Orders of the Day — Releases from Forces (Procedure)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11 July 1944.

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

Photo of Wing Commander Archibald James Wing Commander Archibald James , Wellingborough

As long ago as 25th May I gave notice that I was going to raise, on the Adjournment, this matter of the machinery of release of men from the Forces. It affects many Departments. Although I gave notice to the Minister of Labour, I am glad to see that my hon. and learned Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office is here and will probably reply. Under the National Service Acts, the position of Members of this House was protected by the Man- Power Board and the Hardship Tribunals. I think it will be generally conceded that that machinery has worked extremely well. However, with the lapse of time, new circumstances have arisen, and, accordingly, hardship is inflicted upon individuals, and embarrassment is caused to hon. Members, while work is put upon Service Departments which could be avoided, if a simple piece of machinery and alteration were put into force. In my submission, there should be an impartial examination of claims for release, and Members should not have to press matters in respect of individual constituents.

Broadly speaking, all Members have had experience of these difficulties. There are three different categories of case which I have in mind. The first is that in which release from the Forces would serve a public need. At present I have from my constituency two cases, not of young men but of men of a certain age, with professional qualifications. They joined up early in the war, but they are now urgently needed for the professional job which they left. In one case, other partners in the business have died. In another case, the sole partner has died. It is a confidential business, involving the intimate affairs of a number of businesses. It takes an appalling time to get anybody like that out of the Forces now. In the first of those cases we have been in communication with every Service Department and have been arguing for six months, and still the man is not back. If one more partner, an elderly man and unfit, should crack up under the immense strain of the work, goodness knows what would happen to a number of businesses which are dependent upon his help.

The second category is the personal hardship case. Here, again, circumstances change rapidly. I will give a most pathetic and tragic case of a man, not young, who joined up immediately on the outbreak of war. He went overseas, leaving a wife and three small children. The wife then died, and there are no family relations. I do not know how long it will take to get this unfortunate man released, owing to the slow way in which the machine is working. I am in touch with the Service Department concerned. I had a letter from them about this case only this morning, in which the officer, the formation commander, says that he has now put in train the complicated machinery which has to be set in motion in order to collect the necessary data. The third type of case is where the calling-up papers arrive. Here, again, I have one case, which is strongly supported by the local authority, where call-up papers were served on a man who did not expect them, and had there been a little more warning this man would never have been called up. The Manpower Committee would certainly have supported this case. Once the notice is served the man has to go. He has gone now, and it will take months to get him back.

I submit that it would be quite a simple way of saving a lot of misery to called-up people, a lot of embarrassment to hon. Members and an immense amount of trouble to the Service Departments if powers were given to one of the existing Committees to review appeals from men in the Services, so that an impartial examination of the facts may be made, and so that commanding officers do not themselves have to try to collect evidence. One of the existing authoritative Committees which have worked so well should be empowered to examine cases and make recommendations to the Services if a case is found to be genuine, either from the point of view of the needs of the individual or from the point of view of the community. To reduce the necessity of Members having to try to deal with this matter, and save the Service Departments from being bombarded by Questions in this House, there should be a regular liaison for tackling these difficulties. Liaison exists now, and works well, for filtering people into the Services. All it wants is a reverse gear. Surely it must be recognised that after nearly five years circumstances have changed in a great number of cases. Will my hon. and learned Friend regard this matter sympathetically, and will he not consult with the other Service Departments and the Ministry of Labour to see if what, on the face of it, appears to be quite a simple bit of administrative machinery cannot be devised and put into force soon to deal speedily with these cases?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

The particular cases to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred are not, of course, within my knowledge at this moment, and I am sure he would not expect me to be able to deal with the particular facts relevant to them. But as regards his final appeal, I think I shall be able to satisfy the House, and I hope my hon. and gallant Friend, in spite of the delays that may take place in particular cases, that by and large, and having regard to the very large number of cases with which the three Service Departments have to deal, week by week and month by month, there is very little cause for complaint in the vast majority of them. Perhaps I might be allowed to explain to the House the present procedure which is followed in applications for release, first in industrial cases, and secondly in compassionate cases. The employer approaches the Government Department which is interested in the man's work, and, if that Department is satisfied that there is a case for release, it makes application to the Ministry of Labour. The case is then considered in the light of the prevailing man-power policy, including the rules governing decisions fin deferment applications. The main consideration is whether the work for which the man's release is required is of vital national importance, and whether that work could be done if he were not released. In some cases the application can be dealt with centrally, at headquarters, without reference to the Ministry's local officers for a report. Where it is considered necessary, the regional officer is asked to obtain a report on the case by the district man-power board, and such reports are considered in the light of the circumstances.

In a straightforward case, or on receipt of a report which shows that the release should be granted, the application is sent to the Service Department concerned, with a recommendation that it should be granted. The Service Departments take the actual decision, and the part of the Ministry of Labour is purely advisory. It may happen that a good case for a release fails because of purely Service requirements. For example, all Departments are extremely reluctant to release a man who is serving overseas, or who is earmarked for overseas service, and in all three Services there are certain categories of men who are too valuable to be spared. In the War Office, when it is considered that the Service aspect of the case should be considered, together with the industrial aspects, the case is considered by a small joint committee, formed of representatives of the Departments concerned. These committees, in the vast majority of cases, save a great deal of time and correspondence. In the case of the other two Service Departments, the applications for release, I am advised, are not sufficiently numerous to justify this committee procedure. At the same time, I would emphasise that industrial or national-importance release applications are, in fact, considered in the light of the new circumstances on which the application is based, and that, where there is insufficient information in the application to base a recommendation upon, the assistance of the district manpower board is invoked. The procedure described has been in operation, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, for nearly four years, and, in our opinion, it has worked well. It is felt by the Government that it would be quite unnecessary to introduce any different procedure for these cases at this stage of the war.

Photo of Wing Commander Archibald James Wing Commander Archibald James , Wellingborough

Can my hon. and learned Friend give any idea of the average length of time that a release is expected to take?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I am dealing at the moment with industrial release cases: later on, I will deal with compassionate release cases. In the former class, where the matter may have to come before this joint committee in the case of the War Office, and having regard to the fact that local inquiries may have to be made by the representative of the local manpower board, it is very difficult to say that any given space of time elapses between the application being made and a decision being given. But, if I may draw on my own personal experience, because, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows, a large number of these cases pass through my hands at the War Office, I would say that a normal case takes on an average about four weeks. Disregarding special cases, such as coal-miners, release on industrial grounds is sanctioned in about 60 per cent. of the cases, and it may interest the House to knew that, during the period March to June inclusive, the War Office has granted 5,214 industrial releases.

So much for industrial releases. Let me now deal for a moment with compassionate release from the Forces. Com- passionate release from the Forces is a matter within the discretion of the Admiralty, the Army Council or the Air Council, and any consideration that Hardship Committees may give to the personal circumstances of a serving sailor, soldier or airman could obviously result only in a recommendation to the Service authorities. All three Services have machinery by which a man's commanding officer can grant up to 28 days' leave on compassionate grounds in cases of emergency, and I think that in most cases there is very little time that need be lost. If a commanding officer considers that leave alone will not be sufficient, he can put forward a recommendation for a period of release. There is a well-established procedure for carrying out investigations through the police, welfare officers or the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families' Association, and changes of circumstances since an individual was called up are fully taken into account. The period of release can be up to three months, with further extension in exceptional cases.

I am not in a position to say what is the time that may be taken in the case of applications to the Admiralty or Air Ministry, but I will be prepared to say that the time they take is no longer than the time taken by the War Office, which, in these cases, is sometimes two days, three days or a week, and, in the vast majority of cases, well within the month to which I referred as perhaps the average period of time in cases of industrial release. The War Office could not accept any position, nor, I think, could it be accepted by the other two Service Departments, in which an outside body, such as a Man-power Board or a Hardship Committee, should have the final decision, either in industrial or compassionate release cases. It is obvious that release must ultimately depend upon the military. situation and on operational grounds.

There is also a practical difficulty so far as the Ministry of Labour is concerned, because the personnel of military Hardship Committees will largely be required for the work of Re-instatement Committees, and I am informed by the Ministry of Labour that it would not be possible, certainly without more mature consideration on their part, to promise them for the purpose suggested. The Service Departments feel that such cases, if considered by the Hardship Committees, would not be dealt with any more speedily than under the present machinery. The Hardship Committees do not necessarily sit every day or all day, whereas a compassionate case, in which there is real urgency, can be, and is, dealt with by the Service Department concerned at almost any hour of the day or night. Each case is handled by an expert and an experienced staff, and when there is an exceptional degree of urgency it is met by the granting of compassionate leave or deferment from draft pending a decision as to temporary release. Again, I only have the figures as regards the War Office, but I am advised that during the four months from March to June, 21,000 compassionate leave cases were dealt with and compassionate leave was granted.

It may be asked whether any general guidance can be given as to the type of case in which compassionate leave can be approved. The answer, broadly, is, that a period of release can be granted, provided that the man is serving in this country, and is not in a unit from which release is barred for operational reasons, in cases where it can be substantiated that there is severe domestic hardship for which the only possible solution is the temporary presence of the soldier at home. The essential in considering compassionate applications is that each case must be treated on its merits and it is not possible to lay down hard and fast rules on what should or should not be regarded as grounds for release. But the following are types of cases in which releases may be granted: (1) where the soldier's wife is seriously ill and there are no other persons available to look after her; this type of case is, of course, particularly strong if there are also young children; (2) where the soldier's parents are very old, or in such bad health that they need attention, and there is no other person available who could make arrangements for their care except the soldier; (3) where the soldier is an orphan with young brothers and sisters, and there is no other person who could make arrangements to look afer them. Those are examples of cases in which, subject to the exigencies of the Service—which must be the over-ruling consideration in all these cases—it is likely that application for compassionate leave would be, and is, very sympathetically considered to-day.

Photo of Wing Commander Archibald James Wing Commander Archibald James , Wellingborough

For discharge as well as for leave?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I do not think that it will be possible to grant discharge from the Army in such cases. This is not done by the War Office, though I am not sure what would be the practice in other Service Departments. In my own experience, the way in which we handle an extreme compassionate case, is to relegate the soldier to what is called the Class "W" Reserve for, say, six months, and then, if the circumstances persist at the end of six months, we sympathetically consider the granting of a further six months, but we do not actually discharge on compassionate grounds. The particular type of case in which compassionate release is granted, is where there is a business owned by the soldier in which he has a direct financial interest, and which is in jeopardy as a result of his absence in the Army and there is no one else to conduct it. In these circumstances, the soldier may be released temporarily from what is called the Class "W" Reserve for a short period of, say, two months in order to make arrangements for the management by someone else durign his absence on military service. In none of these cases can release be granted, nor a fortiori can discharge be granted, but only a strictly limited period to give the soldier an opportunity of making what arrangements he can.

I have endeavoured to explain to the House the machinery which has been operating during the past four years for dealing with applications not only for industrial release but also for compassionate release. I have given figures which show the large numbers of successful applications that have been made to the War Office, and I am quite satisfied that, as regards the other Service Departments, proportionate to the numbers of men serving in those Services, the record of both will be found to be equally good. I have endeavoured to show that, whereas it is true in the case of applications for industrial release, so much time may be taken that it is impossible to arrive at the final decision until the lapse of anything up to four weeks whereas, in the case of compassionate applications, much less time is taken; we believe that this machinery has been working and is working satisfactorily and that there is nothing to be gained by changing it at this late stage of the war.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

The hon. and learned Member mentioned 6o per cent. of industrial releases. Could he tell me what proportion of that represents the miners? For my own part I appreciate the general answer, and want to thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for it because it has cleared up many knotty points as to procedure. I feel sure that the statement will be much appreciated when it goes out to the public, because very few Members of Parliament thoroughly understand the position. The explanation given to-day has certainly satisfied me as to procedure and will be of help in the future.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I understood my hon. Friend to ask what proportion of the 60 per cent. of industrial releases was in respect of miners. I cannot say that but, of course, I gave in Committee on Estimates in April the round figures of releases in relation to miners. I said that 10,000 men were released from the Army, of whom about 1,000 have since rejoined the Army. That was under the first scheme, and, under the present scheme which started in October, 193, which I described in my speech and which is operating to-day, releases have either been authorised or carried out in some further 5,000 cases.

Photo of Wing Commander Archibald James Wing Commander Archibald James , Wellingborough

I agree that the hon. and learned Gentleman's explanation is a very gratifying one, but my experience has been that the operation of the machinery is nothing like as smooth as his Departmental chief naturally claims. Would 'he consider the issue of a simple circular to commanding officers making plain to them exactly what is their position? I have actually had a case recently of a commanding officer telling a constituent of mine that the only way for him to get out was to write to his Member of Parliament. That puts something on Members which is not intended. Could the hon. and learned Gentleman consider, with the other Departments concerned, making plain in a simple circular to commanders where they stand? There is one other thing. He said there was no such thing as total discharge when it comes to a question of professional men. For example, accountants and solicitors who are partners in key businesses, perhaps for a whole district, may hear that their elderly partners have died. It is not in the man's interest alone but the interest of the whole business community, that he should be discharged, from the Army. Surely there must be some procedure for all three Services whereby total discharge could be given in such cases?

Photo of Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke Colonel Sir Ralph Clarke , East Grinstead

May I ask one simple question? Does what has just been said apply equally to men abroad and to men at home?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

As regards both industrial and compassionate release cases, the situation of men who are abroad is much more difficult because exigencies of the Service may obtrude themselves much more than they do at home. But, as regards the principle, subject to the approval of the local Commander-in-Chief, it is possible—and has been done in a number of cases within my own knowledge—to bring back men from abroad on the ground both of industrial release and compassionate release. As regards the other point, without in any way giving any commitment, I am quite sure that the suggestion made by my hon. and gallant Friend will be examined. But I really do not think it is necessary to do what he suggests so far as compassionate release cases are concerned, because every commanding officer should be well aware of the fact that he has power to give compassionate leave up to 28 days. If he does not, then he certainly does not know the extent of his powers as he should do.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

Send him a copy of HANSARD.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.