Letter: Forced labour

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Recently a serious case was drawn to my attention, involving a former Bevin Boy.

Bevin Boys were conscripted for service in Britain's coal mines during the Second World War. They were chosen by lot from their age group which was then being called up for military service.

One of these unfortunate men has recently claimed a war disablement pension, on the basis of an injury to his back and deafness, which were attributed to his compulsory labour in the mines. The decision of Peter Lilley to reject his claim is now being upheld by the present government, on the grounds that the person involved was, during this time, "a civilian".

But all the Bevin Boys were conscripted, and the explicit justification for conscripting them was that the national interest required their compulsory industrial service in order to prosecute the war effort. At an earlier stage in the war, the government of the day had mistakenly called many mine workers into the armed forces, and it now found itself without sufficient manpower in the pits. So it was that young men were balloted for conscription to work in the mines.

This decision was very unpopular among the miners, who did not want to their own sons to be compelled to work in the pits.

The Department of Social Security insists that these men "remained civilians",and are therefore ineligible under the relevant Pensions Order which applies "only to service personnel".

Bevin Boys were called up and allotted National Service registration numbers. Many of them were very distressed that they were denied the right to enter the armed forces. Baroness Hollis, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Social Security, informs me that "Bevin Boys were not classed as employees of the mining industry, and it is therefore very unlikely that the (British Coal) Corporation has ever had Employers' liability in respect of them".

In other words, when these young men were drafted into forced labour, no provision was made to uphold their rights, and none is currently intended.

The truth is that the Second World War was total war, and it was fought by a total mobilisation of resources. But the drafting of the subsequent War Disablement Pension Regulations has been done within a blinkered, partial vision which takes no account of the real circumstances under which Bevin Boys were compelled to work.