HC Deb 08 July 1915 vol 73 cc602-16

No person shall be registered in more than one area, and, if any person is liable to be registered in two or more areas, he shall have liberty to choose in which area he shall be registered.—[Mr. King.]

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I accept the Clause.

Clause read a second time, and added to the Bill.

Bill reported, with Amendments.


I hope the House will allow us to take the Report stage of this Bill now. There are no Amendments to be made on this stage. There were four Amendments which I promised on the part of the Government during the Committee stage to consider. One was as to secrecy, and that has been dealt with. The second was as to assistance to children and others in filling up forms. I understand that will be covered by the instructions to be issued from the Local Government Board. The other point was information as to employment on Government work, and that is dealt with by an Amendment accepted at the Committee stage yesterday in Clause 4 (1) (b), and, of course, that would also be met by the forms we would issue. There is then the question of change of address in Clause 7, and as to which I undertook that in the instructions it would be made perfectly clear that there was to be no persecution of people who temporarily moved from one place to another, but that it would only come into force when there was a clear move from one established residence to another. The only outstanding question was that there should be some record of the families contribution to the Navy and Army. It was very attractive to many of us, and I promised that if I could I would find words to give effect to it. I am sorry to say I have not been able to do so. I do not think it really would be practicable, because you would have to find somebody on whom the duty would have to rest. The matter is much more difficult than it seems. If any hon. Members who feel strongly about it like to bring any suggestion to me, I shall be very glad to consider it, and, if it seems desirable, I would ask that it be considered when it reaches another place.

The only one other question on which I should like to say a word on the Report stage is the question of age. There was considerable discussion as to what age should be inserted and there were suggestions of seventeen and eighteen. To-day, at the instance of the hon. Member for West Houghton (Mr. Tyson Wilson), we have excluded children under the age of eighteen from prosecution. This leaves the matter in a rather unsatisfactory position. I do not propose to make any change now, but if it meets with the approval of hon. Gentlemen, who will now have the opportunity of considering the matter, I think a change might be made in the Bill in another place by which we should make the age sixteen. That is, I understand, the legal age which differentiates the child from a person liable to prosecution and also the age for insurnce. I should then, after that consideration, propose to amend the Bill by making sixteen the age under the Bill to be liable for prosecution, the same as it stands in law now. I hope any of those who are interested in this matter may communicate with me, and I will then take the course which seems to me to be in accordance with the wishes of the House.

Bill, as amended, considered.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the third time."

I hope the House will not allow the Third Reading. I desire to thank very warmly hon. Members in all quarters for the very cordial assistance which they have given to me and which I appreciate all the more because I know that this is a novel Bill, and that it aroused very considerable feeling in many quarters and that there was very genuine opposition to it. Some hon. Members were alarmed that it might create exactly the opposite effect to that desired. Therefore I am all the more grateful for the assistance I have received, and which has been of a practical and most helpful character. Personally, I may say that the Government believe that this Bill will be a real practical step in advance in securing that organisation of the nation which we think to be essential if we are to meet a great crisis with adequate strength and adequate preparation. However that may be, for the Bill and its consequences we accept the fullest possible responsibility. It only remains for me to thank those who, not sharing those views, have been good enough to help the Government to pass the Bill in a very short time, and I believe to make it a more practical and efficient measure than it was when I first had the honour to introduce it.


Although I am one of those who very greatly distrust the proposals of this Bill, and have shown my attitude towards it practically by votes in the Lobby, I do not propose to resist the Motion that the Bill be now read the third time. So far as I am concerned, and I think, so far as many others who may share some of my views on it, we shall look to its administration to fulfil in the spirit the pledges which the Prime Minister has given from time to time concerning its voluntary character and consistency with the voluntary principle. Though I do not propose to resist the procedure which has been adopted in the passage through all the remaining stages of the Bill to-day, and though I am not aware that there is any standing rule against that procedure, it is the usual practice of the House in regard to measures of the importance of this measure to afford some interval between the more important stages. While we have afforded those facilities to-day, I do most earnestly appeal to the representatives of the Government not to use the procedure of to-day as a too frequent precedent for future measures of so important a character. While I disagree in principle with the right hon. Gentleman, I desire to say we appreciate most fully the spirit of consideration which he has shown in piloting this Bill through.


Although I voted against the Second Reading of the Bill and registered the view that in my opinion it was not a good Bill, I offered no opposition to any of the Clauses that are in the Bill. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman not to alter the Bill with regard to the age. I believe the Bill will be greatly more acceptable if he retains the Amendment accepted to-day. I take it that what he desires is to see the Bill work as smoothly as possible and to arouse the least objection of the people who are affected by its provisions. I, therefore, do make a strong appeal to him not to alter the age which has been adopted so far as the penalties are concerned.


There is only one point I desire to urge, and that is that the right hon. Gentleman will do his best to see that the regulations are published as soon as possible and that they are couched in as plain and explicit language as possible. It would very much reduce the cost if we had a very large number of voluntary workers. Some of those will not be very experienced in this kind of work, and it is essential that the regulations should be very clear in order that the clerks of the various authorities may be able to explain the duties in a simple and efficient manner. If that is done, I am sure there will be every disposition on the part of the public all over the country to assist the right lion. Gentleman to the best of their powers, and the register will be compiled both speedily and efficiently.


Perhaps, as I was responsible for the majority of the Amendments on the Paper in the Committee stage, I may be allowed to say how entirely those who have been critical of the Bill appreciate the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman in carrying the measure through, and the compliment he paid us when moving the Third Reading. It is only fair to say that our view regarding the Bill, as to its desirability and necessity, remains unchanged. At the same time, we believe that, as the result of the discussions in Committee and the concessions made by the right hon. Gentleman, the measure has been considerably improved. If we cannot congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his legislative achievement in his new office, we can at least, with all sincerity, congratulate him on his Parliamentary methods.


As one of the minority who opposed the Bill, I shall certainly offer no further protest. As I was unable before to state the reasons for my opposition, I desire to say now that I did not approach the Bill with any hostility because of the change of form of Government. I dissociate myself entirely from those who opposed the measure simply on that ground. The logic of that position would have meant, that we would have had to oppose every Bill introduced by this Government. That would be an impossible position. I approached this Bill from this Government as I would approach a Bill from any other Government—trying to consider it on its merits. I believe that in the Committee stage the measure has been considerably improved. Indeed, the safeguards we have obtained with regard to secrecy are all important. I desire to say quite frankly that, so far as a registration Bill is concerned, if it is to be mere registration, I still think that it is an utter waste of money. On the other hand, I have not hesitated to say that if this or any other Government came down and said they were satisfied that this War would be prosecuted to a successful issue only by the institution of any method, I would support them. But I object to and protest against the suggestion, which I think was a fatal one, upon which this Bill was being argued on Second Reading, namely, that it could not possibly do any harm. I submit that, in the midst of this War, in the midst of the nation's difficulties, to come down and ask the House of Commons to pass emergency legislation on the ground that it could not possibly do any harm was a weakening of the whole case. Having entered my protest, and having contributed some little to the discussion with a view to improving the Bill, I join in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on the courtesy and consideration which he has shown, and I hope that the Bill will do all its most ardent supporters believe it will.


I cannot allow the Bill to pass from this House without a word. I disapprove as strongly as ever of the principle underlying the Bill. I disapprove, not on party grounds at all, nor because the Bill has been introduced by a Coalition Government. So far as I am concerned, I have been determined from the first, wherever I could, heartily to support the Government which is in control of the destinies of this country, particularly for the prosecution of the War. But I am bound to say that my views, which I expressed on Second Reading as to the utter futility and uselessness of this measure, remain unchanged. The House, however, has accepted the principle, and we bow to that decision. We have tried—and I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has acknowledged it in very handsome terms—to introduce our Amendments in the Committee stage without in any sense obstructing the passage of the Bill. The proof of that is to be seen in the fact that at this time of the day we have arrived at the Third Reading. The mischief which, in my judgment, this Bill may do, or the success which in the judgment of other Members it may have, will entirely depend upon the spirit in which it is administered. If it is administered in the tactful way in which we hope it will be, and if the local authorities charged with its administration discharge their duties in the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman has assured they will, very little mischief may be done; but if they attempt rigidly to enforce the great powers conferred upon them by this Bill, I am afraid there will be considerable dissatisfaction. I am reassured to some extent by the statement of the right hon. Gentleman; but I would earnestly press upon him that, in the instructions which he gives to the local authorities, he should impress upon them the absolute necessity of proceeding tactfully about this business. I do not intend to go to a Division on the Third Reading, and I hope that my hon. Friends also will agree to allow the Bill to pass.


I voted against this Bill on Second Reading, and, as some misapprehension may arise, I desire to say a word now. I fundamentally differ from the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman in the course of the Debates on this Bill. It has been stated again and again that we must accept this Bill—which to my mind is a limitation of liberty—because we are in such danger in this country, and because there is a possibility of invasion which would sweep away all our liberties. If that argument held good, we would be prepared to surrender any liberty we have at present under the law in order to forestall any possibility whatsoever of that great compulsory surrender. But I do not take that view. I think it is a most dangerous view to take. If the view that there is a possibility of invasion and of the conquest of this country is to be impressed upon the public mind, and is to be the impetus behind our legislation here, we shall go from step to step in the surrender of our liberties.

I do not give way to anybody in true patriotism. My pride in being British-born and an inhabitant of this country arises from my belief that this is the freest country on the face of the earth. That is the pride of Englishmen, not only here, but in every part of the Empire. The liberties which we have here, greater than those of any other country, are due to the fact, not that the people of this country love liberty more than others, but that we have not had that fear of invasion which other countries have had. We are told that we are fighting to-day against Prussianism, against the regimentation of the people and the imposition of military rule. That condition has come about in Germany from fear, because on either side they have had countries which they feared at any time might be hostile, and their fear of invasion has made the people willing to surrender their liberties to the military party. I hope that that will not come about in this country. So long as we have the Navy afloat, the Navy upon which we have spent our £50,000,000 a year, this land is in no such fear of danger of invasion as should call upon us to surrender our liberties. It was because I felt there was not that necessity for the surrender of liberty that I have opposed this Bill.


It is one of the ironies of the situation that the mere handful of Members who object to this Bill should have voiced their views very freely, whilst the great majority of Members who support the Bill have remained silent. It is therefore just as well that at any rate one who not reluctantly, but enthusiastically, supports the Bill should say a word. I do not agree with my hon. Friends in their view with regard to this Bill. I support it not as a mere academic document to give the right hon. Gentleman certain information. It is the preliminary step for the organisation of the resources of the country, and that is why I support it. I agree entirely that if it is to be a document merely for the Local Government Board, or for some museum, we are wasting the money we spend upon it. We want to make it an effective weapon for the War. I do not agree with my hon. Friend (Mr. Outhwaite), who, I thought, was a civilian, but is evidently a great general—


Not a conscriptionist like you.


He has arrogated to himself the functions of a general, because he has said that this country cannot be invaded. I understood him to say that the moment invasion comes he is willing to get ready for it. The time to get ready for invasion is not when invasion is taking place. If we had taken a little more care during the past eleven months, and before, to get ready for this War, we would not find ourselves in the position we are now in. I profoundly differ from my hon. Friends on another point. It is not upon the necessity for the Bill that I rely; it is upon the justice of it. It is for the Government to decide upon the necessity. They are the people who have the information. That is not an argument that appeals to me. My view is that every citizen in this country should do his share in the present great crisis, and if he does not find his way to do his duty and to do his share he should be compelled to do it. We have compulsory education and compulsory taxation. I understand that the leaders of the teetotal party and of the trade unions have been against compulsion. Really, if there are two parties in this House who rely upon compulsion, it is those two sections. They are not content with compulsory teetotalism—


made a remark which was inaudible in the Reporters' Gallery.


If the hon. Gentleman has anything relevant to say, perhaps he will say it aloud. I do not think a mumbling voice helps in a debate. The teetotalers, of whom I believe he is one—is he a teetotaler?




I know he is. But he wants to pass Acts of Parliament to make other people like himself. That is compulsory teetotalism. As for the trade unionists, how have they built up their organisation?


I will tell you. Do not let the hon. Member ascribe to the other trade unions the powers exercised by the legal trade union, to which he belongs.


I belong to a trade union that uses compulsion and force.


Exactly, but we are not able to do it.

7.0 P.M.


Oh, oh, peaceful picketing! Surely nobody in this House, least of all labour Members, who know how trade unions are conducted—I do not think my hon. Friend opposite—will tell this House that trade unionism has not used force and compulsion!


made an observation which was inaudible in the Press Gallery.


Does any hon. Member believe it? The hon. Gentleman opposite does not believe in national compulsory service, and I understand he believes still less in compulsory silence. It is said that this subject is very controversial. All matters are controversial. Is it to be said that only hon. Gentlemen on one side are to be allowed to give their views to the House? I altogether refuse to subscribe to that doctrine. Of course the subject is controversial. Still this Bill is, as I understand it, going to a Third Reading without even a Division. But I want, so far as I am concerned, to make my position perfectly clear. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will get this Registration Bill through tactfully—as he always does—and efficiently, and that subsequently the Government will enable every man to see how he can best serve the country at the present time. I believe, and I profoundly believe, that the country is far in advance of the House of Commons upon the subject. The Government underestimates the anxiety in the country. The moment the Government gives a lead to the country the country will follow it. It is because I believe that this is the first step in that direction that I, not reluctantly, but cordially, support this Bill.


I was opposed to this Bill on its introduction, and I voted against its Second Reading. If there is an opportunity to-night I shall be delighted to vote against the Third Reading, and for the same reason as at the very beginning. I am irreconcilable, because I believe the Bill contains the germs or seeds of coercion, of compulsion, and of conscription. I know it is claimed—and it may be justly claimed—that it is a very little seed. But seeds that are sown grow. We have the highest authority for stating that a certain seed, "which, indeed, is the smallest of all seeds, when it was sown in the earth grew and waxed a great tree, and the birds of the air lodged in the branches thereof." Historians tell us that the principle of conscription was first passed in the French Parliament. It was introduced in 1798. It was passed against the better judgment of the greatest reformer in France at that time, Carnot, and against the better judgment of a large proportion of the rest of the community. It became law in the autumn of 1798, and it was passed at a critical moment in the history of France. It was passed in a somewhat similar crisis to this, and the cry was that the country was in danger.

What have been the fruits of that measure? That Act gave power to the French Government which enabled Napoleon to carry out his policy of conquest. It was the means in Napoleon's hands of making him the curse of Europe. That policy of conscription has been perfected in Prussia, where it has been carried out more drastically than in France, with the result that to-day Prussia is the curse of the world. We in 1915 are reaping the evil fruits of an Act of Parliament which was first passed by the Council of Five Hundred in France in 1798. I oppose this measure because I am afraid we are going to allow history to repeat itself. Against the better judgment of the majority of this House we are to-day allowing this principle to be put on the Statute Book. I fear we are in 1915 sowing the seeds of legislation the evil fruits of which will be reaped by our great grandchildren a century hence.


Before this Bill passes its Third Beading I should just like to say how thoroughly I agree with every word the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Griffith) has just addressed to the House. I support this Bill because I think it is desirable that we should have national service both for the Army and military work. Unless we have that we are merely wasting money on this measure. At this time we ought not, in my opinion, to spend money unnecessarily. I believe with the right hon. Gentleman that the country is anxious for national service. I believe that it is the only thing that is going to save the country. I think all of us who hold that view should have the courage of their opinion, and should be prepared to get up in this House and say why they support the Bill.


There are more great generals in this House than the hon. Member for Hanley (Mr. Outhwaite). The hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) is a great general. He has got some technical, expert, military views upon the situation. He considers that a certain military policy is necessary, which military authorities and experts at the War Office at the present time do not consider to be necessary. If they believed that universal military service, that conscription, was necessary in the interest of the country, they would be guilty of the very gravest dereliction of duty if they did not say so, and they would deserve a vote of censure moved by the hon. Baronet. We are told by them and by all responsible spokesmen at the War Office and other Departments of State who have spoken on the subject, that there is no need for universal military service or conscription at the present time. For my part I am content to accept their judgment.

I voted for this Bill, as did the hon. Baronet. I do not say that I would have voted against it if the view of the Government had been that conscription was necessary, and that this was a preliminary to it I quite agree that there might be circumstances in which conscription would be necessary, although those circumstances are not apparent at the present time. I quite agree that if the possibility of the contingency had arisen, and was before one, one should adopt the necessary preliminary measures. I voted for this Bill not because I thought it prepared the way for conscription but because I thought it prepared the way for vast measures of national reorganisation which are immediately necessary—if we accept the possibility of the War continuing for a long time. If so, there must be a large organisation of all the forces of production, and not merely the forces of producing munitions. That is only part of the problem. We must see to it that there is no wasteful production. We must see to it that the producing units of the country are diverted into those channels which are most essential towards maintaining the staying power of the nation. Not only must the producing forces of the nation be organised; but the consuming forces of the nation must be organised. It is possible that there may have to be some restriction upon consumption. There are wasteful forms of consumption, just as there are wasteful forms of production.

If events develop in a way which is not immediately apparent, we may be faced with considerable restriction in our food supplies. We may be faced with high prices. If we are faced with high prices which are due to a shortage of supply, it will not be enough to fix maximum prices. If you fix maximum prices you might encourage wasteful consumption, and that consumption would lead to further shortage, and would land us, not in a shortage, but in famine! Therefore it may be necessary to restrict and control the distribution of food and the consumption of certain kinds of food—and possibly of coal—and in order to do that I think such a Census as is proposed in this Bill would be necessary. It is on that ground that I have supported the Bill. I have not shared the views of some hon. Members that the Bill necessarily involves conscription. Even if I thought that it might be used as a stepping-stone towards conscription by people who are fanatics on the subject, and who desire conscription for the sake of conscription; even then I should not have opposed the Bill, because the Bill itself does not indicate any compulsion or any conscription. It is time enough to fight that subject when it comes up as a practical measure. But there is one thing which I think ought to be remarked about the opposition of some of my hon. Friends. The hon. Member for Anglesey came in I think, rather late in the discussion. He has not sat through the whole of the Debates on this subject. He introduced rather a new note—a more controversial note than we have heard before. If he had attended the Debates he would have seen that such opposition as there was, and such Amendments as were moved, were not obstructive, nor destructive: they were all helpful. We have had a very handsome acknowledgment from the Minister who is responsible for piloting this Bill through the House, that the discussion right through has been helpful. I think that it would be a welcome change in our discussions since the outbreak of the War if we could have a little more reasonable and helpful opposition. Many of the measures which have been rushed through hurriedly have contained grave faults, which would have been revealed by a searching Debate, and I for one, though I have not taken part in it, and do not share the doubts of some of my hon. Friends, welcome that change of tone in the Debates in this House. I think it will be helpful to Ministers in the great task which they have before them.


The right hon. Gentleman who has so tactfully piloted this measure through a very difficult House has told us repeatedly, and we heard the same thing from his colleagues on the Front Bench, that there is no idea in the minds of the Government that this Bill would lead to conscription or to organisation of compulsory labour. I do not myself think that any compulsory organisation of labour is likely to be necessary. I do not pretend to be a military authority, but I do pay attention to the opinions I hear from military authorities, and I believe there is a large body of military opinion which holds that it is not probable we shall see the end of this great struggle without national service—without what I am not afraid to call conscription. Therefore, while accepting the assurance of the Government that they do not contemplate conscription, I support this Bill because I believe it paves the way to, and makes possible, the introduction of military obligatory service, which without it we should not be able to obtain in any reasonable time. I regret personally that past Governments have not had the courage to make preparations for such an eventuality long ago. I rejoice that the Government, without apparently the intention to do so, have made preparations for the necessity which may arise. I agree cordially with every word that has fallen from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Ellis Griffith) on this subject. I agree with the letter he has recently written and published in the Northcliffe Press, which in publishing his letter, at any rate, has conferred a service on the country. I respond to the appeal of the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London; he has said very properly that those who are not afraid of declaring then belief in conscription ought to stand up in their places and say so. I am glad I have had this opportunity of confessing the real reason why I have supported, and do support, this Bill.


I think it is just as necessary that those who believe in the voluntary system should speak out on this occasion as those who do not believe in it. One would imagine, to listen to the speeches of my right hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Ellis Griffith), the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), and my hon. Friend who has just sat down, that we were gathered here to-night to proclaim a funeral oration upon the British system of voluntary service. I do not believe we are gathered for that purpose to-night. How can we speak in tones like that of a system which has done for our country what it has done during the last eleven months? Can we read what has happened ever since the beginning of this War, ever since the retreat from Mons, right up to the reading of Sir Ian Hamilton's dispatch which appeared in the newspapers yesterday—can we see that pageantry of gallantry, all built on the British voluntary system, and talk about it in this slighting way to-night and say farewell to it? It may be that, ere we get to the end of our troubles, we may have to give up many of our most cherished principles; but I, for one, believe, as well as hope, that the voluntary system, which has carried us so far, which has brought a willing response to service from some 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 of young men of this country and this Empire, which has carried us through the tremendous triumphs of the last ten months—I believe that system will carry us through to the end, and I do believe that, if we were to begin now to talk of changing that system, as some of my hon. and right hon. Friends so lightly do tonight, it would, indeed, prove to be the most disastrous example of swopping horses in the midst of a stream that history has ever recorded. The right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite taunted some of us here because in some things we believe in compulsion we do not believe in compulsion in all things. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself believe in compulsion in all things, although he believes in compulsion in some things? Does he believe that a wealthy and an alien Church should impose itself upon a free people?


I believe in using compulsion to remedy that state of affairs.


I am amazed at the constitutional lapse in that reply of my right hon. and learned Friend. The force to which he appeals to deal with the problem to which I have alluded is not the force to which he has alluded. What he is speaking of now is the free voice of a free people, which is quite a different thing from that for which he is asking. He is asking us to force on the people of Great Britain this system of national service. But I have one other fault to find with my right hon. and learned Friend. He said, in the course of his speech, that he sup- ported this Bill, not coldly, but enthusiastically, because this Bill would give a lead to the people of this country, and because it was the first step in the giving of that lead. It was said again and again that this was the first step towards the organisation of the people of this country. If he have learnt any lesson during the last ten months, surely it is this: that it is not so much organisation at the bottom as organisation at the top that we want. Let us get things put right at the top. Let the people have confidence in those who have the Government of this country in their hands. I support the Coalition as heartily as I did the late Government for carrying on the War, but I say the people ought to be told much more than they have been by either Government up to the present time. I do say there are mysteries in regard to the situation, echoes of which are in the newspapers this morning and evening, which ought to be made plain to the people of this country. Let the people know that the great and costly machine, the machine that means the blotting out of so much gallant blood, is in strong, firm hands, that our leaders are united, that they are not quarrelling with each other, that there are no intrigues, political or military; let them know that things are right at the top, and they will get a response even greater than the wonderful response we have already got.

I would remind my hon. Friend that weak things grow weaker still by lengthening. What is the use of adding to the tail when it is the head that needs strengthening? I will take any step to save my country and its liberties, but I do believe in my heart the first step is reorganisation at the top, that we may have more confidence in those who lead us, and my fear now is that the Government have got their eye in the wrong place, that they are thinking at the wrong end. I trust now that they have got this Bill, now that they are going to get more men to volunteer their lives to the service of this country, to follow the gallant fellows who have already fallen on the stricken field, I hope that while reserving in many respects our ancient British liberties, all these great powers they will get under this Bill will be used wisely and well by a united, a wise, and a great Ministry, and that at the head there shall be that strength and unity which will bring an adequate response from the mass of the people.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.