Orders of the Day — National Service (Hardship Cases)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th May 1959.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

My aim this evening is to show that many domestic tragedies are arising out of the call up. In particular, I want to ask that, on humanitarian grounds, two particular categories of men should both be exempted from the call-up, or if the men are already serving, that they should be released on compassionate grounds. The two categories I have in mind are, first, those men who are married, with a child or young children, and, second, those who are living with a widowed mother, who is living on her own or with young children.

I hope it will be understood that I am in no way accusing the Minister of harshness in this matter. In fact, the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary has a justified reputation on all sides of this House for the opposite of harshness, because in his previous position he did all he could to relieve hardship. I am, therefore, not blaming the Minister, but the present system.

It is a striking fact that today young people are maturing sexually much earlier than they used to do. Very large numbers are married and have children by the age of 20. I have done a little research, and, I find that out of 163,000 National Service men, no fewer than 21,000 are married. That is a figure of one in eight, and very many of these have children.

Members of Parliament have many unfortunate and unhappy people coming to their advice bureaux. One of the saddest cases I can remember recently was the visit of a young National Service man and his wife to my advice bureau, each carrying a sleeping baby.

The father was away in the Army and the mother was quite incapable of looking after the home and her babies without his help. In addition, she could not manage financially on the allowance, and the debts and bills were beginning to accumulate. She was going frantic with worry. This National Service man has been absent without obtaining leave three times in order to be with his wife. The police knew exactly where to find him. They went straight to his home and found him in the back kitchen with his family, where in my view he should have been instead of being away in the Forces peeling potatoes or square-bashing or generally wasting his time. This man had to go to a military jail for that offence.

I remember another occasion when I was asked to meet a young Service man at 10.30 at night in the dark on a street corner at Salford because he was on the run. The police were after him and I advised him to catch the midnight train back to his unit, which he reluctantly did. I know of another case where a National Service man had been absent without obtaining leave no fewer than six times in order to be with his family, and for no other purpose. He served a considerable period in an Army jail.

I maintain that these men are not criminals but victims—the victims of the present unfair and unnecessary rules. I know personally of nine cases of men who went absent without leave in Salford. There must be many other cases in the city of which I am not aware. How many cases must there be throughout the country if that is the position in only one place? I believe that insistence on the call-up in such cases is breaking up many happy homes and happy marriages. I am sure that, without my going further into this point, the natural and obvious dangers will be apparent to the Minister when there is this separation of young people.

Now for the widowed mothers, who are often elderly, unwell and in a highly nervous state. Then the breadwinner is taken out of the home. I know that in 1,200 cases young men were given their release last year, but in my experience it is only if the widowed mother is seriously ill that the son will get exemption. I am asking that it should not he necessary to prove serious illness on the part of the widow for relief to be given because in some cases when the young man is taken out of the home the widowed mother cracks up.

I will quote a case of which I have personal knowledge. The father was dying of cancer of the liver and there were doctors' notes to this effect. I am blaming the Under-Secretary of State for War in respect of this case because he had the facts before him. The mother had had a serious internal operation and yet she had to lift the dying man from the bed on to the commode, which the doctor said she should not do. In addition, there was a young girl of eleven who had been sent to an open air school because of lung trouble. Despite those conditions, I failed to get the young man either a compassionate discharge or even a compassionate release. The best I could achieve was to get him moved to a barracks near his home. The father died, now the mother is seriously ill, but the son is still in the Forces. I say that that is altogether wrong.

Nor should financial hardship be ignored, but, strangely enough, this is one of the factors which the Ministry completely ignores. Its argument is that financial hardship is cared for by the hardship grant, but is it? Take the case of a widow and two young children. The financial grant is roughly on National Assistance levels, which are not good enough. The widow will get £2 5s, herself, 18s, for each child, 10s. 6d. family allotment from the son in the Forces and. say, 14s, rent allowance, a total of five guineas. Some of these men, particularly those who have completed their apprenticeship before going into the Forces, are skilled men who might have been earning £10, £12, or £14 a week. Overnight, the income is more than halved. There are serious financial reasons why exemption should be granted.

I must admit that yesterday I was discussing this matter with an hon. and gallant Member, a certain well-known colonel. He told me I was "letting my bleeding heart run away with my bloody head ". My view is that if there were a few more bleeding hearts in this House there would be fewer weeping widows in other houses. We are sent here to look after these people who are helpless. If we were at war there could be an argument for calling these men up, but we are not at war and the last National Service man is due to come out in December, 1962—in my view, not before time.

As most of them would tell us, they are wasting their time. Thanks to improved recruitment, there is no longer a need for these men. Most of the generals have more men than they know what to do with. In the last few weeks certain classes of teachers have been exempted. If we can exempt certain classes of teachers, I cannot see why these people, who may he in far greater need, should not also be free. What I am seeking is in my view completely practicable. It is the exemption or discharge of these two categories of men.

I want to stress that five similar categories already exist. It is not widely known—I wish it were—that two years ago the Government made certain relaxations. They stated that on the face of it there were certain qualifications which would provide grounds both for exemption and for discharge. I shall mention one or two of them: where a man is a widower or is separated from his wife and has children dependent upon him—that is a very good ground; where a man has relatives constantly dependent on him; or where a man has a family business which cannot be carried on under alternative arrangements.

I must hasten to add that there are thousands and thousands of National Service men, or potential National Service men who are completely unaware of these qualifications. I urge that they should be brought to their attention, either by posting notices in their units or in all employment exchanges. All I am seeking to do is to add two categories to those five existing categories. I think this could be done administratively. I am only a private Member and have no experience of these matters, but surely the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Defence could get together and work out a way of arranging this. I believe that if men really want to do a thing they will find a way of doing it.

Why should not a letter be sent by the Ministry of Labour to the tribunals adding these two categories and making it clear that there should not be call-up in these cases? This real reform would not cost the country a penny. Indeed, it would save the country very large sums of money. Some of us are determined to stick at this problem until the Government give way.

If the Minister gave his consent this afternoon I would naturally be delighted. If he cannot give his assent now, would he at least consider meeting me and other hon. Members who are concerned about this so that we might go into the matter and see whether something could not be done? It would bring tremendous relief to many homes in our country.

4.16 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Richard Wood Hon. Richard Wood , Bridlington

This is a matter in which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) has taken a very close and continuing interest over many months, as I have seen from the Questions he has asked and the letters he has written to my right hon. Friend. I agree with a great many things in his speech, but I did not agree with his suggestion that National Service men were doing nothing but wasting their time during their two years' service. When I served in the Army I took the view that I was wasting quite a lot of my time, but I am sure that, in fact, it was not all completely wasted.

It is important, at the beginning of this debate, to point out that there are three ways in which the compulsion of National Service is relaxed. No doubt the hon. Gentleman knows what they are, but they are not clear in some minds, and I admit that they were not particularly clear in my mind fourteen or fifteen months ago before I came to the Ministry of Labour. There is exemption, there is deferment, and there is postponement of military service. We are discussing this afternoon the question of postponement.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Service Act, 1948, provided for men to apply for postponement on the grounds of exceptional hardship. The principles on which this hardship should be determined have been set out in statutory regulations. The hon. Member drew our attention to the amendment of those regulations which was made just over two years ago and which made certain important changes in the direction which he no doubt welcomed very much.

The first was one that he mentioned of allowing postponement in cases of business hardship when it was not reasonable to make other arrangements for carrying on the business. As he knows, that was an extension of the original view of this question which merely allowed time during which the reorganisation could be carried out. The second important one was the extension of the maximum period of postponement from six months to two years on initial application and a year on renewal application.

The third is important in view of what the hon. Gentleman said, because these categories, some of which he mentioned, are not categories which automatically receive a grant of postponement. But under the amending regulations of 1957 out officers at the Ministry of Labour were told to make a favourable assumption in certain cases. The case of the widower, or the man who is separated from his wife and has children living with him; the case of the young man having a major responsibility for the care of younger brothers and sisters, and other cases which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, came under this category and our officers were asked to look favourably and particularly sympathetically at each of such cases and consider whether it was a special case for postponement.

Perhaps I can say a word about the procedure. As the hon. Member knows, every man who registers for National Service can apply for postponement. He is given a leaflet when he attends for his medical examination, and he can apply for postponement, generally within a couple of days of his medical examination, although, in practice, we do not very often refuse late applications. My right hon. Friend can grant applications for postponement, but he cannot refuse them. If he does not allow an application, it must be referred to the military service hardship committee. There are various other changes which were made in later amending regulations about the hearing of those applications.

The hon. Member has appealed to my right hon. Friend from time to time, and has done so again this afternoon, for what he defined as automatic exemption or compassionate release for certain categories of men who are married with a child or children, or men living with widowed mothers.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

I am not asking for automatic exemption. I am asking merely that it should be announced that they will be considered in the five similar categories as having prima facie good grounds for postponement.

Photo of Hon. Richard Wood Hon. Richard Wood , Bridlington

I was assuming that the hon. Member was going further than that and I hope that I shall be able to make it plain that there is absolutely no doubt that the categories he has mentioned are sympathetically considered by our officers.

I understood the hon. Member to be arguing the wider question of whether these people should ever be called up. That would place us in considerable difficulties because, as I think he will agree, it is extremely difficult in these matters to balance the degree of hardship. I think that he would agree that certain people in other categories, for instance, men who are married without children, may on certain occasions—if their wives happen to be very nervous or anxious about their being called up for National Service—suffer more greatly than other men who are married with a child or children.

It would be difficult to specify certain categories which should be automatically exempt from National Service, quite apart from the practical difficulties of putting it into operation. If the hon. Member is asking what he just indicated in his interruption, I can assure him that I will take further steps to make quite clear to those who have to decide these matters—although I think that they are already clear about it—that if there are cases where any question of hardship arises, especially in the categories which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, then they should be considered sympathetically.

I understand that I take the hon. Member with me in saying that I am convinced that every case must continue to be considered on its merits and that where there is shown to be hardship we have been ready to consider postponement, as I think the hon. Member would agree. I took a look at the figures of applications and applications granted over the last two or three years. The figures show remarkable increases. In 1956 out of just over 4,000 applications, 2,400 were allowed, a percentage of 59. That figure increased in 1957 and in 1958, there were 6,300 applications of which 4,300 were allowed, that is, 67 per cent. That means that two out of every three applications were granted in 1958.

I hope that I have said enough to convince the hon. Gentleman that I take a very sympathetic view of this question. Whatever the categories are which our officers are asked to look at particularly sympathetically, I am convinced that every application is looked at sympathetically. If the hon. Gentleman is in any way dissatisfied about any case, he knows that if he writes to my right hon. Friend or myself we will look at it as carefully as we can. I understand that a number of letters which the hon. Gentleman has written to my right hon. Friend have brought desirable results, but if he would like to meet me with some of his hon. Friends who feel like him about this I should be only too willing to do so. We can then have a further discussion about it and the hon. Gentleman can make suggestions by which these occasional cases of great hardship which he seems to be convinced escape through the procedure can be looked at and the objective which we all share, of trying to avoid hardships, can be attained.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary very much for saying, first, that he is prepared to meet some of my hon. Friends and myself to discuss this matter, and, secondly, for his statement, which I welcome warmly, that these categories will be looked at sympathetically by his officers. In my experience these two categories have not been accepted up to now in cases I have quoted.

Photo of Hon. Richard Wood Hon. Richard Wood , Bridlington

I want to make clear to the hon. Gentleman that a great many National Service men who happen to be in these two categories have received postponement because of hardship. I am not suggesting that every National Service man has, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman does not want that. Perhaps it would be easiest if the hon. Gentleman and I meet, and we can discuss this further. I am sure that we have the same objective in mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.