HL Deb 03 August 1943 vol 128 cc955-75

VISCOUNT BENNETT asked His Majesty's Government, whether it has been finally decided that coupons are to be required for comforts given by the Merchant Navy Comforts Service to merchant seamen of all nationalities; and moved for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I seek your sympathetic consideration of the Motion which I have put down on the Paper, not for myself personally but on behalf of those who, with such high courage and devotion to duty, have made possible our continuing to live by transporting food supplies across the oceans. When the war broke out in this country, as in other countries affected, there were many organizations that cared for seamen. There were missions and missionary societies, there were hostels, but there was no organization that charged itself with the duty solely of supplying comforts to those on ships. There had been in this country the British Adoption Society which is still functioning, of which Mr. E. H. Watts was Chairman, and its members thought it might be desirable to organize a separate society for the purpose of providing comforts for the seamen on the ships. Accordingly there was organized the Merchant Navy Comforts Service, which began to function on February 1, 1940, registered under the Statute on that behalf. It supplied, according to the Minister of Transport, some 78 per cent. of all the comforts that have gone to the sailors on ships. Therefore its case becomes the one of most importance, so far as coupons are concerned.

In the first place, the question of distribution had to be considered by the society. That is a most difficult question. The question of distributing comforts to sailors on ships coming to these ports, and doing it effectively so that the supplies themselves are not traded by the sailor before he goes on board his ship or, if he had coupons, that they are not begged or stolen from him before he goes to sea—all these are questions of very great difficulty. The difficulty in this case was solved by determining that comforts, packed in cases, would be handed over to the purser if it were a ship carrying a purser, or to the master or an officer of a sailing ship or a steamship that had not a purser. He would give a receipt for that. and the day after the ship went to sea he would distribute these comforts among the sailors. Each one would receive a small parcel containing comforts as follows. First of all, there was a woollen helmet; that carries no coupons in any event. Then the seaman received two pairs of socks, a woollen scarf, a sweater, and woollen gloves. In some cases, in heavy wintry weather, when going north, he received also a pair of those long socks called sea-stockings which are so essential to his comfort. No coupons were given, issued, or received in connexion with them, and it will at once be apparent to your Lordships that these comforts went directly to the men for whom they were intended. That is the main thing.

I note that in another place the President of the Board of Trade indicated that in order to ensure a fairer distribution, and to prevent any waste, of the comforts for members of the Merchant Navy, "I propose at the request of my noble friend the Minister of War Transport to include in the rationing scheme comforts for the Merchant Navy." Up to the moment there are no coupons demanded in connexion with the distribution of comforts to the Royal Navy, and naturally the question arises, as was said in another place, why the Merchant Navy should be discriminated against. That stands for answer; it has not yet been answered. As to the charge that there has been waste and unfairness in distribution, I need hardly point out that fairness of distribution is one of the things that is provided for by the scheme I mention, for the simple and obvious reason that every ship that comes to port is dealt with, as far as is humanly possible, in the same way. The master, who is a man of honesty, integrity, and authority, sees to it that these comforts are distributed amongst his men. Surely if every man receives the same kind of comforts and the same number of comforts, from the responsible officer, the distribution must be regarded as fair. I cannot see that anyone has any possible right to make a charge of unfairness with respect to it.

Now comes the charge of waste. It may well be that, at times, there is a duplication. It may be that a seaman who desires to secure two sets of comforts may, by skilful manipulation, do so, but that does not prove that the scheme is bad. I notice in the daily papers from time to time that even so perfect a machine as the Government is occasionally deceived, and that proceedings have to be taken in the criminal courts. The fact that there is an occasional difficulty arising, and that there is duplication by means of which one sailor out of large numbers receives more than he should, does not seem to me a very good excuse for changing the existing system.

I submit that this society, which came into being on February 1, 1940, so far as effort is concerned, has functioned with success and efficiency. I am not going to burden your Lordships by reading the extent of their efforts, but it may surprise you to know that the Canadian Red Cross Society has promised to supply woollen comforts to the number of 10,000 a month to this organization. I have letters in my hand written by seamen on board these ships—written by the masters and signed by the seamen—indicating their appreciation of what they have received. From February 1, 1940, to January 31, 1941, there was distributed 152,737 articles; in the next twelve months, 392,191; and in the next twelve months—that is, from February 1, 1942, to January 31, 1943— 599,246 articles. During the months of February, March and April of this year there was a distribution of 227,700 articles, making a total distribution of comforts in the manner I have indicated of 1,371,873 articles. Of these articles the Canadian Red Cross Society supplied 278,000.


Did my noble friend mention the name of the society to which he is referring?


The Merchant Navy Comforts Service. I hope I mentioned it at the start; I think I did. These supplies come from men and women throughout this Kingdom as well as the contributions from Canada. Men make contributions of money, with which wool is purchased, and the wool is distributed among the women of the country. The knitting groups now number somewhere about 6,000 or 7,000. That is the number of parties, but the actual number of knitters may be multiplied by the size of the parties throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. The exact number of knitters engaged is not known, and it is very difficult to say how many people make up the knitting parties, but many thousands of women arc engaged in this way.

Originally the society had its headquarters in this City. It was moved down to Canfield Moat in Essex after it became impossible to remain longer in London. The other day I went down to see their work so that I might have knowledge of how affairs are carried on. In the first place the wool, under the sanction and authority of the Board of Trade, is purchased in substantial quantities, and I saw there something I have not seen in other places of that kind. There was a typewritten notice detailing the purchases of the wool and the progress and distribution from week to week, so that anyone working there could ascertain the expenditure on supplies and what had become of them. That was thought to be desirable because this is a voluntary organization and the money to purchase the wool comes from people who make donations.

In addition, the society began to look after Merchant Navy prisoners of war. I wonder if your Lordships are aware of the fact that no provision apparently had been made for merchant seamen who are prisoners of war. Great difficulties were experienced until at last the society itself put up the necessary funds to provide for the sending of parcels to these prisoners of war. The society undertakes to pack these parcels for the next-of-kin, and under the regulations of the International Red Cross Society the contents of these parcels have to be strictly supervised. There is only one 10-lb. parcel per man allowed a quarter. These parcels are sent on behalf of the next-of-kin of the unfortunate sailors who have been made prisoners of war. In addition, the society has undertaken to be next-of-kin of those who have no next-of-kin, so far as is known—in other words, the society has become the nearest relative of the imprisoned or interned sailor and sends him his parcel as next-of-kin.

Then there came a further difficulty about which, I am sure, all your Lordships will have read. Torpedoed seamen very frequently were rescued in very cold and inclement weather. Some of them had no clothes and, as the pictures will have shown, some wore blankets as the only clothing they had. The organization conceived the idea of providing against this difficulty and so they prepared what are called rescue kits. So much did these commend themselves to the Admiralty that to-day, under the authority of the Admiralty, up to twenty-five of such rescue kits are put in each escort naval ship—a destroyer or whatever it may be. There is accommodation in a destroyer for twenty-five of such kits. These kits contain ten articles, including two handkerchiefs, a suit of underclothes, a pair of trousers, a belt, a coat and a shirt. The poor unfortunate man who has been cast up and has lost his clothes therefore finds himself at once provided by the escort ship with something which serves his purpose, at least temporarily. Letters have been received—I will not take up the time of your Lordships by reading them—expressing, in terms that are really very saddening when you think of the difficulties and dangers through which these men have passed, extreme gratitude for the provision of these rescue kits. In addition to all that, it was thought desirable that rescue kits should be provided for the transport ships of a certain type—the operative ships of the Ministry of Transport. An agreement was made by which the organization provided these kits for the war transport ships engaged in operational duties other than those undertaken by naval ships.

This work has been going on for three years. The expansion of this work will be indicated to your Lordships by a reference to the last published report read at the annual meeting. Some of your Lordships may have seen that report. There are branches of the organization at Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool, and comforts service depots at Dundee, Hull, Leith, London, Manchester, Newport, South Shields and Swansea. In addition there are sub-depots at London, Birmingham, Cheltenham and Camber-ley. These have all come into being during the last fifteen or eighteen months, and by their means, I submit to your Lordships, most valuable service has been rendered. That service was built entirely upon the voluntary efforts of those who provided the supplies and by the Canadian Red Cross Society. No coupons were required. With the secretary of the organization I met by appointment the President of the Board of Trade and he gave most careful, courteous and considerate attention to everything that was said, but indicated that it was the Ministry of War Transport that was concerned with the matter. We have had no notice from that Ministry, who presumably thought that the Board of Trade would deal with it as we had suggested, and that it was unnecessary to discuss it with anyone other than the Board of Trade.

I suggest that if coupons are to be required at all, they should not be required until there has been ample time for the organization to accommodate itself to meet that need. Let us see what coupons would mean. There is no one in your Lordships' House who is not familiar with the general lack of business capacity of sailors as they come to our ordinary ports. The sailor is given a clothing ration book. On the back of it there are to be sixteen coupons. These are given to him so that once a year, with the sixteen coupons, he would be able to acquire from any society which had the comforts to give those items I have mentioned, less one pair of socks, because seventeen coupons would be required to carry out the coupon requirements in respect of the items I have mentioned. Now imagine the sailor with this book and coupons in his hands. He is the victim of every harpy around the docks who is endeavouring to get his coupons or, if not his coupons, what he has got with the coupons. Then he has to go to the place himself. You know exactly what his attitude of mind is towards these matters. There is not one of your Lordships who does not realize it. He comes off the sea, perhaps after having been torpedoed, it may be having been torpedoed two or three times before, and your Lordships can imagine the effect upon him of his having to go to some voluntary organization to receive comforts and give up coupons, and then to answer all sorts of questions, fill up a form and sign it, and get the coupons adjusted. I submit that that is wholly unnecessary when you are dealing with sailors of the Merchant Marine who are doing so much for us at this particular time.

No one for a moment contends that the method of distribution is perfect, but it has worked out satisfactorily. In addition to that, strange as it may sound, it has been applied to our coastal men. Our coastal men usually run steadily on their ships and there is little chance of there being difficulties in their case by reason of duplication. They asked that they might be able to receive these comforts. Presumably in many cases their wives and daughters are engaged in making them. A distribution is made to them, which has been entirely satisfactory and has drawn the warmest commendation from those most vitally concerned—the men themselves.

In addition to that there has to be considered, I submit, the effect of the gift of these comforts and the manner in which it is made upon our international relations. I have with me letters from members of no fewer than nine nations. It is common knowledge that the seamen on our ships are of every nationality, and in addition to the United Kingdom, the countries represented in these letters are Belgium, China, Denmark, Eire, France, Holland, Norway, Poland and the United States. Even at the risk of being a little tiresome I should like to quote one or two phrases from these letters to your Lordships. Here is one, for instance, from Belgium. The master gives his address as at Antwerp and he adds this P.S.: Remind this was my pre-war address and I hope it will be my post-war very soon. That is the spirit in which he writes. Another master writes: The above signatures are of all the members of the crew. In the loneliness of their life the thought that so many people in this country are thinking of them is helping their souls surely as much as your gifts will comfort their bodies. They thank every one of you from the very deep of their hearts. The hospitality of Britain is not a simple word and they won't forget it. Then there are letters from Chinamen. There is one written in Chinese and the master of the ship, in a covering letter, says: The fact that they are Chinese makes the gift all the more appreciable, for they are doing a splendid job of work and are darned good fellows. Also it touches them to think that 'English' people do consider and think of them sufficiently to make such a fine gesture.". There is the same kind of thing from the Norwegians—and Norwegian sailors seem to outnumber those from other countries. "Gifts from unknown friends," they say, "we value very highly." There are also letters from Danish sailors, sailors from Eire, France and Holland, all expressing great satisfaction. One sailor from Holland, who apologizes for his use of English, put it in this way: I hope you all find the same pleasure in knitting them than I do in wearing them, it isnt that we cant buy our close, but the happiness to know that People how you did never met are working and take care of you. We have hard times and good times but I never will forget how friendly the British people were to me. I hope you can understand my Englisch and again thank you very much may God bless you all. A Norwegian seaman writes: May good bless the British people who so kind hearted think of the merchant seaman. Many times we are better off than you on this Island because when we leave Canada or U.S.A. we store the ship with all kinds of good food. The sailors get ham and eggs many times a week. But then again in the Atlantic in a stormy night with these Huns around you it is not so good. I was wounded in the last war but I had the time of my life in the Torquay hospital. There are many similar letters. I have read them to indicate the international effect of this work. These men who carry food across the ocean, subject to being torpedoed—as many of them are in fact —write letters not merely to express personal gratitude but to say how great a thing it is that the British people should have this attitude of mind. Is not that something to be valued now, and something which will be an asset after the war?

If we are to have coupons, I do not know just what may be the effect on the knitting, but I do know that it must mean engaging a very large number of people to do work which is now done voluntarily. We have a welfare board in our ports under the Ministry of Labour. If coupons must be given, then obviously the coupons should be handled through the Ministry of Labour, for the simple reason that more man-power will be required to take care of them. There will have to be an accumulation of stores, there will have to be machinery to deal with the coupons, to check and re-check them, and the Ministry of Labour which is caring for the welfare of the port would be obviously the Ministry to care for it if it must be done in that way. With their understanding it is just possible that it would go forward with less friction than there would be otherwise. As I say, I cannot speak of the general effect, but I certainly know beyond all question, having been born by the sea and knowing something of the ways of seafaring men, that the sailors will not receive as many comforts as they have received heretofore. Certain articles have been sent out to the troops, and a Field-Marshal said that in the last war in France they saw many village women and girls with those things. I think it is fair to say that the harpies who will besiege sailors with comforts to give away or coupons to distribute will be very much in evidence. I say that from my own observation in many ports in the world.

We have in existence an efficient medium for the distribution of 78 per cent. of the comforts to the Merchant Navies. It has functioned since 1940. Shall we scrap three years' experience? Shall we lose the value of three years' experience? An index is kept on every ship to which these comforts are sent. Though it might be that now and then there was duplication, in the main there has been very little because of the sense of obligation imposed on those who receive them to see that they are properly dealt with. Shall we lose the benefit of the international aspect? I submit that if this work must be done, then it should be done through the medium that will secure the best possible results. This society is only one of many, but it does one thing only. It deals only with the physical comfort of the individual man. It does not undertake to care for the spiritual welfare of the sailor. That is left to the missionary societies. These are very numerous and at times highly competitive in the desire to look after the spiritual welfare of the merchant seamen. This society does not attempt to do that, but simply looks after the physical comfort of the individual.

I should say that this society itself, realizing that it had an obligation which was not shared by others because it was a new proposal at the outbreak of war, set up a Management Committee. That Committee represents not only individuals but the Shipping Federation, the British Ship Adoption Society, the Scottish Committee, the Welsh Committee, the Marine Engineers Association, Ltd., the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the National Seamen's Union. The National Seamen's Union, of course, is the trade union of sailors. There are two members of that Union on the Management Committee and they have given most excellent service knowing much more than others about the individual side of the organization. The British Ship Adoption Society and the South Shields Committee and the Liverpool Branch Committee are also represented. The report for the second year showed the sum total of their transactions to be £70,000. Last year it was £248,000. If they carry into effect the arrangements made to supply emergency rescue kit at the rate of 10,000 a month, that would involve an expenditure of £20,000, which is that much gain to the Treasury at least, and that much real gain to the standard of comfort of those who are wrecked at sea.

I hope that the Government will at least not put into operation these proposals with respect to coupons without a more complete and thorough discussion and investigation of the implications of what is proposed. One cannot say to what extent the imposition of transactions governed by coupons may have upon this whole matter. It may considerably dry up the source of this work. And because of the dislike of sailors to go through the paraphernalia of putting in coupons and getting supplies which they must take on board ship, I submit with some deference that it will be a difficult thing to induce them to do. I beg to move.


My Lords, I am sure that everybody who is interested in the welfare of the seamen of the Merchant Navy will be rejoiced to have such powerful support as has just been given them by the noble Viscount. He mentioned in his speech the generosity which Canada has shown towards this particular branch of our services. I do not think anybody in this House can now be surprised by any fresh evidence of Canada's generosity, for during this war it has been tremendous. In view of the comprehensive, and, to my mind, unanswerable case which the noble Viscount put up, I do not propose to say more than a few words in warmly supporting him. I would like to ask whether it is really necessary to introduce this friction—for this matter of coupons will inevitably introduce friction—into a machine which is running perfectly well. This innovation has not been asked for by the Merchant Navy, and it will be interesting to hear what saving it is really expected to make, and whether that saving will be so great as to compensate for the amount of irritation which is going to be caused. For there will most certainly be irritation. Coupons are an irritation in private life, and it is an irritating and unpractical thing to introduce them in this way into the life of the merchant seaman.

I do not pretend to know intimately the conditions under which the merchant sailor lives, but I have lived a great part of my life with his brother in the Royal Navy. Of this I am certain, there are no better men serving us than the men of our Mercantile Marine. For the most part, physical grounds have to be considered in selecting them, and, therefore, great numbers of them are healthy, strong and active fellows. You cannot expect men of that type to go about with their coupons in some safe place, steadfastly resisting all temptation to get rid of them. It might well be that through their coupons they might be able to get some little pleasure, some added contribution to an evening's entertainment. They will part with these coupons, no doubt, in many instances in a manner which is not always provident. It will be no use expecting that they will keep their coupons safely stowed away, and always handy. The great thing about coupons is to have them handy when you want them, but a sailor wants his kit when he is in need of it, and not necessarily when he may have coupons available. I must say that I dislike hearing of all these comforts being dispensed through charitable organizations. The sailor ought not to have to depend on charity to keep him warm when he is serving his country, it may be under Arctic conditions. At the least, he ought to be as well supplied with comforts to keep him warm as is the naval man when he has to go into cold latitudes. The Minister of Labour, I understand, is the Minister responsible for the seamen. Is there an organization ready now to put these coupon transactions into being? If it is not ready yet, how long will it take to get it ready? It needs a world organization with branches in every port to ensure the replenishment of ships and their personnel with everything needful after voyages.

I submit that this innovation will not be worth the irritation and the trouble that will be caused. It means interfering with a machine that is a practical affair; a machine that is running well, and giving satisfaction. It means, as I say, introducing an irritant. What is really going to be asked of these men is that they should do something which is quite foreign to their natures. I have lived in ships and I know how difficult it is, even in the Navy, to get men to keep their kits up to the mark, although you may have weekly or monthly inspections. It is really extraordinary the way in which items of kit go a-missing. In the Merchant Service the men have not got the same facilities for mustering, and it is impossible to maintain the same check. It may happen in some instances that the men have got rid of warm clothing improperly, but I am sure that the people who provide these comforts for our seamen would not wish a man to suffer acutely the discomforts of cold weather even if the remedy were to give him his supplies of comforts three times over. They would rather, I am sure, provide him with three lots of comforts than that he should suffer on one occasion by going short. I submit that far closer consideration and deliberation ought to be given to this matter. I am perfectly sure that this innovation will make for unhappiness, which is the last thing the nation wants for men who are living in such unhappy and uncomfortable conditions at the present time.


My Lords, I have been very much interested to hear an exposition of the point of view of a very distinguished Admiral of the Royal Navy, and I am sure that the noble Viscount sitting behind me is gratified that the Royal Navy has, on this occasion, come once more to the assistance of the Mercantile Marine. I confess to a little astonishment concerning what is apparently intended to be done. I should have thought that there was, in the first place, no real distinction between the case of the sailor in the Royal Navy and the case of the sailor in the Merchant Navy so far as these comforts are concerned. I understand that the same organization is available to both. One is also a little astonished to learn that, apparently, when the noble Viscount went to the President of the Board of Trade, the President had nothing to say in defence of the course that is being adopted. He merely passed the buck quietly to my noble friend the Minister of War Transport. That, I understand, is what happened. No one could possibly accuse the Minister of War Transport of any lack of sympathy with the men of the Mercantile Marine, and your Lordships may, therefore, find yourselves in rather a difficulty as to what is the real solution of this question.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bennett, has put forward a case which is extremely well documented and which left us all with the impression that new barriers are to be imposed between those diligent ladies whom we have all seen at their knitting, busily engaged making comforts for the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy, and the actual recipients of the products of their handiwork. I do hope that His Majesty's Government, in their desire to avoid any waste, will refrain from adding complications which will not, in fact, give additional security, and that, unless there is any grave waste of material, they will not seek to burden the sailor man when he comes home after a stormy voyage, perhaps after being torpedoed, with all the irritating concomitants of life ashore. He has enough trouble without all that. There was only one point in the noble Viscount's speech with which I found myself a little out of accord. That was his passing reference to the competitive nature of the missionary societies which cater for the spiritual welfare of seamen. My connexion for some years with the Missions to Seamen leads me rather to think that they are a most co-operative body, and, indeed, an example to most of us on shore.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this question to-day, and for enabling me, so far as I am able, to clear up this matter and to inform him and your Lordships of the reasons why the Government have elected to introduce a system of coupons for comforts for the Merchant Navy. I do not think that the time has been at all wasted. After all, we arc dealing with the question of comforts for men to whom in my opinion, and I am sure in the opinion of all of us, we really owe our existence. In whatever way it is done, with coupons or without, His Majesty's Government, like everyone else, have only one object in view, and that is to do the very best possible for the men of the Merchant Navy.

It is quite true that my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, at the request of my noble friend Lord Leathers, proposes to include comforts in the rationing scheme for the Merchant Navy. In order that the grounds for this proposal may be fully understood, it is necessary that I should go back for a few moments to the institution of the clothing rationing scheme just over two years ago, in June, 1941. At that time, when the scheme for the general population was introduced, it was not practical to introduce a clothing rationing scheme for the Merchant Navy, and it was not until some considerable time after that date that it was possible to prepare the outlines of a Merchant Navy scheme. However, it became clear in the summer of 1941 that the supply of knitting wool in particular was becoming so short that some effort ought to be made to control the knitting and distribution of comforts not only for the Merchant Navy but for the other Services as well, in order to avoid waste and maldistribution. For some time now the other Services have instituted a close control over the distribution of comforts. As their clothing is issued by the Services, the men are not given coupons, but steps are taken to ensure fair distribution. In the case of the Royal Navy the issue of comforts is recorded.

At the request of the President of the Board of Trade, my noble friend the Minister of War Transport convened a meeting of the numerous societies interested in providing comforts for the Merchant Navy in August, 1941. In the absence of any rationing scheme, it was not possible at that time to secure any close control of the distribution of comforts, but it was agreed at the meeting that the distributing societies in the ports would co-operate with a view to avoiding overlapping, and that all distributing societies would distribute only on the application of a responsible ship's officer. It was realized that this was only a rough and ready control, but it was all that was possible at the time. It will be seen that as far as distribution of comforts to the individual is concerned, the responsibility of seeing that a man gets only what he needs has lain really on the ship's officer. Although these officers are naturally interested in the welfare of their men, it is not in accordance with the tradition of the Merchant Navy that a ship's officer should make this kind of inquiry into a seaman's needs, nor is it part of an officer's duty; and in the discussions which have been taking place in recent months the representatives of the navigating officers, on whom such a task falls, have made it quite clear that they are opposed to such a duty being imposed on them. My noble friend—rightly, I think your Lordships will agree—does not desire to impose this duty on them against their will.

It was explained in the discussions in 1941 that, although a coupon scheme would be an obvious method of securing fair distribution, it would not be possible, in the absence of a general rationing scheme, to set up a scheme of coupons for comforts only; but when the Board of Trade were able to put forward proposals for a clothes rationing scheme for the Merchant Navy, it became clear that a satisfactory scheme for controlling the supply of comforts according to the needs of the individual could be associated with the main scheme. The whole object of the rationing scheme is to make sure that the clothing needs of these individuals can be met. With the supplies of raw material and of the finished products as short as they now are, it is essential that we should do our best to secure that every man can get what he needs for his work, and that in so far as some of his needs may be met by the supply of free comforts, the distribution of these comforts shall be as fair as possible.

It has become increasingly clear that the present system of issuing comforts leads to considerable waste, and does not result in fair distribution. The societies distributing comforts adopt different systems. The comforts may be distributed on shore on the requisition of a ship's officer, or taken on board ship and distributed on a similar requisition. The Merchant Navy Comforts Service, who distribute about three-quarters of the comforts, send them to the ships in standard sacks, with the object of ensuring that each seaman gets one set, consisting of a sweater, scarf, helmet, pair of gloves and two pairs of socks. A substantial number of seamen change ships frequently, and may therefore get more than they need; on the other hand, unlucky men who are not in the ship when the standard sacks are received may miss issues of comforts. If the seaman gets more than he needs there is room for waste and abuse, and in so far as there is present waste in distribution there will be more comforts for other men when that waste is prevented.

It is proposed, therefore, to associate a coupon scheme for these comforts with the clothing rationing scheme which is designed to replace the present system of clothing certificates issued by Mercantile Marine Offices. The proposal is to issue an extra 16 coupons, specially marked, to each seaman, over and above his ration for other clothing. The seaman will thus get 93 coupons which, together with the extra 16 coupons for comforts, will make a total of 109. The 16 specially marked coupons will be available for free comforts, or they can be used for shop purchases in the same way as the other coupons. The number 16 was arrived at with the idea that it would about absorb and fairly distribute the quantity of comforts coming forward. Your Lordships will see that the total number of 109 is more than double that of the ordinary civilian, who gets 48, but no one would wish to quarrel with that; in fact, as my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade said a few days ago —and I think his remarks were partly quoted by my noble friend Lord Bennett —in the answer which he gave to the honourable Member for South Paddington: … the last thing any of us wish to do is to penalize the Merchant Navy or to discriminate against them. So far as I am concerned, they are at the top of the list. I may say here that Allied seamen based on our ports will continue to be treated on the same footing as British seamen.

My noble friend Lord Bennett said that he thought that this scheme would mean that the men would not get so many comforts as before, and would be short. I should like to emphasize the fact that in the opinion of my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade the scheme will not in any way reduce the supply of comforts available. What it does is to supply a simple method of ensuring that a man will get the clothing that he needs, and it will give him the opportunity of securing free knitted garments if they are available. No scheme can ensure that every man gets an equal share of these free knitted garments, because it is impossible to link up closely the supply of such garments with the immediate demand; but if any man does not receive comforts, or if for any reason he would prefer not to have them but to have other garments instead, he can use the coupons to get other garments in the shops. Another advantage of the scheme will be to ensure that the time and care spent by knitters are used on garments which are really needed by the Merchant Navy. Hitherto it has been impossible to obtain a clear indication of the exact quantities of garments which men require. As the men will not be inclined to surrender coupons for comforts of a kind which they do not need, the organizations will have a direct indication of the type of comfort for which there is a demand, and knitters will no longer waste time knitting articles which may not be wanted. At the same time, nothing in the scheme will stop the knitters attaching a card or other message to their gifts.

My noble friend Lord Bennett, and I think my noble and gallant friend Lord Cork and Orrery also, expressed the hope that the President of the Board of Trade would not adopt this scheme without due thought. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are going to do nothing of that kind, and I am glad to be able to inform my noble friend Lord Bennett that further discussion about these arrangements is to take place later this week between representatives of the Board of Trade and representatives of the Ministry of War Transport and also with some of those connected with the comforts organizations.


May I interrupt to ask the noble Lord who will collect these coupons? Who will be responsible for the coupons which the sailors present?


My Lords, I have not been given notice of that question, and I am afraid that I cannot at the moment answer my noble and gallant friend, if he will excuse me. It is realized that these arrangements may put rather more work on the distributing organizations, but I can assure my noble friend that they will be given such assistance as is possible by both the Board of Trade and the Ministry of War Transport in making such arrangements as may be called for. I have dealt at some length with this matter but I hope your Lordships will not think I have been too long. After all, as I said at the beginning, this is a very important question—the supply of comforts to men to whom we really owe the fact that we are sitting here this afternoon. I am very much obliged to my noble friend Lord Bennett for giving me the opportunity to clear up this matter as far as I have been able to do so, and to express what is in the mind of the Government in bringing in this scheme. I am afraid I have no Papers to lay, but I hope that, although not quite satisfied, he is not too dissatisfied with my answer, and if that is so, possibly he might see his way to withdraw his demand for Papers.

House adjourned during pleasure, and resumed by the LORD DENMAN.


My Lords, the National Union of Seamen, who I am sure are most grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bennett, for the excellent case he has made, have been good enough to ask me to note the Government's reply and, if it called for any answer, to make it on their behalf. It is therefore my duty to tell the noble Lord who has spoken for the Board of Trade that the present situation as described by him is unsatisfactory, and I hope that Lord Bennett will press the point of view of the seamen if this further conference does not produce results. I notice that my noble friend Lord Templemore referred to the conference between the Board of Trade, the Minister of War Transport, and certain persons who have to do with this Comforts Fund, but he did not mention the Minister of Labour. The people who could really help most in this matter are the port welfare officers, who are responsible to the Ministry of Labour, and whose good work has been referred to by Lord Bennett. You do not want any humbugging about with coupons which will only annoy and create irritation and injure the whole spirit of this welfare work.

Bring the whole question under proper control, which is what the sailors and the officials and those who work so hard and so successfully for the Merchant Navy Comforts Service themselves suggest. I have in my hand the suggestions sent to the Ministry of Labour by this association itself. They are too long to read, but they do make this plain. They think it advisable that there should be a control of the distribution of comforts, which should be administered with discretion and flexibility, and that it should be supervised by the port welfare officers, in conjunction with the Shipping Federation and the National Union of Seamen. That is their own proposal. They admit that there must be some control, to avoid overlapping and waste, and they proposed to the Government what I suggest is a perfectly sound system of control. I hope that their proposals will be before this meeting, which I understood from Lord Templemore will take place on Friday. My right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade, for whom I have great admiration, has burnt his fingers already on this coupon question in the case of the Home Guard. There are a million and a half Home Guards and they can make their voices heard, but the seamen are scattered over the seven seas, and it is only because they have good friends like Lord Bennett who can speak for them that we have heard about this matter. Do let the Government take warning and adopt the suggestion put forward by responsible people who have been working so hard for the last few years to help our seamen.


The noble and gallant Earl, Lord Cork, asked me who is to collect the coupons. I have now obtained the necessary information. I understand that the people who knit comforts will send them to the societies who distribute them. These societies will have offices at the different ports, and any man who wants comforts will go to these offices and collect them.


I I do not want to press the matter, but there may be the case of a man who is doing what we call a pierhead jump, and who has to go to sea at the last moment. Will he get any comforts?


My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend Lord Temple-more for the statement he has made. I hope it does not mean finality—that coupons must be exacted—because it certainly will create a situation which I think is undesirable in this country at this time. I am not going over the reasons again, but there are two points I want to make. What evidence is there of waste? And what evidence is there of unfairness of distribution? This matter goes back to 1941, and in consequence of the discussion that took place then the National Union of Seamen investigated the matter, and this is the resolution they passed: At an Executive Council meeting of the National Union of Seamen held on the 19th March, 1943, the question of the distribution of comforts was considered. There was no report of unfairness under present regulations, and by a. unanimous vote the Council authorized the Union Executive to back the Merchant Navy Comforts Service methods against a Government coupon scheme, which was considered unworkable. The noble and gallant Admiral who asked the question, "Who is to collect the coupons?" put in definite form a point which I suggested—namely, that a great increase of man-power will be required to deal with this matter in the manner now indicated. You are going to set up vast machinery as compared with the simplicity of the present methods. For this reason the Ministry of Labour should deal with the matter as the Department responsible for finding man-power. I do not see how you can get away from the fact that it does mean an increase of personnel and a demand on man-power. The difficulty I have is in getting any evidence as to either unfairness or waste.

There is another point, the question of the distribution of wool. That does not touch this matter at all, for the simple reason that the Board of Trade regulation with respect to distribution of wool has been in force now for months. This comforts organization and other comforts organizations have to obey the regulations in respect to the distribution of wool; all the comforts that can be made depend upon the amount of wool that may be made available; and the amount of wool that can be made available is covered by the regulation of the Board of Trade. It may be that fewer comforts will be produced, but that is only because they have less wool. But the Board of Trade is dealing with the wool question on a broad and general plane, and not on the specific instance of this or any other organization. Its decision is determined by how much wool is available. Certainly that does not touch the question of coupons, because all the coupons in the world will be useless unless the wool question is favourably determined by the Board of Trade. The noble Lord suggests that this will result in the production of fewer comforts. Therefore there will be an economy although there should be sufficient to meet the demand.

As I have said, the Canadian Red Cross Society undertook to produce up to 30,000 articles per month, and during the first quarter of this year they handed over to this organization 227,000 articles, which is on a much larger scale than heretofore. But, 10,000 is the limit, and if they find that the demand exceeds 10,000 your Lordships will see what may happen. Supplies from the Canadian Society could not be increased, and the efforts here might slacken because of the effect this would have on the general situation. For smooth and easy running you are going to substitute friction, and the tried and known knowledge and experience, which have extended now over three years, are going to be all lost and scrapped. Lastly, you are going to lose the benefits that have come from an entirely different feature which we have to consider. You are going to lose an international asset which will be of tremendous value after the war. I did intend to say what the noble and gallant Admiral has said, that the essential feature of this scheme is that it is not a charity. Those who contribute are allowed to put in a card, "From a friend ashore to a friend afloat"—I think these are the words used. The effect of this is indicated in the many hundreds of letters which have been received. I am afraid I shall have to renew this discussion if the result of the discussion between the Ministry of Transport and the Board of Trade is not satisfactory to the seamen who are primarily concerned, consistent with national policies. I feel that I should in all fairness withdraw this Motion this time, but I do so with the very distinct promise that it will be renewed if a satisfactory solution is not forthcoming.


Would not my noble friend move the adjournment of the debate instead of withdrawing?


My knowledge of Parliamentary practice has changed since I have been in your Lordships' House and have come to recognize that your Lordships can make rules of order for yourselves. Under the rules of the House of Commons the discussion ends when the originator of the Motion has replied. If I say that I shall renew the Motion in somewhat different terms, but meaning the same thing, if satisfactory adjustments are not made, that will cover the case.


My Lords, my noble friend who replied for the Government—


Order, order!


If the noble Viscount wishes to withdraw his Motion, I would ask whether it is your Lordships' desire that the Motion be withdrawn.


In the circumstances it will best serve the interests I have at heart if I ask your Lordships to permit the Motion to be withdrawn on the understanding I have already given as to my future intentions.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.