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British Army (Compassionate Releases)

Volume 465: debated on Wednesday 1 June 1949

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Pearson.]

12.23 a.m.

I apologise very much to hon. Members and to the staff for detaining the House at this late hour to discuss the machinery for granting compassionate releases from the Army, but it is a matter of great concern to the men and their families who are affected by it, and were I not to take this opportunity tonight, for which I have been balloting for some weeks, it would be quite impossible to raise the matter here for many weeks to come.

I want to make it quite clear that I am discussing the matter mainly from the point of view of the National Service man. It is essentially a National Service problem. For the Regular there is the possibility of discharge by purchase. I am thinking of the man who finds himself drawn willy-nilly into the Army as a National Service man. We have National Service now at any rate until 1953, so there will be many young men affected who in former times would not have expected to be affected. Also there is a point that, inevitably, the call-up is somewhat selective in that certain categories obtain deferment indefinitely, like miners, agricultural workers and so on. Therefore, as the call-up is selective, it makes it all the more necessary to give sympathetic consideration to the claims of these men who are drawn in, so that they should not feel any dissatisfaction as between their position and that of those who are not called up at all.

The regulations now operating were drawn up in 1946, and I think it is opportune that after this period of three years they should be looked at. As I understand it, the present procedure is this: there is an application either by the man or by the relative to the commanding officer of the unit. The commanding officer has the power, if he thinks it will help, to give a man 28 days' leave, which may perhaps solve the problem if it is really a temporary one; or he may ask the local welfare officer to investigate the circumstances on the spot and report back to him. If he thinks that there is a reasonable case for applying for compassionate release, he forwards the application with his comments directly to A.G.1(c) at the War Office. Over the past three years I have come across certain objections and queries about this procedure, and I should like to list them under the following four heads.

The first is whether or not there is any limit at any time on the number of applications to be granted; secondly, whether or not the grounds on which applications are admitted are too narrow; thirdly, whether the time taken to deal with applications is too long, and fourthly, whether there is too much remote control in taking decisions. I do not propose to detail personal cases, but want to give a summing up based on more than three year's experience of handling cases. First, in regard to the limitation of numbers, I put a Question yesterday to the Secretary of State asking him how many applications were dealt with by the War Office in 1947, 1948, and 1949, and how many were granted. The figures he gave me showed that in 1947 31 per cent. of the applications were granted—that is, of the applications which reached the War Office—and that in 1948 the figure dropped to 24 per cent. The figure so far for this year is about the same as for 1948, that is, 25 per cent. I have come across the feeling that it has become harder to get a compassionate release as time has gone on since the end of the war. There is a feeling in certain quarters that because of the shortage of manpower there are stronger objections to granting compassionate releases than, say, in 1947, even though the circumstances of cases might be similar.

I should like to make a suggestion in this connection. At the moment, there is the choice either of giving a man 28 days' leave or giving him full and final release. It is possible to ask for a slight extension of the 28 days' leave, but that can be granted only by the war Office, and there is naturally a certain reluctance to give it because such leave is on full pay. I am wondering whether it might help, to deal with cases which may prove temporary, such as the illness of a parent running a family business, or something of that sort, to revive the war-time system whereby a man can be put on W.T. Reserve for three months without pay. This procedure might well, in some of these cases, give time for the family difficulties to be resolved, and it would cost the War Office nothing.

On the second point, as to whether the grounds on which these releases are granted are too narrow, I agree that it is impossible to lay down regulations to cover all cases, but there is a feeling that, with regard to applications for release to help out with a small family business, the regulations are drawn rather too tightly. There is a feeling that if a parent is suffering in health, that parent must actually be on his back before a son can be released to run the family business. I had brought to my notice recently a case where application for release was made last November, although it was not until April, when a doctor finally ordered the father to stay in bed, that any effective action was taken. With regard to both these points—limitation of numbers, and narrowness of grounds—there is a suggestion which I would like to make. I would like to see the grounds for release considerably widened, but I would make up for the loss of numbers by making Territorial service compulsory for all those who were not called up for National Service. I think that would provide the necessary number of trained reserves, but I cannot develop the point as it would involve legislation.

The third objection is that the time for dealing with these applications is too long. I have just mentioned a case where no decision was given from November to April. Delay is very often inevitable because decisions are made in the War Office on paper evidence. Inevitably, to make sure that all the evidence is available, there are references back to the locality for further particulars about medical certificates, and for checking with the Ministry of Labour as to whether there is an alternative person who could be provided to help the family business, and so on. So I suggest that some attempt should be made to cut out paper and make the contacts personal ones.

Now I come to the fourth, and final, objection, and this is the main point of my raising this subject tonight; it is the feeling that decisons are taken a long way away from the case. There appears to be no human connection between the case in the locality and the deciding authority at the War Office. Decisions are taken, as I have said, on written reports, and I have heard it suggested that these cases are dealt with in large numbers by junior officers in the War Office as a matter of daily routine. I hope that when the Financial Secretary replies he will allay that fear. He may say that there are local investigations by the police, S.S.A.F.A., or the local Army welfare officers, but S.S.A.F.A. for example has no power to make recommendations unless specially invited to do so. It can only report on facts to the commanding officer of a unit; it cannot make a direct approach to the War Office about any case.

In mentioning S.S.A.F.A., I would like to make it quite clear that I am in no way criticising the efforts made in the handling of these cases, some of which are extremely difficult ones, by people dealing with welfare matters in the localities. I would like, in fact, to pay tribute to the devoted and human service they are giving so willingly. But to many people there does seem to be, between those civilians dealing with the case humanly on the spot, and the final deciding authority, a gulf which is bridged only by paper. In the case of the Ministry of Pensions, on the other hand, welfare officers have official standing. They are part of the Ministry and therefore investigate with a certain amount of authority. How can we preserve what I would call this human link all the way through? Shall we decentralise? I do not think anyone would suggest a complete decentralisation because without some form of central control it will be impossible to preserve the same standard evenly over the whole country. A man living in one part might get release, while another man in another part might not, if there were not the same standard of treatment everywhere.

On the other hand, I do feel that some sort of intermediary is needed between the local people and the War Office, and that that intermediary should have some direct personal contact with the case. If possible, in difficult cases I should like the local welfare people on the spot to call in someone of official standing whose authority and recommendation would carry weight with the War Office. It has been suggested to me that the welfare officer at command or district level might be the person to act as a link. But I believe that at command, if not at district level, these officers are more concerned with amenities for the troops and do not concern themselves so much with this particular problem.

My suggestion therefore might involve a fresh appointment. I do not know. If it were felt desirable to make such an appointment I would like that intermediary to be the district welfare officer, giving him the right of direct access to the deciding authority in the War Office, so that he could in a difficult case put his recommendation to the War Office in person, having had himself direct personal contact with the applicant. There is an alternative; if there is any difficulty about creating fresh appointments I would suggest we might help to solve the problem by making some people in A.G. 1 (c) less office-bound and a little more mobile so that really difficult cases could be investigated by someone directly responsible to A.G. 1 (c).

Whatever the system, whether by district welfare officers, or personal contacts by A.G. 1 (c), I would suggest that if even then an application has to be turned down, some reasons should be given to the applicant. This would save a great deal of feeling. It may not be possible to say a great deal, but some sort of explanation rather than a blank and unexplained negative would help, because what we have got to do in dealing with these matters is to prevent there being any basis for parents, wives, and the men themselves thinking that their problems, which are very real indeed to them, have been decided upon by someone in the remote fastnesses of Whitehall, someone to whom their problem is "just another case," a series of statements on paper, and nothing more. Whatever my hon. Friend can do to prevent that feeling arising he will be doing something very much worth while.

12.40 a.m.

I should very much like to support the admirable speech of the hon. Member, and the constructive suggestions he made. It is always difficult, and possibly dangerous, to generalise from one's own correspondence, but my impression is—and it may be supported by the impressions of other hon. Members— that compassionate releases from the Army, and compassionate leave, when the grounds are marital difficulties at home or the health of parents, are admirably managed on the whole. It is when we get to financial difficulties that one senses a rather more unsympathetic, and if I may say so a more unintelligent, attitude.

I remember taking up in 1946 a case of compassionate release on the grounds of grave hardship that had arisen through deterioration of home circumstances. It seemed to me impossible that the boy concerned could continue soldiering, knowing that the family was falling behind in the rent and that instalments on the furniture could not be met. After weeks, and indeed months, of correspondence, the boy's release was secured. I was told by the Minister in this particular Service Department that that was the first case in his Department—in 1946, mark you—in which release had been granted because of financial difficulties and grave deterioration in home finances. It struck me at the time as a remarkable thing for the Minister to say, because a better reason for compassionate release cannot well be imagined by any hon. Member.

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether he will not set on foot with other Departments, a general policy on this matter. Not only is the War Office rather unsatisfactory in its handling of these financial hardship cases at home, but the other Departments seem to decide cases on different principles, and a case which one thinks would gain release from one Service is refused in another Service. I should like to support the plea made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Symonds), and ask whether the Under-Secretary can state what guiding principles are adopted in this matter, and especially who makes the decisions—whether they are made by subordinate officials in routine duty, or whether they are taken up with that seriousness and on that level which the importance of the cases demands. I hope he will give us satisfaction on those points.

12.43 a.m.

My hon. Friend has raised a question which is of wide general application, and it is important that in this matter we should try to act not only with justice and humanity, but so as to convince the public that we are so acting. He is right in saying that the procedure and principles are those which were drafted in 1946, in view of the National Service provisions that came into force in the beginning of 1947. We were then going to be faced with the influx into the Army of fixed-term National Service men, serving only a limited period. Since then we have had men coming in for a shorter period still.

It was for that reason that it was thought wise to have in future simply the two remedies; that is, compassionate leave, which is normally for a period not exceeding 28 days, but may be extended; or, if that is thought not adequate to meet the difficulties, the full remedy of compassionate discharge. If we are to have many National Service men, with limited service, frequently absent from duty for periods of any length on temporary release, it becomes unsuitable to retain their service in the Army at all. The present procedure was set up with that in view.

I think it will be agreed that what is needed is uniformity of principle. We do not want it said that a man in one part of the country who makes an application can get away with it while a man in another part of the country is less lucky. Furthermore the general principle must be interpreted with some degree of imagination and sympathy. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Is the domestic hardship or the difficulty to the business such that the presence of the National Service man at home is essential to remedy it? There may be cases, and very tragic cases, where there is much domestic unhappiness but where it cannot honestly be said that the only remedy is the presence of the National Service man at home. We should be doing an injustice to other men if we ignored that general principle.

Applying the principle to business cases, we get this result, and this is the basis on which we have worked. First, it must be established that the applicant has a personal interest in the business. Secondly, it must be established that there is a danger that the business will be lost if the National Service man does not return. It is not sufficient—and I am sure we are right here—to argue that the business would do very much better if the National Service man returned, because naturally if the young, active National Service man is taken away from the family business, it is likely that the business will suffer in some degree. If he were to be returned simply on that ground, there is hardly a family in the country who, on that basis, could not put a reasonable case for the return of the National Service man.

Therefore, we have taken the view that it must be shown that the business is in danger of being lost if the National Service man is not returned and that there is no prospect of some remedy other than the National Service man's presence. We may reasonably ask a family faced with danger to their business to consider whether there is not some relative other than the National Service man who can reasonably, though possibly at some inconvenience to himself, be expected to help the family out of their difficulty. If they have fairly examined such alternatives and no practical one appears, then we grant release. That answers the second of the four points made by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Symonds).

It follows from the application of this principle, that at no time do we say to ourselves there is a certain margin of new cases we are granting in a year, a month or a week. Nor is there any fixed percentage of applications which we are granting or refusing. I should like to make that clear beyond any doubt. This is not a competitive examination, but an examination with a qualifying standard. Therefore, it may happen that the number of cases which fulfils those conditions may vary considerably from time to time. I think my hon. Friend will agree that in the figures he has quoted there is nothing more than the variation one might reasonably expect from time to time in these matters.

Mention has been made of some particular cases. I would not claim that our machinery for dealing with these cases is infallible. That cannot be claimed for any human institution, and it may be that particular cases can be found where the decision was not in all respects wise. But I think it would be relevant to the issue if I were to give one or two examples of the kind of case with which we have to deal. There was the case of a National Service man who had done six months' service. There was a small family retail greengrocery business. As a matter of fact, there were also in the business the father, the mother, and a young brother recently having left school, all of whom took an active part in promoting it. At first glance, one might say that this is not a case where the man's presence is necessary in the business; but because, when we examined the matter, we found that the father's health was such that he could not properly give attention to the business, and the same could be said, though for other reasons, of the mother and the brother—that they could not give the business such attention as would put it out of danger of being lost—we granted the man release.

There was a case of a National Service man who had done eight months' service. His family ran a tiny business selling logs and firewood. Medical evidence was that the father was not incapacitated but was unable to do a full day's work. Hon. Members will agree that that was a case to be looked at with considerable doubt. But we observed faithfully our principle, and it followed from the exiguous nature of the business that since the father could not do a full day's work, the business was in danger of being lost. Therefore, we granted release. It is not necessarily only small businesses which benefit. It may be a case of a large business.

I will take one example of a large business employing 25 people. The business got into grave difficulties so that only the presence of the National Service man who thoroughly understood the working of the business could save it from disaster. That case was complicated by the fact that the man had been a deserter for 6½ years, and was serving sentence for desertion when the application was made. There again it was thought fit to grant the application because it fell within the grounds——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Seven Minutes to One o'Clock.