§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour for being present to answer this Adjournment debate. There was some doubt as to whether the reply should be by him or by the Secretary of State for Air. The more I reflect on the matter, the more certain I am that the hon. Gentleman's Department should say the final word.
This is an Adjournment debate concerning a constituent of mine, a young man by the name of Ian Chalmers. He is aged 21. I claim that he has been called up, and I believe incorrectly called up, for the Royal Air Force. The story of this boy has an interesting background, because I believe that it is right to say that he is the last young man to be called up for National Service, so that he has what I think can be called the great distinction of being 944 the last person to be called up—and called up incorrectly.
I wish to discuss with the Parliamentary Secretary the confusion which has arisen in this case. I shall put the facts to him as best I can and as I have them. Anything that I may say will not impugn the motives of the Ministry of Labour which, from my experience of it as a Department, is efficient, and I think that throughout the call-up of men for National Service it has done a truly magnificent job. I think that it will be conceded, however, even by the Parliamentary Secretary, that this great Department could make a mistake. If there is a mistake here, as I believe, and if there is any doubt in the matter, I think that the benefit of it must be given to my constituent. It is a big Department, I know, but I think that it must admit that a mistake has been made.
As I understand, this young man registered for National Service on 10th January, 1959. At that time he was 18 years of age. He did the proper thing —he went to the Ministry of Labour and registered at that time. He, in common with others in his age group, was to be one of the last to be called up under the National Service Act. I do not think that we will expect him to be aware of that. He went to the Ministry of Labour as a civilian and registered for National Service. He had to wait until June, 1960—a year and six months afterwards—before he was sent for his medical examination. That was not uncommon. Looking back over the years, the great delay in waiting for medical examinations has always been a problem.
As I say, in June, 1960, he was sent for his medical examination. I understand that he went to Hither Green, where the Ministry of Labour's centre for medicals is situated. After his medical he was placed in Grade II. He has told me that at the time of the medical he pointed out to the Ministry of Labour officials that he was then operating a one-man business. He was following the occupation of an electrical and interior designer. I understand that he is a freelance, and that at the moment he is on important contract work. He had previously been given a leaflet explaining his rights in the matter, and he 945 applied to what I think is called the hardship committee. That committee considers whether a man due for service ought to be deferred or not. He said—and I believe him—that he filled in a form at the centre and handed it in at Hither Green Employment Exchange.
Mr. Chalmers came away believing that the time would not be far distant when the normal procedure would be followed, which would be that a deferment hardship board would consider his claim for deferment. Some months went by and, on 31st October, 1960, instead of getting notice for examination for deferment, he received a notice telling him that he was in the R.A.F. as from that date. He saw his Member of Parliament, as he had every right to do, and asked why his case for deferment had not been considered. At that stage I wrote to the Secretary of State for Air, because I had always been taught to believe that once the papers have left the Ministry of Labour and gone into the hands of the Services, whoever is concerned has lost his civilian identity and the matter has to be taken up with the Service Department.
I pointed out that there was a mistake and that Mr. Chalmers should be considered for deferment. I asked if that could be done. I wrote on 26th October and received a letter from the Secretary of State for Air on 12th December, 1960. He apologised for delay in replying and gave me facts which I already knew. He then went on to say that, in view of the statement I had made, he would postpone the call-up of Mr. Chalmers until 30th January. The letter went on to say:I understand that the Ministry of Labour have no record of any application from him to have his call-up deferred for any reason, although he was given a form at the time of his medical examination in case he wished to submit an application.I seems rather odd, if a young man has this urgency, having a one-man business which he wants to protect and having been given a form, that he should not fill it in immediately. I should have thought that quite natural and he said he did so. I certainly believe him and I ask it to be accepted as a statement of fact, although I understand the difficulties.
The Secretary of State said that he would be deferred until 30th January to give him a chance to clear up his affairs, but that so far as the Department 946 was concerned he was now in the Royal Air Force. I wrote protesting against that and pointed out that there was a doubt in the matter. I asked for Mr. Chalmers to be given a chance of going before a deferment board. The 30th January has come and gone and Mr. Chalmers did not join the R.A.F. at that stage. In spite of my letters to the Secretary of State, the Department was not prepared to do anything more about the matter. I advised Mr. Chalmers at once to join the R.A.F. because I was not prepared to discuss on the Floor of the House someone who, legally at least, would have appeared to be avoiding his responsibilities.
I understand that he joined the R.A.F. last Monday and was subsequently sent home. I do not know why that was, but it was probably another matter. I am asking that an immediate hardship committee should be established to consider Mr. Chalmers's case. From that, flow a number of difficulties. I realise that. if this hardship board is established, and it finds that deferment is justified far a period, am I not right in assuming that he ought not to have been called up at all? Had the normal procedure been followed—had he been medically examined, filled in the appropriate form and had the deferment board in the normal way, and the board had decided to grant him deferment—am I not right in saying that he would not have been called up by the end of the year?
I strongly urge that this matter should be reconsidered. Without expressing any personal view, I urge that this hardship board should be established forthwith to consider this case on its merits. I understand that Mr. Chalmers says that he is involved in contract work. He can show a good case. It may well be that the board would have given him at least six months' deferment in which to clear up his affairs. We must, above all, show that justice will be done.
I do not doubt the Minister of Labour when it states that it can find no trace of the record. Nor do I suggest that anything has happened in the Ministry of Labour which is at all improper, because that Department is much too honourable for that. But even the great Ministry of Labour can make mistakes, and if a mistake affects this man's future, then I have a right to challenge it and he ought to be given the benefit of any 947 doubt. I ask that this special board should be established and that Mr. Chalmers should not be called up if he is granted deferment.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Peter Thomas)
First, may I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) for the very courteous, fair and clear way in which he has presented the case on behalf of his constituent, Mr. Ian Chalmers. I should also like to thank him for the kind words which he said about the Ministry of Labour.
There is a very simple issue in this case—whether an application form was filled in by Mr. Chalmers and received by the Ministry of Labour. In view of the fact that the case has had a certain amount of publicity, it would be as well if I set out the facts as I know them. I think that the hon. Member will find that we are not at issue on most of those facts.
Mr. Chalmers is 21. He was born on 30th September, 1939, he registered with his age group on 10th January, 1959, he was medically examined on 14th June, 1960, and an enlistment notice was issued to him on 14th October, 1960, requiring him to report on 31st October.
After he had received his enlistment notice, and during the fortnight between his receiving it and being required to report, representations on his behalf were made by the hon. Member to the Secretary of State for Air. It was suggested, among other things, that he had what was described as a deferment application still being considered by the Ministry of Labour; that his one-man business would be adversely affected if he were called up; and that there was doubt about his physical fitness. In the light of these representations the reporting date was postponed in order that the case could be considered. He was informed of this, and on 10th November he was reminded by letter that he had been properly served with an enlistment notice and that if the enquiries went beyond the date of general call-up, beyond the end of 1960, he would still be required to report if his appeal failed.
The Air Ministry then consulted my Department and also arranged to have him interviewed We made very full 948 investigations, which was the reason for the delay which the hon. Member mentioned. In the light of reports which were received from both those sources, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air replied on 12th December to the effect that there was no evidence of an outstanding application made to the Ministry of Labour. He said that Mr. Chalmers would be given until 30th January to make suitable arrangements to safeguard his business interests and that he would be given a thorough medical examination by the Service authorities when he reported.
The hon. Member then took the matter up again, on 12th January, and the point that there was no evidence of an outstanding application was again investigated. On 24th January the Under-Secretary of State again wrote to the hon. Member, this time saying that he saw no reason for altering his decision that the call-up should stand. Mr. Chalmers did not report on 30th January. Indeed, I believe that he had been married two days previously and that at the time he should have reported to the Air Force he was on his honeymoon.
§ Mr. Thomas
We know that it is correct, as the hon. Gentleman said, that Mr. Chalmers did, in fact, report—and I am very happy to know that the hon. Gentleman suggested that he should do so—on Monday of this week, 6th March.
I do not think that it is right to say simply that he was sent home. He was sent home for one night and reported later to Bridgnorth, because there were no facilities for him at Cardington where he had reported. He is now a serving airman and his position in the Royal Air Force is not a matter for my Department.
It is quite correct, as the hon. Gentleman said, that certain matters in this case are the direct concern of the Ministry of Labour and I should like to go over these, in the time that I have, in some detail. First, Mr. Chalmer's date of birth meant that, although other men were called up later, he was among the very last men whose services were required. If he had been born a day later, or even perhaps an hour or two later, he would not have been called upon to register under the National Service Act. Since he was, in fact, born in the third quarter of 1939 he was called upon 949 to register in accordance with the Government's policy announced in the Defence White Paper of 1957 and again, in accordance with announced policy, in company with 7,500 other young men born in the same period, he was called up in the second half of 1960.
I now come to the question of difference of opinion over the written application which has been said to have been overlooked by my Department. It seems from the reports that I have seen that some confusion has arisen. I will try to clarify the background on this question. First, as to deferment; at any time between his registration in January, 1959, and his call-up in October, 1960, Mr. Chalmers could have applied for deferment to pursue the course of training or study which he was, I understand, at one time undertaking. He would know, as the hon. Gentleman said, from a leaflet handed to him when he registered in January, 1959, what were the provisions for deferment and how he should go about applying for it. If he had applied and had shown that he had fulfilled the conditions, he would have been granted deferment which might have had the effect that he would not have been called up.
It is not suggested that Mr. Chalmers made any application before his medical examination on 14th June, 1960, eighteen months after his registration. It is on record that on that occasion Mr. Chalmers said that he wished to take his Ordinary National Certificate in electrical engineering in July. It was the practice of my Ministry to allow as far as possible a delay in call up if necessary, to help men to take an imminent examination, even though this was not of itself a circumstance that entitled them to deferment. In fact, the question of delay did not arise, because Mr. Chalmers was not called up until much later in 1960 and would have been able to take his examination.
Mr. Chalmers would have been entitled to deferment if, for example, he was at the time of his medical examination undertaking an approved course of part-time study for examinations of higher National Certificate standard and above; if these part-time studies began before the date on which he was due to register for National Service; if his employer allowed him time off from work for study to the extent of eight hours 950 per week; and if he were making satisfactory progress in his studies.
That is the sort of standard that is required for deferment and these conditions were clearly designed for bona fide students. Mr. Chalmers is recorded as having said at the time of his medical examination that he was not studying at a technical college. I also understand, as the hon. Gentleman said, that early in 1960 he had gone into business on his own account. His business was described to us as that of a freelance design consultant. It is not easy to see how, in these circumstances, he could have fulfilled the deferment conditions as I have outlined them. At all events, I understand that Mr. Chalmers was told that on the basis of the information he gave he did not qualify for deferment under the normal rules. He was, however reminded of his rights under the National Service Acts and was given an application form for postponement of call-up on hardship grounds.
It is possible that a misunderstanding arose here. The rules and regulations governing both deferment and postponement are very detailed. I do not propose to recite them, but I must explain how postponement differs from deferment. Deferment is an administrative arrangement to help trainees, students and apprentices by ensuring that, as far as practicable, their training or studies are not interrupted by National Service. Decisions on this are made by my Ministry. Postponement, however, is largely a matter of law. It makes provision for any man who thinks his call-up would cause exceptional hardship to have his application heard by an independent statutory authority, in the first instance by a hardship committee.
There is no means of saying what view a hardship committee would have taken of Mr. Chalmers's case, and I am doubly handicapped in this by not knowing precisely what case he would in fact have made. But clearly in this case, as in all cases, my Ministry took particular care to ensure that a man's right to apply was known and that every application was given the fullest consideration.
An application for postponement was required to be returned within two days of a medical examination. Nevertheless, as our records show, in the case of Mr. Chalmers's call-up action was suspended 951 for two weeks, presumably for the express purpose of making quite sure that he had every chance of putting in his application. Even a belated application would have to be considered, and it was certainly not unknown for young men to change their minds about applying.
At all events, we have no trace of any such application from Mr. Chalmers during that time or subsequently. On 28th June, 1960, ordinary call-up action was resumed. No inquiries were made of my Ministry by Mr. Chalmers about the fate of any application during the four months that elapsed before his call-up.
§ Mr. Mellish
Does it not strike the Parliamentary Secretary as most extraordinary if Mr. Chalmers did not hand in his form at the time of the medical examination? He is running a one-man business and he wanted deferment. The reason why he did not inquire during those four months was that he had not heard anything. He had not been told.
§ Mr. Thomas
I do not wish to give any opinion as to the merits of this matter. I am merely reciting the facts. The point is that a full investigation has been made and we have no evidence at all that the application form was handed in.
There is one point on which misunderstanding may have arisen. At medical examinations men were told that, if found fit, they would probably be called up in four to six weeks' time but that it might take longer. It helped both my Department and the man concerned to know whether such a delay in call-up would inconvenience him. Men were, therefore, asked to sign a form saying whether or not they were willing to have their call-up delayed beyond the six weeks interval. Mr. Chalmers signed such a form—I have it here—indicating that he was willing for his call-up to be delayed with a view to entry at a later date. The purpose of this form and its meaning are very clear and I do not think that this can be construed as the application in question in this debate. I mention it because it was one form which Mr. Chalmers filled in and handed in at the time.
The hon. Gentleman did not mention anything about Mr. Chalmers's medical 952 condition, but perhaps I may be permitted to mention it because it has been mentioned in the Press. Mr. Chalmers's medical condition was Grade II when he was examined by us, but I must make it plain that this grading does not mean that in June, 1960, there was any doubt about his fitness. On the contrary, it means that at that time after careful examination he was found to be of a suitable medical standard for National Service.
On all these matters my view is unchanged. It is that we know of no reason why Mr. Chalmers should not have been called up for National Service, and I think that the hon. Gentleman said that his call-up was probably right in that the proper machinery was gone through. But, in view of the appeal that has been made to me that there may be some doubt in this case, I am ready to make further inquiries. In the course of these I hope to establish, with the consent of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air, and with further evidence from Mr. Chalmers, precisely what application he is said to have made, at what stage and on what grounds. In addition, arrangements were made, as promised, for him to be medically examined by the Service authorities so that we can also have before us a report of his present state of fitness for Service in the Royal Air Force. My information is that Mr. Chalmers has now been found fully fit for service.
In the light of these inquiries and of any further evidence that is available, I shall review this case in consultation with my hon. Friend, but I think that it is only fair to say that I cannot hold out any hope that any different view will be taken unless circumstances have changed or unless new evidence is produced.
§ Mr. Mellish
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that if at the end of the day there is still a doubt, in a case of this kind my constituent ought to be given the benefit of such doubt?
§ Mr. Thomas
I can tell the hon. Gentleman this, that we will go into this case as best we can to satisfy ourselves that, in fact, the application form was not put in.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.