HC Deb 29 June 1915 vol 72 cc1651-7

I beg to move, "That leave be granted to introduce a Bill for the compilation of a National Register."

The justification for the Bill which I have now the honour to ask the House to allow me to introduce is to be found in language used by the Prime Minister in a speech delivered in this House on a very recent occasion, which I am confident profoundly moved all those who heard it and which, I believe, most faithfully represented, not only the views which are held in the country, but also the overwhelming desires of the vast majority of our people. The Prime Minister said:— We have for the moment one plain, paramount duty to perform—to bring to the service of the State the willing and organised help of every class in the Kingdom. May I, as an illustration of that, quote a remark attributed to one of our most distinguished old soldiers and citizens, Sir Evelyn Wood. It was reported of him that a short time ago he had a conversation with some Member of the Government, and he said:— You want my services. They are at your disposal, but I ask you to tell me what I am to do. Sweep a crossing? Yes, give me the broom. That I believe to be the feeling of everybody in this country, and the object of this Bill is not to coerce labour, but to secure complete and general and satisfactory organisation. Before we decide what we are going to do with our resources in a time of great national crisis, it seems to me to be obvious that we must ascertain as carefully as we can what those resources are. I would venture to illustrate this by a very common reference to ordinary business relations. Surely the ordinary business man not only takes stock of all that he has and what he can do with it, but he does something more—he keeps a careful record of his financial position. He has, in other words, his bank book, which tells him what he has got, what securities he has available, which of them are already mortgaged for other purposes, and which he can usefully employ for the said purpose of the moment. It is in order that the State may do this that I ask the House to enable a national register to be formed. It is not to be wondered at that the first thought which occurs to anybody in connection with all these various questions, some of which have already been debated in this House, has reference to our naval and military Services.

We are not in the ordinary sense a military nation, and, if being a military nation means adopting the principles of militarism, I hope that we never shall be. But, though we are not a military nation, our position during the last nine or ten months has been really remarkable. I can only compare it to the state of affairs surrounding a beehive which by the onslaught of some big bully, not knowing what he is dealing with, has been momentarily disturbed in the pursuit of its peaceful occupation The air is full of a busy crowd of little insects determined to defend themselves, their lives, and their possessions. Our Empire, not our country alone, is a great armed camp; the seas of the world are covered by our sailors, and we know that not only is this great military force on sea and land unparalleled in its size as compared with anything we have ever possessed in this country before, but, as it is unparalleled in its size, so I venture to submit it is unparalleled in the splendour of its acts ever since the War began. Surely our first duty is to support these heroes on sea and land by giving them all the men they want, all the munitions they want, and all the support they want, in whatever form it may be. This, I venture to submit, is not only our paramount duty but it is a duty which we must perform, if, as the hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Hodge) said yesterday in that fine speech which moved the House and which will appeal to the country, "we are to retain those liberties which we value more than any other possession that we have."

There is not only a vast mass of sailors and soldiers, but what have our workers been doing? In the munition factories we know now that volunteers are crowding to aid us in producing what is required. In other fields of labour, in our coal-fields, not only have enormous masses of men gone to the Colours, but the work has been going on steadfastly and continuously, and wherever you go you find the same earnest desire on the part of the citizen to do his share in this great national work. But while it is our paramount duty to support our sailors and soldiers on sea and land, it is none the less our duty to see that our productive powers are so organised that our trades and our industries here at home are kept going prosperously and successfully, and, beyond that, it is in my humble opinion none the less our duty, if we are to maintain a sound financial position, to see that our export trade, if possible, is also carried on successfully. The Government believe that all this is possible for our country. The Government believe that the country have no need to be dismayed at the gravity of the crisis with which we are confronted. They believe that our resources are sufficient, if they are mobilised and organised; they believe that we can meet the crisis, as we mean to, successfully, and that we can bring our people through it in such a way that, when peace comes, they will find themselves in a position far more satisfactory than might to the ordinary mind seem possible. These are our paramount duties: to maintain our Navy and our Army, to maintain our industrial and our financial position. Can anybody say, with all this strong feeling in the country, can anybody say in his heart and conscience that he believes we are doing to-day all that we can possibly do? Do we not know that there is room for improvement? Are we not prepared to make that improvement? I believe the answer to that last question will be unanimously in the affirmative. This Bill is intended to provide the machinery which will give that organisation without which you cannot secure what we want, the maximum output at the minimum of cost.

I wish to give two very simple illustrations—I have come across hundreds of them myself—of the result of the present system which, without disrespect, I may perhaps be allowed to describe as a somewhat haphazard one. In one case a man to my knowledge is now assisting in the production of munitions of war as a result of chance, for he was happy to see an advertisement in the paper which enabled him to place his services at the disposal of the country. In another case, active labour engaged on work which could easily be done by older men has now been transferred to more productive services. There are hundreds of thousands of these instances, as we all know from our own experience. It happens almost every day that one has applications from people saying, "I am ready to work; I am ready to do this, I am ready to help; what am I to to? Where am I to go?" We do not know where to send them or how to direct them. We do not know what resources we have got, and we must have that knowledge before we can use those great resources to the very best advantage.

The proposal of the Bill is that there should be a compulsory registration of the people of this country, male and female, between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five. That registration will not be a central one, as I see it stated in some quarters, but it will be essentially a local registration, and it will, of course, be available not only for use by our large local authorities, but for use by our central authority. In the forms which will be issued to everybody, and which will have to be returned promptly, questions will be put as to their age and their employment, and they will be asked to state whether they are willing to volunteer for any special form of labour with which they are specially acquainted, other than that ii which they are now engaged. They will be entitled to receive—and will receive a certificate, stating that they have been registered, and I, for one, hope and believe that they will regard that certificate as a badge of honour. This registration will be under the control of the Local Government Board, but it will be conducted by the boroughs and urban and rural sanitary authorities throughout the country, under the advice and control and with the assistance of the Registrar-General, as in the case of the Census. The cost of this will be borne by contributions from the Exchequer on a basis to be settled between the Treasury and the Local Government Board. There are guarded penalties in the case of non-fulfilment of these obligations.

That, I think, completes the provisions of the Bill which will, I hope, be in the hands of Members to-morrow, and they will be able, therefore, in conjunction with this brief statement, to appreciate for themselves what is the scheme which the Government now submit. I believe it will enable the Government and the State to take the fullest advantage of the circumstances of everybody for the benefit of the State. The moment is a great one in the lives of all of us. Our duty, I believe, is a sacred one. We owe it to ourselves; we owe it to posterity that in this great vital struggle we shall leave no stone unturned, and we shall leave nothing undone that can aid us in securing the victory we are determined to secure. I believe we are fighting against tyranny for freedom. I am confident, from information which has already reached me, that I can appeal to the local authorities of this country—to their patriotism and their sense of public duty—to help the Government in securing promptly a full register of the kind described. I have received innumerable offers from volunteers. I may specially mention the school teachers of this country, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland tells me that he has received equal assurances from the school teachers of Scotland that they will be willing to aid during their holiday time. All the local officials, almost without exception, have pressed their services on the Government. This is a grand voluntary movement to secure knowledge of the forces which the country possesses. I believe that the local authorities, I believe that the country at large, will aid us and come to our assistance and give us this information in a comparatively brief time, and it is because the Government hold that this measure is necessary in the discharge of a great solemn duty which has been laid upon them that they ask the House now to allow them to introduce this Bill.




Does the hon. Member rise to oppose the Motion?


I oppose it, unless the Government gives an explicit undertaking that this Bill shall not be applied to Ireland, either by Amendment or otherwise, and that no Bill of this nature shall be introduced for Ireland. As the Chief Secretary does not rise in his place to give that explicit undertaking, I must to the best of my ability oppose the introduction of this Bill. The refusal of the Government to give that undertaking amounts to a threat that something of this sort is about to be applied to Ireland, either by an Amendment of this Bill or otherwise. In these circumstances, knowing as all of us do in Ireland, and as the Chief Secretary himself must know, that Ireland is not a country to which to apply such a Bill, I am left no option but to oppose this proposal. The ordinary decennial census in Ireland is not taken under the Bill introduced for Great Britain. There is always a special Bill authorising it. The President of the Local Government Board has announced that this Bill will be compulsory; this Bill will require rules and forms to be filled up by the people, and there will be penalties for refusal to fill them up. According to the statement to which we have just listened, the drawing up of these rules and forms is to be taken away from the House and to be entrusted to the Local Government Board or some such authority. I think the country will watch with some interest whether this House is going to surrender its right to determine for what sort of forms and rules it shall give a blank cheque to the Local Government Board to impose penalties, and what the penalties are to be. These rules and penalties should, in my opinion, be distinctly set forth in the Bill, and this House should be given a full and ample opportunity of discussing them and modifying them from whatever shape in which they are introduced into a shape in which they can be safely worked.

There can be no justification whatever for imposing such a Bill upon Ireland, since this House and the British Government have persistently pursued the policy of killing and preventing almost every form of industry attempted in Ireland. This special census will require special forms and special penalties, and we are here to insist upon knowing, before the Bill passes and before the census is taken, what sort of forms and penalties those are. For the House to abrogate its right—not only its right, but its duty in this matter—and to subject the people to forms and penalties of which the House knows nothing, would be a betrayal of its trust to the people who have elected it. This Bill, furthermore, is obviously intended not only to be a pilot of conscription, in regard to which the Government are holding up their scheme, but in itself will be more than half enacting a Conscription Bill, because it would prepare the ground and subject the people to that kind of discipline on which conscription will be based, and because opponents of conscription, if this Bill were passed, would be deprived of every logical argument against that measure. The House and the Government can hardly expect that in the event of such a measure as this being enforced with penalties upon Ireland that it will not run a strong chance of being resisted, and resisted with considerable force. In the event of the operation of this Bill being resented in Ireland, the people resenting it, and those advising them to resent it, will be able to quote the language used on a corresponding occasion by the right hon. Gentleman the Attorney-General with reference to another Bill. He said:— Yon will be told that to resist it will be illegal. Of course it will be illegal. He went on to say:— Therefore, do not be afraid of illegality. There are illegalities which are not crimes. If that language is to be used in connection with enforcing this Bill in Ireland, the Coalition Government will be able to put up their present Attorney-General to identify himself with that language and to justify its use in Ireland by other people as its use has been justified by him. Perhaps these considerations did not occur to the right hon. Gentleman before introducing this Bill, and for that reason I would strongly recommend him to ponder upon them before proceeding further, and I would recommend the Chief Secretary to ponder on them before extending the operation of this Bill to Ireland, either by amendment or by any other means whatever.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Long, Mr. McKinnon Wood, Mr. Birrell, and Mr. Hayes Fisher. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 111.]