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Bevin Boys

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I want to start by saying how pleased I am to have secured this Adjournment debate to raise the plight of the Bevin Boys. Before I turn to the main part of my speech, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), who has campaigned assiduously on this issue since he entered the House. I should also like to congratulate the Sunday Express on its campaign on behalf of the Bevin Boys, the forgotten heroes of the second world war.

In 1943, this country faced a crisis in coal production that put our ability to win the second world war in jeopardy. More than 36,000 miners had left the mines to fight for their country, and our coal reserves had fallen so low by the end of the year that we were down to less than three weeks’ supply. The Government made pleas to volunteers to enlist for mine work, but, unfortunately, they raised very few recruits. When the shortage reached a crisis in December 1943, the then Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, decided that a certain percentage of draftees would be directed into the pits to make up the manpower shortage. Speaking at a conscription meeting in 1943, he said:

“We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in.”

That is how the term “Bevin Boys” was born.

Chosen at random from among the conscripts, nearly 48,000 Bevin Boys were drafted into the pits in the United Kingdom, and, after 1943, 10 per cent. of all conscripts between the ages of 18 and 25 were picked for service in Britain’s coal mines. To make the process random, one of Bevin’s secretaries would pull random numbers from a hat. All the men whose draft numbers ended in those digits would be sent to the coal mines, with the exception of those who were in highly skilled occupations.

This random process resulted in people being picked from a whole array of professions, from desk jobs to manual work. Among the Bevin Boys who subsequently became famous were Jimmy Savile and Eric Morecambe. While I was researching the subject today, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) told me that his father, Albert Campbell, had been a Bevin Boy. He is still alive and living in Consett, and I would like to pay tribute to his efforts on behalf of his country during the second world war as a Bevin Boy.

Those young men were sent into many of the pits across the United Kingdom. In Chester-le-Street, in my constituency, a famous Bevin Boy was Jock Purdon. Jock married and stayed in Chester-le-Street after the war, and worked in the pits digging coal in 3 ft seams with water up to his knees. His experiences in the mines shaped his poems and songs, and led to his being known as “the miners’ poet”. His famous “Bevin Boys Lament” was put together in the Plough public house next to Pelaw pit in the 1940s.

Before working in the pits, the Bevin Boys would be given six weeks’ training. In some cases, however, there is documentation showing that that training period was cut down to six days. It was physically hard work with long shifts and dangerous conditions. Bevin Boys did not wear any uniforms or badges but the oldest clothes that they could find. All that they were given were helmets, steel toecap boots and accommodation that came to be known as Bevin huts. Being of military age and without uniform caused many Bevin Boys to be stopped by the police and questioned about avoiding the call-up. They were also loathed in many areas by service personnel who thought that they were conscientious objectors—a misconception that, alas, continues today.

It must be emphasised that these young men were conscripts—none was a volunteer—and were made to work in the pits of the UK, just as their friends were conscripted into the Army, Navy and Air Force. Their pre-conscription employment was not protected, and those injured were not eligible for pensions as they were considered civilians. They did not get travel warrants to travel home, nor did they use the NAAFI at railway stations or any other comforts open to servicemen. More importantly, many of them continued working in the pits right up until 1948, long after many of their compatriots who had been in the armed forces had been demobilised. Clearly, this is an issue for the Ministry of Defence, not the Department of Trade and Industry, as these men were conscripts, and would not have worked in the mines unless the Government of the time had conscripted them to do so.

It is nearly 60 years since the Bevin Boys were demobilised, and those conscripted to work in the pits are now old men. There is little that we can to do to right the wrongs that occurred during and immediately after the war. I hope, however, that we can agree on three points: first, that these men were treated badly during and after their service; secondly, that they carried out a vital role in the fight against fascism and made a vital contribution to securing the freedoms that we take for granted today; and, thirdly, that their efforts on behalf of the nation should be recognised.

This Government have an excellent record in honouring service veterans. We have had veterans day and veterans badges, which have been warmly welcomed up and down the country. Last month, I attended an excellent veterans day event in Chester-le-Street in my constituency, and saw the pride with which many of the veterans present received their badges. It is sad that the Bevin Boys have been left out, and I hope that the Government can put that right.

I know that Ministers, especially those at the Ministry of Defence, do not necessarily like to make decisions that have no precedent or that may be seen to set unhelpful new precedents. I therefore have news for the Minister. He recently launched the merchant seafarers badge of honour—the veterans badge for those who served in the merchant navy at any time up to 31 December 1959. I hope that a similar badge can be presented to the Bevin Boys.

When Ernest Bevin made his famous speech in 1943, in which he said,

“that is where you boys come in”,

he also said:

“Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.”

We were able to secure adequate coal supplies, and our fighting men were able to achieve the purpose of defeating fascism. It is right to recognise the fight of men and women, through Remembrance Sunday, veterans day and the excellent veterans badges. It is now time to pay a similar tribute to the Bevin Boys, without whose service and sacrifice we would not have been able to defeat fascism in those dark days of the second world war.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) for giving me an opportunity to speak. The House will know that I have raised the issue of the Bevin Boys on a number of occasions, and have been in regular contact with the both the Minister and the Prime Minister. I am grateful for their responses, although for me they do not solve the problem.

I want to say something about the recognition that the Bevin Boys have been given so far. There was absolutely nothing until 1995, when they were honoured by a reference in speeches by John Major and by the Queen. There have been two more instances of recognition, although in my opinion they did not adequately reflect the duty that the Bevin Boys gave.

My hon. Friend has already explained the role of the Bevin Boys, but it is important to stress that in the eyes of many, our Government have an unpaid debt to the survivors, and those who are no longer with us. I tabled early-day motion 1417 in, I believe, February this year, and I am delighted that 173 of my fellow parliamentarians—although, unfortunately, no SNP Members—have seen fit to join me in a campaign which, as my hon. Friend said, has been supported by the Sunday Express.

The Ministry of Defence has an obligation and, in my opinion, a moral duty to recognise formally that it has a debt of gratitude to each Bevin Boy on behalf of us all. As we have heard, had it not been for their efforts in 1943 and onwards we might well not be having this debate tonight, and as we have heard, their role was vital to our war effort, owing to the dwindling number of miners. These conscripts fought their own battles in the mines and on the streets of Britain, and—as we have heard tonight—they often faced attack and ridicule as draft dodgers because they had no uniforms to wear when off duty.

A fair amount has been written and spoken, not least by me, about some of the more famous Bevin Boys. As we have heard—again—they include Jimmy Savile, Lord Rix and, of course, one of Britain’s funniest ever comedians, Eric Morecambe. However, I want to refer to some less famous, but no less worthy, Bevin Boys.

Fraser Neil is now 80 years old. He comes from Comrie in my constituency. He first drew my attention to the injustice delivered to the Bevin Boys, and rightly described them as “the forgotten conscripts”. John Etty from Fleetwood is a life member of the Bevin Boys Association. He served from 1945 until 1948, and went on to play rugby league for Wakefield Trinity. Warwick Taylor, vice-president of the Bevin Boys Association and author of “The Forgotten Conscripts”, works relentlessly to keep the Bevin Boys’ lamp burning. Mr. Pearce from Harrogate has written to me, as well as other Bevin Boys such as the Booth family from Bristol, the Kilmaster family from Hanham and the Young family from Hinckley. Those are some of the families and supporters of the Bevin Boys who understand the importance of this campaign.

I want to quote from a poem by Ron Leach from Great Barr, a former Bevin Boy. It is entitled “The ‘Unsung’ Bevin Boys of World War Two”. Let me briefly paint the picture by reciting a small excerpt:

“Some men helped to win the war

But never marched in lines

A desperate Government made new laws…

To send men down the mines.

Into the pits these men were sent

(Although prepared to fight!)

A conscripted force of ten per cent.

To work where day was night.

From any job in any street

To pit work they did go…

Instead of war and marching feet

Their ‘enemy’ was below.”

It is a very moving poem, and I recommend it to the Minister.

Bevin Boys died for their country. In 1945, Winston Churchill asked the Minister of Labour

“What will become of the Bevin Boys after the German war is over?”

I believe it is a travesty that, 61 years later, we are still asking the same question.

Forty-eight thousand Bevin Boys served our country, including at least one Member of this House—perhaps more. I am happy that my campaign has received the support of many surviving Bevin Boys and families of Bevin Boys, as well as that of the Mining Association of the UK, NUM Scotland, UK Coal, Scottish Coal and the current Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), whose predecessor was a Bevin Boy.

This is not a competition. Armed service veterans are valued and honoured, as is appropriate; I ask only for the same for the Bevin Boys. Members of the land army, including my own mother, are to be applauded for the work that they did in feeding a fighting nation, but they were not Ministry of Defence conscripts, and the Bevin Boys were. The same applies to miners who worked in the industry by choice, including my father, many uncles and my grandfather. Many of them found their way to an early grave by way of disaster or disease. At least they made their employment decisions with a modicum of choice; the Bevin Boys had no choice.

For anyone who wishes to get a fuller grasp of issues surrounding the Bevin Boys, I recommend two books: “The Forgotten Conscript” by Warwick Taylor, which I see the Minister has with him tonight, and “A Bevin Boy’s Story” by George Ralston. When the Minister has finished reading his copy of “The Forgotten Conscript”, he could perhaps pass it on to other Ministers and officials, as it might well influence their thinking appropriately.

The Bevin Boys, sadly, are a dying breed. Many are in their 80s and in ill health. This is the time to act to honour their individual role in the second world war, and the need has never been more pressing. The old ones are the best, Madam Deputy Speaker, and you will recall that I mentioned earlier the fact that Jimmy Savile was a Bevin Boy. I urge the Government to do the right thing by these brave men rather than rely on Jim to fix it.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate—the last but not the least before the summer recess—on the important topic of recognition for the Bevin Boys. I would like to express my gratitude to other hon. Members who have brought the matter to public attention, not least to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), who has been a great advocate for the Bevin Boys. We all agree that although my hon. Friend has been in the House for only 18 months, he has already found a powerful voice in the Chamber, representing his constituents with great potency.

I would also like to thank two other people who helped me prepare for this evening’s debate. Rather unconventionally, I would like to thank Jeremy Williams and Group Captain Barrie Thomson from my private office. Sadly, they are leaving me at the end of the week, but they have spent many sleepless nights preparing for this and other debates. I want to put on record my appreciation for their support.

I also pay tribute to the Bevin Boys Association, which works tirelessly to raise awareness and educate the wider public about the cause. The association has more than 1,800 members from the United Kingdom and overseas. Both my hon. Friends have already congratulated the Sunday Express on its vigorous efforts to bring the Bevin Boys to a wider audience, and I would like to add my tribute. The fact that its readers have been so enthusiastic in supporting the campaign is greatly encouraging. It shows that the contribution of all those who strove to defeat our enemies in Europe and the far east is not forgotten. There are still people out there who want to honour our veterans and the contribution that they made in their own personal way.

The matter was raised in a question to the Prime Minister on 15 February, and again in the well supported early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire earlier this year. He will know that the Prime Minister has given a personal undertaking to look into the subject. Both the Prime Minister and other ministerial colleagues are doing so.

As my hon. Friends are well aware, the Bevin Boys played a crucial role in contributing to the ultimate allied success in the second world war. They both mentioned that coal mining—essential to the war effort—was suffering from a severe shortage of manpower by 1943. In December that year, following an inadequate response to an optional scheme, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour at the time, decided to select men of call-up age for the mines by conscription. The system was to some extent arbitrary: one in 10 men aged 18 to 25 were selected by means of a ballot. If the last number of their national service registration number matched one of those drawn out of a hat at the Ministry of Labour headquarters, they were destined to become conscript miners—“Bevin Boys”.

If anyone thinks that the contribution of the Bevin Boys was any less than that of other forces, they should look at the release from the Minister of Labour dated 2 December 1943:

“I want to say that the Government would not have resorted to this scheme of compulsion had it not been for the most urgent national necessity. There is no form of service which at this stage of the war is in greater need of young active recruits. Those who are chosen for transfer to coalmining will be doing their war service in a form that is as important as any, and I am sure that they will do their best to make a success of it.”

Well, they certainly did that.

During those bleak years of the war, the Bevin Boys worked in the unpleasant and potentially hazardous conditions of the mines to supply Britain’s coal—the driving force behind much of the war effort. Without their hard work in dangerous conditions, the struggle against the enemy would have quite literally ground to a halt.

Of course the Bevin Boys’ contribution was very significant, but 700,000 regular miners also contributed to the war effort, and we should not forget them.

With my family background and with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) sitting next to my hon. Friend, how could I possibly forget those 700,000 existing miners? However, the subject of the debate is the Bevin Boys, and if he will allow me, I will concern myself with their contribution.

Many Bevin Boys felt then and subsequently that their contribution to the war was misunderstood or overlooked. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire vividly depicted in his early-day motion on the subject, some Bevin Boys suffered the experience of being regularly mistaken for draft dodgers, deserters or even enemy agents. That past neglect makes it even more important that their determined efforts are not forgotten now. If that were not bad enough, the Bevin Boys also had to purchase their own equipment, having been conscripted, which sometimes added insult to injury. So let me, in the Chamber tonight, unequivocally pay tribute to their contribution.

We tend to associate the Bevin Boys with the 21,800 men who were conscripted miners, balloted from among those called up to the armed forces. However, not all the Bevin Boys were allocated to the mines reluctantly. They served alongside some 16,000 other Bevin Boys who had opted for coalmining in preference to the forces when they were called up. A further 7,000 volunteered to work in the coalmines before being called up, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) has mentioned existing miners as well. Of course, all of them worked alongside the existing miners, and not all Bevin Boys were unwilling in their endeavours. However, whether they were there by compulsion or personal choice, all of them fulfilled an essential role in their country’s hour of need.

After being selected, Bevin Boys were sent to one of the 13 training collieries for a month of basic training before being sent to a colliery. They would live either in lodgings or a purpose-built hostel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has mentioned, some hostels, such as the one at Oakdale, consisted of Nissen huts linked together in blocks by short brick passageways. Unlike the ordinary miners, who wore their own clothes, Bevin Boys were issued with overalls, safety helmets and working boots; but that was all that they got, and paying for their other equipment must have been quite a shock to the system.

Only a small proportion of Bevin Boys were actually employed cutting coal on the coal face, although some worked as assistants filling tubs or drams. The majority of them worked on the maintenance of haulage roads, attached and detached drams or tubs or generally controlled the movement of underground transport. Those employed on the transport of coal and other supplies were at nearly as great a risk of death or injury as those who worked on the coal faces. The continuous handling and movement of drams or tubs caused many injuries to fingers and hands and, more seriously, could result in death from being crushed under swiftly moving vehicles.

I recently had the honour of talking to Warwick Taylor, the vice-president of the Bevin Boys Association. An ex-Bevin Boy himself, he is also the author of the book, “The Forgotten Conscript”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has mentioned. I heartily commend it to hon. Members. It is a good read and gives a very vivid picture of life as a Bevin Boy. Mr. Taylor and I were both at the National Memorial Arboretum in June to mark national service day. It was a remarkable day in many ways and very well supported, but the biggest cheer of the day was for Mr. Taylor, when he came forward in his miner’s helmet to lay a wreath on behalf of the association. I pay tribute to the work that he does in that respect. I needed no clearer demonstration of the high regard in which the Bevin Boys are held, and I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the recent inclusion of the Bevin Boys in the remembrance day service and other commemorative events around the country.

I am sure that the Minister is also aware that every year the miners gala is held in my constituency, and we always have a contingent from the Bevin Boys—sadly, a dwindling contingent. I wonder whether he could give us some indication of whether we will have some good news to pass on to the Bevin Boys next year.

Let us hope so. I pay tribute to the Durham miners. I have never actually been to the Durham miners gala, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will regard as a shameful thing. In fact, I have never been invited; I should go one of these days.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I have great pleasure in inviting him to attend the Durham miners gala next year. [Interruption.]

I have seized the moment, Dennis—I am not allowed to say that, am I, Madam Deputy Speaker? Anyway, all five of us Members present will have a good day out at the Durham miners gala next year.

I also share the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that we celebrate and commemorate the Bevin Boys’ contribution. The association has a powerful platform, with two national events this year alone—in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Isle of Wight—and a dozen other reunions and parades throughout the country. I asked Mr. Taylor how he would sum up the Bevin Boys in a single word and he replied, “camaraderie”. These remarkable individuals were thrown together 60 years ago and have remained linked by a common bond ever since.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that, as Minister with responsibility for veterans, I will take these issues into account when looking at what might be done to promote wider recognition of the Bevin Boys. I will have to do so in consultation with ministerial colleagues who have an interest in these issues, but I can say to my hon. Friends present that they have made a very compelling case for the creation of a specific badge for the Bevin Boys—a case that warrants more detailed examination. I pledge tonight to give it that, perhaps over the summer break, and to get back to them when we return later in the year.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham will know, I am of an age that means that I used to write letters to Jimmy Savile, but he never wrote back to me. So although Jim never fixed it for me, perhaps, between us, we can fix it for Jim. If we do manage to create a Bevin Boys badge, perhaps we can invite him to the House of Commons and present it to him personally. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover would like to be at that event to share his personal views—[Interruption.] What a lively evening we will have together, if Jimmy is indeed a Conservative voter.

For many years the Bevin Boys regarded themselves as “the forgotten conscripts”. I hope that we can all play our part in putting the record straight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Eight o’clock.