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National Service Men (Overseas Drafts)

Volume 467: debated on Wednesday 13 July 1949

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

1.1 a.m.

I apologise to the House and to the hard-working officials for keeping them a little longer tonight, but as so many anxious parents have asked me to express their views I think I have a duty to do so. The matter I wish to raise particularly affects some 150 young National Service men, but raises a general question which affects all men called up or to be called up under the 1948 National Service Acts.

I want, briefly, to recall the previous history of the case to which I desire to refer. At the beginning of May this year, my attention was called by parents of one of the boys concerned to the fact that a number of National Service men who had been called up only in January of this year had received embarkation orders to board a ship which was bound for the Middle East the ultimate destination, so it was understood, being the Far East. These young men had had only 3½ months' service, and had had only nine or 10 weeks' training.

I got in touch with the Secretary of State for War and told him that it was shocking that young men of 18 should be sent overseas, where they might be involved in active service under the peculiarly unpleasant conditions of jungle fighting and Colonial warfare after only 3½ months' in the Service and 10 weeks' training. I am very glad to say that, as a result of that intervention, the Secretary of State took swift action, and indeed, unorthodox action. By this time the young men were already on board ship. The Secretary of State nevertheless considered the matter and ordered that the men should be disembarked and not despatched on that draft. I would like immediately to congratulate the Secretary of State on that swift and sensible action, not merely on my own behalf, but on behalf of the very many parents and boys who are concerned in the matter.

As inevitably happens when something regarded as unusual and, as I said, in this case, unorthodox takes place, this matter reached the ears of the Press and the Press were interested in getting from the War Office a statement about this action and the policy behind it. As a result of what they got from the War Office, there appeared in the Saturday Press on 7th May, in the Sunday Press on 8th May, and what is even more important from the point of view of the general public, on the wireless on 7th May, the statement that these men had been withdrawn from this draft; second, that a definite minimum period of service and training had been fixed without which National Service men could not be sent to the Middle East. Then followed the important statement that instructions had been issued that no 1949 men should be sent to the Far East. Those were the words which appeared, with remarkable unanimity, in all the organs of the Press, and in the British Broadcasting Corporation's news service.

Hon. Members can imagine the effect which this news had upon all those who were interested in the matter, and especially the news given by the wireless, which many people still regard, wrongly no doubt, as the semi-official voice of the Government. They can imagine the effect of the news that not only were these boys not to go to the Middle East, but that the policy now was that no 1949 man should go to the Far East. People felt that there had been a change of policy, and that it was a change for the better. The parent who raised this matter with me in the first instance, and I myself received dozens of letters of thanks and congratulations from parents concerned. They were letters written with enthusiasm and relief. I have many of those letters here, and I have still more of them at home. I do not intend to weary the House by reading them, but I would like to read a couple of sentences from one of them in which a mother says:
"I heard the news at six p.m., and was truly and thankfully relieved, and with great thanks to you for your efforts. I did feel pretty sick previously, but immediately I heard and read the good news, I must say that I thanked God that you had taken the matter up."
There are very many more letters in the same strain. But a week or two ago, on 22nd June, I believe, these National Service men—about 150 of them—who had been withdrawn from the draft at the beginning of May, were embarked in the "Empire Windrush," and set sail for Singapore. Hon. Members can again imagine the feelings of parents who had been given very clearly to understand, not only that their sons would not be sent overseas without adequate training but that their sons would not be sent to the Far East at all. One can imagine the feelings of these parents when they learned that these boys were to sail to the Far East, after all. But that was not all, because these lads sailed, on this occasion, without the opportunity of saying good-bye to their parents. They received no embarkation leave when they were put on this second draft.

I know that it will be said, that it has been said by my hon. Friend in reply to a Question which I put on the Order paper, that these men had received the normal seven days' embarkation leave prior to the original draft from which they were removed, that that was all the embarkation leave to which they were entitled by regulations, and that therefore they could not have any more embarkation leave. He went on to say, in reply to my Question,
"They were not eligible for any further embarkation leave, but three periods of 48 hours' short leave were granted between the two embarkations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th June, 1949; Vol. 466, c. 113.]
First of all, that answer does not agree with the information given me by some of the parents concerned. They informed me that their sons received, not three, but only two, periods of 48 hours' leave, and I should like this case to be checked by the War Office. Secondly, I am informed that the second 48 hours' leave—which was the one closest to their time of embarkation for the Far East—was given in some cases on 3rd June. These boys sailed on 22nd June, so that there was an interval of 19 days between the last time the parents saw them and the time when they sailed for a theatre where they might be involved in active fighting and where some might become casualties. That, I suggest, is not playing fair by the parents concerned. It is perfectly true that they have had the official seven days' embarkation leave, but that was under what was afterwards accepted as a wrong policy; that was not the draft which resulted in their going to the Far East.

Surely the purpose of embarkation leave is that young boys shall have the opportunity of spending some time with their parents, families, and friends in the period immediately before going to an overseas theatre. I should like to know what iron-bellied bureaucrat it was who laid down that the regulations had to be so carefully and strictly followed in this case so that these boys could not see their parents before going overseas. The parents—and this should be specially borne in mind—were, until the last moment, convinced that these boys would not sail for the Far East. The parents relied on the undertaking given by the War Office, and they could not believe that that undertaking could be broken.

I should like to come back to the War Office statement on that occasion. In reply to a question which I put to the Secretary of State for War on this matter, I was informed that the statement issued to the Press and the B.B.C. on 7th May said: "No 1949 man will be sent to the Far East." I do not know what that sentence means; it is couched in the most ambiguous phraseology. I do not want to know whether these are the actual terms of the statement issued on 7th May, or whether the Press and the B.B.C. misrepresented or misunderstood them. But I do say that, whatever the form of the statement, and accepting the form given by the Minister in his reply, the normal interpretation of the statement was, "Here is a general policy that no 1949 men are to be sent to the Far East."

There was no qualification saying that this was pending the working out of a final policy, or a decision taken until the men had had an adequate period of training. Without qualification, this general statement was made to the Press and the B.B.C., and they were entitled to interpret it in the way in which they did, and the parents were entitled to interpret it in the manner in which, in fact, they did. Therefore, the parents of these boys, quite apart from the boys themselves, have a very justified sense of grievance that they have been let down in this matter. The War Office has not stood by what appeared to be an undertaking given on 7th May.

I should like to know what was the intention of the Secretary of State for War when that statement was issued on 7th May. I have the impression that at that time he was announcing what was intended to be his policy, namely, that in future no young conscripts would be sent to the Far East. Then, at some later stage, that policy was changed, perhaps as a result of advice gven by the military chiefs that it was impossible to keep the situation in Malaya in hand without falling back upon the young conscripts. It that were the original intention of the Secretary of State for War, he was right.

I want to conclude by saying that in my view it is entirely wrong to send young men of 18, who are conscripted willy-nilly into National Service, to overseas theatres in times of peace where there is a high probability that they will be involved in active service. Surely there are other overseas theatres to which they could be sent, although it may be said that in all overseas theatres, in B.A.O.R. and the Middle East, there is a possibility of them being involved in active service, but in practice there is actually no fighting going on at all. If they are sent to Malaya the chances are ten to one that they will be involved in active service, whereas if they go to Germany or the Middle East the chances are ten to one against them being involved in active service. I appeal to my right hon. Friend even at this late moment, while this draft is still in Middle Eastern waters, to see whether it is not possible to return to the policy which was announced on 7th May or not sending young conscripts to the Far East, but of diverting them to some other overseas theatre where there is less possibility of them being involved in active fighting.

1.18 a.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Mr. Warbey) has raised a general issue about the service which a young conscript should have before he is sent to an overseas theatre, if indeed he should be sent there at all; and he has mentioned a certain particular instance in which he himself took a very notable part. I shall try to refer both to the general question at issue and to these particular events.

May I say, therefore, on the general question of the conditions which ought to be fulfilled before a young National Serviceman is sent overseas that we at the War Office first considered this matter when the period of National Service was going to be 12 months. At that time, and on that assumption, it appeared necessary to say that a young conscript might be sent overseas to any theatre provided he had completed his basic training. When the change in the term of National Service was decided upon, we reconsidered the matter, and while that reconsideration was going on it came to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, through the action of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, that these young men, who had only some brief period of training, were about to be sent to the Far East. My right hon. Friend then took the action which the hon. Member for Luton has described and the question of the reconsideration of drawing up final and definite regulations as to the conditions governing the sending overseas of these young men was pressed forward.

At this point, I would like to state what the final result of that reconsideration was. I think it is desirable to take this opportunity of making clear what the rules are at present. They have been explained in reply to a Question asked by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) on 17th May. A young man may not be sent to Germany unless he has completed his basic training. He may not be sent to the Middle East unless he has had at least 10 weeks' training and 12 weeks' total service. He may not be sent to the Far East unless he has at least 16 weeks' training and 18 weeks' total service. That was the final decision reached, and—I would like to make this quite clear—that was in accordance with the intention and wishes of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, subject of course to this proviso, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be very happy indeed, if the world situation and our numbers permitted of it, to restrict very greatly the employment of young conscripts.

If that is the case, why was it possible on 7th May for the War Office to announce definitely the period of training and service for the Middle East but still left the question of the Far East open, unless it was being considered whether or not the Far East should be excluded altogether from the sphere of service of National Service men?

I am coming to that, but I am anxious to refute the suggestion made by my hon. Friend that that final decision was not in accordance with the intention and wishes of the Secretary of State. That brings us, therefore, to the question of the statement that was issued by the War Office on 7th May. It was made clear in my answer that this reflected the interim instructions which had been given by my right hon. Friend at the time. I quoted in my answer part of the words used in that statement. The statement ran:

"The present decision is that a man must have 12 weeks' service before he goes to the Middle East and no 1949 National Service men are sent to the Far East."
It was made clear that it was the present decision that was covered by the statement and that it was an interim decision, pending the final drawing up of regulations.

I cannot give way, but I should emphasise that the statement then issued was—and it was made clear to the Press and the B.B.C. at the time—that this was an interim statement of policy and that no 1949 National Service men were being sent to the Far East. When the final decision was made, it was this total of 18 weeks' service. The House will see that if one has an 18 weeks rule, it would be true that in May no 1949 National Service men could be sent to the Far East, but that with the progress of time there would be 1949 National Service men who had completed their 18 weeks' training and would therefore be eligible so far as that condition goes for service in the Far East.

In general, therefore, my answer to my hon. Friend on this point is that the statement on 7th May was clearly an interim statement, that the reference to the non-sending of 1949 National Service men to the Far East referred only to the position at that time, and that it was made clear when the statement was issued that it could only be an interim statement. Anyone who has followed the question of sending conscripts overseas would have seen that the wider interpretation my hon. Friend has attempted to place on that statement could not be the correct interpretation. They were not given any form of words that would lead them to suppose that no 1949 men would ever be sent to the Far East.

With regard to the embarkation leave, my hon. Friend has spoken of the draft of men who were about to sail on 5th May to the Far East. When it was discovered that they only had a brief period of service they were taken off the draft—in fact, they were ordered off the boat itself. But then, by 22nd June, they fulfilled the 18 weeks condition and were therefore eligible for service in the Far East; and, much as we regret it, operational necessity obliged that they should be sent there. We were then faced with this problem—that by that time they had had seven days' embarkation leave. Had it been handled by what my hon. Friend described as "an iron-bellied bureaucrat," content to observe the regulations and no more, the matter would have been left there.

We have now so altered the regulations that, before a man goes to the Far East, he will have 14 days' leave, either all together or else in two leaves of seven days. For this draft we endeavoured, as time allowed, to give them not only the seven days' embarkation leave they had already had, but three periods of 48 hours' leave. I think it must be agreed that we have tried in those circumstances to do the best for these men that could possibly be done.

I would point out that it is not always possible to say that if a man is going overseas he will actually sail immediately after the return from embarkation leave. These things may turn on the question of shipping, or on a number of factors which may change quite rapidly and cannot be completely foreseen. I remember myself during the war the time which elapsed between when I returned from embarkation leave and when I actually sailed. It is true that we have not got the wartime difficulties, but it would be quite a mistake to suppose that we are free altogether from difficulties in matters of shipping.

We shall naturally endeavour to see that when a man is given embarkation leave it does precede the actual date of sailing by as short a period as possible. I would contend in the case of these men that we did, in the limited time allowed, do the best that could reasonably be done. My information is quite clear that they had three periods of 48 hours' leave so that there was opportunity for them to take farewell of their parents between the time when they were taken off the first draft and the time when they actually sailed.

I trust that whatever criticisms my hon. Friend has of us, and whatever may be the opinions and feelings of hon. Members in any part of the House, they will be prepared to accept that if we could see any way of fulfilling the commitments which I believe the nation requires and expects us to fulfil, without sending out these young men while still so young, we would take it. If there should be any change in circumstances that makes it possible for us to make conditions more stringent than we have already made them, we shall do it, but we cannot, of course, at the present time, and with the commitments we have, lay it down as a general rule that no young conscript can ever be sent into an overseas theatre where the danger of active operations may appear.

If we were to consult these young men, I think my hon. Friend will agree that if we were guided solely by their feelings we should not be troubled with regulations and restrictions at all, because they are of an age when valour is the better part of discretion. But we are quite right not to be guided by their very natural feelings, but to pay attention to the feelings of their parents and of the nation. What we endeavour to do is to hold a reasonable balance between the natural anxieties of parents, with which I sympathise deeply, and the similar anxiety of the nation that this country shall not become insignificant in the councils of the world through sheer inability to fulfil inevitable military commitments. It is an unenviable task which faces my right hon. Friend.

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

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Two o'clock.