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Army Bandsmen, Exeter (Employment)

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 13 July 1954

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

10.21 p.m.

The issue I wish to raise tonight concerns the employment of Army bandsmen throughout the length and breadth of these islands, but the more recent manifestation of this problem has been in Exeter. I apologise to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) if I appear to him to be taking on his job, but that is not the case. As he knows, and as hon. Gentlemen know, I am particularly interested in Army affairs. I hope that the hon. Member for Exeter will accept my statement that I intended no discourtesy, nor did my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), when we interested ourselves in the problem of Army bandsmen.

Indeed, I go further, and say that I think the action taken by the hon. Member for Exeter throughout this unhappy story has been an endeavour to be help ful. I believe that if his influence could have been brought to bear there would have been a happy end to this story. I hope that the hon. Member will continue to use his good offices to secure what I am pleased to call a happy ending to this story.

The hon. Member for Exeter comes out of this matter with a clean bill; but as usual, when one inquires into the activities of the War Office, there are several black spots there, although I must say that truth has come out. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will agree that the more recent communications which have passed between the War Office and the Musicians' Union show that in high places truth has emerged, and again one is looking forward to happy relations, based on fact and not fiction, between the War Office and the Musicians' Union.

The facts are quite simple in so far as they concern the Theatre Royal, Exeter. There, for better or worse, four civilian musicians were dismissed. A dispute arose between the Theatre Royal and its musicians. For a long time the War Office hid behind the fiction that no trade dispute existed, but, finally, even the authorities at the War Office could not maintain that story. The dispute having started as long ago as February of last year, an attempt at conciliation was made in August, 1953, under the chairmanship of an official of the Ministry of Labour.

Subsequently, I put down Questions to the Minister of Labour and there was correspondence from that Department, which made it abundantly clear that the War Office, with the knowledge of the Secretary of State, and certainly of the local officers concerned, were using troops or allowing them to be used in what was, after all, a strike-breaking action. I am sure that the War Office must regret having got into that position. There is no excuse for this.

At one stage an affidavit was sworn by people in Exeter who saw musicians—soldiers in uniform—going into the Theatre Royal, Exeter. Of course, the facts were denied. The only serious complaint in the hangover which has emerged is a letter written on behalf of the War Office, on 26th November, signed by a Lieut.-Colonel V. A. P. Bridge, on behalf of the Director of Personal Services.

Having been asked by the Musicians' Union, courteously and competently, to investigate this complaint, which had deprived four of the union's members of their livelihood—allegations which were based upon a sworn document—Colonel Bridge concluded his letter in these terms:
"I am, therefore, to ask, in the interests of avoiding unnecessary waste of public time and unnecessary correspondence, that you will be good enough to ascertain that your information comes from a reliable source and that the alleged contravention is relevant to the regulations."
Weighing my words carefully, I say that those are the words of a "Jack in office." That paragraph was an improper paragraph, and I hope very much that we shall have an assurance from the Under-Secretary that never again will an officer in his Department use such language without very good reason in corresponding with a trade union which is discharging its very responsible job of looking after its members.

Subsequently, I was able to give the Musicians' Union a little advice. Knowing the ways of the War Office, I was quite convinced that the union had the whole of the facts and that the Secretary of State, as far as he was responsible, and the officers on the spot, probably in the regimental depot, were fighting a rearguard action against the facts. The advice I gave to the Musicians' Union was to ascertain the numbers, ranks and names of the soldiers who were engaged in playing, and taking the place of civilian musicians, at the Theatre Royal, Exeter.

On 27th April this year, I asked the Secretary of State the circumstances in which two soldiers, whose particulars were contained in my Question, were playing at the theatre. Faced with that, the Secretary of State dropped the façade of pretending that no soldiers had been playing in the theatre and said that the question of whether there was a trade dispute was in doubt. On 4th May I was given a written answer to a Question addressed to the Minister of Labour, and subsequently in correspondence it became clear that there was a trade dispute, that soldiers had been playing all the way through, and that the War Office knew it.

The story has moved to a happy conclusion. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton and I gave notice that we would raise the matter on the Adjournment. As a result of the fact that there was to be a little publicity and we would have an opportunity of pressing the Minister, the truth got to work and the Musicians' Union have had much more conciliatory and truthful communications from the Department than ever in the past.

All that I say to the Under-Secretary is, let the good work continue. Let the hon. Gentleman go back to the authorities in the War Office and be sure that if ever the Musicians' Union again get a communication of the kind that was signed by Colonel Bridge the matter will be raised on the Adjournment. We shall seek every opportunity to prevent Army bandsmen from being employed in this way, and we shall do it in the interests of the Army.

The bandsmen have an important part to play in keeping up morale and maintaining the respect of the soldier and his pride in his regiment. But the Army bandsman some day has to return to civilian life, and in so far as a bandsman is attracted to Service life, it is in the knowledge that when his Army days are over employment will be available for him in civilian life. The guarantee of a good living is to be found not in the evasion of the regulations by people of the character of Colonel Bridge, but in the work and the efficiency of the Musicians' Union.

I hope that I shall get from the Under-Secretary of State an assurance that this unhappy episode in Exeter is going to be forgotten, and that from now on the Army Council Instructions and the Queen's Regulations are going to be strictly applied. I hope also that the Under-Secretary will give the House an assurance that when the Musicians' Union discovers that there has been any breach of these regulations the matter will be handled as courteously and as efficiently as it has been handled since the time when my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton and I gave him notice that we were going to raise this matter on the Adjournment. We should not have to wait and use the sanction of publicity in raising the matter in this House to achieve something which, after all, the interests of the Army and common decency demand.

Again may I express the hope that as a result of this debate, we shall not only get those assurances but that the owners of the Theatre Royal, in Exeter, will remember that since last February four men have been deprived of their livelihood. I gather that one of them has managed to get a job outside Exeter. There are three men still drawing unemployment pay, deprived of their jobs. A settlement has been made very difficult, and if the Army had behaved with more consideration towards a difficult problem, these men would now be in employment. They have got families to keep, and decency demands that they should have employment.

The Under-Secretary cannot deal with that problem; that is a problem for Exeter. I only mention it because the story started in Exeter, and if we can have a happy ending as regards the reemployment of these three men I am sure the hon. Member for Exeter will be delighted, and so shall I, and this Adjournment will have been worth while.

10.34 p.m.

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for the kind references that he made to myself. I do not want to take up more than a few minutes, especially as I understand that negotia tions are proceeding at this moment between the management of the Theatre Royal, Exeter, and the Musicians' Union in order to try to bring an end to this matter. I have been in touch with both sides in this case, and I think that it is right to say that the hon. Member has put the case for the Musicians' Union very fairly.

I hope I may be allowed to state the point of view of the theatre management. I am giving the view that they have given to me, and I am not in a position to judge whether that view is justified. They maintain most emphatically that there is no dispute in this case, and I understand that they are advised by most competent lawyers that such is the case. They state that they have not broken any agreement.

There is also the point that should be made, that these Army bandsmen were not brought in to take the place of the orchestra which had left. The theatre got together an orchestra very quickly after this cessation of work by the members of the Musicians' Union. It was a small orchestra consisting of a drummer, a pianist and an organist. The inclusion of the Army bandsmen was asked for only on two or three occasions for various productions which needed a fuller orchestra. They were not taken on in toto to take the place of the band which had left.

I hope that this unhappy state of affairs will swiftly be terminated. I share the view of the hon. Member. Neither of us wants the misery which has been caused to these men who have not been able to find employment to continue any longer.

10.36 p.m.

I should like to say at the outset to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who has been thumping the drum less loudly than I have sometimes heard him do, that I am much too used to crossing swords with him in Adjournment debates to be frightened by any threat, or to be made more conciliatory than I otherwise would have been, by him threatening to bring about future debates. It appears, moreover, that in this musical interlude we have struck some form of harmony.

As I see it—and I think that this was the burden of the hon. Gentleman's speech—the main point is not whether one or two Army bandsmen performed in the Theatre Royal, Exeter, on such-and-such a date, or whether they did not. The hon. Member and the union contend that they did: we are satisfied that they did not. We agree, however, that they played in their private capacity on certain other dates during the period under review, and I think that the matter can be left there.

I should like to point out that the disagreement, or whatever terms one applies to it, had been going on for five months before the Army bandsmen made their appearance on the scene. Even then there were only three or four of them in a band or orchestra which consisted of some 10 or 12 musicians. So I do not think it can be claimed that the presence of the Army bandsmen for these three performances—I do not want there to be misunderstanding in my use of the word "performances"; I mean the three separate presentations of plays—really dominated the situation. However, protests were made to us, and the Army bandsmen were withdrawn.

That is the outline of the incident, and I do not think that it is a matter of more than passing interest to any of us in considering the problem. It is the general principle that is more important both to the War Office and to the Musicians' Union. I should like to explain how I see the problem. I am concerned with the welfare and the good name of the Army and those who go to make it up. That is my prime—indeed, it might be said to be my sole—consideration and concern. We start from that point. It is not War Office policy to interfere more than is necessary with what a soldier does in his off-duty hours. If we were to do so it would be, I think, an unreasonable curtailment of the liberty of the individual which it would be hard to justify.

Further, we see no reason why Army bandsmen should be treated any worse than, or any differently from, other Service personnel in what they do in their spare time. If we were to interfere with their off-duty activities, it would be particularly hard on Army bandsmen, who obviously require to improve themselves musically by participating as much as possible in outside musical activities of a public and private nature, using their own instrument. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for an Army bandsman to get an all-round musical education if he were confined only to playing Army instruments in Army bands.

Bearing in mind this general rule, we do not want to interfere with the off-duty activities of soldiers where it is not necessary. The Army Council appreciates that there are certain activities which it is undesirable that a soldier should undertake, in view of the fact that he is a member of Her Majesty's Forces, since participation by soldiers in certain activities might bring Her Majesty's Forces as a whole into disrepute.

For example, it is not our policy that Army bandsmen should accept off-duty engagements when we are satisfied that a trade dispute exists, and that, in the circumstances, it would not be politic for soldiers to accept employment in view of the disrepute which the Army would suffer as a whole because of such action. Here, I should like to reinforce what my hon. Friend has said, that doubt exists whether a trade dispute exists in the particular circumstances of the present case. Some competent opinions that must be respected say that that is not so—that no trade dispute does, in fact, exist.

Each case must be examined and considered in the light of the prevailing circumstances, and the decision is taken by us at the War Office on each one separately. Naturally, we have consultations with the Ministry of Labour, and if we were advised, or if we thought, that a technical trade dispute did, in fact, exist that would weigh with us very strongly indeed. It is even conceivable that although no technical trade dispute might exist, it would still be against our policy to allow bandsmen or, indeed, other Service personnel in other spheres to offer their labour.

When I used "trade dispute" in the Questions and answers to which the hon. Member has referred on 27th April, 1954, I was using the words in the sense that the ordinary man in the street would understand and recognise, and not by reference to any technical definition in any of the Acts which deal with these rather complicated matters. Indeed, I think one might get a very curious situation arising. I do not know when a trade dispute may be said to end, but we would not be prepared to accept any particular definition of a trade dispute, although in coming to our conclusion we would, of course, listen to views upon whether a trade dispute existed.

It may be appropriate at this stage to say a word in defence of Army bands and bandsmen. The British military musicians are in great demand in many countries in the world both for help and for instruction, because they are recognised as being foremost in their skill. We endeavour to meet these demands whenever we can. I think that, provided the correct War Office policy, which I have tried to outline this evening, is adhered to, it is difficult to see where any reasonable complaints can be made by civilian musicians, many of whom themselves accept musical work on a part-time basis after their ordinary work.

It seems to me that the interests of the union are adequately protected by our determination that soldiers shall not be allowed to take action which would bring the Army into disrepute. On that assurance I ask the hon. Member for Dudley to rest content. I need hardly say that we are only too willing to investigate any circumstances brought to our notice by hon. Members or by the union in which it is thought that this overriding Government policy, which I have tried to outline, is not being followed. In conclusion, may I add that I was glad to hear that negotiations are going on between the contesting parties in Exeter, and I hope that they will come to a happy solution of their difficulties.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter to Eleven o'Clock.