Royal Navy (Discharges).

– in the House of Commons at on 23 November 1931.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

Photo of Mr George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals

I rise to refer to a matter which has been hanging about for a week or two, namely, the dismissal from the Navy of 24 men recently by the predecessor of the present First Lord of the Admiralty. I understand from previous questions and answers in the House that the real decision was taken by the First Lord's predecessor and not by himself, though I gather from his answers that he is fully in accordance with that decision. We understand from answers to questions that the number of men was 24 and their length of service averaged between nine and 10 or 11 years. I should like to ask what kind of trial these men received and had they any kind of appeal from the decision of the First Lord?

On this question, I want to refer briefly to the past history of the case. It is admitted now that there was discontent in the Navy, and that that discontent found its way into the ranks of every class in the Navy, and expressed itself in defiance of the ordinary law and customs of the Navy. There is no denial now that the original steps taken by the Navy were a defiance of the law and of the regulations of the Navy. When the matter was raised in this House, con- cessions were made to the men which were deemed to be satisfactory by the Board of Admiralty. At that time it was stated that the past should be dead, and that, so far as the men were concerned, nothing would be held against them in respect of their past actions. That was supposed to have been what might be termed a minor mutiny in the Navy. Those of us who have had some experience of industrial disputes—I confess that my experience is not much in this respect—know that when you come to the end of an industrial dispute there always is, and there always must be, an aftermath from the dispute. That has been the case in the few industrial disputes with which I have been concerned. Hon. Members will agree with me that, generally speaking, there is always an aftermath, not confined to the employers or the workmen, but affecting both. Tempers have been frayed, the men have had their passions aroused and, on the other hand, the employers have had their passions aroused, and it takes time to settle down.

This dispute in the Navy is in some respects no different from an ordinary industrial dispute. The men were fighting for wage conditions. It had never been known to have been done in the Navy before. The nearest approach to it that I can remember was the Prime Minister's attempt in 1916 to set up workers' and soldiers' councils. In 1916 the mutiny was not a success, but in 1931 it was a success. These men did what any ordinary worker does. They stopped work as a protest against their conditions, and the naval authorities gave way to some extent. These particular men are involved in what I term the aftermath of the dispute. One cannot settle disputes automatically on the day that terms are arranged. While those feelings last certain men are affected in such a manner that their passions are not easily subdued. Here we have the position of the 24 men who have been dismissed.

The reasons given by the First Lord of the Admiralty are two-fold. He says that the men were guilty, that they forgave the rest and buried the past, but that these men refused to bury the past and continued in insubordination in the Navy when the dispute was supposed to be ended. His second reason was that the matter had been examined thoroughly. It was examined by his predecessor and I presume that he has examined it from every angle, and he says that they have come to the conclusion that these 24 men have continued insubordination and therefore they must be dismissed. He says, further, that they cannot allow any appeal and that his word must be accepted as final.

11.0 p.m.

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir A. Lambert Ward.]

Photo of Mr George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals

I do not know a single man involved. That is rather curious, because my relatives come from Invergordon and I have only once been there. My mother is a constituent, and owns a house there. That is all I know of it. But I have had a communication with certain of the men, and I wish to put to the House a letter that I have received from one of them. The man comes from Liverpool. This is his letter: Nineteen years from the time I joined the Navy till this December coming have I served in it, and never in them years did I have what is called a Draft Note"— I do not know that term. The naval hon. Members will know it— to get out of the ship into barracks.There was nine of us told to pass the doctor, pack our bags and hammocks. The time they allowed us was 10 minutes to do it in. And, as said to the Commodore in the barracks at Devonport: 'If I went before a medical officer in civil life the way I had to go before the ship's doctor, I would have been sent to the workhouse for being in such a state.'Then we arrive in the barracks. We joined barracks on Tuesday, 7th October. The men that came in from the ships in the Fleet was 35. We were all put together. Then we had a week in the clothing class. Now this is the week that no person in the outside life knows anything about, only the men in the Naval Barracks at Devonport, and the Fleet Reserve men, that was up for the week's drill that week. They put us on the Parade with a rifle and bayonet. And we wouldn't have cared if they had have given us drill. But they picked out three worst instructors for us out of the Gunnery School, made us into three classes. And they done nothing only doubled us up and down that Parade till we was nearly dropping on our knees. And in my class one chap had to fall out with his knee. They sent him to the Sick Bay. He got a bandage on, and then had to carry on with the doubling again. Another chap had blisters on his feet he went to the Sick Bay, they pricked them, and he had to carry on again. Every man in that Barracks was crying out about the way we were treated.As this was going on, we all said to each other we will all put in a request to see the Commander-in-Chief and state our complaint.Now this is the man that has caused all this trouble is the Commodore of the barracks, when he heard that we had put our requests in. He came down to the drill shed in the afternoon. They cleared everybody out and just kept us 35 men in. These are his words to us: 'I have come down here to tell you that you won't see the Commander-in-Chief, because your requests has got to come to me first. Then when I have seen yours and think your statement is good enough, I will let you put your request to the Commander-in-Chief.' The next he said to us was: 'The reason why you have been brought in from your ships is from causing any further trouble in the Fleet.' The other was, he said, that we were attending meetings ashore. Which is a pack of lies. From the time us men was put into barracks till the day we was discharged there wasn't two men ashore together. It ran like this with them. Five out of the thirty-five war married men living in Plymouth; and when they were watch ashore, it was straight home they went.Then 10 out of 30 left was watch on hoard. They could not go ashore. Another 10 had no money and could not go. That is how we were. Will you kindly put this forward: Can they get any person or persons in the barracks or outside in the town that has seen any of these men attending meetings or ever speaking about what happened at Invergordon? I myself and others in the 24 can prove this statement. Why should us people be victimised in one port and not other ports? They cannot say that one of the men got up and spoke at Invergordon or at home, either about cuts of pay or anything else. I read in the 'Liverpool Echo' the night after our discharge that we were paid off, given an issue of civilian clothes and also gratuities, and told to go. It was marked on the headline 'From our own Correspondent, Plymouth, Wednesday.' Now I would like to inform them that the only money and clothes these men got from the Admiralty was our own pay, what we were entitled to, and thirteen shillings for us to buy a civilian suit, which would not pay for a decent hat, never mind a suit. Don't you think that men like myself with 19 years' good service, within a short time of our 21 years' service, should at least have been entitled to some bounty in lieu of pension? That is the man's letter. I have never met the man and do not know him, but I should say that the average Member of this House would hold that a man who has been 19 years in the Navy as a steady and reliable workman has character. I have never known one who has done 19 years' service who had not some kind of good quality about him. A man with 19 years in the Navy must have decent qualities about him. I presume that such a man's word would be taken by most people as reliable and at least worthy of some further trial. Here is a man with 19 years' service. I understand that he is within two years of pension rights. Is such a man, reaching to middle life as he must be, with little prospects outside, going lightly to throw away his whole pension rights after 19 years of honest service Is he not entitled to a better trial than merely the First Lord's dismissal? In the Post Office they have the right of appeal. Criminals have the right of appeal. Every murderer has such a right. In Scotland only three years ago the Secretary for Scotland gave a murderer a further right of appeal. Here is a man with 19 years' service, and he is dismissed. There is no tribunal before which he can possibly state his case. There are no advocates for his defence.

We shall be told by the First Lord the wrong things that the man has done. I will let him double them and multiply them by 10. I am not arguing the wrongs. What I am arguing for is the right of a man of 19 years' service to get a trial in public and to be able to make his defence in public. If these men are guilty, let them be found guilty publicly by some court or by some persons who may, at any rate, attempt to be neutral. The Admiralty are the employers of these men. Would any man, in the case of an industrial dispute, agree to allow the employer of the striker to try the striker? In decency we should demand that a neutral person should try such a man. I am not seeking to discuss all that may have been done by these men. You can take it and double it and treble it if you like. If they are guilty, God knows they have not been half as guilty as I have been myself, and I hope to live for a good deal of forgiveness yet. Whatever wrongs these men may have done or whatever the First Lord thinks they may have done I ask him to apply to these men the ordinary courtesies and the ordinary rights given by the law of this country. I ask him to treat them as men who have given faithful service to the Navy, and to recognise that they have the right to a public trial and to a decent opportunity of making their defence.

Photo of Mr Frederick Cocks Mr Frederick Cocks , Broxtowe

I am sure the First Lord will not think that I wish to raise any new trouble in connection with His Majesty's Service if I put these points to him. I have bad some letters from these men, and they say that they have not the slightest knowledge of why they were discharged. They have no knowledge of the offences which they are supposed to have committed and one or two of them say they would welcome such knowledge, and an opportunity of answering those charges. My second point is that not only have these men no knowledge as to why they were discharged, but this House has no knowledge. We have not heard of the offences with which they are charged. My third point is this. I understand from letters which I have received and from answers given by the First Lord, that these are men of fairly long service. One of them is, I am told, within two years of his pension; another was waiting for his good conduct medal before going into civil life. I wish to ask the First Lord two questions. First, why were not the men told the charge so that they could answer it? Secondly, why did he not tell the House what those charges were? The lowest criminal has the right to know what charges are made against him. Surely the House of Commons, the highest Court in the world, has the right to know what charges are preferred in a case of this kind. If the First Lord will not, for reasons of naval discipline, allow the men to know the charges, I ask him not to deny that knowledge to the House of Commons. I hope that the First Lord will give me a reply to those questions.

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Bolton Eyres Monsell):

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) for having given me this opportunity of providing a rather more complete picture of this case than it is possible to do by way of question and answer. I hope I shall be able to give a fairly complete picture. I do not know that I shall be able to satisfy the hon. Member, but in the time available I shall try to deal with the points which have been raised. The first thing I should like to say is—and I think the hon. Gentleman admitted this—that no discharges were made as a result of the incidents at Invergordon. A promise soon after that was made, and that promise was scrupulously kept. All these men have been discharged as a result of subsequent action, and very serious action, because it was action which was guilty of conduct subversive of discipline. The hon. Gentleman said they refused to bury the past. Those were his own words. I think that in those words he has given his whole case away. Not only is conduct subversive of discipline one of the most serious offences that can possibly be committed by a member of any of His Majesty's Forces, but in view of the lenient way in which those men were treated, it was one of the stupidest things they could have done, and I think there is very little sympathy for these men anywhere in the country, and certainly not any sympathy at all in His Majesty's Navy.

What is the great hardship that has been imposed upon these men? They have been discharged from a Service with which they were obviously out of sympathy; they were dissatisfied with their conditions. We have to cut everything in the Navy. Reductions are being made all round, and reductions have to be made in the personnel, and surely it is better that reductions should be made from that portion of the personnel that is dissatisfied with its conditions. They were discharged under a provision called "Services no longer required." I was asked a question by the hon. Member about this provision. It is a very old provision allowed by Statute to the Admiralty, a provision frequently used-for getting rid from the Navy of men who, I will not say are altogether unsatisfactory, but are not suited to the Navy, are not fitted for the Navy, are not happy in the Navy, are not liked by the Navy, and they do not like the Navy themselves. It has been used frequently to get rid of men—

Photo of Mr George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals

It takes a long time to find it out.

Sir B. EYRES MONSELL:

We find it out in the end. It is not regarded in the Navy as punishment. There were a lot of fantastic stories current about these men having their badges and medals torn off them—all absolutely untrue. They were discharged. [Interruption.] These stories were current—

Photo of Mr Frederick Cocks Mr Frederick Cocks , Broxtowe

We have not said so.

Sir B. EYRES MONSELL:

A great many people said so, in the "Daily Worker" and other papers, that their badges were ripped off, their medals taken off, and that they were thrown ashore—all absolutely untrue. They were discharged in a perfectly normal way. They were allowed their kit, they were given money for a suit of plain clothes, and they went straight into unemployment pay. The hon. Gentleman gave another of these fantastic stories in a long letter which he read out. One of the worst things, I think he said, in those letters was that a man was kicked when he was sick. Anything more ridiculous than bringing a story like that forward, I cannot imagine. He said they were put to some penal sort of course. This was a course at Plymouth, and it is peculiar to Plymouth—an introductory course—and it was a course not only gone through by these men; it is gone through by all classes that go to barracks, including chief petty officers.

Now I come to the last point, which was also the one raised by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks). There can be no appeal in this case. These cases that are discharged "Services no longer required" come personally before the Board of Admiralty, and the Board of Admiralty is the highest court of appeal we have got. There can be no appeal from that. I have given the House my assurance, and the right hon. Gentleman whom I succeeded also gave his word, that every possible care would be exercised in this case to see that no possible mistake was made.

Sir B. EYRES MONSELL:

The charge is conduct subversive of discipline.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the conduct was?

Sir B. EYRES MONSELL:

No, because I say to the House of Commons that it is not in the interests of the country, or of the Navy, or of the men themselves, to have this case gone into and the whole case reopened.

I want to say one word on the general question of this very unhappy incident. I do not wish to minimise in the slightest degree the seriousness of what took place at Invergordon, but, in view of the very exaggerated rumours that are going about, spread by certain people interested, not only in this country but abroad, I should like to say, with the utmost conviction of which I am capable, that there is no more loyal Service in the world than the Royal Navy. I know what a shock it was to the whole country, but I do beg the House of Commons and the country to understand that if it was a shock to them, it was a profound tragedy to the Royal Navy. The Navy realises that to-day we no longer occupy that very high position in the hearts of the British people that for centuries we have held, but of this I am convinced, that it is the most earnest desire of every single officer and man to regain that position as soon as they possibly can. Personally, I am quite certain that that position can be regained. I think that it can be regained soon, and it will be regained all the more quickly if the House of Commons and the country will leave the Navy alone, to deal with its own special interests.

Photo of Mr George Hall Mr George Hall , Merthyr Tydfil Aberdare

I desire to congratulate the First Lord upon his very high appointment. I realise what it must mean to him to occupy that position, as I served in a subordinate position in the Department. We regret these incidents of Invergordon and the dismissal of these 24 men since the return of the Fleet from Invergordon. While I do not desire to go into the history of what took place prior to the Fleet leaving Invergordon, I want to remind the House of a promise which the predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman made to the House, because that has a bearing upon the matter which has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). There was no doubt that at that time, the House was convinced that it was the real intention of the Board of Admiralty to allow bygones be by-gones, that what took place at Invergordon was to be forgotten, and, as far as I have been able to understand, both from letters received and from interviews which some of those men have had with me, they met the appeal of the then First Lord in the same spirit as they understood the appeal was made to them by the First Lord. They assured me, without any hesitation, that at no time, from the moment the signal was given for the Fleet to return to the home ports from Invergordon did they, in any way, indulge in conduct which was subversive of discipline. After the Fleet returned to Devonport they attended no meeting, they did nothing whatsoever which is contrary to the Regulations of the Navy, but what they say—and I agree fully with the review which has been given by the hon. Member for Gorbals—and what several letters which I have on me also indicate, is that almost as soon as the Fleet returned to port, these 36 men were selected for the kind of treatment which has already been described to the House. At no time, from when they left Invergordon until the present moment, have any charges been made against them. Had there been any charges, they said quite willingly that they were quite prepared to have their cases dealt with under the Naval Discipline Act. That would have brought them under court-martial, and they would have been allowed to have representatives when their cases were dealt with.

We do not want to pursue this matter, but we must remember that, of the 24 men dismissed, the man referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals was not the only one who had 19 years' service. I have an instance here of a man who had 21 years' service, and another with 20 years, three good conduct badges and three War medals, while one man had only a month to go to complete his time for pension. Another was actually waiting for his long service and good conduct medal, which brings a gratuity of £20, while others were about to pass as petty officers.

Sir B. EYRES MONSELL:

Those figures are wrong. Eighteen years was the longest period.

Photo of Mr George Hall Mr George Hall , Merthyr Tydfil Aberdare

I was simply giving my right hon. Friend the information I have seen in letters from these individuals. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his attitude on this matter—reconsider it in such a way that these men, who have spent the best years of their lives in His Majesty's Service, shall not be penalised as far as pension rights are concerned. The fact of their being dismissed—whether they have been dismissed as "service no longer required" or dismissed in any other way—is in itself a punishment to men who have given the best years of their lives to the Service. I know how difficult it is for him to consider reversing of a decision arrived at by his predecessor, but I worked with the majority of the members of the Board of Admiralty for the last two years and three months and I do not think there is a single one of them who would knowingly do an injustice to any man. They are prepared to give the rating or the officer the benefit of the doubt, and that is all we ask in this case—that the right hon. Gentleman should take the matter back, reconsider the decision, and see whether there cannot be an inquiry at which these men will have the right of reply to any charges which can be brought against them.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.