HL Deb 26 November 1947 vol 152 cc930-8

2.40 p.m.


had the following Notice on the Order Paper: To move to resolve, That, in the opinion of this House, steps should be taken by His Majesty's Government to rectify the wrong done to many of the most deserving of the volunteers from Southern Ireland who have been debarred from benefiting under the Unemployment Insurance (Eire Volunteers) Act, 1946. by reason of the date fixed for bringing that Act into force. The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper and which I am about to move is not inspired in any way by the desire either to attack or embarrass the Government. On the contrary, all who are interested in this question owe a debt of gratitude to the Government and particularly to the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, the Leader of the House, for having brought in an Act which enabled any unemployment benefit at all to be paid to these men in Ireland. Many men have benefited by the arrangements made and the Act has been on the whole a success. You may ask, why then the trouble? I will endeavour to explain and if I can make myself clear I feel quite sure I shall have the support of the majority of noble Lords present this afternoon. I hope that the Government will find themselves able either to accept the Motion or to promise to take steps and avoid a Division. This Motion makes no attempt to say what should be done or how it should be done, but expresses the hope that this debt of honour should be discharged as soon as possible.

The Act in question is the Unemployment Insurance (Eire Volunteers). Act, 1946. It was introduced by the Government in order to give effect to certain arrangements they had come to with the Government of Eire to enable the payment of unemployment benefit, in the words of the Preamble of the Act, to "Persons who since the third day of September, 1939, have served in His Majesty's Forces and who before entering those Forces were ordinarily resident in Eire." The Second Reading of the Bill was moved by Lord Chorley on October 24 last year, and when doing so he said: This Bill does at any rate give us the opportunity of introducing a scheme under which practical expression can be given to the very real debt of gratitude which we in this country feel to those gallant men who served so faithfully in His Majesty's Forces during the war. That was splendid. Good stuff in that. And I should like particularly to stress the words "during the war." The noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, speaking from the Front Opposition Bench, gave the Bill, in his own words, "an unreserved and enthusiastic welcome" and went on to say: It enables us to pay our tribute, and indeed some of our debt, to those men who came from Eire. They were all volunteers, many of whom came in the face of difficulty and discouragement. He added that in all quarters of the House we are delighted that this Bill has come to us and we shall speed it on its way. These words gave great satisfaction both in this country and Eire, and I do not be- lieve that the general feeling of the House could have been more happily or more generously expressed.

All this Motion does is to ask the Government to do what is necessary to implement to the full what is generally understood to be the intention of the Act—to discharge a debt of national honour to these men from Eire. To support my contention, I will quote some words the noble and learned Viscount, the Lord Chancellor, used on a former occasion: "There is here to my mind a debt of honour which we should try to satisfy." In the same speech the noble and learned Viscount said, "The noble Earl will realize I am admitting that we have a moral obligation in this matter." The Bill passed through all its stages. A complementary Act was passed in Dublin and arrangements came into force as from February 27 this year. On that date the Irish Government published a notice that all who considered themselves entitled to benefit under that Act should make their claims.

Now came the snag. In the British Act upon which the other Act was based, the first statutory condition to be complied with was that thirty weeks' contributions must have been paid by the claimant during the two years immediately preceding the date on which his claim was made. This condition was incorporated in the Act of 1946. Therefore, a claim made on March 1, 1947, the earliest date on which it could be made by these men in Eire, would require to satisfy the condition regarding thirty weeks' contributions between March, 1945, and March, 1947, before it became valid. That condition, your Lordships will note, could not be complied with by any man who was discharged before September, 1945. Such a man was automatically disqualified. Demobilization began in June, 1945, and whole classes had been discharged by the following September, and many men who sent in claims were told that they could not benefit. They had only seventeen weeks in which to pay thirty weeks' contributions! These early groups comprised the older men with the longest service and on discharge the Irish volunteers among them went back to their own homes to look after their families, so that it was a physical impossibility for them to have thirty contributions to their credit between March, 1945, and March. 1947.

Yet many of them had served right through the war, and some had gone on foot from South Ireland all the way to Belfast to enlist. Almost all were ex-Service men who rallied to the Colours when the bugle sounded. Some who had served in the last war saw their sons serve in this. They came largely from families with long traditions of service—the grandsons and great-grandsons of men who shared in every British victory for generations. From men of this type we have always drawn large numbers of Warrant Officers, N.C.Os. and Petty Officers; and I am quite sure that in the last war the Royal Air Force enjoyed a large entry from this source. Such men should not be let down by the enforcement of a condition which was originally framed to deal with other circumstances. When the discrepancy between what was intended and what was actually happening was pointed out to the Government in June of last year, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, argued that this injustice could not be helped. He acknowledged that the men had a real grievance, but he said it would require a new Act of Parliament to put it right. That, of course, is a matter for the Government.

In considering this matter it must be remembered that these men were volunteers. When they returned to their homes in Ireland there was no priority of employment for them; on the contrary, others were given priority over them. There was no Reinstatement Act, as there was in this country, and they were not allowed to benefit under the British rehabilitation scheme. Men who had joined up and given up jobs saw those jobs vanish for ever; and any small businesses went west. The fact of having been so long away meant that they lost all rights they might originally have had under the Irish Unemployment Act, and not until this year could they benefit under the British Act. So that the men who joined up first and served longest fell between two stools.

The noble Lord put the number affected at about fifty. My information, gathered in Dublin and Cork, is that that is an understatement. However, I do not want to emphasize that point, because it makes no difference how many there were, whether it was one or one thousand. What does matter is that we have acknowledged that we are under a moral obligation to these men, and we are not at the moment discharging it. That is what the Act was intended to do, and if it fails to do it surely it should be put right, for we cannot be satisfied with discharging a debt of honour to some men and not to all. It is impossible to conceive of anybody in private life who owed a debt of honour to a poor man without any means of redress, making the settlement of the debt dependent upon conditions with which he knew perfectly well the man could not possibly comply. I suggest that any honourable man finding himself in that position, would at once hasten to discharge his liability. All I ask the House to do by this Motion is to express the opinion that the Government should take steps to rectify a wrong, which I know was inadvertently inflicted, but which is still a wrong, and it has been inflicted upon men who deserve very well of this country. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That, in the opinion of this House, steps should be taken by His Majesty's Government to rectify the wrong done to many of the most deserving of the Volunteers from Southern Ireland who have been debarred from benefiting under the Unemployment Insurance (Eire Volunteers) Act, 1940, by reason of the date fixed for bringing that Act into force.—(The Earl of Cork and Orrery.)

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, the case for this Motion and for justice which is claimed for several hundreds of Irish ex-Service men has been very clearly put before your Lordships by the noble Earl. These are men and descendants of men who have always fought most loyally in all branches of His Majesty's Forces. The background of good feeling existing between England and Ireland to-day is derived from these men. I do not need to tell your Lordships that anything, whether small or large, which can improve good feeling and good relations between the two parts of the British Isles is worthy of encouragement, apart altogether from justice to the individual men concerned., These cases have been investigated very fully by the British Legion in Southern Ireland, and that body is prepared to stand behind the cases that will be put forward if the opportunity occurs. That is what the British Legion is for. I am glad to say that many of your Lord- ships and many members in another place are members of the British Legion. I ask your Lordships to give the noble Earl the fullest support in his request to His Majesty's Government to help these men to obtain what they have earned and deserve.

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will wish to join with me in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Carew, on what I believe is his maiden speech in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord has spoken with brevity, with sincerity and with eloquence on a subject which is obviously just as near to his heart as it is to the heart of the noble Earl who moved this Motion. I am sure your Lordships will hope that we may have other opportunities of hearing from the noble Lord in future.

Your Lordships will all admire the pertinacity with which the noble Earl, Lord Cork, has spoken on behalf of these Eire volunteers, and will sympathize with the object of his Motion. I am certain you will hope that he may be successful in his efforts on behalf of these gallant men, with his tribute to whom everybody in this House will join wholeheartedly and sincerely. Indeed, the Act, the administration of which has given rise to the difficulties to which the noble Earl has drawn your Lordships' attention, is in no small measure due to his efforts, and I am glad that he paid a tribute to the excellent effect which, on the whole, that Act has had. When this matter was brought before your Lordships in June I gave some figures which indicated how useful a piece of legislation it had been and I should like to emphasize what I then said as to the admirable way in which its administration has been carried through by the authorities in Eire, from whom we have had every assistance. Your Lordships might like to know that the number of claims which have been granted has risen from the 2,700 odd at which it stood at the beginning of June, when this matter was previously before your Lordships' House, to 3,304 on October 30 last, and that the amount of money which has been paid out has risen to £75,000.

The difficulty to which the noble Earl has drawn your Lordships' attention arises entirely out of a certain delay which took place in bringing the Act into force, as a result of which there was a gap. The noble Earl stated that as a result of this the men who were demobilized between VE Day and a date towards the end of September, 1945, were not able to make effective claims. He is not quite right about that, if he will permit my saying so, because the two months' demobilization leave with pay which every discharged soldier was granted included these credited contributions. Therefore the date is really not a date towards the end of September, but a date towards the end of July, and as no discharges actually took place until about the middle of June the number of men who are affected is, as I said on the previous occasion, very small. The total number of these volunteers discharged between the relevant dates is, I am informed, 116; but the whole of that number could not be affected by this difficulty and the actual number is in the neighbourhood of fifty—it may be a little more, but it is certainly not more than sixty at the outside.

But, as the noble Earl very properly said, if there is an injustice it is an injustice whether or not a large number of men are involved. I can assure the noble Earl that the Government have this matter very much at heart, and my right honourable friend the Minister has himself given great personal attention to the matter. As I indicated on a previous occasion, this is an exceedingly difficult matter with which to deal without an Act of Parliament, but negotiations have been and are now going on with the authorities in Eire in order to see whether some administrative method cannot be discovered for dealing with the situation. I am not without hopes that those negotiations will in fact be successful. In those circumstances, I hope the noble Earl will not press his Motion.

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, may I add just one word, because when the Bill was introduced I welcomed it most cordially on behalf of noble Lords on this side of the House? Indeed, although it was introduced by the noble Lord who has just spoken and was blessed from the Opposition Front Bench, the real author of the Bill is the noble and gallant Earl who has moved this Motion to-day. We all had a common intention in that Bill. which was that we should put all these men who had volunteered in the same position as Englishmen serving in the British Forces. As the noble Lord himself pointed out, it was particularly necessary to make that provision for those Irish volunteers. Although there was no difficulty in this country for every ex-Service man to find employment after the war—and indeed staying in employment, because the difficulty was to find enough men for the jobs—the position in Eire, as I understand it, was very different; and there was unemployment. As the Minister very fairly said last time, the Eire Government would be almost certain to look after their own people first and to look after the people who had been serving in the Eire Forces.

I have no criticism of that from their point of view, but it obviously laid a very special duty upon us to make sure that those men received the fullest consideration. I know the administrative and legislative difficulties. I have had a great deal to do with concurrent legislation in the two countries, and it takes a long time. As a matter of fact, I think this was passed rather quickly through the mills of legislation in both countries, and I make no complaint on the score of delay. It so happens that the one set of people who have suffered from something which was quite inevitable are the very people most entitled to help—the people who volunteered at the outbreak of the war and who served throughout in one of the three Services. They, of course, were the first to be discharged.

I feel sure that a way can be found out of this. There are ways and means which ingenious people can find, and no one minds ways and means being found for a good purpose. Indeed, when some injustice has inadvertently been done to a subject of this country by a Government Department, it is quite usual for an ex gratia payment to be made to that person, or to somebody on his behalf. I myself have been responsible for such payments, and certainly it has not required an Act of Parliament to do it. Departments have certain powers for this purpose which in proper cases can be exercised. I am satisfied that we may accept the assurance of the Government, that in one way or another they mean to see this matter through and mean to see that these fifty people—I agree that it does not matter whether the number is fifty or 500—will get what they were in- tended to get. I would suggest to the noble Earl who moved this Motion that no doubt the Government will report in due course that this matter has been satisfactorily settled, and I think he may treat his intervention as having been entirely successful.


My Lords, in view of the assurances by the Government and the undoubted feeling of the House on this matter, I do not propose to press my Motion and would ask leave to withdraw.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.