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7.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): 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
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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:

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.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): 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.

Mr. Watson: 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
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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.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): 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.


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Mr. Watson: 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.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: 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.]

Mr. Watson: 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.


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