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Lewsey Road Occupational Therapy Workshop

7.7 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): I wish to present a petition signed by some 367 constituents, many of them stroke patients and their carers. They are most upset by the closure on 23 June of the Lewsey road occupational therapy workshop in Luton. They tell me that they were given only two weeks’ notice of the decision.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Conquest Hospital

7.8 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): In the living memory of the constituents of Hastings and Rye, there has always been an accident and emergency department in the constituency, but it is now under threat. Consequently, Mr. John Baker, Mrs. Margaret Baker and the Friends of the Conquest hospital have produced a petition, which I am happy to present. With the help of the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer, some 20,200 names have been added.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Roseneath and Lea House Residential Nursing Homes

7.9 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I have the honour to present a petition in respect of the proposed closure of Roseneath and Lea House residential nursing homes, in the name of Mr. Robert Hall. There are 2,100 signatories to the petition, and they condemn the proposed closure of the said residential nursing homes.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

25 July 2006 : Column 841

Bevin Boys

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

7.10 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): 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:

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.

25 July 2006 : Column 842

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,

25 July 2006 : Column 843

he also said:

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.

7.19 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): 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
25 July 2006 : Column 844
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

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
25 July 2006 : Column 845
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.

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