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New Clause—(Exemption For Only Son Of Widow In Certain Circumstances)

Volume 437: debated on Friday 9 May 1947

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"This Act shall not apply to the only son of a widow living with and supporting his mother."—[Mr. Rhys Davies.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I hope the Committee will allow me to be reminiscent for a moment or two. In 1922 I sat on the benches opposite and, following my success in the Ballot, I pleaded the case of widows' pensions. The House laughed me to scorn for making such a daring proposal. Today, I return to the case of the widow in another sense, but I hardly think that Members will treat me with contempt on this occasion. I am fortified in putting down this Motion, because I understand that most of the conscript laws of the world provide that the only son of a widow should be exempt from military service. I am told that the French call-up is definite on that score, and I do not think that our country should be behind in this matter.

I dare say I shall be told, on this occasion, by the Minister, that the cases of only sons of widows will be dealt with by the hardship and manpower tribunals. But the promises of Ministers on the Floor of the House do not mean much to me any longer. Ministers and Governments change, and we have to do all we can to secure a legal basis for any change we want to make. In my Division I remember dealing with the case of a coalminer who was lying in bed after being injured in an accident in the pit. He was there 18 months, and during that time his six sons were all called up for the Forces for the last war. I tried to rescue the last one, and the only way I could achieve my object was to expose the manpower board in this House. Several members of the board were of military age themselves and had never served throughout the war. I know of a case of a widow whose husband served in the first world war, contracted some disease but was never entitled to a war pension. She never got a war pension. She had an only son who was conscripted for the recent war and killed on active service, but as he was married his widow receives the pension. Therefore, both the father and son have been lost in the two wars. I know of no case more pathetic than that of the widow in that position. I am pleading her case today by asking that her only son shall not in future be called up for military service.

The late Lord Asquith dealt with this very problem when the first Military Service Bill came before the House of Commons in 1916 and he very nearly carried the point, to insert it in the law of the land. I have looked up the OFFICIAL REPORT. It is apparent that this matter of the widow's son in relation to military service is many centuries old. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) here, because he may be interested in the quotation which I propose to read. It is from an old ballad concerning the Lord Derby of that day, and it was read by Mr. Asquith on that occasion. The quotation supports my argument better than anything else.

In those days King Henry V was on the throne, and he wanted some soldiers to fight his battles. There have been many changes since then. In those days, kings, chieftains and statesmen fought their own battles and got their supporters to carry bread, cheese and beer up to the front line. Nowadays, kings, statesmen, chieftains and Ministers are safe far behind, drawing big salaries, and collecting lads of 18 years of age to do the fighting for them.

These are the King's lines:

"Go 'cruit me Cheshire and Lancashire,
And Derby hills that are so free:
No married man or widow's son,
No widow's curse shall go with me."

On a point of Order. Is there not an old Rule of this House that what has been said by the occupant of the Throne, may not be quoted in order to influence Debate?

In any case, he did not occupy the Throne for very long after he had made that statement. Lord Derby replied:

"They recruited Cheshire and Lancashire,
And Derby hills that are so free,
Tho' no married man nor widow's son,
They recruited three thousand men and three."
I am supported in my argument also because this matter has been debated for centuries when Governments have been recruiting men for the Forces. They have always been afraid to recruit the only son of the widow because the Bible told them that a curse would come upon them if they did so. If any Government in the world ought to have compassion upon the widow it is our Labour Government and this Government above all ought to accept the proposed new Clause. The Government have not conceded very much to us, but they have been very patronising about Amendments on the Tory side. I appeal to my right hon. Friend, now that their hearts may be melted in regard to this proposal, so that it may go forth that the Government will not recruit the only son of a widow and may avoid any curse falling upon them in that connection.

2.45 p.m.

I will take but a few moments to deal with this case. In his closing words my hon. Friend threw out a sneer that we were rejecting proposals made from this side of the Committee but accepting those made from the other side. I wonder whether he, as a father would give his children edged tools to play with, simply because a friend had given them the edged tools, and whether he would not be glad if, even an opponent came along and took them away.

I am sorry. I very often wondered whether sons learnt anything from their fathers. The fact of the matter is that my hon. Friend is trying to pre- vent the passing of the Bill. He knows that if we accepted his new Clause he would still oppose the passing of the Bill. We must take it at that. I will say only a few words on the merits of his proposal. In his proposed new Clause he asks for exemption for the only son of a widow. If there were two sons, which of them, I wonder, would be chosen as the son to exempt. Further, should there be a special provision for the only son of a widower. I do not say these things facetiously. There is the husband of a wife, the father of children, and perhaps brother and sister. There might be the only son of a father who is unable to work, or the only son of a father who has a small business. We cannot take action on these sentimental grounds exclusively, but on the broad considerations only. There is a statutory provision for postponement of liability, owing to hardship. It is intended that there shall be financial provision for cases such as that of a young man who has been called up and who has been supporting his widowed mother. Support will be given in that case. I hope that the Committee will agree that it is not necessary for me to adduce further arguments in asking them to reject the proposed new Clause.

It is obvious that if the right hon. Gentleman does call up this category, financial provision would have to be made. I do not think hon. Gentlemen have been wholly satisfied with the working of the war service grant system in dealing with that class of case. It will be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman will amplify what he has said as to the system of financial assistance. Is that system to be administered by the Service Departments, by the Ministry, or by the Assistance Board under his own Department? In what way is it to be done? Secondly, could he give us—

The right hon. Gentleman has advanced an argument to the Committee that financial assistance will be provided. Surely the Committee are entitled to ask him what that assistance will be? It may be that upon the adequacy or otherwise of those arrangements, hon. Members will make up their minds whether or not they support the proposed new Clause. I appreciate what is in your mind, Major Milner, and since this may well be not an Assistance Board matter, but a question for a Service Department, the right hon. Gentleman himself may have some difficulty in supplying the information. By a happy coincidence, however, we have representatives of most of the Government Departments on the Front Bench opposite—I think for the first time during this Debate—and it would no doubt be possible for one of them to give the Committee some information in this respect.

The difficulty is that it is not competent to discuss, on this new Clause, the question of detailed financial assistance. The Minister was, no doubt, in Order in mentioning financial assistance in a general way in passing, and the hon. Gentleman has the right to refer to it but, as I have said, there can be no detailed discussion now.

I accept that Ruling with great respect, Major Milner, but may I put this point to you? Is it permissible to ask whether this financial assistance to which the Minister has referred will be administered by his Department or by some other Department? I do respectfully submit that since the Minister has called in aid this provision of financial assistance the Committee is entitled to an answer to that question.

May I just say to the hon. Gentleman, who has been kind enough to give way, that the position at the moment is this. We accept the principle that financial assistance must be provided but we have not got beyond deciding to work out a scheme.

I thank the Minister for that characteristically helpful intervention, and would merely say this to him. As I understand it this scheme is now in process of being worked out and I do hope that in working it out the right hon. Gentleman will get away as far as he can from the crude imperfections of the war service grants scheme and that a mare humane, flexible and workable scheme will be put into operation.

I will not detain the Committee for long—[Interruption.] If my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench resent that, I would only say that we on this side have not wasted the time of the Committee. Nearly two hours were spent on the first three Clauses.

There has been no suggestion so far as I know that the time of the Committee has been wasted, and I must ask the hon. Member to withdraw.

I am sorry, Major Milner, but I did think that there was rather a hint from the Front Bench in what appeared to be an intervention that I was wasting time. Some of us on this side of the Committee feel very strongly on this issue and it is not merely because—as the Minister appeared to suggest—we are opposed to conscription. We have endeavoured to make suggestions to the Government which would render this Bill more acceptable, and I do not consider that the reply which we have received is very satisfactory. For that reason I resent the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour that my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) had thrown out a sneer. We feel that suggestions which have been made from this side of the Committee have not been given the consideration they might have received.

On this particular issue I wish to refer to the number of cases which, as Members of Parliament, we are constantly coming up against in connection with instances of the only son of a widow. We are constantly approaching the Minister of Labour for deferment in these cases, but personally I have found in my own constituency that in the main these young men are anxious to perform their service. The point is that they are faced with the fact that they have to go through a procedure every time which makes them feel that they are trying to evade their responsibilities. I had a case in Burnley recently of the only son of a widow who was ill. The doctor had suggested that she ought not to be left alone. The young man went through the procedure to obtain six months deferment and then finally had to go, but the situation was still the same and the anxiety remained hanging over both the son and his mother throughout the whole period. I do hope that the Government will give further consideration to this matter. It seems to me that it is a case which they could deal with as something entirely different from any other.

I can speak as the only son of a widow and one who can make some claim to satisfy the conditions in this proposed new Clause. I am sure we are most grateful to the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) for his sympathetic approach to this subject, and we are equally grateful to the Minister who has also spoken sympathetically and said that in certain circumstances cases of hardship will be met. I am sure too that we have not the least desire to be considered a privileged class and that many of us would even volunteer for extended service if we thought that by so doing we should add to the curses on the heads of this Government.

I appreciate that the Minister is dealing very sympathetically with the points which have been placed before him, but most of us have had letters concerned with young men who are the only sons of their mothers and who are in charge of small businesses. What I am really anxious to know is whether under the new scheme which the Minister is working out their position will be taken into account because these small businesses are a part of the economy of the country and do deserve consideration.

I should like to correct a misapprehension which might have been caused by an observation from the back bench on the other side. I think that everybody appreciates that the only sons of widows do not wish to be regarded as a separate class or to claim any privileges. This new Clause is not intended in that way. I think that if the hon. Member, at a much earlier age, in the situation which he says belongs to him, had consulted his mother about this new Clause he might possibly have found her views about exemption different from his.

May I just say to the hon. Member that my mother was most anxious that I should join the Regular Army, and that it took all my efforts to avoid it?

Of course, there is nothing whatever in this new Clause which would have prevented the hon. Gentleman from doing so. If there are cases in which the exemption is not desired, either by the boy or by the mother or by both in consultation, there is nothing to prevent voluntary enlistment in such cases. All that the new Clause claims is that there shall not be compulsory enlistment in such cases. We think there is considerable importance in not compelling only sons of widows to join the Army.

3.0 p.m.

I rise merely to point out to the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) that his case differs from the case which we have in Mind. The words in our proposed new Clause are:

"The only son of a widow living with and supporting his mother."
That is the crux of the whole matter.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

On a point or Order, Major Milner. I gather it is not your intention to call the proposed new Clause standing in my name, relating to the medical examination of conscientious objectors. I suggest that it might be convenient if we discussed that new Clause. You may have been a little misled in your view of it, by the fact that it was at first misprinted. In fact, it deals with a point which arose in the Second Reading Debate, and is the result of our attempt to comply with the Minister's invitation to draft a Clause.

I may not have been aware of all those facts, but I have considered the Clause very carefully, and I have decided not to call it.

I take it, Major Milner, that you do not propose to call the proposed new Clause with which my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) and I are associated, relating to prohibition on service outside the United Kingdom.

Do I understand that you do not propose to call the new Clause concerning parents' allowances, standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) and myself?