HL Deb 08 July 1941 vol 119 cc680-9

THE EARL OF CORK AND ORRERY had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether it is intended to class merchant seamen as "Service" casualties or sick when undergoing hospital treatment and thereby place them upon an equality, as regards rations, with naval ratings; if not, what are the reasons for differentiating between seamen of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy in this respect; and move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I do not think it necessary to apologise to your Lordships for bringing up this subject again after an interval of only six weeks, because I judge from the sympathetic way in which you received my remarks on the previous occasion that you would not wish me to let the matter drop while the present state of things exists. On the previous occasion I connected with this question of the rations of merchant seamen under the Emergency Hospital Scheme their participation in the distribution of duty-free tobacco and cigarettes by the Red Cross and St. John organisations. On that particular point the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the noble Lord were both courteous enough to inform me that that had now been allowed; so that matter is happily ended. The same happy result, however, has not materialised as regards rations.

I wish to make it quite clear, if I did not do so previously, that I am not alluding to the medical treatment received by merchant seamen in hospitals. I am perfectly sure that they get: exactly the same treatment as every other patient gets—that is, the best that physicians and surgeons can give them. But even physicians and surgeons have to deal with the material they get, and it they get two patients, one of whom is well fed and nourished while the other is the reverse, then the one who is better fed and nourished will recover sooner than the one who is under-nourished. Before I go further, I should like to tell your Lordships what are the differences in the rations, because they are not trivial but are very large. As regards meat, the Royal Naval rating receives in a week 2⅝ lbs., whereas the merchant seaman only receives 1s. worth of meat, which is less than 1 lb. As regards butter, the naval rating gets 10½ 0z., and the merchant seaman only 6 0z. The naval rating gets 1 lb. 8 0z. of sugar, and the merchant seaman only ½ lb. In the matter of bacon, the naval rating's ration is 9 0z., and the merchant seaman's 4 0z.

The noble Lord, Lord Croft, when he replied on a previous occasion, said that the Government were satisfied that both classes of patient were getting the food that current supplies allowed and that their medical condition required. In view of the figures which I have given I think ore can only come to the conclusion that one class of man is getting much too much, or the other much too little. I take it that before that statement was made the Government got the opinion of their medical advisers on this particular subject, but I think it will be agreed that we ought to have a unanimous opinion by medical men as to whether the merchant seaman is getting enough. Medical opinion is not unanimous. If your Lordships will allow me, I will read a short extract from a letter from a physician who gives up his spare time to caring for sailors of the merchant service. This is what he says: It has, during the past year, become increasingly clear that extra food allowances are highly desirable in the Seamen's Hospital, since a considerable number of my patients are admitted in a debilitated state as a result of long voyages and, in a certain number of cases, prolonged exposure in open boats. Furthermore, it is my personal opinion that no small number of the conditions which we are called upon to treat are the outcome of faulty and deficient diet on board. He also says: There is no doubt that the increased dietary offered by Service hospital rations would enable physicians and surgeons to get their sailor patients back into service more quickly.

It is a national need that these men should get well quickly. We are making a great drive through the country to get seamen, and it is a necessity that when these men are in hospital they should get back to work quickly. Merchant seamen have always been at a disadvantage in this respect. The merchant seaman's food has never compared well with that served to the man in the Royal Navy. The merchant seaman only gets just enough to satisfy the regulations, and it is badly cooked and not well served. In the Royal Navy the ratings get ample food, there is great variety, everything is of the first class. Officers are appointed to see that everything is first class, and cooks are trained to prepare and serve meals. I suggest that these men who are being stinted in this way are the men who have the hardest job of all in the war. Quite apart from the risks of war, their ordinary navigational risks are increased in such times as these.

Most people when they think of merchant seamen think of the men serving in some great liner in which they have had a joy ride. They never realise what life is like for men in the small ships. Just think of the conditions under which these men live. They spend practically the whole of their time on duty, and the only accommodation for them is in the forecastle, or in some cramped quarters. They cannot go home in the evening to their families. They cannot spend a couple of hours at the pictures. All they get by way of disturbance of their routine is some alarm which brings them up on deck whatever the weather. I suggest that whatever the danger may be of increasing these allowances for merchant seamen, even if it does set a precedent and lead other people to come forward with demands, we should put these men on a level with the ratings in the Royal Navy. Men who risk their lives to bring food to this country should not be stinted of that food when they become sick or are casualties as the result of the dangers to which they are exposed. The shores of the Seven Seas are now strewn with the wreckage of boats in which British sailors either starved to death or perished from thirst. I suggest that men such as these who become sick or casualties should not be treated as outcasts, and should not be less well treated in the matter of food than men of the Royal Navy.


My Lords, I feel sure that there are very few, if any, members of your Lordships' House who are not in entire sympathy with the Motion which has been moved so feelingly by the noble and gallant Earl who sits opposite. I hope it may be possible for the Minister of Food, when he replies, to tell us that he will do his utmost to ensure that in the future there will be no differentiation in the treatment, so far as rations in hospital are concerned, of the men of the two great Sea Services. From whatever angle it is viewed, it is unfortunate, to say the least, that there should be preferential treatment in any way, and I cannot but feel that the Minister of Food, who has done such wonderful work in his own Department under most severe strain and difficulties, must share this view with us. When we consider the type of work men of the Merchant Service are now doing, and the risks they are running in order to ensure that we get the food and munitions which we require, and in fact without which we could not live, it is inequitable that they should be treated less favourably than are naval ratings when they are sick.

As regards the difference in rations which the noble Lord quoted I have been at great trouble to find out whether or not that scale is correct, and I am informed that the difference in treatment is not great, that it is in respect of meat only, and that as regards other rations treatment is identical. With regard to meat, the naval rating is entitled to a ration of 2s. 4d. worth as against 1s. 2d. worth given to men of the Mercantile Marine. If my information is correct, one would imagine that the authorities of the hospitals could, by some system of pooling or averaging out, bring about an equality of rationing for both Services so that each of the seamen patients would receive the same. I hope that the Minister will take the necessary steps to see that this is done. At the same time, if a ration of 1s. 2d. worth of meat is sufficient for the merchant seaman patient, which, I suppose, can be determined by the doctors in charge, surely it must be a sufficient ration for the naval rating patient, whose ration should, accordingly, be reduced to that level. If, on the other hand, the ration is considered by the medical profession to be insufficient for the sick or injured merchant seaman there should be an increase, if necessary at the expense of the civil population, who, I am sure, would willingly accept and bear such a burden.

I do not wish so much to lay stress on this particular difference in meat rationing; it is the general and important point of principle which I wish to emphasize. Our merchant seamen have not in the past received, and are not yet receiving, that: generous consideration and treatment at the hands of the Government which they undoubtedly deserve in view not only of their loyal and devoted service to the country, but also of the arduous and dangerous nature of their work. It is impossible for us to do too much towards repaying the debt which we owe to the Merchant Navy, and it is more than gratifying to know that the Government, in several instances, have decided to treat officers and men of the Merchant Navy in the same way as officers and men of the Royal Navy are treated, a notable example of this being the Merchant Navy War Pensions Scheme. I trust that this equality of treatment will be extended. I hope also that any improvement in the status of merchant seamen that has been introduced during the war will not be abandoned immediately hostilities cease. Praise and lip service are often given and given quite easily, and are just as easily forgotten, so that the men are not helped materially. I ask the Government to see to it that our ships and our seamen, who are so prominently in their minds during the war, shall have a no less prominent place in their thoughts in times of peace.


My Lords, before a reply is given on behalf of the Government, may I just say a few words? I must apologise for addressing your Lordships twice in the same day, but my noble and gallant friend the Earl of Cork and Orrery begged me to support his Motion, and, knowing a great deal about him and about his past history, I gladly agreed to do so. It is indeed, as has been previously remarked, a wonderful thing to see an Admiral of the Fleet pleading the cause of the merchant seamen with so much vigour, and he must have touched every heart. During the time that he was Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth he realized the importance of this question, and he went into it most thoroughly. If ever there was a case of a man knowing the subject of his speech from A to Z, we have it here to-day.

I support the noble Earl not only for that reason but also because I can, perhaps, put before the Minister of Food this thought: it is a mistake in a democratic country to fight a case which, as a Parliamentary case, is absolutely water-tight. As the noble Earl has said, there should not be this differentiation between these two classes of seamen, especially in time of war. I would suggest to the Minister of Food, who, if I may say so, is, I think, doing his job extraordinarily well, that he should at once say that there shall be no such differentiation, and that if there is any he will remove it. If he says that, the trouble will cease, but if he does not do so I can promise him that this is the kind of thing which will never be allowed to rest. I do not suppose that my noble and gallant friend who moved this Motion, having got his teeth into it, will ever let it go. If the Minister wants to sleep quietly in his bed, when he gets the chance to do so, as he deserves, let him accept this Motion. I know that it is wise and just and I would beg my noble friend opposite to accept it in principle and in fact.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and gallant Earl who raised this question for giving me an opportunity of removing what is apparently a misunderstanding. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, for the Parliamentary advice which he has given me, and of which I am constantly in need, although not in this instance, for I have no intention of fighting a battle on this subject, and in any case I do not think that I should be anxious to fight a losing battle on a matter which was not one of principle. Who is there in this country who has more reason for gratitude than I have to the men of the Merchant Service for the work which they have done? It would have been quite impossible to feed the people of this country if it had not been for the heroic and persistent continuance in well-doing shown by the Merchant. Service.

The noble and gallant Earl, therefore, can have no doubt about whether he has my sympathy in the point of view which he has put forward. I hope, however, that he will acquit me of discourtesy when I say that he moved a little from the Motion which he put down when he spoke also about the feeding of the men when they are at sea and when they are well. I make that point merely because I have not, in view of the terms of the Motion, inquired into what are the conditions at present under which merchant seamen are working in the matter of food. All that I can say is that I have not heard of any complaints on the subject, and my Ministry is indeed one which has to have very wide open doors to complaints, and they have to be very large doors, because complaints pour in the whole time. If there are any complaints on that issue, I assure the noble and gallant Earl that I will very willingly and very speedily go into them.

Coming to the precise terms of the Motion, I am sorry to say that the noble and gallant Earl is a little behind the clock in the matter of the figures which he quoted. Until comparatively recently, there was a considerable difference between the rations of merchant seamen in hospital and those of naval ratings.


My Lords, those figures were handed to me by the secretary of the seamen's hospital this morning, as representing what he was allowed to do.


My Lords, I am sorry, but the truth is that with the consent of the First Lord of the Admiralty we altered the rations six weeks ago, when a large amount of publicity was given to the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Marchwood, was correct when he said that the only difference which exists at the present time concerns the meat ration; in the case of all the other commodities which are rationed, the two Services are treated in precisely the same way. But let us come down to a purely factual level on this matter. People who are ill in hospital do not have their rations brought to them as individual cases; the rations go into the common pool of the hospital and each man gets what is necessary for him to have from the point of view of his medical attendant. If there is any shortage of food for merchant seamen, or for any other class of seamen who are being treated in the hospitals of this country, I will without any hesitation secure that that is put right. I have had no such complaints.

I had one case brought to my notice by Mr. Cross when he was Minister of Shipping, when he asked me whether it would be possible to increase the rations at a certain hospital where people were being treated for fractures. In that case, as in all such cases, I secured medical advice from the most eminent body of medical opinion which is at the service of His Majesty's Government, the Medical Research Council, and they told me that there was no reason why people who were being treated for fractures should have any larger quantity of food than others who were being treated in hospital for other reasons; and on that account only I did not agree to the request which Mr. Cross made on behalf of that particular hospital.

The noble and gallant Earl has brought to our notice the opinion of one physician, whose view he respects, who says that these men are not getting enough to eat. If I thought that that was true I should indeed be very gravely concerned, but I have had no complaints or representations made to me from any of the hospital authorities on this subject. I have been assured that the rations are all right; but, if the noble and gallant Earl will permit me to say so, because he, with his very great reputation and the debt which we all owe to him, has brought this subject up in your Lordships' House, I have referred the whole question of the amount of food which is being used in hospitals which are treating merchant seamen once again to the Medical Research Council, and asked them to advise me whether it is sufficient. If in their opinion it is not sufficient, I will at once increase it. The noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, said he was sure that civilians would willingly give up whatever was necessary. It is not necessary for them to do that; the amount of extra food which these men would want is quite insignificant in comparison with the general consumption in this country, and, if it is necessary, I will most willingly see that they get it. But, if I am advised on such eminent authority that it is not necessary, I hope that the noble and gallant Earl who has raised this question will be satisfied that everything which ought to be done has been done for the people in whom he showed an interest which is so great, and an interest which I beg him to believe I share with him.


My Lords, I have followed with much interest the reply which the noble Lord has given, but there is one point on which I am rather puzzled. I understand from what the noble Lord said that there is in practice no differentiation in hospital between the men in the Royal Navy and the merchant seamen as to what they get, if ordered by the doctor. I cannot understand, therefore, what is the purpose of keeping this nominal difference in rations, and why the men in the Royal Navy get—on paper—double the amount of meat that is given to the merchant seamen, who have precisely the same claims for consideration from the Government and from the whole country. Perhaps the noble Lord will say why this distinction is maintained.


My Lords, by leave of the House, may I say that the answer to the question is that we are not taking any notice of the fact that people are in hospital? When a man who is a member of the Navy comes in, the hospital gets certain allowances. When a man who is in the Merchant Navy comes in the hospital gets certain allowances. We have avoided one of the most difficult and contentious subjects that surely ever could be raised, and that is the distinction between civilian workers who may claim that their work is more arduous and their need is greater. I do not know whether that reply will satisfy the noble Marquess.


I quite see that, but the effect of the regulation on public opinion is another matter.


My Lords, I wish to thank the noble Lord for his sympathetic reply, but I feel in justification to myself I cannot agree with him. I have been on the board and am now Vice-Chairman of the Seamen's Hospital Society, which deals almost exclusively with seamen, and I received these figures only this morning from the secretary. I asked for them this morning so that: I should not make any misstatement to your Lordships' House. We have five hospitals and two convalescent homes, and this information which the noble Lord says was widely advertised has not reached these hospitals. The opinion that I gave was by one of the members of the staff. It was endorsed by the senior physician, a very well-known physician who has for twenty-five years given up his time to look after seamen. With regard to feeding at sea, I merely introduced that in order to show that there was no chance of the merchant seaman being as fit as his brother in the Navy if he went into hospital. Our merchant seamen are not so well looked after at sea as they are in the Navy. We have in this group of hospitals two convalescent homes, and it makes a great difference whether we can get extra sugar and jam. The doctors maintain that if they could give better and more varied diet the men would be able to get back more quickly to their work. I thank the noble Lord for his reply and for the information on the particular point that now then: is going to be no discrimination in hospitals between Merchant Navy sailors and the Services. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.