Armed Forces

Part of Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th December 1964.

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Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South 12:00 am, 14th December 1964

I am very much tempted to follow the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) about the economic policy followed by the new Government. I hope he does not think that the economic crisis which faces us started on 16th October. I hope he will accept that people abroad are not very much interested in whether it is a Labour balance of payments or a Conservative balance of payments crisis. They regard with some amusement any postures we might adopt when talking about independent foreign policies or independent defence policies when every so often they know that the posture is rather that of going to them cap in hand. I resist that temptation.

I was far more tempted to take the point the hon. Member made about the new mood of Communist China. This is something that all of us in all parts of the House will increasingly have to consider in the years to come. I content myself by saying that I, and I believe, many other hon. Members on this side of the House believe, we could cope with these problems far more if we could get Communist China admitted to the United Nations.

I want to raise two rather prosaic matters which do not range over defence policy in 20 years' time or enable me to dazzle with a knowledge of pre-emptive strikes—if that is the phrase—in 1980. They are very prosaic matters on which I should like an answer from my hon. Friend when he winds up the debate. The first concerns the accounting procedures of the Territorial Army. I raise this because of publicity given to a court martial which took place on 13th October concerning a Leeds Territorial Army unit. I should be the last to suggest that the events I shall unfold are typical but my postbag shows that people are concerned about this matter. On the following day the Yorkshire Post said: Although it was strictly against regulations"— the W.R.A.C. sergeant concerned was put in charge of two cash accounts at her unit. I do not condone what she did; nevertheless it was the unit which broke Army Regulations on this occasion.

As I understand it, under the system of Territorial Army accounting, the unit receives its money from the, county Territorial association. This cash is used for what used to be called "drill money"—for travelling and training expenses. The county association payments are accounted for by an account holder who, I understand, must be of the rank of warrant officer or above. I understand also that Army regulations are very firm on the requirement that these accounts should be checked every three months. The fact that this could not possibly have been done in this case has moved me to raise the matter in the debate.

It probably is an isolated case but I should like an assurance that public money used for the Territorial Army is being used properly. There is a great deal of talk—we have had it again today—about the saving of money on the cost of very expensive weapons, nuclear and otherwise, but sometimes I think we forget the smaller sums of money which could be saved in the Armed Forces and everywhere else by proper attention. I want to ask also what is the annual sum paid through the Defence Department to the various county Territorial associations in the country.

My second subject is more general. It concerns the status of nurses in the Armed Forces. I can best illustrate what I have in mind by a letter I have received from the assistant matron of a hospital in Preston, who is a male and fully qualified. Indeed, he has all the qualifications and more required for the Armed Forces. He writes: In my capacity as Assistant Matron, I am jointly responsible with the Matron for the hospital administration, and my subordinate staff … is comprised of Senior Nursing Sisters, Staff Nurses and Enrolled Nurses.Should I decide to embark on a Military career—I can assure you I will not under the present policy—my administrative experience and training would not be given recognition like that that would be given to the most junior member of my Nursing staff. I hate to think what positions we Male Nursing Administrators would hold if called to serve in a National Emergency. I have also had a letter from another male nurse, from Sheffield. He and a female colleague, equally qualified, went to join the Army Emergency Reserve. He was told that he could enrol as a private and she was told that she could receive a commission in Her Majesty's Forces. I understand that female qualified nurses may indeed be commissioned in the Army and the Air Force and, I presume, that is also the case in the naval nursing service. But male nurses are recruited as other ranks.

I understand that the various professional nursing bodies have pressed for a change in this respect, against this discrimination against mere males, over the years but have not got very far. Is it fair that Service life should be so different from civilian life? Are there enough qualified nurses in the Services? I do not believe there are. My information—I believe that it was confirmed today—is that there is a shortage. Male S.R.N.s are able to do the job in civil life. Why should they not be able to do it in the Services?

I have had brought to my notice the experience in the United States. I would be the last to suggest that we should do this because it is done over there, but the American experience may be sufficient evidence to prompt my right hon. Friend to look into this matter very closely. A letter from the American Nurses Association says: Pressure to secure the passage of legislation by Congress to ensure the commissioning of male registered nurses in the American Armed Forces was strongly exerted in 1950. This was finally approved and from 1955 male nurses were commissioned in the Nursing Corps which prior to this time was exclusively a women's corps. The A.N.A. was in full support of the male nurses' claim for equality, and assisted in breaking the opposition in the Defence Department. It is understood from the Defence Department, and from the medical and nursing directorates, that male officers of the Nursing Service are making a fine contribution. I want also to quote from the American publication Nursing Outlook of September, 1964. It says: The Army Nursing Corps medal for outstanding academic achievement by a student of the advanced military nursing course … has for the second time been won by a man. The report then gives details and adds: He joined the Army Nursing Corps in 1963, and was commissioned Captain. Among the 33 nurses enlisting at that time 12 were men. The report adds the very important point: There are now 313 male nurses serving as officers in the Army Nursing Corps, and 293 commissioned male nurses in the United States Air Force Nursing Corps. I ask my right hon. Friend to look at this matter, I understand that there has been a growth in the number of qualified male nurses in this country in recent years. It is often said—and I do not know which way round it is—that the emancipation of women was connected with the growth of the nursing profession in the last century. Which came first, I do not know. But two of the important social trends today—and they are linked—is the growth in the number of young men and young women staying on at school beyond the age of 16 and the growth in the number of people in new professional occupations, one of which is nursing.

I believe that the Americans have accepted the fact and have realised that there is a career for men as trained nurses. They have realised their use in the Armed Services. I simply ask that male nurses in this country should have an equal chance. I suppose that it is a change for a mere male to be asking for equal rights for men. I do not think that male nurses will chain themselves to statues in the Palace of Westminster to get this done. I hope that they will be able to get their rights without taking the sort of drastic action that women had to take 40 or 50 years ago.