Navy Estimates, 1947–48

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th March 1947.

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Photo of Lieut-Commander Joseph Braithwaite Lieut-Commander Joseph Braithwaite , Holderness 12:00 am, 18th March 1947

I would like, first of all, to congratulate the hon. Member for Kirk-dale (Mr. Keenan) on his good fortune in drawing the winning ticket in this annual sweepstake. It is something I have tried to do for a very long time without success. I would congratulate him even more on the subject which he has chosen—that of the welfare of the Royal Navy. We always listen with attention not only to him but to the hon. Member for South Poplar (Mr. Guy) who seconded the Amendment and who, year after year on this occasion, invariably speaks in support of the cause of the lower deck. The hon. Member for Kirkdale, however, is wrong if he imagines that this is the first time this matter has been raised in the House. Over and over again on the Estimates, particularly during the war years, the question of naval welfare was very common in this Debate.

I want to offer a few observations on this Amendment, which I hope the Government will accept. I certainly support its phraseology as a reservist of somewhat ancient vintage, because my time on the lower deck was done in the earlier part of the first world war at His Majesty's Ship "Crystal Palace" where the Royal Naval Division were first put through their paces, and very lively recollections I have of that time. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mallalieu) gave us an extremely diverting account of how in his case slow-footed justice hardly ever overtook fleet-footed crime, and I would certainly endorse most of what he said about the naval barracks. I was for some time in this late war executive officer at a base, and when the young men who arrived on draft misbehaved themselves we used to dispense with the bell, book and candle procedure at the defaulters' table; it was quite sufficient to say, "Look here, young fellow-me-lad, if you do not behave yourself, back you go to Chatham barracks." It was far more effective than "number 11," stoppage of leave or anything of that sort. However, there is an aspect of this matter to which I would draw the attention of the hon. Member for Huddersfield. In time of war, when 12,000 men have to be crowded into these barracks for drafting purposes, these things are inevitable; the dodging of the column and all the rest of it do happen in time of war. In time of peace the barracks, from the point of view of their management and routine, are on a much more manageable basis.

I was glad to hear the Financial Secretary say that they now intend to make alterations and improvements in these barracks, and in due course to rebuild them. May I say in all good temper that I shall believe it when I see it, because the tragedy of the story of the naval barracks, put shortly, is a very simple one. In time of war there are neither the labour nor the material for the purpose. The barracks have to be used, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield described to us, for thousands of men. In time of peace the Estimates are generally cut, and there is no money for the purpose. I warn the Financial Secretary that before this Government is very much older, when the economic crisis which is now hastening towards us descends upon this country, one of the first things the Treasury will suggest is that they should suspend this programme for rebuilding the naval barracks. I wish the First Lord success and I hope he will dig his toes in and resist, for I am quite certain that time will come.

Important as is the rebuilding of the barracks, I think what the House has more in mind today is the general question of amenities. I want to refer to the excellent system which began during this recent war, of Information Rooms in the main barracks, depots, and on board the big ships, where the ratings could go and see all the maps, newspapers, etc., and where HANSARD used to be supplied during the war. I would like to think that this Debate will be widely read by the officers and men in the Fleet. Indeed, they might get a hint or two from it. I would like to know whether the information rooms are being conducted as part of the peacetime routine, because they are of tremendous value. The chief form of amenity which is of value is something in the nature of a ship's club. We ran one at the large base where I was the executive officer. It was a club which contained all the general amenities like billiard tables, dart boards, a card room and a stage where shows could be put on, and so forth—a club run entirely by a lower deck committee elected on a democratic basis, with an accountant officer to act as treasurer in accordance with King's Regulations, and with which none of us ever interfered unless by invitation, such as if they wanted our advice or counsel or if they wished to obtain leave for somebody who was required to appear in a show or something of that sort.

I would impress upon the House that this ship's club has blossomed out into a postwar association of men who served together at that base. I had the honour of taking the chair the other night at what they hoped was the first of a long series of annual dinners. I found that they have set up their own employment bureau, a clearing house between those who have not got jobs and those who have gat jobs to offer, among officers and men, and they are doing this with far greater success than the Ministry of Labour. They have succeeded in placing a large number of their members. There we have what we really mean by welfare—a club in which men got together during the war and the comradeship of which goes on when the war is over.

That brings me to the last point I want to make, and the one which I would stress most. My view of welfare is that it is almost entirely a psychological matter. It is not so much the provision of this or that comfort. It is not even so much a question of accommodation. It is entirely a question of the mental atmosphere which is created in a ship or a shore establishment. In 1914, when I was on the lower deck, there was no organised welfare at all in the terms in which we discuss it now. But that does not mean that nothing was done on those lines. A great deal was done by the officers to organise comforts and amenities for the lower deck. In this recent war when one wanted to go ahead with things of this sort, when a ship visited a port or a base, I found a mysterious individual had been evolved in the wartime organisation of the Navy called P.A.L.O.—the Port Amenities Liaison Officer, without whose blessing nothing could be done. Not a game of football could be played, not a hall could be obtained for a concert without his blessing.

There was a tendency—and I think it was inevitable in the circumstances—for P.A.L.O. to become an officer dumped from some other job at which he had shown himself not very efficient, or very suitable. If that did not happen, welfare was in the hands of the least occupied officer of the ship; and with the rude health of the Navy that was usually the doctor. The doctor was the man who generally had farmed off on him all sorts of things like welfare and education. The whole point of that, as I see it, is this. The moment a welfare officer, as such, is appointed in a ship or establishment, there is a great temptation for all other officers to regard the life of the ratings as none of their business. I think that is a great pity. I believe that hon. Members, wherever they sit in the House, will agree with what I am about to say. All the best welfare work in this country is spontaneous and voluntary. I always think it is a pity—although it is inevitable—that the clergy have to be placed on a salaried basis. I know the vast majority of them are extremely high-minded people, with the very best ideals. But we all know of cases, in every sect of religion, where somebody takes Orders because it is a job; and to that extent the Church suffers.

Perhaps I might be permitted to introduce a personal note, to show how I feel on this subject. My father, at the age of 19, started a mission in the East End of London, to which he went two nights a week until within three months of his death in his 80th year. For 60 years he was a social worker in the East End of London. That is what I mean when I say that the best welfare work is done for the love of the thing; it is done on a voluntary and spontaneous basis. In this House we are here for the welfare of our fellow countrymen—a splendid mission. I think it is a pity that we live in economic circumstances in which we have to be paid, and in which there is a danger of membership of the House of Commons becoming a job and a livelihood rather than a great social work. Therefore, I hope that welfare will not become a Service profession, or a branch of the Service. I hope it will not be canalised, and narrowed down to the job of one officer or another. If so, there will be a tendency for the situation to take on the aspect of the famous story of the harassed mother with two small children at Southend, saying: "I've brought you kids here for the day to enjoy yourselves. If you don't enjoy yourselves I'll smack you"—because that is the danger where there is organised welfare in the Services.

I hope that in approaching this topic the Financial Secretary will study some of the very valuable things that were learned during the war, and that the officers of the Navy will be encouraged not to rebuff outside helpers, civilians, who are interested in this matter. Let me give an example of what I mean. During the war a number of devoted ladies all over the country used to knit comforts for the Fleet. And by the way, I hope that continues in time of peace, because it is just as cold keeping watch in peacetime as it is in the face of the enemy. I hope the comforts do not end when the guns cease to fire. But that is by the way. These comforts used to arrive for distribution, representing as they did a labour of love by people all over the country. Now, there is all the difference in the world in the manner in which these comforts are distributed. If they are thrown to the man by the supply assistant, saying, "That's your lot. Sign for it," the real spirit of the thing is thereby destroyed. Even if it is handed to him by someone wearing the honoured uniform of the W.R.N.S., it is still a Service matter. At our base we were very fortunate in having a civilian lady, the wife of one of the officers, who took a great interest in the ship's club. Whenever a lad was going to sea for his first voyage, on his first convoy, while we had all the Service ceremonial and the supply system of booking the comforts, they were handed to the man by this lady. Some people may say that is sob stuff and sentimental talk. But the fact remains, that a smile, a handshake and a cheerful word go a mighty long way when a man is going to sea for the first time, when the thing can be divested, if only for a moment, of the Service atmosphere, and especially when, in the words of the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) the lady is "kindly to the eye"—as was the case at our base—it makes a great difference.