HC Deb 02 April 1917 vol 92 cc1033-43

(1) The Army Council may, in accordance with and subject to the provisions of this Act, at any time, by written notice require any man who is for the time being excepted from the operation of the Military Service Acts, 1916, as being—

  1. (a) a member of the Territorial Force who is, in the opinion of the Army Council, not suited for foreign service; and
  2. (b) a man (in this Act referred to as a disabled man) who has left or been discharged from the naval or military service of the Crown in consequence of disablement or ill-health (including an officer who has ceased to hold a commission in consequence of disablement or ill-health); and
  3. (c) a man who has been previously rejected on any ground, either after offering himself for enlistment or after becoming subject to the Military Service Acts, 1916,
to present himself for examination in such manner and within such time, not being less than fourteen days, as may be specified in the notice:

Provided that no man shall be required to submit himself for re-examination within six months of his previous and last rejection or discharge.

(2) Any man to whom a notice is so sent shall, as from the date of the notice, be deemed to come within the operation of section one of the Military Service Act, 1916 (Session 2), and not to be excepted therefrom as being unsuited for foreign service, or as being a disabled man, or as having been previously rejected, as the case may be; and the Military Service Acts, 1916, shall apply accordingly.

(3) If a man fails to comply with a notice under this section, he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months; but a man shall not be liable to a penalty under this provision if he shows that he did not receive a notice.

(4) Where a disabled man has had at least one month's service with the colours or where his disablement has been caused or aggravated by naval or military service, no notice shall be given to him under this section till after the expiration of a year from the time when he left or was discharged from the service.

(5) Where a man has been required to present himself for examination in pursuance of this section and is not accepted for service, no further notice shall be given to him under this section until after the expiration of six months from the date of the previous notice:

Provided that a man who is not accepted on the ground that he is permanently and totally disabled for service shall receive a discharge.

(6) A notice calling up a man to present himself for examination under this section may be served by registered post at the last known address of the person on whom it is to be served.


I beg to move, in Subsection (1), after the word "man" ["by written notice require any man"], to insert the words "who is not now employed in agriculture and."

On Friday, when the Bill was considered in Committee, we had a considerable Debate on the question of the exclusion of agriculture from the scope of the Bill, and the Under-Secretary of State for War finally agreed that he would put words into the Bill on the Report stage which would have the effect, at least, of leaving agriculture out of the scope of the Bill, at any* rate, in respect of those men who were registered as agricultural labourers—that is to say, men who were employed in the industry of agriculture at the time of the registration, which was in the middle of 1915. I find that my hon. Friends who took part in that Debate were not satisfied that this would really meet the case, because a very large number of these men who had been rejected upon medical examination had been taken on in agriculture since that date, and they were taken on by farmers, as labour became scarcer and scarcer, with the full confidence that whatever other labour they might not be able to obtain, at least they might depend upon these men who had been rejected on medical grounds and discharged from the Army. Therefore, when I saw the proposed Amendment put down by the hon. Gentleman I was not satisfied with it, because he proceeds by leaving the whole of agriculture within the scope of this Bill and then putting in a provisio as follows: Provided that the powers under this provision shall not extend to any man who is for the time being engaged in agriculture, and whose work is certified by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to be work of national importance, and who was engaged on such work on the thirty-first day of March, nineteen hundred and seventeen. That is a system of doing two things—putting all these men within the provisions of the Bill, and then, so to speak, badging them. That is not what we understood at all to be the arrangement made in Committee. It does two other things: It says in effect to the agricultural labourer, "You are liable to receive this notice for re-examination under the Bill unless you can prove two things: first, that you are an agricultural labourer." That was a matter which the House will remember on Committee stage the Under-Secretary said was so difficult to define that he could not define it himself, and that was one of his reasons for objecting to my Amendment. He now leaves the agricultural labourer to prove that. He has to prove another thing. He is to have a certificate. He is to be certified by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to be engaged in that particular part of agriculture which the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries regards as of national importance. Our contention, broadly, is that the whole of agriculture at the present time is work of the first national importance. We have had an assurance of the Leader of the House that that is his view, and the view upon which the Government are proceeding. If that is so, I maintain that the proper place in which to put this exemption is in the body of the Clause, and that the proper words are those which I am moving, namely, that this Bill, in effect, shall only apply to people other than those who are now employed in agriculture. There was great force in the contention of the hon. Baronet the Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir G. Younger) on Friday last. Undoubtedly the operation of local tribunals, from the very nature of the fact that they are local, has not been uniform in its action. Therefore, if—I only say if—the War Office say it is too big a measure to do what I understood they were going to do, namely, ex- clude agriculture altogether, I should be quite willing to agree to the proviso which I have suggested being put in at the same point as the proviso suggested by the Under-Secretary for War. For the moment I content myself with moving this Amendment at this point, so that we should have a perfectly clear understanding, something that the farmers and agricultural labourers all over the country can understand, because it is in the Bill, namely, that agriculture is left out of those provisions under which men who-have hitherto been exempt or who are rejected go through the mill again and have to come up for medical re-examination. When we get that, then we can consider whether there is any ground for giving the President of the Board of Agriculture power to say that there are certain districts in the country or certain sections of the trade which are not so essential as others to which, in his opinion, in the general interests of the country and particularly of food production the provisions of the Bill can be made to apply. We cannot deal with the broad question and we cannot deal with the other questions to which I have referred unless we first get these words inserted in the Bill.


I beg to second the Amendment.


On a point of Order. I did not quite understand, Sir, at what stage you indicated that the question might be raised whether, in the circumstances, it was right to go on with the Report stage.


As soon as I have put the Amendment and there is a Question before the House.

Question proposed, "That the words, who is not now employed in agriculture and, be there inserted in the Bill."


I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

I think the House is entitled to give more consideration to this very important Bill than is afforded it by the time placed at its disposal by the Government. I do. not want to raise any point of Order, although I have been looking at the Manual of Procedure, and I think I could quote certain Clauses from it which would make it technically impossible for the Government to go on. But I do not take refuge in these official and technical rules, because I think there is a strong case on the facts. I do not want to delay consideration of the measure if the feeling of the House is against my Amendment. I think we are entitled to complain of the date in the Session at which this Bill has been brought in. It was only brought before the House on Wednesday last, and its Committee stage was continued on Friday, a day on which we do not usually sit. We sat on Friday till past six o'clock in a thin House, and to-day we have gone on with the Committee stage until half-past seven. We are now asked to go on to the Report stage, and you, Sir, are put in the unfortunate position, in which you are frequently put and from which you always emerge with conspicuous ability, of picking up the Amendments which are showered upon you in manuscript on the Report stage. I think the House is entitled, when a Bill has been amended to the extent that this has been, to see the effect of the Amendments in a reprinted Bill. I can quite conceive that for some very special reason, such as time, the Government might claim that because they had not time they could not reprint the Bill, but there can be no such hurry in this case. There is no reason why the House should rise on Wednesday, unless that Members do not want to be here on Thursday. We can have the Education Estimates to-morrow, as suggested by the Government, and we could have the Report stage and Third Reading of this Bill on Wednesday, and we could adjourn on Thursday, and we could all of us—except those who are Scotsmen and do not want it—have a Good Friday holiday. As far as we Scotsmen are concerned, Good Friday is nothing to us except a name, and while other hon. Members want to observe that we do not care a rap about it. But that is by the way. On the question of time it is possible to reprint this Bill and enable us to get our Amendments down on the Report stage for Wednesday. I hope my right hon. Friend (Mr. Churchill) will back us on this point, because he backed us well on Friday on a similar point. I think his point was excellent on Friday and he made it with great power, namely, that this House ought not to worry about an extra half-hour or hour if a question of vital importance was involved to many of our fellow citizens.

This involves a million medically rejected or discharged men. If you take their wives and families, it represents a portion of the community which is not less than some five million people. If other hon. Members have been subject, as I have been this week-end, to correspondence on this Bill they will have some faint idea of the interest that it has aroused in the minds of most people. I spoke on this Bill on Thursday and between Friday morning and Saturday night I had no fewer than 513 separate letters from all parts of the Kingdom from men who have been already medically rejected, who were putting up specific cases, many of them quite good cases, which they besought me to try and meet by Amendment when the Bill was in Committee. Hon. Members have really not had time to consider the suggestions which have come to them from the men who are affected and we are not entitled to rush a Bill of this importance through the House of Commons without giving a fair opportunity to these men to submit their views. What would this House of Commons have said supposing that, instead of this being a Bill affecting a million medically rejected men it had affected a hundred or two hundred corporations in this country? If it had affected the great corporations of Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow, every one of us would have been exhorted to stop the Bill's wild career and secure some interval between the various stages. But those medically rejected men are voiceless in this House except in so far as most of us have said that we detest and abhor the Bill. Even my hon. Friend (Mr. Macpherson) says he hates and loathes it, although he has to support it. We are doing ourselves an injustice, as Members of this House and as representatives of these men, if we proceed immediately to the Report stage without the Bill being reprinted with the Government Amendments, and an opportunity afforded to all of us of putting down whatever Amendments may appeal to us when we have seen the Bill on the Report stage. Therefore, I suggest that the Government can get over the difficulty quite easily by taking the Education Estimate to-morrow and the Report stage and Third Reading of the Bill on Wednesday, thus enabling a day to intervene, which is, after all, a short interval, and take the Adjournment on Thursday. There may be important questions which ought to be discussed on Thursday. Many of us raise questions on the Adjournment. I am raising one myself. Perhaps that is natural. I put that in because it is destroying my own chance of raising a question in which I am in- forested. Every one of us ought to be prepared to give up any general questions in which we are interested on the Adjournment Motion in order that a million of our fellow countrymen may be able to say that they receive fair treatment from the House of Commons. I do not think that is putting it too high. I put myself under the leadership of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Churchill). On Friday he gave us a lead—he was the pioneer—and I hope he will get right in the van this afternoon of those who believe it is not fair to these men to rush this measure, and that he, like us, is willing to come back here on Thursday and give up a day of his holiday, if it is going to be of any service to a class of men who, after all, have been very much harried by all the Bills which have been passed with regard to military service.


I beg to second the Motion.

There is one substantial ground on which I think I shall have the support of every one in the House. As this Bill left Committee there was a complete understanding as to the people who are affected by it. We had a long discussion on one Amendment as to whether voluntarily attested men would have the right of appeal granted under the Military Service Act. When that question was put to the Treasury we had, in the first place, a very doubtful answer from the Under-Secretary, and subsequently we had a reply from the Attorney-General, in which he admitted that he had not heard of the decision on this question in the Divisional Court. In face of a situation like that it is absurd to ask the House to go on with the consideration of the Bill when the Government itself cannot give a clear statement as to the people who are affected by it. It is true that the right hon. Gentleman intimated at the end of that discussion that he was going to propose an Amendment dealing with those people, but it is extremely doubtful whether any such Amendment can be made in the Bill at all. In these circumstances, when such an important matter is left undecided, I think the House is bound to insist on seeing the terms of the Amendment which relates to these voluntarily attested men. The trouble of these voluntarily attested men is not a new one. There has been difficulty in carrying out the pledge given them that they would not be treated on the same footing as Conscripts under the Military Service Acts. Indeed, one of the difficulties in regard to this pledge has to some extent brought on this Bill. They were to be treated in the same way as Conscripts, yet the Conscripts could not be called up for reexamination, while attested men were being so called and have been continuously called up. It would be very interesting to know whether, if they are called up after this Bill, they will be entitled to the appeal provided under the Act. At present the Government cannot tell us whether they will be entitled under the Bill as it stands. They cannot tell us whether any amendment of the Bill will so entitle them. In view of that statement of the Government's mind, if we are entitled to credit them with a mind, I believe we have an absolute case in insisting on an Adjournment of this Debate. This is an extremely important matter. I do not believe the late Government could have introduced this Bill. It is the most obnoxious Bill which this Parliament has ever attempted to pass. Had it been introduced by the late Government it would not have reached its Second Reading.


The hon. Member is going beyond the limits of a Motion for the Adjournment of the Debate.


I do not propose to pursue that line of argument, but we are entitled to protest against a Bill of this kind being rushed. I believe if this had pursued the ordinary course in going through this House, and if the stages had been separated by a decent interval, as provided by our Standing Order, there would have been such a storm of indignation throughout the country that the Government, strong as it is, would have had to abandon it.


The Motion, I understand, is based on the ground that during the discussion Amendments have of necessity been made in the Bill. Something like six or seven, I understand, have been made in the course of to-day's discussion, and the form that the Bill will take when it is to be amended on the Report stage cannot be seen unless Members have followed the Debate very closely and have taken the trouble to amend their copies as they went along, and even then I doubt very much whether there are many Members who have an accurate record of what has taken place. In addition to that there have been two or three Amendments promised on the Report stage, and, finally, one of the Amendments at least, which the hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to circulate to the House for our convenience, has already been or will be changed when it is moved. Under these circumstances it is clear that the House will find great difficulty at this stage to follow the exact form that the Bill will take. An ordinary Motion of this kind might be supported purely on these technical grounds, but I think that no one in the House would consider that it was an abuse of our procedure to ask that there should be an adjournment. A Bill of this nature which affects such a large number of men vitally—certainly it is a matter of life and death to a large number of them—and when the feeeling is so strong outside, as it is in all quarters of the House, should be moulded with great care, when it not only affects the lives of those whom it will legislate for, but has a very important bearing on some of our most important industries. Therefore, I would submit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer it would be more convenient and would lead to a much more satisfactory measure in the long run if he would agree that the Report stage should not be continued this afternoon. I know that this would involve a rearrangement of our business before separating for the Easter Recess, but I would suggest that it would be better to do that than that this Bill should take an unsatisfactory form, particularly in respect of some of the Amendments which have been under discussion, on which I believe there are doubts, even as between the lawyers. Very grave doubts have been expressed by them. If we do not take the Report stage to-day, I suggest that we might resume the discussion to-morrow in order that the House of Lords might get the Bill tomorrow night and so give them a chance of discussing it on Wednesday. I understand there is great interest taken in this Bill in another place. This would only involve an abandonment of the business which had been announced for to-morrow, but I feel certain the general feeling of the House is more in favour of a postponement of the Education Estimates and of dealing with this most important matter.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

I am sure the House will understand that I am in rather a difficulty in gauging the position, as it has not been possible for me to be present during the discussion. As I understand it, the Amendments about which there has been doubt have nearly all been accepted from hon Members by the Government. I quite understand that at ordinary times the course we have been asking the House to take is one which would be impossible to recommend, much less to insist upon, and I wish the House clearly to understand that the Government realises as fully as do private Members on both sides how vital this Bill is to the men who are affected by it. We realise that this is not the kind of Bill, as I said in introducing it, which we would have introduced at all had it not been for the military situation. for that reason i am not in the least going to be influenced by any feeling that the pressure of the House is driving the Government to go back on the course it has announced. My only desire is to have this Bill discussed in such a way as to be sure that all the mitigating Clauses which are possible are inserted in it. That is as much our desire as it is the desire of the House. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, that means a rearrangement of the business which we had intended to take. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education has been waiting for a long time to get his Estimates. I promised him once before that he would get them, but I had to break that promise through the force of circumstances. I am anxious not to take the same course again, but I quite admit that the question of whether or not we have the Education Estimates now or on the first Estimate day on which we meet is not an important one, though I would ask the House to remember, in view of the decision we came to last week, what a volume of business lies before us when the Session resumes. Really, we must act with all the dispatch which is possible. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shorten the Adjournment!"] Admitting that, I think that is not a consideration which should influence us in coming to our decision now. My right hon. Friend suggested a course which we had already thought of and which has a good deal to recommend it, and that is that the Education Estimates should be dropped now, that we should take the Report stage of this Bill to-morrow, and that on Wednesday we should move the Adjournment of the House, adopting the precedent taken previously to make the Adjournment take effect from the following day. I would like to point out that I have already discussed this with the Leader in another place, and that the Members of the House of Lords are as keenly interested in the subject as we are here They wish to have a full opportunity of discussing it. I am ready to make this proposal to my right hon. Friend, and I think it is a fair one, and I hope it will commend itself to the House—that the House should give us the Report stage and Third Reading of this Bill before to-morrow dinner-time, so as to enable us to get the Bill printed and circulated to the Members in another place by the following morning. If the House will give that understanding—I do not ask for a pledge, because the House of Commons always adheres to an honourable understanding—and will agree to that arrangement, I will adopt the proposal of my right hon. Friend, and we will have the Report stage of this Bill to-morrow.


I am greatly obliged to my right hon. Friend. Can he tell us what business he proposes to take tonight?


The first Bill we shall take will be the Courts (Emergency Powers) Bill, Committee, and I hope it may be possible to take some stages of the two following small Bills.


Would it be possible for the Government to circulate their own Amendments with the Papers to-morrow morning; If we could have them in final form circulated with the Papers to-morrow it would greatly facilitate the work of the House on the Report stage.


There is no doubt that that would be a great advantage to the House. It is rather late, and there may be difficulty in getting them printed, but I think that it is a difficulty which with energy, can be overcome, and I will try to meet my right hon. Friend.


Does the right hon. Gentleman propose to take more than the Second Reading of the Munitions of War Bill to-night?


I am not familiar with that Bill, but I understand that it raises no question of controversy. When we come to it, we can judge whether it is possible to go on.

Question put, and agreed to.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.