HL Deb 20 May 1941 vol 119 cc221-8

THE EARL OF CORK AND ORRERY rose to call attention to the fact that sick and casualties of the Merchant Navy are not so well catered for under the Ministry of Health Emergency Hospital Scheme as are patients from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, who are classed as "Service sick" and "Service casualties"; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Motion which I have put on the Paper will not take a very long time, but I feel quite sure that I shall have your Lordships' interest and sympathy for the points I am going to raise. Lately, we have heard a good deal about the Battle of the Atlantic. That battle of course has been raging ever since war started. In fact the first incident in the war, the sinking of the "Athenia," was part of the Battle of the Atlantic. The importance of keeping our shipping moving on the ocean routes has been impressed upon us, by all sorts of speakers and writers, starting with the Prime Minister and working downwards, and they have all spoken of our sea communications as the life line of the nation. But ocean routes are no good without ships, and ships are no good without men. We must realise the fact that upon the officers and men of the Mercantile Navy depends whether we are going to be able to fight through this war to victory.

We owe a great deal to these men, and they are certainly not men who ought to be discriminated against as they are under the Ministry of Health Emergency Hospital Scheme. Although the points I shall mention may not be considered very important, yet I contend that no sort of discrimination ought to exist. It is the petty things in life that cause the greatest irritation. The root of the trouble lies in the fact that they are placed in a special category. Officers and men in the Mercantile Marine are not classed as "Service sick" or "Service casualties" when they go into hospital under the Ministry of Health Emergency Hospital Scheme. Why that should be so it is very difficult to understand. The only difference I can suggest is that whereas men of the recognised Fighting Services go forth to meet the enemy with the most perfect and up-to-date equipment that can be supplied, the merchant sailor goes to sea in ships which are often old, slow, not very well found, and practically unarmed, an easy prey to attack from the air, on the surface, or under the water. However, as the seamen are not classed as "Service sick" or "Service casualties" they do not get the Service ration when they go into hospital, whereas men of the three Fighting Services do.

Therefore, you may have the absurd position of men who have contracted the same illness through the same cause—a soldier, a naval man, an airman and a merchant seaman—the first three getting full rations, while the fourth, the merchant sailor, has to be content with the civilian ration. In addition to this, through not being classed as "Service" merchant seamen are not able to benefit by the distribution of duty-free tobacco and cigarettes made through the war organisation of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. That is not, your Lordships may be sure, because of any want of sympathy on the part of those bodies, or of the people who subscribe to them, but because the Lords of the Treasury, through the Customs and Excise authorities, object to this grant to merchant seamen.

Again, in certain circumstances merchant seamen are supposed to contribute to the cost of their maintenance in hospital—a charge unknown against a naval rating. A circular issued by the Ministry of Health last April—No. 2346A—laid down that officers and men of the Mercantile Marine should be admitted for treatment into the Emergency Medical Services hospitals for ordinary sickness or injury when away from home. In such cases they should be asked to contribute towards the cost of their maintenance. They are eligible for free treatment for injury sustained in the course of their duty or sustained at the hands of the enemy. The sub-committee of the Committee of Voluntary Organisations for forwarding the welfare of seamen in port—this sub-committee looks after points connected with the health of seamen—at once took up the matter, and passed a unanimous resolution asking that these men should be included as "Service sick" or "Service casualties" and treated "no less well than the men of His Majesty's Fighting Services". This was duly submitted to the Seamen's Welfare Board, and considered by them, but nothing tangible has resulted.

The Seamen's Hospital Society, in which I happen to be interested, was also intrigued by this matter and asked for a definition of the word "injury" as used in the Ministry's circular. This was not surprising, because the Seamen's Hospital Society has for 120 years been giving free treatment, not only in illness but during convalescence; that is, keeping men until they are fit once more to face the hardships of their calling. The answer received by the Society to their question was to the effect that "unless injured as the result of enemy action, or unless injured by anything which happened at any point of time when the man was on duty," he was to be asked to contribute towards his maintenance. Can the "point of time" be determined at which a man contracts pneumonia or rheumatism, both illnesses to which sailors are very prone, or can there be a point of time when heart affection or eye strain or nervous spasm starts? The better the man, the harder it is to determine that, because he would be less likely to report sick until he was compelled.

As for the second point, is there any time when a man in a ship is not on duty? Every member of a crew of a merchant ship is liable to be called at any moment, and all are equally exposed to sudden and violent danger A workman going to his work and getting injured is not held under the law to have any claim on his employer for compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Act, but a soldier going down to a port of embarkation who meets with an injury is considered to be on active service just as if he were in the front line. A Home Guard, however, who is injured is not regarded as being on duty even though he is in uniform unless he is acting under the orders of an officer. Where does the merchant sailor come in? He ought to know. It is really encouragement that these men want at the present time—deeds, not words. They rather distrust words.

There is nothing that has been written or said in praise of the merchant seamen in this war, that was not said or written in the last war, and yet ten years after its conclusion the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine went through a period of suffering probably never equalled in the annals of our history, and no helping hand was ever extended to them. The recent forecast of certain steps about to be taken to better the lot of the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine is only going to be a war-time measure. It can only be hoped that what is found good will be perpetuated after the war is over. I feel that I am not really asking for much when I ask the noble Lord who will reply for the Government to say that all these petty restrictions will be swept away, and that from henceforth the officers and men of the Merchant Navy will be placed on exactly the same footing for hospital treatment as their comrades of the Royal Navy. If that cannot be promised I suggest that some very good reasons should be offered to your Lordships' House. Your Lordships are entitled to know what are those reasons. To act as I suggest would be some slight but tangible recognition of these men who are doing and daring so much and who throughout their long history have never let down their country in the hour of need. I beg to move.


My Lords, I have never before presumed to address your Lordships a second time in one afternoon, and I hope that I may be forgiven on this occasion. I have not had time to study the subject on which the noble and gallant Earl has just addressed you, but my work for the last eighteen months has brought me into very intimate association with the officers and men of the Merchant Navy and I feel it would be unbecoming if I were to keep my seat and not get up to give any support to the very eloquent plea of the noble and gallant Earl. Of all the magnificent bodies of men that there are to-day I do not think any can compare with the officers and men of the Merchant Navy, and I should like to join my plea with that of the noble and gallant Earl that no discrimination shall ever be shown between officers and men of the Merchant Service and officers and men of the Royal Navy.


My Lords, under the gallant leadership of an Admiral of the Fleet, followed by a Post Captain, I feel that a humble Lieutenant-Commander must join in supporting this very good cause. I spoke earlier this afternoon against any differentiation being made between officer and man, and I also feel most strongly that there should be no differentiation between the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine. The sailor is a man who likes what is called his "moan," and if in hospital two sailors, one a merchant seaman and the other a naval man, were to find themselves in beds, side by side, these differences would soon come to light, for the merchant seaman would have a just grievance and one which would create a great deal of ill-feeling. I also have not had time to study this subject, but I feel confident in supporting the noble and gallant Earl.


My Lords, in answer to the noble and gallant Earl, I wish to say that officers and men of the Merchant Service receive the same medical treatment under the Emergency Hospital Scheme as members of the Fighting Services. They receive treatment at the cost of the Government for injuries due to enemy action and also for injuries sustained in the course of their duty even if not due to enemy action. Injuries would include illnesses arising directly from enemy action or the performance of their duty, such as pneumonia contracted through immersion in the sea or exposure in an open boat. This means that they get all the advantages of the nation-wide organisation of the Emergency Hospital Scheme, equally with those Service patients who are treated in civilian hospitals. They are admitted or transferred to the hospital best suited for dealing with the trouble from which they are suffering, and are sent, if necessary, to special centres, such as orthopaedic hospitals, head centres, chest centres, and so on, where first-class specialists in their particular subject attend to them. If they need convalescent treatment after a period in hospital they may be sent to one of the Red Cross auxiliary hospitals in the Scheme.

We have gone further. If a seaman is suffering from an ordinary illness not directly arising from his calling and is away from his home town he will be admitted to a hospital in the Emergency Scheme in the same way. The only difference from the Services in this case is that unless he belongs to a contributory scheme which will pay towards his treatment, he will be asked to make a contribution according to ordinary hospital practice, but the Government pay the rest of the cost. It is considered that there is no hardship on the Merchant Navy, in view of the rates of their pay, in making them to make a contribution in this type of case, which really has no direct connection with war service. Where a seaman is in his home town there is no need to bring him specially into the Emergency Scheme, because his own local hospital will admit him in the ordinary way if he needs inpatient treatment, and the ordinary financial arrangements of the hospital will apply. Apart from this point, it will thus be seen that the Government bear the whole cost of treating the personnel of the Merchant Marine in hospitals in this country. A circular was sent to all hospitals in April outlining the scheme and it should now be in working order all over the country.

The noble Lord may also have in mind the question of rations for men in hospital. Indeed, he mentioned that point. It is true that, at the moment, the Service patient is entitled under the Regulations to a rather higher meat ration than the merchant seamen, but the Minister of War Transport has asked the Minister of Food to consider whether the Merchant Navy cannot be put on the same footing as the Royal Navy in this respect. In any case, we feel sure that both classes of patients are, in fact, getting the food that current supplies allow and their medical condition requires. With regard to tobacco, the Treasury have permitted the British Red Cross Society, the Navy League and the Service Comforts Funds to purchase in this country cigarettes and tobacco duty free for distribution to sick and wounded Service personnel. It seems almost a crime to quote a precedent of the last war but that, in fact, is what did happen in a similar situation. That is the precedent we have before us, and I will certainly bring my noble friend's remarks on that subject to the notice of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


My Lords, that is a very satisfactory reply in some respects, but not so satisfactory in others. I would point out that I am asking that men of the Merchant Navy should have the same treatment as men of the Fighting Services during the war, and while they are serving. You do not, in the Royal Navy, have to contract pneumonia through immersion in the sea or exposure in an open boat in order to get treatment at the cost of the Government; you can contract it in many other ways. It is one of the most prevalent diseases known to the hospitals which have particularly to deal with seamen. Therefore I ask that a merchant seaman, whether he has fallen sick or been injured, shall, so long as he is a merchant seaman who is carrying out the duties of his calling, be treated in the same way as men of the Fighting Services and, in particular, in the same way as men of the Royal Navy. That is to say, I ask that these merchant seamen shall get free treatment whenever they are ill for almost any disease that you can name, and that, if necessary, they shall be taken into hospitals and looked after. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Croft, for having said that he will call attention to the question of the distribution of cigarettes and tobacco. I would also beg him, at the same time, to suggest that these men who fall sick in the country's service should have free treatment for their ailments even if these cannot be traced back to a given "point of time," to quote the words used in that letter from the Ministry of Health. I had a conversation only this morning with the secretary of a hospital and he bore out everything which I have said. I do not wish to go further with this matter, and I now beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned.