Orders of the Day — Greenwich Hospital and Travers' Foundation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1965.

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Photo of Commander Harry Pursey Commander Harry Pursey , Kingston upon Hull East 12:00 am, 29th October 1965

The chances of a rating's son paying the higher fees is very remote, so the chances of the ratings getting the higher standard are very small. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State asks, "What do you mean?" I will tell him. The chance of a rating's son going to one of the expensive schools, and so justifying a higher payment, is remote. That is what I mean, and I shall not elaborate on it.

There is another Greenwich Hospital crisis at present, but the Admiralty has recently decided to increase the fee to £120 from January, 1966. This time, the increased fee is not to be limited to new entrants; it is also to be charged for boys now at the school—another scandal. What was the position in 1957? As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Admiralty already had a Forces' children education and maintenance allowance which would pay the fees for serving officers and ratings. We are therefore batting on a lot of common ground today. The Admiralty's object was that ex-Service fathers and widows should try to get local education authorities to pay the whole or part of the fees. I should like to know how many education authorities pay fees in full, how many pay part and how many refuse to pay at all.

The result is a marvellous combination of permutations. Serving officers and ratings themselves pay nothing. Ex-Service ratings and widows may get a full grant, a part grant or nothing at all from the education authorities. The Admiralty may remit part, or nothing, of the fee, and the parent has to pay the balance. What a game! Finally, ratings' widows have to pay fees out of their own pockets. What a scandal!

1.45 p.m.

I want now to try to satisfy the Under-Secretary by giving three examples of this national scandal of naval ratings' widows having to pay for the education of their orphaned sons at the Navy's own orphanage while the sons of "brass-hats" are educated at no cost to their families. The first case is that of a widow whose husband was a chief petty officer. He had served for over 24 years, and died on foreign service. This widow has a naval widow's pension of £70 a year, and is charged £70 a year in school fees. The Admiralty has paid her £70 in pension with one hand, and has taken it away with the other for the education of her orphaned son. What an Admiralty! What a charity—out for its pound of flesh from the widows of the Navy's own Service men. What an advertisement for recruits.

I have with me this widow's receipts for the school fees. At first she was charged the petty sum of £2 per term—to add £6 a year to Greenwich Hospital's £½ million annual income. Then, because she went out to work, she was charged £70 per annum, so that the Admiralty could take back her naval widow's pension. For some time afterwards she was charged the full widow's rate of £100, and finally the fee came down again to £70. Who would expect such pettifogging action by a great State Department like the Admiralty in dealing with one of its own rating's widows?

In the second case, the husband was a petty officer who died after 12 years' service, including war service. That means that his widow does not receive a naval widow's pension. She was suddenly left to bring up three young children aged 9, 6 and 3. Later, the eldest boy entered Holbrook but, in spite of the widow having the burden of the other two young children, she was charged £15 per annum. A sum of £15 may not be a lot of money to the Admiralty or to Greenwich Hospital, but to any rating's widow it is an appreciable sum which she can ill-afford to lose.

The third case concerns another petty officer's widow—this time with six young children. Incredible though it may sound she has to pay fees for the education of one of her sons. Her husband served for 20 years—nearly a full career for pension—but he was invalided out, and died five months later. This was just the type of case to comply with the Royal Foundation Charter for free maintenance and education. The ages of the children were 15, 12, 10, 9, 7 and 6, yet this heavily handicapped widow was charged £26 per annum fees. This 10s. a week is an injustice for any rating's widow with six children. Surely this case if no other should be accepted as a wholly compassionate case on two counts: one, that the father was invalided from the Service, a precise case from the Royal Charter and, two, the number of orphan children, boys and girls. No fees should have been taken from the widow herself. But the Admiralty must have its pound of flesh, to the detriment of the mother and her six children.

Admittedly, all three widows have taken up full employment, but let us picture a widow having to go out to work and then pay these fees. The widows of ratings must work to pay their expenses, but that means paying another woman to look after their children. What are deemed to be the net wages in these cases? What is the Admiralty's assessment of the income of a widow who is charged £70 fees? Is it gross or net wages? Is a rating's widow who has to do a full day's work and then return and deal with home and children assessed on gross income, or in the same way as an officer's widow whose income is from pensions and investments and does not have to go out to work? The House has a right to know how this mysterious naval charity swindle is manipulated.

I have given the Under-Secretary details of these cases so that there is no attempt to take him by surprise. What is his reply? Quite incredibly, he attempts to justify the fees charged to these widows. He argues that the widows have not complained of the fees charged. What nonsense! Obviously, he has no experience of dealing with poverty. One needs to have been poor to appreciate the value of every penny for children. Does he expect the widows of petty officers to be pleading poverty in order to get the charity to which they are entitled under the Royal Foundation Charter? Does he not realise that these widows have some sense of pride? What rating's widow, once she becomes an object of charity, complains of the few crumbs she receives? How many of them realise that the object of the Royal Foundation Charter was to provide free education for their orphan sons? If they all did, there would be merry hell to pay, with public meetings of protest in the naval ports, Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham and Rosyth and in the fishing ports, because all seafarers are entitled to have their sons considered for this orphanage.

Who are the guilty men who have refused the entry of the sons of ratings in order to take the sons of commissioned officers and who have charged fees to the widows of these ratings, fees which they should never have been asked to pay? The answer is the Admiralty and the board of governors. The Under-Secretary is now the chairman and, as we have been told, two hon. Members, one from each side, are on the board. The Under-Secretary has now been the chairman for a year. What has he done to remedy these injustices which are a blot on the escutcheon of the Senior Service? Precisely nothing. He continues to support the Tory policy of keeping the poor poor.

The Under-Secretary is a member of the Labour Government. The Government have abolished the earnings rule for widows. Whenever the social services have been discussed, hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued the case for widows, particularly for widows with young children, as the most compassionate case and that for first consideration.

I throw down this challenge to the Under-Secretary now; when he replies to the debate, will be announce from that Dispatch Box, "The Admiralty and Greenwich Hospital have decided to abolish the earnings rule for ratings' widows in considering the fees for the Royal Hospital School"? If not, I challenge him to justify this iniquitous practice which his own Government have discarded.

So much for the present. What about the future? Despite its millions, Greenwich Hospital is again in one of its periodic financial crises. Why does the Admiralty not now take over some of the pensions and use Greenwich Hospital fund for the school and orphans? Instead the Admiralty has decided to increase fees from £100 to £120. Let me make this point clear: I am not arguing about getting money from local education authorities or other sources; my argument is that what is fish for the goose is flesh for the gander—my own analogy. If a commissioned officer has to pay nothing for his son, certainly the widow of a rating should pay nothing out of her own pocket for her orphaned son.

I have a copy of the current letter which reads: Many of the parents of boys at the School are of course able to obtain assistance with the fees from their Local Education Authorities but some, like yourself, are not receiving assistance from this source. These are the cases with which I want hon. Members to deal and which I want investigated. The letter goes on: In order that we may review the amount of your contribution from next January I should be glad if you would complete and return the enclosed confidential form of income. Here is another means test for ratings' poor widows with no help from the local education authority. It is another attempt to increase the pound of flesh from the widows of these ratings.

Yet no such means test is applied to serving officers and ratings. That is another scandal. The Admiralty argues that it does not receive many applications from the widows of ratings. The reason is that it does not make any real attempt to get them by informing widows about the school. The plain fact is that despite protestations to the contrary, the Admiralty does not seriously want orphans.

In June, I had a letter published in several newspapers all over the country asking for information from parents, including widows, who had been unable to get their sons into Holbrook. The outstanding feature of the replies was the number of parents, including widows, who said that they had no knowledge of the school. One letter came from Norwich, only a few miles from Holbrook. The Cruse Clubs, the "Counselling Service for Widows", stated: The situation following our inquiries is widows are not informed about education available at the Royal Hospital School unless they themselves make a point of inquiring. Obviously widows cannot inquire if they are not aware of the school. Why does the Admiralty not announce the dates for application for each term in a Press release to the agencies and to the national and naval port Press as it does with other announcements? There is no question that the object of the Admiralty is to obtain as many sons of serving officers and ratings as possible. Then, whatever the fee may be, it can be paid from naval funds. They want to take less and less boys of ex-Service men and less and less orphans. That is the exact reverse of the original regulations. The present regulations give four classes. They are: (a) Serving or former commissioned officers"— in other words serving or former comissioned officers first— Non-commissioned officers, both officers or men of the Royal Navy and Marines; (b) Officers or men of the Royal Naval Reserves; (c) Other sea-faring men; and (d) Men on lifeboat services.Claims for admission to the school will be determined in such a manner as the Admiralty Board may decide but the selectors will give special consderation to orphans, and have regard to the length and merit of the fathers' sea-service. Special consideration is not given to the orphans in practice. It is not stated in those regulations what is meant by orphans, as it was in the old regulations when the four categories were quoted. This year the headmaster and members of his staff have addressed meetings of officers and men at the ports to encourage them to apply for their sons' entry into the school. This shows that the aim is to obtain sons of serving officers, who are able to obtain the full £100 fee from the Services.' Fund. The grapevine at the ports suggests that the official attitude is, "We do not want widows," which must in turn mean "We do not want orphans".

The second Admiralty object is to take more and more commissioned officers' sons. At present the proportion is onethird—214 out of 675. How long will it be before the proportion is two-thirds? How long before it is three-thirds? The intention is that Holbrook should be a class preserve for officers' sons and the prep school of the Navy for the entry of cadets into Dartmouth College. This would take us back to the equivalent of the previous prep school main entry into the Navy, and should be fought tooth and nail.

What do these arguments of mine add up to? First, the entry of commissioned officers' sons into Holbrook should cease and all places should be for ratings and ex-ratings' sons, with first preference for orphans. Secondly, the earnings rule for ratings' widows should be abolished and no fees should be charged to them. The Admiralty, which gains the advantage of the school for recruits, should pay for the school. The object should be to train boys as ratings for the specialist branches of the Navy, as well as for seamen entries and all the advantages to be gained after service on the lower decks.

A decision not to enter officers' sons would cause no hardship at all to them. They can get their sons educated anyway, and it would be an advantage to the Navy to have more lower deck entries. The Services educational allowance enables an officer to enter his son in any school of his choice. Why try for education on the cheap at the ratings' orphanage? The Navy is not short of officer entries, but they are short of rating entries, particularly in the specialist branches such as the engine room and other artificers and technical ratings.

When I left Greenwich School 60 years ago to be a second-class boy in the Royal Navy no one with any knowledge of the school's achievements with ratings' sons would have ever dreamt that it would be necessary for the first "old boy" to become an hon. Member of this House to have to stand up here today, in 1965, under a Labour Government, and plead for the entry of the sons of poor seamen, and particularly orphans, into this orphanage and ask that a widow should not be charged fees. That is the position today.