HL Deb 07 May 1946 vol 141 cc13-41

3.8 p.m.

LORD ELTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the Lord Chancellor's statement that over 48,000 members of the Services are concerned in divorce petitions now pending, His Majesty's Government is prepared to take steps to reduce the separation of members of the Services from their wives, which is now often excessively long; and also to call attention to the unnecessary hardships imposed upon boys of seventeen by the present regulations with regard to conscription, and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, since a statement is expected immediately in another place on the second part of this I am afraid somewhat over-composite Motion, and since there is quite enough to be said with regard to the first part to occupy such time as your Lordships may be disposed to allow me, I think that it will be for the convenience of your Lordships if I say nothing at all on this occasion with regard to the second part, but confine my remarks to the first part of my Motion, that which deals with the conditions accorded to Service men by the Service authorities. This is in a sense a sequel to a discussion which, your Lordships may recall; took place in this House some weeks ago. The theme at least of my Motion is, I think, unlike most literary sequels, a little more important than that of the original edition. Your Lordships may recall that on that occasion the Lord Chancellor disclosed that more than 48,000 applications from Service men for divorce had been accepted and were waiting a hearing, had been waiting in fact so long, that, at the present rate of progress, we were given to understand, it might be something like fifteen years before the last of that melancholy queue was absorbed—and all for the lack of three hundred typists.

Naturally, it was not relevant to the previous debate to discuss the social, significance of these figures, and speakers very properly confined themselves to the facts rather than their implications, so that perhaps the most far-reaching consideration which was immediately prompted may have been that it is, to say the least of it, odd that it should baffle the combined intelligence of a Government with unexampled powers and a bureaucracy of precedented size to collect out of a population of 44,000,000, three hundred persons capable of using a typewriter. It was with a mere disorder of the judicial procedure, the slowness of Service divorce, that our previous discussion was concerned. This afternoon I venture to ask your Lordships to direct your attention not merely to the slowness of Service divorces but to the excessive number of marriages jeopardized by Service conditions—that is not merely a disorder of judicial procedure, but what seems to me a grave distemper of the whole body politic.

May I ask your Lordships for a moment to consider the significance of these figures? That there should be 48,500 Service men impatiently awaiting the legalization of the break-up of their marriages is in all conscience bad enough, but that would seem to be a mere fraction of the number of Service marriages which, to say the least of it, have been put in grave jeopardy by the conditions to which married Service men were subjected during the war. Army chaplains and welfare officers, and others best qualified to speak on these subjects, tell us that for every Service man overseas, who on hearing news of his wife's infidelity decides to divorce her, one would forgive her, and two or three more would postpone a decision until they reached home. We know also that in tens of thousands of cases Service-men who had applied for assistance in divorce proceedings have been dissuaded from going further by the good offices of the various Army welfare organizations. This means that the known cases of infidelity must be somewhere about four times as many as the number of divorce proceedings actually instituted, that is to say, that the number of Service marriages which often, one may almost say, through no fault of their own, have been placed in grave jeopardy of eventual shipwreck by the conditions under which husbands were serving, amount to somewhere about four times the 48,500 cases in which proceedings have actually been instituted. And so we have there a figure not far short of 200,000. One must devoutly hope that the threat which hangs over these marriages will in very few cases materialise.

Nevertheless here, it seems to me, is an undoubted fact which we are bound to remember. Again those who are best qualified to speak on these subjects, the Army chaplains who have studied these matters most, and the Army welfare officers, tell us that the unknown cases of infidelity are almost certainly as numerous as the known. Your Lordships may have seen a letter from an Army chaplain who had devoted a great deal of attention to this problem published some weeks ago in The Times, in the course of which he said he had known only one instance in which a wife had actually written to her husband to confess; the bad news usually came to the unfortunate Service-man overseas by some roundabout method, such as the news of his wife's pregnancy or a report from his own relations. If, therefore, we are optimistic enough to halve the estimate from that very reliable source, we have to envisage a further 100,000 cases in which there is at least again a grave jeopardy of shipwreck when the husband has eventually returned home.

Now, needless to say, I am not suggesting, and none of your Lordships, I am sure, will suggest, any criticism in this matter, save if there is to be criticism, of the authorities who, admittedly under the compulsion of urgent necessity, did allow this overlong separation to arise. Nevertheless this is surely a profoundly disquieting social phenomenon. The home is the foundation of any Christian community, and even those who have abandoned the full concept of Christian marriage must recognize any widespread threat to it as, at the very lowest, a grave public injury.

There seems no room for doubt that it has been largely the unimaginative, and in many ways inconsiderate, treatment of the married Service-man which has been responsible for this grave trouble. That seems clear, if only from the fact that there is a Sharp rise in the statistics of applications for assistance in divorce proceedings, in direct proportion to the length of the Service-man's absence overseas.

It is not the rash war-time marriages, on the whole, we are told, which are breaking down, but those which were contracted before the war. Now obviously long separation has not been the sole cause of the trouble. We are dealing here with imponderables. In the most fortunate marriages, as in the healthiest crops, there is a latent germ of distemper; and just as the sicklier growths will succumb to exceptionally unfavourable weather, so the least firmly established marriages are likely to fail to survive an unnaturally long separation. Whereas, however, we can do very little to protect crops from bad weather, we can, I think, and ought, I am sure, to do something more than we have done to protect Service-men from the lack of consideration with which they were too often treated during the late war.

In the one or two suggestions which I shall venture to make with regard to military arrangements, I make no pretence whatever, of course, to speak as a military expert of any kind. My most recent military experience was the somewhat precarious tenure of the post of sergeant in the Home Guard, where I found that the only serious strain on domestic relations was caused by my own invariable failure, without constant assistance from my family, to adjust the complicated and ill-fitting equipment which I was compelled to wear. So I speak by no means as a military expert, only as a citizen and the parent of past and potential Service-men. In the first world war, however, I was for more than two and a half years a prisoner of war, and although in retrospect it seems to me that on balance I may have gained more than I lost by that strange interlude outside the world, I am quite clear that it has left one sombre and permanent impress on my subsequent life. Ever since then I have been visited, at frequent but irregular intervals, by a vivid and recurrent nightmare. Sometimes I do not dream it for two or three months; sometimes it comes two or three times in a week, but the essence is always the same: we are at war again, I am again a prisoner of war, the war is endless and I am irrevocably and for a wholly indefinite period doomed to exile from my home and family. No doubt the dream represents the revenge of the subconscious for some dread which was deliberately suppressed from the conscious mind during captivity, but I always wake from it in acute mental agony. I am afraid there must have been tens of thousands of men during this war to whom not a dream only but present reality brought almost exactly that distress, and I only wish that I could think that any words of mine could contribute to saving one soldier, sailor or airman from unnecessary suffering of that kind.

Certainly during the late war the treatment of married men by Service authorities was, I think, admittedly under the urgent compulsion of crisis, unimaginative and at times inconsiderate. Indeed, it seems sometimes to remain so. Your Lordships may have seen a letter in The Times one day last week in which a wife complained of her apparently hopeless separation from her husband, an Army officer in Palestine—a country to which the wives of police officers and other officials are apparently readily admitted. I wish to ask the noble Lord in the first place whether His Majesty's Government cannot make it easier in future for wives to join their husbands overseas. I doubt whether there is any place nowadays to which a white man can go to which a white woman cannot go also, and the old excuse that she is safer in her own home has certainly not always been true in the last six years, even if she had a home, which she by no means always had, and even if the Government permitted her to stay in it, which they by no means always did.

I hope the noble Lord will not reply to this question, or to any others which may be put to him, by merely saying that these unnaturally long separations are, after all, an exceptional war-time phenomenon; that we are now moving back towards normalcy and that under normal conditions the ordinary Service routine, with married quarters in barracks and the rest of it, will meet all reasonable needs, for I can only say that if the noble Lord is basing his policy, or for that matter is prepared to stake a solitary five pound note, on the expectation of any rapid return to normalcy, then he must indeed be an optimist of optimists and, one would suppose, the object of passionate envy to some of his hard-pressed ministerial colleagues. I must admit that to me a rapid glance round this distressful globe suggests rather that at this moment of time there is simply no telling when during the next twenty years British forces may be needed, or where, or in what numbers, or for what purposes.

May I therefore put my question in this form? Assuming that situations arise during the next decade in which normal peace-time Service routine will not make adequate provision for married Servicemen, will His Majesty's Government endeavour to do better for them than was done during the late war? I have already asked whether wives are likely to be given more ready permission to join their husbands overseas. I should also like to ask whether, as long as, and whenever, conditions such as we have been considering prevail, His Majesty's Government will consider reducing the period of overseas service and granting more frequent leave, and, in particular, whether they are prepared to arrange to do what I believe was never done during the war, and that is to grant compassionate leave or posting home to a soldier in whose home serious matrimonial trouble has been reported?

There has probably never been a Government which has sought to plan or to control as extensively as the present administration. Much of what they have done and are doing would personally applaud, but to me at least it seems they are too apt to be content with purely material advantages, too ready to be satisfied if wages go up or bricks and mortar are forthcoming, too ready to overlook the imponderables and too apt to leave spiritual and moral factors out of their calculations. So it is that the beauties of Wentworth Woodhouse, shall we say, are blotted out for the sake of a few thousand tons of coal which could be got without much difficulty in some other way, and so it is, too, that the needs if home life are too often overlooked in planning. It is just the same with the Service authorities; they are solicitous, and very creditably solicitous, for reemployment and pensions, yet they have tolerated (and it would perhaps not be too strong to say in many cases enforced) conditions under which tens of thousands of young marriages have been almost inevitably destroyed. The words "Better Britain" cannot mean, as in too many public statements they are made to appear to mean, merely a greater assurance of physical comfort. If the catchword is to have any value, it must refer to a country in which there is greater happiness because some of the physical, moral and spiritual obstacles to happiness have been removed.

In war we told the soldier he was fighting to protect his home, and in order to prevent his home being broken up behind his back the Service authorities should surely have been prepared to face inconveniences and even to run quite serious risks. After all, this is not a question of a mere temporary war-time sacrifice such as a Government might naturally expect its people to take in their stride. We can surrender our civil liberties in the fairly firm assurance that we shall resume them after the War; but a marriage, once broken, can never be restored, and the evil consequences of its disruption must fall on the children and possibly on those children's children. I very much hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will be able to assure us that whatever the unpredictable future may bring forth, the Government is determined to be more considerate to the married Serviceman than it contrived to be during the last War.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to my noble friend Lord Elton for having brought this very important subject to the notice of this House this afternoon. Perhaps the fact that he has made his speech in the quarter from which episcopal speeches very often come may lend weight to it, if that is necessary. As the noble Lord has said, we have two problems; first of all, to get clear of this appalling hangover of Service divorces, and secondly, to take care that the same problem does not recur in the post-war Army. The business of getting rid of the arrears of Service divorces is, I think, very largely a mechanical business—the business of finding the typists, the clerks and the trained people who can handle it. That, we hope, is now much more in hand than it was before, because the reasons for restricting the supply of those clerical staffs, while they may have been cogent in war are surely cogent no longer.

So we come to the second part of the problem, namely, what we are going to do for the good of the Service men, to prevent these long separations and to remove the conditions under which doubts arise which culminate in separation and divorce. My noble friend Lord Elton made a very important point, that we I cannot go back to pre-war conditions, which were very largely designed for regular Service men And, for that matter, we cannot, I think, apply a different yardstick to regular Service men and any temporarily enlisted men there may be. We have just as great a moral I obligation to those in the Regular Services as we have to anybody else.

There seem to me to be four main directions in which improvements can be made to prevent the state of affairs of which my noble friend has spoken. I say "directions in which improvements can be made," but I should really say directions in which we can carry our war-time organization into our peace-time plans. They are leave, mail, welfare organization and accommodation for Service wives. I do not put those in any particular order, but I think they are the four points. As to leave, as my noble friend has said, we adopted quite a different system during the late war to that before the war, when regular Service-men very often did not get home at all throughout a long tour of foreign service. Now we have planned for a regular period of leave. Although that period was not always achieved because of transport conditions during the war, none the less it was planned for and aimed at. We also introduced a system of compassionate leave going far beyond anything which existed in any of the three Services before the war. I feel quite certain that we shall not succeed in solving this problem until the war-time leave arrangements, suitably modified, are carried forward into the peace-time organization of the Services. That is the first point.

The next point concerns regular mail. I am not suggesting that the mails are not running regularly now. I think they are, and I believe the charge to Servicemen for air-mail letters from overseas is quite reasonable. I merely mention it to make the point that regular mail does have a great effect in preventing estrangement. My third point is the Service Welfare Organization. Before the war this organization hardly existed but during the war we built up, not only in the direction of legal aid, but in many other directions, a welfare organization which worked to the great benefit of the Service-man and the Service-woman. We have no assurance so far that that will not be regarded solely as a war-time measure and that it will not disappear when the Army comes to be re-formed for peace-time, but I personally have very great hope that that is not going to be so.

Now the Welfare Organization can do more than almost anyone else to nip these family difficulties in the bud. It provides the channel through which a man can send his complaints so that the Welfare Organization or the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families' Association can make the necessary enquiries on the spot and give the right skilled advice. Something of this kind will be required just as much after the war, whether we are dealing with Regular soldiers or compulsorily enlisted soldiers, and I hope we shall hear this afternoon that those organizations are going to be kept in being and moulded to peacetime needs. The last point, and a much more thorny point, relates to accommodating wives in stations abroad with their husbands. That is a very much bigger question, and perhaps I may be excused if I do no more than mention it this afternoon. Those are the four things which I suggest have to be planned and built into the structure of the post-war army, about which we are all so anxious to hear.

For example, nobody can give a guarantee that leave will be on such and such a scale unless in the peace establishment a proper margin has been allowed so that those people can be absent from peace-time stations. You will find that those four things are more closely interlocked with the general work of the Services than one would imagine at first sight, and therefore it is necessary that those who have the task of planning the postwar Services should have firmly in their minds the need for a proper welfare service of the kind which will assist in removing these difficulties.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Elton, drew too gloomy a picture, but one must remember that even now, and certainly more later on, when the older men have been released and when they are not being called up, there will not be nearly so big a proportion of married men in the Army. That does not mean that it will not be necessary to take care of the people who are there. All the Service departments have laboured very much under the difficulties of transport and operational difficulties which have prevented them sending compassionate cases home at the right time and in the right quota. In peace-time there is no reason that I can see why that should occur. Although the problem may be smaller in size, I suggest it will be the same in shape, and I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, who I know has these matters very much at heart, as indeed has my noble friend Lord Croft, who was at the War Office before him, will keep these considerations in his mind.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for bringing this Motion before your Lordships this afternoon. It comes, if I may say so, at a particularly opportune moment, when rather unfortunate public discussion has tended to suggest that this problem is not as important as was suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Munster, in his original Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned the subject of divorces which came to a head during the war, and which sprang from troubles which started before the war. Whether those figures which have been produced are accurate or not I do not think matters, because it is without question a fact that prolonged separation must aggravate the difficulties, whether they started before the war or sprang up during the war. I think also there has been a tendency to allow the subject of marital infidelity to push into the background other hardships which are brought about by prolonged separation, family affairs less important, but nevertheless hardships which have to be faced. There is the problem of the wife trying to carry on the small family business, trying to keep the family together, supervise the education of the children, and all those hundred and one things which are preying on the soldier's mind whilst he is away. Those are smaller questions, but I think they are important.

I must confess that I regard leave as only a makeshift solution to this problem. There are certain difficulties which are now becoming more acute with regard to leave. You cannot have a demobilization scheme which has gone at the rate at which this country has pressed for it without having immediate repercussions on the leave scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has suggested, the stage is being reached from the point of view of both ships and units where there are not enough men left to carry on the work. The first people who suffer if there are not enough men left are the soldiers themselves; their administrative wants are neglected through the lack of administrative staff. I think it should also be borne in mind that the rebirth of life in Europe is meaning that less transport can be provided, both on land and on the sea. I am thinking particularly of shipping, which is now being turned back to trade. The operational considerations are still extremely complex, and both those points operate as a serious brake on the speed of leave. When I said that I regarded leave as a makeshift, I do not want it to be thought for one moment that I am against increased facilities for leave, but I do agree with the noble Lord that the real solution to this problem is a complete change of heart, and reconsideration of the old problem of married life in the Services.

It used to be said before the war to the Service-man who grumbled occasionally about the hardships of married life in the Army and the long separation from his wife and family, "What do you expect? Surely that was part of the bargain when you decided to take up the Service as a career?" That answer will no longer do. Men are not prepared to accept that attitude now, and if that is still the attitude we shall not get the men. The matter was gone into in a book called Other Men's Flowers by Field Marshal Lord Wavell, in which he emphasized, with great experience, wisdom and humanity, the change in heart and mind of the Service-man of to-day and of his day. It may not be entirely acceptable—certainly not to the old school—but it is a fact that until that is accepted this bar to any family life equal to that of the civilian will be serious, and that, of course, reflects immediately on the whole question of conscription.

May I deal first with the question of wives joining their husbands in the operational and occupational areas. I think what is required at the moment is a clear statement as to what is the Government's policy concerning wives and families joining their husbands and fathers both in Europe and in the Far East. There have been, I think, too many conflicting statements from various authorities which have done nothing except to cause alarm and disappointment amongst those who have been wrongly left to think they were going to join their husbands. It is, of course, no light matter to introduce into a war-torn Europe women and children, when there are already serious shortages of transport, accommodation and welfare facilities. There are many who consider that that introduction would be ill-advised, but whatever is the Government's policy, I think it should be announced categorically and clearly as far ahead as it is possible to see. One thing I feel convinced of, and that is that there must not be any backstairs manœuvring whereby some people manage to get their families out ahead of those who are officially allowed to do so.

I turn to the question of the permanent overseas stations. It seems to be forgotten than some stations overseas are faced with just as serious a problem of accommodation and food as we are at home here in England; I think particularly of Gibraltar and Malta. There are some permanent stations which are still occupational areas, for instance, Palestine. There are some areas which were the principal permanent stations during the war, for instance, India and Egypt, which are, of course, still a matter of debate on the highest possible level, and the military future of which cannot be foreseen. But wherever it is possible for married life to be set up again, that I feel should be done, and it should be clearly indicated now where those areas are, what can be done, and what cannot be done.

The problem of married life is even more serious here at home. I suggest that it must have been within the experience of many of your Lordships that married conditions in the Army before the war were gravely prejudiced by the deplorable state of barracks and married quarters in this country. There have been many occasions on which officers and men have been unable to take up married life in their own stations, and have had to seek accommodation outside—usually uncomfortable accommodation and at extortionate rents—or be faced with the problem of maintaining two homes. I need not deal in detail with military barracks in this country. The only thing that can be said in favour of military barracks is that they are not as bad as most naval barracks. There is one barracks in the Aldershot area, with which many of your Lordships are no doubt acquainted, which was designed it is said by an architect whose sole claim to distinction was that he had failed to gain the prize in the competition which was held to decide on the design of the Albert Memorial. Many of those stationed in that barracks have often suspected that the design upon which it was constructed was, with a few alterations, the design which failed to win the prize.

May I ask that consideration of the Government's housing problem should include a comprehensive survey of the whole question of barracks and married quarters, and that at the same time consideration should be given to the problem of increased welfare and better education for the families and children of men serving in those barracks, the development of clinics, canteens and everything else which goes to make married life more tolerable in barracks and married quarters in England. As a postscript to the whole idea, may I mention the problem of troopships. This, of course, is looking very far ahead, but if something can be done to improve the conditions of married quarters in troopships it would be very welcome. I appreciate that a great deal has been done. The period of foreign service overseas has, in nearly all cases, been reduced to three and a half years.

The age for marrying on the strength is now down to 21, although there are some people who think that that is too young an age at which to encourage soldiers to undertake the responsibilities of marriage. I also appreciate that a great deal has been done with regard to leave. I do not wish it to be thought, for I one moment, that I am not in favour of I increased leave facilities—and here, for one moment, I think I may speak on behalf of that mute and vulnerable curiosity, the bachelor. I feel that a solution will not really be reached until a complete change of heart officially is acceptable on the whole question of the married man's right to have his married life in the Services with the Services. Surely it is not unreasonable that the country should regard the Service man's wife in the same way as he is taught to regard his rifle—that is, as something to be kept near him and to be kept in the best possible condition. If I can persuade the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, to accept that sentiment and what goes with it, then I think that Lord Elton's Motion will have served a very useful purpose.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for bringing this Motion before the House to-day. It gives me a chance of saying a few words on behalf of naval officers and naval ratings who are married. I am afraid that, at the moment, the future of the married life of the Navy does not look very good on the face of it. Unlike the Army and the Royal Air Force, the personnel of the Royal Navy have no married quarters, no matter how bad. I believe that all the Royal Naval barracks married quarters were condemned a long time ago. Now what is the alternative? I suggest—though it may be a rather unfortunate term to use at the moment—satellite naval barracks built say ten to twelve miles outside Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport. Why not have a small community of houses for officers, chief petty officers, leading seamen and seamen? It should be quite possible to have these people settled in little communities and to run the different ratings in and out from their depôts.

The average naval barracks, I think, works in four watches, which means that a man is off three nights out of four. What can he do on his nights off at the present time? In Portsmouth, Devonport or Chatham there is nothing for him to do. If he were able by getting in a bus—even though he had to pay a fare of sixpence or a shilling—to go home to his wife and family, how much happier he would be, how much more contented. As it is, if he is lucky enough to get a week-end off —a matter of 48 hours—eight times out of ten that is useless to him, for his wife may live in the Midlands and he has no sooner got home than he has to turn round and go back again. It is practically impossible in the naval dockyard towns today to get a house, and anyway the naval rating is at a disadvantage, for I believe that, striking an average, the naval rate of pay is 89s. a week (including marriage and housing allowances) against the civilian rate of 121s. 4d. Those figures were taken in July, 1945, and as your Lordships will note there is a discrepancy between the two of some 30s. It is obvious that, in the circumstances, the civilian is going to get the better house or is going to get the house that is going. So I hope the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, will be able to give us some hope that we may get housing or satellite barracks built for the naval ratings.

Then there is the question of service overseas. It is possible for a naval rating to have served a commission in the Far East, to come back and then, after his leave, to be drafted to the Mediterranean Fleet which I think I am right in saying counts as a Home Fleet. He may have been in the Far East for two years. He comes back, has two months' leave and then does eighteen months or two years in the Mediterranean where he is, of course, away from his wife and family. Not very long ago, speaking in the discussion on Army and Navy pay, I asked if it would not be possible for one free trip per commission to be provided to enable families of naval men to go to ports like Malta and Gibraltar. This, I think, should be possible. The Royal Navy transported everything during the war with the fleet train. Surely it should be possible to transport a relatively few people abroad.

I noted that in the Hansard Report of May 1, columns 162 and 163, it was recorded that the Under-Secretary of State for Air stated that the Royal Air Force were going all out for married quarters overseas. I only hope that we can get some assurance from the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, that the Navy will not be overlooked, and that provision will be made for it too. I do not propose to detain your Lordships much longer, but I must say that I could not help noting a report in the Sunday papers that a member of the Government—I forget who it was—said that houses would spring up like mushrooms. I only hope that that is correct and that the hothouse door will be kept shut. If the frost gets in there will not be any mushrooms, there will not be any houses, and I shall not see our naval barracks with married quarters.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to say one word in support of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and that is about accommodation for Service wives, especially at home. I was talking the other day to an officer just back from overseas, training at Cambridge, and he told me that it is very difficult after long service abroad to get accommodation anywhere at home with their wives. I have taken the trouble to go round airfields in East Anglia, and it is a fact that there is a great deal of accommodation for married people which is still occupied by single men, although there is a large amount of hutting available. It seems to me some of this empty hutting could be used for single men so that, when married men have a tour of home service, they can be near their wives. Similarly, in some of the non-operational areas in Gibraltar and Malta there is hutting which could be used by single men, and so give relief to married quarters. In some of the airfields, I know, the permanent quarters are magnificent. Some of the hutted camps are also very fine. I hope that the noble Lord who replies will urge the authorities to try and release some of these quarters at an early date, so that men who do come home from a long tour overseas can be somewhere near their wives. Lodgings are extremely difficult and expensive to find.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the House will bear with me for a few minutes. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has been fair in the matter of what has already been done. I have here the minutes of Command Welfare, in which a review was made of Army welfare. There are members in this House who have given great and honourable service for years in Army welfare. The noble Lord, Lord Nathan, himself started as it were from scratch, because he conscripted me as a welfare officer six and a quarter years ago. I agree that it was deplorable that only eighteen months ago, not in one Command but in one county alone, there was a list of 600 divorce cases waiting to be heard at Leeds Assizes. It was deplorable—so deplorable that the Lord Chancellor, of the Lord Chief Justice, or somebody, sent to each of the great Assize areas a Divorce Judge. In such places as Leeds they have been at it for a month on end at each Assize, just dealing with divorce cases. The latest report from our Command Minutes shows that the three years' wait has been reduced to eighteen months. This is no Party question. One Government—I do not know whether it was the Caretaker Government; this, that or the other Government—appointed the Rushcliffe Committee to go into the whole question of legal aid. That Committee have partially solved the difficulty—I say partially, because we are short of legal staff. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned typists. He should criticize the Treasury for paying such miserable wages to typists. On the other hand we have been able to get public-spirited lawyers to give voluntarily of their best in order to expedite these divorce cases.

But something more has been done. This welfare work is unique. We were the envy of America. This welfare work is still continuing. We were all told we could send in our resignations about eight or nine months ago; then we were asked if we would carry on until June this year. There was good reason for that request. I do not want to put in any personal note, because I only worked a small military area, as I spent part of my time in London, but whereas during these last six years I personally have dealt with over 3,000 cases—most of them matrimonial cases—my other colleagues in greater centres were almost inundated with such cases up to about March of this year. Now there has been a miraculous, sudden drop owing to the splendid organization of the demobilization plan which, again, is to the credit of all Parties. These men certainly have their difficulties, but the 1,200 Army welfare officers, working every village and township in this island, were told they were not inquiry agents and snoopers but were reconcilers. And that has been the job of the Army welfare officers. These officers, of whom I am the least, have done a great job of work as pastors and reconcilers.

I could weary your Lordships with personal instances—and this is in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and his gloomy picture—of cables from scores and hundreds of commanding officers. The; noble Lord, Lord Altrincharn, knows all about this work, because he was there at its inception. It grew in strength. I pay my tribute, also, to the noble Earl, Lord Minister, for what he was able to do when he went to India. Our aim was to deal with cases in a few days, to see if this man or that man should be sent back home in order to try and bring about reconciliation. And I say, quite frankly, that thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen realize that the authorities were most considerate. Where it was humanly possible to give 'compassionate leave to these men, that leave was given. Sometimes we were able to bring husband and wife together, and reconcile them. I shall never forget a woman with two children. The commanding officer told us that she was pregnant. I went to see her. She was going to sell up the home, and intended to place her children in a public institution. She was hostile at the beginning, but when I explained- the position to her she said "Yes, I have a letter from my husband,'' That husband realizing a sense of frustration—and I agree that absences from home were intolerable, but that was war—said, "But I forgive you." I asked her "Does you husband belong to any church?" She said, "No, not that I am aware of." "Well," I said, "I want to tell you that your husband is a great Christian." She promised that she would keep the home together, and her husband has taken charge of the baby, of which he is not the father. There are many cases like that.

What I want to say is this: I believe that we have now seen the worst of the numbers of cases which are going to be brought before the Divorce Court. I am confident of that. Our job now in the so-called peace era upon which we are supposed to be entering is to continue regular leave, to allow these fellows to come home, especially where they have a home, and are not living with a mother-in-law, to see their wives and families. I am certain all three Services are trying to do that. I gather that from what the Royal Air Force and the others say. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that regular leave every I quarter should be granted. The Army I welfare authorities have asked if the voluntary welfare officers would carry on, and of course, practically all, or ninety per cent, of them at any rate (there are many volunteers to fill the places of those who wish to resign for business reasons) will be carrying on at least until the end of this year. I do not like these divorces. I would rather reconcile an erring wife and a soldier husband, or the opposite, than drag cither of them through a Divorce Court. I agree with the noble Lord who emphasized that we must have a different approach to, and a different conception of, marriage altogether. That is by the way.

There is a second part to Lord Elton's Motion. I do not think he made very much reference to it. We still have the plus 18's coming into the Army. Personally I believe you will, for a short period, require conscription on the lines of the Militia Act for a short term such as twelve months' service. I suggest it would be a good thing to deal with these young men in three parts—to send them for training, to send them to their units, and then to allow them to join the professional soldier abroad. After that let the young men go on the Reserve, go back to their jobs, to the University, or to bricklaying, or to whatever occupations they want to follow. It is a difficult problem, but there is no reason why we should be, too gloomy about it. This country of ours has done a great job of work in the sphere of welfare, and that is still going to be carried on. I am certain that this debate has been of the utmost value by spot-lighting what is undoubtedly a great problem; it is a problem with which we have to deal, and, knowing this House, and knowing even more the other House, I know that we shall adequately deal with it.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I think the House should be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for having opened this discussion on a matter of great public moment. The debate has been remarkable for the contributions made to it by those who have had experience in the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Crown. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, brought to the advantage of your Lordships all the experience gained by him as Deputy Adjutant General of the Forces at the War Office, while Lord Mancroft, in his felicitous speech, spoke for the Army; the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, spoke for the Navy, and the noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, for the Royal Air Force. Each brought forward points which certainly deserve and require attention, while the noble Lord, Lord Calverley, spoke with all the experience of a welfare officer.

I do not come entirely uninformed to a discussion of this particular subject, for it so happens, as many of your Lordships know, that I was, from the beginning of the war, charged with a large responsibility in relation to the welfare of the Forces. I believe indeed that at one time I held the military responsibility for about one-third of the British Army in respect of welfare. In that capacity, in about the year 1941, after the raids of the autumn and winter of 1940, I felt the first impact of the situation so far as it was affecting the relationship of husbands and wives. I must confess I was greatly troubled at that time to find the very large number of marriages that were, as it seemed to me, on the way to dissolution. I agree with my noble friend Lord Calverley that the welfare officers and the chaplains—whose valuable work cannot be over-estimated—manfully played the part of reconcilers, and many marriages which otherwise might have come to grief were kept together by their influence; but they are not included in the 48,000 divorce cases to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has referred in his Motion.

I must tell your Lordships that, based upon my experience of these matters as I have indicated, I have formed the deliberate opinion that, while separation is an essential factor, leading to a breakdown in married life, it would be as wrong to exaggerate its importance as it would be to attenuate-it. Separation has, no doubt, during these first few years, proved itself to be a factor without which it is unlikely that marriages would have fallen to pieces. But there have been other contributory factors of equal or even more importance. There has been the question of evacuation, especially from the great cities into the countryside, which has meant that many families have been separated, not only husband and wife, but mother and children, when the children have gone to the country. They have been evacuated to the countryside, leaving behind their mothers alone and lonely, without husband and children. In many cases the mothers have found themselves in unaccustomed surroundings in the countryside.

There has been an emotional upset, there has been an uprooting from social anchorages; and the evacuation, the changed environment., very often the change of employment, and the making of new friendships in new surroundings have all been contributory factors, which could not have had their baleful effect if it had not been for separation. But it is not separation alone which in so many of these cases has had that result. I mention that for it is really germane to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The fact of the matter is that it is a social malady, as the noble Lord stated, and not merely a matter of judicial procedure that we are considering. But just as the dislocation of judicial procedure is, as I believe, temporary in this matter, so is this particular aspect of social malady temporary. For it is not really a Service problem in the ordinary sense of the term at all.

A Service problem of this kind never arose before the war, when the separation of officers and other ranks from their wives was a normal feature of life in the Forces, and I have every reason to hope and expect that, as before the war so after the war, this question of social maladjustment, this question of broken marriages, will not be a factor which need be taken into account in planning for the future. It is, as I suggested to your Lordships, due largely to the conditions produced by the war, when a higher proportion of all able-bodied men were conscripted into the Forces and conditions at home were unsettled, involving all the changes of employment, environment and association to which I have referred. There were also the hasty marriages where the husband and wife had scarcely had an opportunity of settling down together at all and where the habit of living together side by side and the creation of a long and lasting affection had had no chance to fructify.

But I ought to tell your Lordships that in all three Services—and I speak not for the Army alone to-day—there is an alertness to the hardships involved by the long separation of husband and wife, and it is the deliberate aim of His Majesty's Government that the periods of separation shall be reduced to the maximum extent under pace-time conditions. This will be achieved in two ways: in part by reducing the term of overseas service where in the past it has perhaps been rather long; and in the second place, by providing opportunities for wife and children to join the husband at overseas stations wherever practicable. In other words, we are approaching the problem: from two different angles. In the one instance, the husband will be brought home to the family, and in the other the family will be taken out to the husband.

So far as the Army is concerned, as I has been already mentioned by the noble I Lord, Lord Mancroft, the term of overseas service will be shorter in the postwar period than it was before the war. It I will be from three to three and a half years in the post-war Army, and three years is the objective which we hope we may achieve, though I cannot at the moment say more than "that it will not be more than three and a half years. Consequently a soldier enlisting at the age of eighteen will obviously complete his tour of foreign service before the question of marriage ever arises, unless he marries exceptionally young. This tour will be his only tour unless he extends for longer service, and if he does so he will do so at a mature age, knowing full well the conditions of his service—to which I will come in a moment, for they will be improved conditions of service.

There is already planned an extensive programme for the construction of married quarters to supplement those which already existed before the war, and it is hoped to provide "he full establishment of married quarters, both at home and abroad. I would ask your Lordships to realize what that means, because in the pre-war Army the soldier was not regarded technically, from the military point of view, as being a married man at all until he was, I think, twenty-six. That has been altered. Now the married man will be regarded, for all purposes, as a married man if he marries at any age after twenty-one, and we are setting ourselves to the task of providing married quarters, both at home and abroad, for all married officers and other ranks.

I should be misleading your Lordships if I were to suggest that that is a programme that can be carried into effect and completed within any short period of years. Thousands of quarters in this country will be required, as well as in the overseas stations. But I should be hopeful that the ambitious programme which has already started as part of the contribution towards the national housing effort might be completed within a period of, say, ten years, if all goes reasonably well, so far as home is concerned, though so far as overseas is concerned it must necessarily depend upon the location of the Army and the facilities that there may be in any particular place where there is to be a garrison. We have already started on the first stage of the long-term programme. One thousand married quarters are in the building programme for this year at home, quite apart from the large number of existing married quarters which are being reconditioned and brought up to modern standards of accommodation and amenities. All this, as I have said, is regarded as part of the national housing programme.

In the Royal Air Force the tour of foreign service is also in process of being reduced. As far as quarters are concerned, the Royal Air Force is working generally on the lines I have already described in the case of the Army. The noble Lord, Lord Wolverton, made an interesting suggestion, which I will certainly see is brought to the notice of the Secretary of State for Air, as regards the use of married quarters for soldiers who are brought home from an overseas tour of duty. That will certainly be given the most careful, and I may say, sympathetic consideration. Lord Selsdon referred to the entirely different problem presented in the case of the Royal Navy. The normal tour of overseas service of the Royal Navy is already shorter than that of the Army and the Royal Air Force, and will remain at two and a half years. It has not hitherto been the practice of the Royal Navy to provide married quarters, and it is confronted, therefore, with a novel task. The mind of the Admiralty is, however, being directed to this matter, the policy being to create married quarters where married quarters may be found to be necessary.

But the situation as regards the Royal Navy is somewhat different from that of the other Services in that personnel at home stations have generally been based on three main ports where their families have settled, and local authorities in those port areas have taken those facts into account in creating their housing schemes and in the location and allocation of houses. There does not seem to be quite the same need for independent Service provision in the case of the Royal Navy as in the case of the Army and the Royal Air Force, but some provision corresponding to that of the other Services will certainly be necessary in the case of the Royal Naval Air Service, which is widely dispersed like the Royal Air Force. The provision of appropriate accommodation for the Royal Naval Air Service is under consideration. So far as the Royal Navy is concerned, it is felt that married quarters at stations abroad would scarcely be likely to confer the same advantages on families of naval personnel as on those of the soldiers and airmen. A great deal of the overseas service of the naval officer or rating is necessarily spent at sea, and separation from his family is inevitable. Nevertheless the Admiralty are no less conscious than their colleagues of the other Services of the need for reducing the extent of separation to a minimum and they are exploring the whole position, both at home and abroad, with a view to making whatever provision is most suitable in the circumstances.

The suggestion by Lord Selsdon that, if quarters cannot be made available for permanent residence in places like Malta, or shall I say Gibraltar, the family might be allowed to go overseas for a short tour, is certainly one that will not be looked at without sympathy or appreciation. I should say, both to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and to the noble Lord, Lord Man-croft, that it is not only the policy of His Majesty's Government but the intention that in these married quarters there shall be the full civilian standard of accommodation and that schools and proper amenities shall also be provided so that the Service-man in his quarters, whether at home or abroad, may have conditions comparable with those of the civilian in ordinary civilian life in our towns and our countryside.

As I have indicated, and as indeed is obvious, the programme I have outlined will take several years to bring to fruition and will depend to some extent, particularly overseas, on decisions not yet taken as-to the strength and distribution of our post-war forces, but as an interim measure three steps are being taken to reduce the period of separation from families. In the first: place the period of foreign service, both of the Army and of the Royal Air Force, is being progressively reduced. It has already been announced that the Army tour of service will shortly be reduced to three years and two months in India and to three years and nine months elsewhere, except in B.A.O.R., for which special facilities for leave exist already. The ultimate aim is to reduce the tour of foreign service to three years. The Royal Air Force tour is already being reduced to three years and when this process is completed a further reduction to two and a half years will be considered. Even shorter tours will be operated, it is hoped, in the case of Gibraltar and West Africa. The naval tour of two and a half years is based on the programme of refit of His Majesty's ships and I am advised that no further reduction is practicable there.

There is also the question, to which reference has already been made, of leave from overseas. Everything that is possible is being done to provide leave at home in the case of men who have been kept abroad for long periods. In B.A.O.R. about a month's leave is allowed each year, in at least two separate allotments. In other Army Commands, where the tour exceeds three years, apart from India and the Far East, one month's leave at home is allowed during each tour for men who have been serving for more than a year overseas and who are not due for home posting for at least six months. Leave is allowed from India and South-East Asia on somewhat similar terms, as far as practicable, but only a proportion of the men can benefit owing to the local situation. The leave policy is kept under constant review. The Royal Air Force have corresponding arrangements in B.A.O.R. which are at present in process of being equated as closely as possible to those of the Army, but the difference in the length of tour elsewhere may involve some difference of treatment as regards leave. It is impossible for the Royal Navy, with their shorter period of service, to allow leave to the United Kingdom during the overseas service tour.

The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, referred to leave as being one of the four conditions for a happy and contented Army. Certainly as frequent and as long leave as circumstances permit is an important factor, but I am not at all sure that in some ways he is not right in attaching even more importance, or at least much more importance than is often attached to it, to the question of regular mail. If those at home can hear from their men in the Forces and those overseas can hear from their folk at home with regularity, that will help to keep homes together. In the same context I think I might take this opportunity of saying to the noble Viscount and also to Lord Calverley that it is certainly the intention that the welfare services shall continue, extended as necessity may demand and adapted to the conditions and to the circumstances of the post-war Forces. I have no doubt that the welfare services have been of inestimable value to the Armed Forces of the Crown and they will be continued in the future.

As to families overseas, very real efforts are being made to allow families to join Service-men at overseas stations, even where sufficient military married quarters do not exist or where they cannot be provided. Families are now allowed—I think perhaps some noble Lords will be surprised at the list—to proceed to Australia, Austria, Bermuda, Canada, Ceylon, East Africa, Gibraltar, India, Italy, Malta, the Middle East (less Palestine and the Sudan), North Africa, the North Caribbean area, South Africa, U.S.A. and West Africa (excluding children). The British Army of the Rhine has presented, for obvious reasons, a particularly difficult problem but it is hoped that satisfactory arrangement's will be completed in the very near future.

Meanwhile, the Order which prohibited the meeting of personnel and their families in Paris and Brussels has been cancelled. It might interest your Lordshiips to know that applications for overseas stations other than Germany have numbered 3,394, of which 2,536 have been approved and 1,235 have embarked. The remainder are in course of action, and we are unable at the moment to state the decision. Perhaps I should say nothing at the moment with regard to Germany, except that it is proposed that an appreciable number shall proceed to Germany, although the question may arise as to the conditions and to circumstances under which they should go and for how long.

The Far East is excluded from the arrangement as to families owing to the extremely difficult conditions, and it may be several months before the concession is extended to that area. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned the question of Palestine. Palestine is excluded at present on the advice of the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. I think the reasons will be sufficiently understood, but I should make it clear that the existing military accommodation is already inadequate in that country, and that which will be available later will be taken up in providing satisfactory minimum scales of accommodation for the troops themselves. The noble Lord referred to the wives of members of the police force, but those who have gone to Palestine have been living in cantonments with their husbands. There are no such cantonments for British troops in Palestine who are for the most part living in tented accommodation. In order to give priority to most deserving cases at all overseas stations, applications are at present restricted to officers and men who have completed or are likely to complete a total of two years overseas service and have a further year to serve at their present station.

It was, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who referred to the question of compassionate leave in relation to men coming home and trying to prevent the home being broken up. He seemed to be under the impression that such leave is not given. He is mistaken. Where it appears that a real service would be rendered in keeping together a home that might otherwise be broken certainly compassionate leave may be given. It is at the discretion of the local commander, but the noble Lord may be interested to know that in nearly all overseas commands there is a committee consisting of those drawn from all ranks who consider the merits, that is, priority and otherwise, of the various applications for compassionate leave. Compassionate leave for the purposes mentioned by the noble Lord is amongst those which are permissible.

I hope from what I have said that it will be clear that the three Services are in each case fully alive to the need for reducing the minimum time spent by members of the forces away from their families and are doing everything possible in the matter. It is a fortunate thing that with the rapid progress of the release scheme most of the older men, who also constitute the bulk of the married men, will soon have completed their period of service and the problem will be reduced to the post-war level. Your Lordships may be interested to know that by the end of this year the bulk of the remaining non-Regular soldiers in the Army will be under the age of twenty-four, and it can scarcely be expected that this problem of the breaking up of marriages will become formidable in regard to an Army which is so young. As I have indicated, and as will be clear to your Lordships' house, the number of quarters required for married personnel will be greatly in excess of the pre-war numbers, and owing to the larger numbers of personnel and to the desire to meet the requirement for quarters more fully than before the war, some time will necessarily elapse before the need can be satisfied. In the meanwhile very considerable concessions have been made and as far as they can shall continue to be made in an extended degree. Finally, I would say this to your Lordships—and I think this is perhaps a remark Lord Elton would desire me to make—that it is the conviction of His Majesty's Government that family life is the key-stone of the social fabric, and it is the determination of His Majesty's Governments to keep that firm.


Before the noble Lord sits down I wonder if he could tell me the position with regard to the Royal Marines and married quarters.


I believe I am correct in saying that the Royal Marines stand on the same footing in this matter as the Royal Navy, but if I find I am wrong I will correct myself by writing and informing the noble Lord.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for his very full, informative and most encouraging reply. If I may say so, it is particularly satisfactory to have had such an answer from one who himself played such a distinguished rôle in the sphere of Army welfare work before taking up his present office. My noble friend Lord Calverley took the opportunity of paying an eloquent tribute to the work of the welfare services which I am sure all your Lordships will endorse. I only hope that nothing I said in my speech suggested to the noble Lord that I would not have endorsed it myself. The fact remains that Army welfare work is like ambulance work or like Red Cross work and it does not dispense us from the need of tending the casualties I would like to thank the noble Lords on the Benches opposite for the four or five very interesting speeches they made. It has always seemed to me that our social tradition, perhaps owing to our seafaring past and present, has been a little over-tolerant of family separations. Most of us have suffered a great deal as school boys or as prisoners of war, and I should be glad to think that the speeches made by your Lordships, and the presiding genius as one so disposed to this cause, may do something to reduce the suffering of future generations. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

4.38 p.m.