen the recent headlines of the newspapers. The headline of the Sun, a few days ago, was— Yo-ho-ho! Rebel Jacks threaten mutiny"— expressing not my views but those of serving seamen in the Royal Navy.

Then that very widely circulated and well-read paper the Daily Mirror, on Monday of this week, with the headline: Rum plea by sailors in black armbands. There was a quotation from a serving seaman, who said: A lot of men are saying they will get out or not sign on for another term when the tot goes. Then the Evening News of today: 'Our tot won't be sunk without trace' warns crew 'Rum do' battle in the Royal Navy. These are all indications of the anger and resentment which is building up.

As a sop, my hon. Friend is offering to ease this anger of the lower decks by a minute increase in the volume of beer that might be purchased by a rating. The strict limit of one pint or two 12 oz. cans as laid down in regulations is to be increased. To what? The magnificent sum of three cans—one and a half pints. Even this sop to the anger of the men is limited by Queen's Regulations, because beer can be carried in ships only if stowage space will allow it. The bigger the ship, the more beer. Men doing arduous duty on detached service in small ships may not have any beer at all.

As for the suggestion, put in the delicate words of the official announcement, that as a concession for the loss of the rum seamen C.P.O., P.O. and R.M.N.C.O. will now be allowed to buy small quantities of commercial spirits", I can only say that this will be a constant reminder to the majority of the lower deck of the unfairness and the unscientific foundation upon which the decision to abolish rum has been based.

I now turn to my main point. It may be that the Admiralty Board has all the facts and has carried out a most careful survey based upon scientific evaluation. It may be that one-eighth of a pint of rum mixed with two parts of water, consumed regularly once a day by seamen over the last two or three centuries, can now be shown by their Lordships of the Admiralty Board, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be detrimental to a man's ability to do his duty and to impair his judgment. If this is so for the lower deck, what has my hon. Friend to say about the other side of the coin, the wardroom?

In the officers' wardroom, wine, whisky, brandy, pink gin—spirits in all their varieties and all their alcoholic strengths, will still be available. What a picture this presents of the Navy of the 'seventies: the keen eyed, clear-headed sober, rum-less, seaman, manning the complex machinery and advanced systems in Her Majesty's ships, ready for instant action, capable of clear judgment.

What of the command structure—the ships' officers, the officers on the bridge, the officers in the other nerve centres of command, the officers who will have to take almost instant action on the information supplied by the rumless seamen manning the machinery and the systems? What of their operational efficiency? What of the lives that depend upon their judgment?

If one-eighth of a pint of rum mixed with two parts of water is, in the words of the Admiralty Board, …no longer compatible with the high standard of efficiency required", what does the board have to say about the almost unrestricted availability of strong spirits in the officers' wardroom? Queen's Regulations dealing with the availability of spirits for officers are very short. There is just one paragraph. For lower-deck ratings it extends, of course, into many paragraphs.

The only regulation applying to officers is that a captain may at his discretion limit the amount of liquor consumed by an officer, taking into account the amount that is consumed and matters of that nature—very wide, with no restrictions at all really. It is there, available. That is to say nothing of the officer who may have provided, unknown to the captain, a bottle for himself, and tucked it away in his cabin.

I do not want to give the impression of naval officers staggering about half drunk to discharge their duties. I hold that they, like the British seaman of today, are men of intelligence who know their duty and would not indulge to such an extent as to endanger their own lives and those of their comrades on board. Let us be quite clear, there are not two types of human being in the Navy. If the spirit rum can, as the Admiralty Board claims, impair the operational efficiency of the lower deck, the self-same criterion must apply to alcoholic spirits in the wardroom. Yet the Admiralty Board is not recommending that the Royal Navy should abolish drink. Little wonder that the ordinary serving seaman is outraged by the abolition of the rum issue. He sees it as discrimination—and discrimination at its very worst, because it is discrimination in a fighting service and is based upon the arbitrary division of rank and class.

I defy the Minister to justify this. The date for the abolition of the rum issue is 1st August this year. I implore him to reconsider this matter. So deep is the anger and resentment that there is a real danger that the ghost of the Nore, of Spithead and of Invergordon may once again stalk the Fleet. Once again, loyal and brave men who wish only to serve their country may be driven too far by an Admiralty Board insensitive and blind to the spirit of the lower deck.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Quite a number of hon. Members wish to speak in this important debate. Brief speeches will help.

9.42 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

Speaking as one who cannot claim to suffer the privations inflicted upon the lower deck by the Minister through this new and arbitrary decision of the Admiralty Board, I still must tell the House, in support of the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Well-beloved), who has so ably and movingly set forth his case, that I represent a constituency which, more than any other, has been plunged in gloom and horror by this iniquitous decision. This has put the manning ports and the surrounding district in a state of depression which, I am afraid, must find outlets not only here, but elsewhere.

I cannot understand the rationale for this decision. It is true that it is undesirable for officers or men to be drunk on duty. I have met many liberty boats coming from the shore and it is far more likely to be at that time that the definition of drunkenness is most used. It is not the medical profession, by the way, who make the diagnosis of alleged drunkenness in the Navy: the executive decides. Therefore, this tricky decision has never fallen to my lot.

Mr. Roebuck

For what purposes are rum and other drinks like this prescribed medicinally in the Royal Navy?

Dr. Bennett

In all cases of exhaustion and shock. It is not unknown, when the duty medical officer has been called out to deal with an accident, for him to be suffering from this when seeking to aid his shipmates.

This decision, then—"diagnosis" it might be called if it were not a lay decision—rests with the executive. As the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has so ably quoted from the Queen's Regulations, the Articles of War, drunkenness means being incapable of performing one's duty by reason of drink. Usually, the duty of someone coming back to the ship is to turn in to his hammock, and it must be a poor fellow who cannot manage that—although it is a gymnastic feat for those who are not used to it.

Surely the administration of one traditional tot of the "purser's bubbly" is not likely to plunge the sailors into the ravages of alcoholism. Even men with a build more similar to that of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) than to mine are not likely to have their blood alcohol raised to an unendurable level, such as would make them incapable of duty, by one tot. He is a crafty citizen who manages to get a second one.

On these questions of efficiency, there is medical evidence which goes far to prove the wrongness of a decision like this. I have always been interested in the arguments that were deployed leading up to the introduction of the breathalyser. They were based on the curve of blood alcohol relative to the ability of the subject being examined to carry out tests.

While the disability arises steeply on a high blood alcohol, there is in the curve a phase, round about 30 mg. in the bloodstream, where the responses become more efficient, quicker and better. This curve has been in physiological textbooks for centuries, even when I studied medicine—[Laughter.]—not quite as far back as the hon. and gallant Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey), but at least in my time.

Therefore, the argument works the other way and it is, possibly, recognised and known, not only clinically, but in ordinary life, that a small dose of alcohol may improve the performance of the recipient. This therefore makes the abolition of the humble tot all the more inconceivable and incomprehensible. It is an iniquitous decision which certainly has not done anything to commend the discussions which must have gone on in the Admiralty Board.

Furthermore, Queen's Regulation 4923, which as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford quoted, enables the tot to be issued when a man is coming off duty and not going on duty. That argument in turn, therefore, must fall. I cannot see that there is any excuse for this decision. I must repeat, in supporting the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, that it is most incongruous that the lower deck should be deprived of their small quantity when the ward room is not touched. This is absolute lunacy.

I would, however, say this, and it is a sobering thought. I have had a suspicion, which has come, perhaps, from various casual observations made by those in office, that there has been an element inside the Admiralty which has long agitated for the abolition of the tot. Even when my party was in power that agitation existed, but it was resisted. It was firmly kept down. It is a terrible thing that the Government have capitulated to the pressure. I am convinced that if we do not watch it, we shall find that this is part of the argument and that the whole Navy will be deprived of all its spirits and drinks on board if this victory goes through unresisted. Therefore, all the ships will become dry, and where will the American Navy be able to go for a little liquid refreshment when it is in port?

I therefore condemn this decision, my constituency condemns it wholeheartedly, and I join the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford and all the others around me who are here to signal their disapproval.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that, unfortunately, this debate must end at half-past ten. Brief speeches will help.

9.48 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I wish to say a word in support of my hon. Friend Nelson Wellbeloved, Member for Erith and Crayford—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member may mention his hon. Friend's constituency, but not his name.

Mr. Wilkins

I am probably the oldest Navy man in the House and I have some recollections of the issue of rum rations in the Navy. I am not myself a teetotaller, contrary to what many people seem to think, but I have some concern for temperance. There is a vast difference between temperance and being a teetotaller.

I deplore this decision by the Lords of the Admiralty, and I do so on grounds which my hon. Friend disdained. I am still a traditionalist. I believe in many of the old traditions which we have, whether in the Services or in the House or in this country. With experience I am able to say that seven bells is probably the most welcome signal that a sailor serving in the Navy hears. This is a fact. Seven bells had some sort of significance and still has for those who served and who serve in the Royal Navy.

If I thought for one moment that the Lords of the Admiralty could produce evidence to show that there is excessive consumption of Navy rum, what we call grog—it is very diluted and goes to the lower deck, even chief petty officers have neat rum, but not the lower deck—and if the consumption could be shown to impair the efficiency of the crews, I would think there would be some reason why we should support the Board of Admiralty in the proposal which they now make.

However, I never saw this at any time during my service in the Navy. The only time I ever saw a man who was—shall we say?—just a little "under the weather" was on a man's birthday when, by tradition, we would hand him our tots of rum and he, may be, would drink the lot, depending upon his capacity, or he might take only a sip and hand the rest back. On those very odd occasions I have seen a man become the worse for wear as a result of rum. But I have also seen an admiral like that.—[Laughter.] Yes. I report this because I am quite certain that he is dead now.

Those in the Chamber at the moment who have served in the Royal Navy know that on Christmas Day everything is free, everything goes by the board, and the crew and the officers and everyone have what they believe to be a good time, and I have on such an occasion seen a captain—not drunk, perhaps, but very, very merry as a result of the lads having treated him on his day round the ship's divisions.

To be serious about it, I do not think this case has been made. I really do not think so. I cannot see how it can so happen that at any rate any substantial number of a crew can in any way be affected by the rum ration.

My main objection to this proposal, however, is that this issue is a very, very long tradition in the Royal Navy. I think that this proposal is looked upon as being very derogatory. It is something to which the men in the Royal Navy are very much opposed, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy will give us some facts, if he can, which will substantiate what amounts to an allegation that there is proof or evidence of incapacity on the part of men in the Navy to do their appointed jobs.

I admit that we are in a highly automated age in the Services, but we need to have evidence which will convince the House that it is right to take away this ration of rum. I doubt very much whether this evidence will be forthcoming.

9.54 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

This is a terrible day—

Mr. Roebuck

Hoist the main brace!

Mr. William Hamlin (Woolwich, West)

Shiver me timbers!

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

—because rum has been issued to the Royal Navy for 200 years and now the issue is to be abolished. Of course, I regret breaking with any old, hallowed tradition in the Royal Navy.

I regret anything that might be thought by the public to reduce the privileges of sailors in the Royal Navy. I agree with the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) who introduced the debate that they do as good a job of work as anybody in the country and deserve all they can get from an often skin-flint Government. I know that in this view I am joined by a "very hon. Member" who is known to all of us, namely, Mr. Speaker's Train-bearer!

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary to explain when he winds up the debate the basis on which the £2.7 million compensation has been arrived at. Over how long a period was this compensation to be calculated? In particular, will he say what figure was taken as the value of a tot?

A tot of rum, as many of us in this House know, is equivalent to two doubles, and ashore would cost something like 10s. If only half the ratings in the Navy draw their tots, say, about 36,000 of them, then those sailors will feel that they are losing about £18,000 a day or ail million a year. Yet the Government are offering only £2½ million in compensation. This appears to be a rather good bargain for the Government, at the sailor's expense. May we have from the Under-Secretary the actuarial basis of the value accorded to a tot of rum?

I agree with the tribute which was paid by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford to the Royal Navy and to the comradeship of sailors. Could one see this comradeship better deployed than when sailors have been ashore and return up the gangway and are inspected by an officer? I myself have carried out this job on many occasions and I have often seen three sailors standing very close together for the benefit of the one in the middle file. I am bound to say that often ray step has accelerated a little as I have passed him. I have given him the benefit of the doubt and I do not think I have ever been let down.

Having said all this, I feel that there are, in fact, good reasons for abolishing the tot in today's modern Navy. A tot is very strong, two doubles of very strong rum. This is about a third of a tumbler of rum and damn good stuff at that. It is arguable that this is not the best diet on which to prepare to mend a radar set or to fly as aircrew in a helicopter or to operate a complicated gas turbine machinery in a modern frigate. Modern ships are much more covered in and ships' companies are much less exposed to the elements than they used to be either in the days of sail, or when they had to man A-gun on the fo'csle on a destroyer in an Atlantic gale.

There are very strong arguments for abolishing the issue of rum in shore establishments: in a shore establishment the problem is when to issue the tot. If it is issued at the traditional time of mid-day the junior ratings are impervious to instruction for the rest of the afternoon. If one gives out the issue at 4 o'clock they jump on their motor cycles and think that the old machine is terrific and drive away straight under a bus on the sea front. Therefore, there are difficulties involved.

I add one personal view. Throughout the history of the issue of rum there have been a great many tragic cases of fine old petty officers or chief petty officers, torpedo boat coxwains, for example, who have lost their careers, their good conduct badges, their pensions due to some silly unwise pettifogging fiddling over a little bottle of rum for somebody's birthday. I have always been aghast at the strong penalties which had to be applied in such cases. I have seen some tragic situations.

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. Dobson.]

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

These tragic cases would not have arisen if there had been no rum.

In conclusion, I am glad that the Government have announced that chiefs and petty officers will be able to buy spirits on board. This is contained in the Admiralty announcement. Furthermore, the issue of beer in ships is the best innovation during my time in the Navy.

Having said this, the important thing for the public to gather from what we are saying is that the best career available for any young man, if he is good enough, is to join the Royal Navy of today, rum or no rum.

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Frank Judd (Portsmouth, West)

It is not often that I have the opportunity to stretch my hand across the waters and to join with the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). I agree with him that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) made a magnificent speech this evening. In congratulating him I know that I speak not only for myself, but for many who reside permanently or temporarily within my constituency.

It is a real pride and joy for any Member for Portsmouth, West in history to know that he represents the home and centre of the Royal Navy in this country.

Mr. Roebuck

What about the Plymouth area?

Mr. Judd

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford in drawing to the Minister's attention the grave consternation on the lower deck about this proposal. It may well be that the Minister is convinced that his decision is right. I urge him to recognise that he cannot rest simply on the self-satisfaction of the feeling that he is right. Communication is the essence of good leadership. He has a responsibility to make sure that the man on the lower deck appreciates and understands the arguments which have led the Government to endorse the decision of the Board of Admiralty.

From my own experience, and judging by conversations which I have recently had, I do not believe there are many men on the lower decks who reside in my constituency who even begin to see the justice of this decision. They see it as discriminatory, and the arguments which have been advanced smack of an ancient paternalism which is unbecoming to the Treasury Bench of the present Labour Government.

I make only one observation about the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles). He said that one of the difficulties was when to issue the tot in a shore station. It may be difficult to know when to issue it, but anyone who has served in the dismal surroundings of so many shore stations, and put up with the deprivations of the physical enviroment compared with being at sea, knows that, if ever there is a necessity for the tot, it is for the man serving in a shore station even more than in a ship at sea.

We are deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter so vigorously. He has our support, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have to work hard to convince us, and, beyond us, the men on the lower deck, that his decision is right.

Several Hon. Members rose

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. David Owen)rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for the wardroom will be intervening at 10.15 Mr. Iremonger.

10.5 p.m.

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

Hon. Members have said that they hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us this and that and produce evidence to support this decision. For my part, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go back to the Admiralty Board and say that there has never been such a large attendance in an Adjournment debate, that this House will not accept the decision, and that the board will have to change its mind.

I have served in the lower deck and in the wardroom. I am sure that from both point of view this is not a good decision. I have probably more reason to fear the dangers of the tot than many other naval officers. I was officer of the watch during the middle watch in a small vessel which was the leading escort in a convoy in the middle of the war on New Year's Eve. I observed that I was on the right course by the gyro-compass. However, I noticed that the convoy was coming towards us instead of being astern. I never believed in the gyro-compass, but I always believed in the magnetic compass. On confirming my impression by the magnetic compass that we were going in the wrong direction, I sent for the rating in charge of the gyro compass, and he arrived on the bridge in an extremely genial mood.

This was in a small ship in which the rum is served neat. The only reason for watering down rum to make "grog" is that it cannot be kept. In small ships, where it is served neat, it can be kept. This rating was a Scotsman. On New Year's Eve, he took advantage of his store of rum, and very nearly sank us all and some of the convoy as well. Therefore I see the danger in the tradition of "Up Spirits", but, even so, I think that it is well worth it.

I can also see the force of the argument that, in a modern navy, in large ships—which are not ships at all but merely slightly unstable and disagreeable hotels—there is some virtue in not giving rum to ratings who, during the afternoon, have complicated duties to attend to involving the use of sophisticated machinery. All the same, from the point of view of the Royal Navy this is a bad move. The rum ration is more than the drink itself. It is more than a tradition. It is a ritual, and it is very important for morale that rituals should be maintained. If rum is not issued to ratings, they cannot give "sippers" to their "oppos", and it will have a very bad effect on general morale and relationships between ratings on the lower deck.

I regret this. I think that the duty of a Minister responsible for the Royal Navy is to tell these people in the Admiralty that they cannot get away with it. He is a mar, who represents, through us, the feelings of the ratings in the lower deck. I can see that there are good arguments for the decision, but this is an occasion when the Minister should have said, "This is all very fine, but we will not wear it." He should have told the board that it could not have its way.

There will be much resentment in the lower deck and in the wardroom. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will go back and splice the main-brace with the Admiralty Board, or whatever may be appropriate, and say that, on reflection, having taken the mood of the House, he has decided that this will not do.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

I am a little disappointed, Mr. Speaker, that you did not introduce me by my rank. You introduced the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) by his. For your information, I am Leading Aircraftman.

I am all for tradition: there is a good disciplinary reason for keeping tradition in the Armed Forces and in our national life. I was disappointed when the previous Government abandoned the title of First Lord of the Admiralty. No one knows what will come next. It may be that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will abolish port for Her Majesty's judges. If that happens, the whole nation will be sunk.

The House has had a great deal of fun about this matter, but there are serious aspects, and it would be a mistake if the debate were conducted in such a manner that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was able to escape in a cloud of humour.

I have seen nothing in the public statements which have been made about this decision to indicate any sound and positive reason for it.

The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) gave us a most revealing glimpse of history. I hope that it was more accurate than that which we had recently from the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). The hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham told us that this decision had been in the pipeline for some time at the Admiralty and that at one time there was a Minister strong enough to resist this kind of nonsense. If so, it is a sad reflection on my hon. Friend, who represents a seafaring constituency. No wonder he has had to bring along the Minister of Defence for Administration who constantly reminds me of that character in Peter Simple, Alderman Ironside, of Sheffield City Council, to support him in this matter. Much support he will get from him.

I was not sure about the course being steered by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester. He appeared to start out in the right direction, but later changed course and came back to support the Admiralty. His argument was that the provision of this tot of rum would make it dangerous for ratings in a service operational rôle. But this argument was answered previously by the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham, who said that this ration is given when men come off duty, not before they go on duty.

No evidence has been adduced in the public statement about the harmful effect that this tot of rum is causing, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), who has such a distinguished career as a boy sailor in the Navy.

One thing which has bedevilled the Services, even in modern times, is the rather preposterous class structure. This is not so evident in the Royal Air Force, where men and women tend to rise on merit. But that is not the case in the Navy.

Mr. William Hamling

We all find our own level.

Mr. Roebuck

As my hon. Friend says, we all find our own level. That is not so in the Navy.

What have we here? We have a system whereby an officer can drink a wide variety of spirits and a petty officer can drink a more limited variety of spirits. But what are the men on the lower deck faced with?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Water."] Water, but also beer—and we all know where the beer comes from. We know that the brewers make large contributions to Conservative Party funds. I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether this is not some kind of plot.

The serious issue is: are we not, on this basis, going back to the old system that we had at the end of the war where we saw notices, so I am told, which said, "Officers and their ladies, N.C.O.s and their wives, other ranks and their women"? We now have a situation of officers and their spirits, N.C.O.s and their spirits, plus creme de menthe, or whatever it is that W.R.N.S. say, and other ranks and their beers. This will not do. This is not the kind of structure which hon. Members on this side of the House seek to see established in the Royal Navy.

I earnestly ask my hon. Friend to take note of the unanimous view on this side of the House and almost the whole of the Opposition, and to show those in the Royal Navy who have come to this decision that it is this House which runs the Services and that it does not want change and will not put up with it. I urge my hon. Friend to withdraw this nonsense and to give back to the men their tot of rum.

10.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Dr. David Owen)

The whole House will agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) has made a most amusing speech. But it has also been a speech of serious content on a serious issue, and I must treat it as such.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, and it has sometimes been difficult to determine the courses that various hon. Members have steered.

I should like to say at the outset that I am only too well aware that the rum issue is a particular naval privilege of long standing and one which is cherished and enjoyed by a great many ratings. I could not hold my position too long without being aware of this. I am also a Plymouthian. I represent the Sutton Division of Plymouth, a constituency with a long and proud naval tradition, so I am well conscious of this matter.

I suggest, however, that certain facts must be faced. The rum issue is the equivalent of slightly more than four single whiskies—a fact which has tended to be glossed over in this debate. There is also an entitlement, introduced only since the war, to purchase a pint of beer a day on top of the rum issue. In this country, it is an offence to drive a car while one's blood alcohol exceeds 80 miligrammes per 100 mililitres of blood, and this level may be reached after four single whiskies or two and a half pints of beer. If, to an individual's naval tot, is added a proportion of another man's tot, which happens all too frequently, or, say, the two cans of beer which he is allowed, my medical advisers express positive misgivings about the results if that individual were faced with a test of his normal skill on which much might depend.

To the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett), I can say that there is considerable medical evidence, and that a great deal of pressure has come from naval doctors on this issue. In a survey of patients admitted to the British Military Hospital in Singapore, comparing the Army and the Navy, the figures suggest that the Royal Navy has three times the rate of alcoholic casualties. Alcoholic casualties nearly always manifest themselves only over the age of 28. On this basis, it was estimated that there could not be fewer than 300 very heavy drinkers in the Fleet. Because this is in an older age group, it is obviously a higher percentage.

Hon. Members have been fair in admitting that the tasks of the naval rating have changed immensely over the years. It is by no means uncommon for junior ratings to hold responsible positions in the modern Navy, and to be required to maintain and operate extremely expensive and complex missile or fire control systems in our ships. This must be something which we consider when we realise that we are giving an entitlement to drink more than four single whiskies in the middle of the working day.

I suggest also that there is a great difference between a free issue of spirits, which must be drunk at the time of or shortly after the issue, and the right to buy spirits while off duty.

The unanimous advice of the Admiralty Board and, indeed, of practically every naval officer, both medical and non-medical, is that the issue of rum impairs the efficiency and is not compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the tasks in our ships are concerned with complex and often delicate machinery on the correct functioning of which many lives may depend. It is on this advice and other facts that the board decided to abolish the rum issue. I believe that the reaction to the decision shows that most people recognise that it is a sensible and timely one. I do not claim that it was or could have been a popular decision, but it is possible to exaggerate the feeling aroused.

We have heard of much anger and resentment at this decision. But there was sensible reporting of the decision in the Press and in subsequent editorial comment. My hon. Friend asked what Plymouth thought. The very influential Western Evening Herald, in Plymouth, supported the decision. The 15 letters which have been received in my Department or by me show that most people accept that this decision probably had to come. In my constituency, I have no wish to go down in history with Admiral Vernon, who watered down the rum, or the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Josephus Daniels, who made the U.S. navy "dry". I am surprised that some people have almost been advocating the cause of a "dry" Navy.

I am glad that hon. Members have accepted that this decision was not an economy measure. Quite the reverse. The cash value of the savings which we shall make, £2.7 million, will all be paid over to the Sailors' Fund, which should do a great deal to make life in the Navy pleasanter specifically for those men and their dependants who are losing the rum ration.

The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) asked how this was calculated. The amount paid over was obtained on a discounted cash flow calculation, involving the discounting of the annual saving at an agreed rate. This results in a figure representing the cash value now of the savings which will be realised in future. Most people who have considered this think that it is a generous supplement. It is well known, for instance, that in the Navy they have not got the reserves which can be used for this purpose which the other two Services have.

It is important for the House to bear in mind the extent of the problem. Junior ratings, the men primarily affected—we often hear the expression "the lower deck", but that usually means junior and senior ratings—form 57 per cent. of the Fleet. Of these, less than 30 per cent. in practice take the rum ration either because some of them are under 20 and not eligible, some are living out on shore and some do not like rum. In practice, entitlement of ratings to purchase drinks of any kind applies only to those serving afloat—about four in 10 of the percentage I mentioned. While serving in shore establishments anyone is entitled, officers and men, to buy drink in the mess or the N.A.A.F.I. club besides of course being able to use the facilities of the town in which they are living when they are off duty.

My hon. Friend's main criticism as I understand it is the perpetuation of a distinction between officers and men. I think he is the first to recognise that the measures we have announced are in fact a significant step toward easing the distinction between officers and men. We are in fact easing the regulations for the purchase of spirits to allow men of lower rank than at present to buy them. That is what the new rules mean. Until now, chiefs and petty officers, senior and responsible men upon whom the Navy relies, have not been allowed to buy or drink whisky, gin or vodka on board ship. Many representations have been received to relax the regulations. The only spirit they have been allowed is rum.

From the date of the abolition of the issue this will change and these men will be able to purchase and choose the spirit that they drink. The criticism is that this decision while welcome does not go far enough for it will still result in junior ratings, those below the rank of petty officer, being unable to drink spirits while on board ship. This is quite true but it must be remembered that roughly 40 per cent. of the junior ratings' mess will be under the age of 20 at any one time and not eligible for rum and that a man may, if he is exceptional, be a petty officer by the time he is 22 and that considerable proportions are being promoted petty officers by the time they are 27. I ask the House to remember that a considerable proportion are under 18.

Even so the junior ratings have not been neglected. The amount of beer they are allowed to purchase is to be increased by 50 per cent. This is not such a paltry allowance as has been made out. It is worth pointing out that because petty officers and chief petty officers will be able to buy spirits the priority in respect of the purchase of beer will be given to the ration available for the junior ratings.

Mr. Wellbeloved

That has always been the case.

Dr. Owen

That is true, but it will be always maintained.

The decision to increase the ration of beer to junior ratings was not taken without considering the possibility of allowing them also to buy spirits. I should like the House to look at the many problems, apart from the advisability of making spirits available in messes with such a high proportion of young men. The prime consideration is the limited accommodation available. We have recently decided to increase the amount of accommodation per man—something to which I attach immense importance—but even after this has taken place and it can be done only as new ships are built—the amount of space available will still be severely restricted.

Thus, on very many ships there is nowhere where spirits can reasonably be sold in such a manner as to prevent abuse of the law of the land remembering that a high percentage are under 18 without either taking an excessive amount of time—a period of many hours was calculated—or conducting the sales in a thoroughly difficult atmosphere, for example in the cramped deck space of a frigate or submarine and in a variety of small messes scattered throughout the ship.

I hope my hon. Friend will take this assurance from me that there is no question of adopting moral attitudes over this. The arguments which I have espoused have scrupulously kept aside from that. I am certainly not persuaded that there is any class difference in drinking habits, although the disciplinary sanctions against an officer found drunk on duty are much stiffer than those for ratings.

My hon. Friend quoted the most recent figures of drunkenness which I gave him. I do not wish to draw too much from them, but it is clear from the figures that there is a much higher incidence of drunkenness among ratings than among officers. in 1968, there were 3,215 offences recorded in respect of ratings, or 5 per cent., and in that same year only one officer was court-martialled.

I readily accept that few of these offences take place on duty, and I wish that I was in a position to give my hon. Friend the accurate breakdown of statistics for which he asks. In fact, returns of this kind have only recently been instituted in the fleet, and it has been difficult to obtain the figures.

It is not true that there is no effective limitation on the amount of drink which an officer may consume. The captain of every ship is expected to examine his officers' wine bills at regular intervals and to deal with those officers, particularly younger ones, whose bills show signs of excessive drinking. As a further check, when his ship is inspected he is required to provide the inspecting officer with evidence that he has done so.

As a further check, in the case of petty officers and chief officers we are giving the captain similar powers. The stocks held in the mess at any one time are to be equal to an average consumption of four days' supply at three measures a head. There is, thus, no great distinction here, and certainly there is no case to support the charge of discrimination against these men.

Even these rules are not fixed and immutable for all time.

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend is putting a persuasive case. Will he give an undertaking that he will place in the Library the sources and results of the investigations which he says have been carried out, so that, by an examination of the facts, we may give careful consideration to the case which he puts?

Dr. Owen

I can give my hon. Friend the references. The medical study which I cited has already been published. I shall look into this, anyhow.

These rules are not fixed and immutable for all time. We shall review their operation and, if they cause difficulties, or if further relaxation is practicable, we shall institute the necessary changes. We keep a constant eye on the question of beer and the progress made by the brewers in their work on concentrated or dehydrated beer. If they can find an acceptable answer, it will ease our stowage problems. We shall then be able to re-examine the size of the beer ration.

It is appropriate, I think, to make another point. The tenor of much of the criticism is such as to suggest that some people visualise the Navy as divided by class—this point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck)—as though the officers are all "middle class" and ratings are "lower class". Nothing could be further from the truth in the Navy of today. Over 25 per cent. of the officers started their career as ratings, a far higher percentage, incidentally, than in either of the other two Services.

I noted that my hon. Friend referred to the Royal Air Force. Far from being a bastion of privilege, the Navy actively encourages men to aspire to and obtain a commission. There is a special scheme to enable young men of ability to attain the educational qualifications which they need to succeed, and many of these "Upper Yardsmen" now occupy important positions. Moreover, entry to the General List and other branches is in no way limited. It is open to any boy from any school or social class who can qualify. All of us who have over the years had any association with the Service are only too well aware of that.

I ask the House to remember that we are steadily forging a new modern Navy. The new ships are now a reality—nuclear fleet submarines, the new type 42 destroyer, new frigates—all with modern sophisticated equipment. These are not just paper designs, but are actively going down the slipways and joining the modern Navy. In the words of the present First Sea Lord, this is an "instant-response" Navy.

I am satisfied that the daily issue of rum is neither necessary nor appropriate, and that this decision, though unpopular, had to be taken at this time. There are always arguments for postponing unpopular decisions. There are always those who will argue that Ministers should avoid making unpopular decisions. But, if a Minister believes that a decision is right, he should take it, and this is why the Admiralty Board unanimously made this decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.