HC Deb 22 February 1917 vol 90 cc1496-510

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir George Cave)

In the absence, for a reason which we all regret, of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. A. Henderson) I have been asked to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The Bill is quite a short one, and its only purpose is to give to the Director of National Service a statutory position, and thereby to bring his proceedings under the control of the House. I think I shall best meet the wishes of the House if I take a broader view and give a general outline of the proposals which have been formulated by the Director of National Service in order to meet the national need. As to the necessity for some such proposals, I only need to refer to the speech made on 19th December by the present Prime Minister. The right hon Gentleman then said: I now come to an even more difficult subject, one which is equally vital to tin success of this country in this great war. I have hitherto talked largely of the mobilisation of the material resources of the nation. I now come to the mobilisation of the labour reserves of the country, which are even more vital to our success than the former. Without this—let us make no mistake—we shall not be able to null through It is not the mere haphazard law of supply and demand that will accomplish that which is necessary to save the nation within the time that, it is essential it should be accomplished, it is not a question of years: it is a question of months, perhaps of weeks unless not merely the material resources of the country, but the labour of the country is used to the best advantage, and every man is called upon to render such service to the State as he can best give victory is beyond oar reach."— [OFFICIAL REPORT. 19 December.1916, cols. 1349–1350, Vol. LXXXVIII.] The present proposals are to some extent, or may be said to be to some extent, an answer to the step taken by Germany when a short time ago she added to her naval and military strength by enrolling her own population for civil industry. But apart from any comparison of that kind, I would ask the House to consider what is our position? Men must be found for the Army if the plans, prepared in consultation with our Allies, are not to miscarry for want of drafts. Men and women must be found for munitions, if the efforts of the Army are not to fail for lack of guns and shells. Vital home industries such as agriculture and mining, And the transport and export trades must be maintained in order to feed, equip, and supply our Army, and our civil population, and the armies of our Allies. Above all, shipbuilding must be kept at its maximum output in order to maintain the command of the sea upon which everything depends. How are these needs to be supplied? I only know of two ways. One is that every man who is engaged in these vital industries shall do his utmost in the work he has undertaken. The second is that which is the main purpose and object of this Bill, namely, to draw men and women from the less essential to the more essential occupations. To some extent this process of transfer of labour has been going on throughout the War. In this way we have built up our Army and our great body of munition workers, and maintained beyond expectation our vital export trade. The basis of the new scheme is to continue the process, but to control and organise it so as to concentrate our reserves of man-power on industries which are really vital. That is the object of the scheme.

The question has been asked in the House as to which are the essential trades and which are the non-essential trades. It has also been asked whether we intend to limit the employment of labour in the non-essential trades, or even to close them down. In regard to the essential trades, a list of some of them, the most important, will be found on the form issued by the Director of National Service, and a further and more detailed list has been published to-day. A list of the most important trades is on one side of the regular form which volunteers must fill in, and there is a longer list available. As to the unessential trades, I want to answer the question with regard to that at once. It is not the wish of the Government entirely to close them down. If you close an industry you are bound to compensate, not only the employer whose lifework you may be destroying, but every man or woman for whom you cannot find further employment. This includes very often aged and infirm persons who have been kept on out of charity or the kind-heartedness of the employer, and who cannot return to the rough-and-tumble of ordinary industrial life. To compensate in the way I have indicated is to undertake a liability which is indefinite, and which cannot be easily assessed or easily discharged. Apart from that consideration, after the crisis is over volunteers will return to the industries which they will have left. We must not unnecessarily aggravate the problem of demobilisation by closing down trades which, though they may add nothing to the total of our national prosperity, have been the occasion, and again will be the occasion, of a livelihood to thousands of our fellow citizens. Although we do not propose by any rough-and-ready method to close down these non-essential industries, the Government do propose to take steps to limit the amount of labour employed in them. They have at this moment before them a schedule of unessential trades. In respect to these it is proposed that, as from a certain date to be fixed, no further labour shall be engaged between the ages of seventeen and sixty-one without the consent of the Director of National Service. The schedule no doubt will be amplified from time to time.


Is that male labour only?


At present it is male labour only. Adequate notice will be given if a change is to be made, and we hope in this way that the particular trade may be spared being done an irreparable injury.


Who is to judge of what is and what is not an essential trade?


The Director of National Service will be the judge of what is an essential and what is a non-essential trade.


Will you lay the list on the Table of the House?


What are the aims and objects which we have to attain? We have to get men, and we propose to get men by an appeal for volunteers between the ages of seventeen and sixty-one. I am not referring to women, as to whom a separate appeal and one of a different character will be made. Efforts have been made to simplify the process of volunteering as far as possible. All the volunteer has to do is to go to the post office, fill in a form, send it to the Director, and then to await the call. The Director wishes it to be understood that the appeal is universal. It is not addressed to one class, but to all. No trade or profession is excluded. We want offers from all—from those who are engaged in non-essential occupations or in no occupation. Men unfit for manual labour or professional men are asked to volunteer, for they may be useful in filling positions at present occupied by men fit for military service. Munition workers and others engaged in essential industries should enrol, because, as the Prime Minister said the other day, we want to make their labour mobile. There may be a surplus of men in one factory and a shortage in another, and we want power to transfer men. A few men from one factory may go out and form the nucleus for organising and instructing men in new factories in other areas. Therefore the desire of the Government is that all men in all occupations, or in none, should, if possible, volunteer their services.

4.0 P.M.

So much as to getting the men. Now as to placing them. Essential industries, and the Government Departments who conduct them, will indent upon the Director for fresh supplies. The Director must first make sure that the demand is a real one, and that the labour required will be really used for some national purpose. Having done that, his duty will be to meet the demand. The machinery for effecting these transfers will be the Employment Exchanges, with the help of the National Service Commissioners and the Sub-Commissioners. The enrolment forms will be distributed to the officials of the Employment Exchanges, who will examine them, and may interview any volunteers with a view to finding out what is the best occupation to which the men can be put. We cannot hope to avoid some mistakes, and some putting of round pegs into square holes, but I am sure the officials will do their best. No volunteer will be placed without a serious attempt to ascertain what he is best fitted for, and, as far as possible, volunteers will be employed in the districts in which they reside, and none will be brought into a district where there is already enough labour.

Now let me say just a few words about the conditions of service. They are, as hon. Members know, modelled on the War Munition Volunteer Scheme, with one difference, to which I will refer in a few moments. The National Service volunteer will receive the district rate of the trade in the district to which he is moved or where his services are to be employed. He will also be entitled, if he has to take a lodging in addition to his own home, to a subsistence allowance at a rate not exceeding 17s. 6d. a week, or 2s. 6d. a day. If he is moved from his home he will have one free railway pass from his home and one back again. The local Commissioner will also have power to pay any additional expenditure which a volunteer may incur if he resides at home and has to travel a greater distance than before to his work.


On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. I would like to ask you whether all these points are in the Bill, and, if not, whether it will be open to the House to discuss all the large proposals mentioned by my right hon. Friend or whether the discussion will be confined to the terms of the Bill?


I do not think I can remember any discussion in this House which has been confined to the terms of a Bill, and it is not likely to happen on this occasion; the whole subject will be open-to discussion.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there is a double scale for men1? I understood him to say that which is contrary to what was said by the right hon. Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Henderson) The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has just said that a man would get the scale of wage of the district into which he is moved. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnard Castle, speaking last Thursday, said that if a man were getting in the place from which, he started a higher rate of wage than that in the district to which he was going he would get the higher rate. Is that so?


I was on the point of dealing with that question I thought it would be for the convenience of the House if I told the House frankly what it was proposed to do. I said just now that the National Service volunteer will be entitled to be paid at the rate of the district to which he is moved. In that respect he will differ from the War munition volunteer, whom, I think, my hon. Friend really has in his mind. The War munition volunteer is, of course, moved backwards and forwards according to where his labour is required, and he is presumably a skilled man passing from one form of industrial employment to another. He therefore is entitled to receive either the rate of payment of the district to which he goes or the rate of the district from which he has gone, whichever is the higher. That is the position of the War munition voluntee, and our hope is that those who come in under this Bill will, so far as they are skilled men, come in as War munition volunteers, and therefore be entitled to that rate. But the National Service volunteer who is not a War munition volunteer will come possibly from quite a different employment, and cannot stand in the same position. He is changing the very nature of his employment. It would be impossible, I think, in all those cases to say that he will have the option of receiving the remuneration either of the trade which he leaves or of that to which he is going. Take the case of a clerk with a high salary, or a barrister who has a certain amount of emolument—we could not allow him to say he would be entitled to the full remuneration which he is leaving for the labour which he is taking on. The principle cannot be applied to the ordinary National Service volunteer, but it will be applied to those skilled men who come in as War munition volunteers.


Will he get a subsistence allowance?

Sir G. CAVE r

I understand that is paid by the Government. I said that the volunteer would be paid at the rate of pay of the district to which he goes. The House knows there is one exception to that rule, and that is the industry of agriculture, where the rate of payment has been somewhat low. There, there is to be a minimum wage of 25s. per week.


Does that apply to men in the industry already?


I am coming to that; I have not forgotten these points. I think it rather shows that I am wise to make a general statement. I said the National Service volunteer going into agriculture will have a minimum of 25s. a week, but of course in those happy counties where the agricultural wage exceeds 25s. a week, such as Durham and Yorkshire, he will get the higher rate of payment, 26s. or 28s., or whatever the local rate may be. My right hon. Friend was asked the other day whether the new agricultural labourer at 25s. a week could be expected to work side by side with, or possibly under the direction of, the old agricultural labourer, who might be getting 18s. or 19s. a week. It is a very pertinent question. I think to-day I can only say this, that a solution for that difficulty would be found at once if everybody received a wage of not less than 25s. I cannot say more than that to-day, but I hope before long a solution of that kind may be found to be within the range of practical politics. I have now described in outline the scheme which the Director has introduced, and which is already in operation. Volunteers have been placed, and up to last night the offers of service under the scheme were over 60,000 in number, or five divisions of the new industrial army.

I want to emphasise the fact that the essence of the scheme is that it is a voluntary scheme. The Government considered whether they should include in the Bill a Penalty Clause for breach of the volunteer's agreement, but they have decided not to do so. They are going to put volunteers on their honour to keep their undertaking to servo, and they are going to put employers also on their honour. If we find that volunteers are ignoring the obligations which they have freely undertaken, or that employers are penalising men for volunteering, or if we find that employers who have power over volunteers are dismissing them without reasonable cause, we may have to alter our policy and come to Parliament for further powers. I hope we shall not, and I believe we shall not. The need is so great, and the danger in which we stand is so great, that I do not believe that either employers or workmen will take the responsibility of defeating the effort which the nation is now making to rally its labour reserves. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barnard Castle was asked the other night how we should know whether the scheme had been a success or that any question of compulsion need arise. The answer is a very simple one. If the quantity and quality of the labour obtained through this scheme prove adequate to the demand, the Director will have done all he set out to do, and there will be no more to say. But, of course, it is impossible to give figures, because we cannot tell what the demand will be, and therefore we cannot specify the exact number it is necessary to supply. But we shall know what proportion the volunteers bear to the number engaged in each industry, because the Director is taking power under the Defence of the Realm Act to call on employers to make returns of their employés between the ages of seventeen and sixty-one. This is no more than an extension of the existing law which applies to men of military age. If, therefore, after due time has elapsed, we find there are reserves of labour which voluntary enrolment has not touched, we must try other means.

Having come to that point, I want to refer to the second Sub-section of Clause 1, which defines the powers of the Director of National Service. It will be seen that the powers we propose to take are very wide, and are expressed in the most general terms. We believe that to be necessary. The Director is charged with very important and far-reaching duties and he ought to have wide powers, but I want to point out to the House that it is clear there are limits to the effect of the Bill. I notice on the Paper a series of Amendments which seem to indicate a fear that the Bill might be used for what is called "industrial conscription" in time of war. I do not myself see how that could possibly be done under the terms of this Bill, which contains no new elements of compulsion of any kind, and, therefore, for myself, I think it impossible. But, as hon. Members seem to entertain some misgivings on the subject, I am authorised by the Government to give to the House a most definite assurance that the Government—[An HON. MEMBER: "Put it in the Bill" !]—will not use the powers of this Bill for the purpose of effecting the transfer of labour in any manner not sanctioned by existing legislation, without coming to Parliament for specific authority. Moreover, they will not ask for such an authority unless and until they are convinced by experience that voluntary enrolment has failed to furnish the offers of labour adequate to the national needs.


Why not put it in the Bill?


The remainder of the Bill is formal, and I need not trouble the House with its provisions. I have given the House an outline of its propoals, and I only express the hope that in this Bill and in the scheme I have outlined the House will recognise a serious attempt, without inflicting upon any particular class or individual an undue proportion of the common burden of work and sacrifice, to organise the labour reserves of this country and to enable every man to render to the State in this critical hour the best service which he is able to give.


When I came down to the House this afternoon I confess that I was in two minds as to what attitude I should adopt towards the Second Beading of this Bill. So far as I am personally concerned, and I am speaking only for myself, the very conciliatory statement made by the Home Secretary—and especially the concluding words, which he was very careful to read, and which, therefore, I understand and the House understands to have been the considered decision of the Government—have very greatly removed any feeling of opposition which originally I had in my own mind. There are one or two points on which I wish to satisfy myself, and upon which I hope we may subsequently get some further explanation from the Government. First of all, I think there is some ambiguity, an unfortunate ambiguity, in the title of the Bill. This is a Bill to provide for National Service. I hope it will not be thought that I am hypercritical if I say that the service the people of this country have rendered to successive Governments during the continuance of the War has been whole-hearted, universal, and has been given with the greatest willingness and freedom to an extent which has not been exceeded by any other peoples engaged in this War. There was a time when a section of the Press of this country, to serve ends which I am sure the representatives of the Government were not in sympathy with, adopted an attitude peculiar to the policies professed by the owners of those papers, and they imputed to many sections of the Government slackness and carelessness towards the conduct of the War. Those imputations had a disastrous effect, both here and on the Continent, upon the efforts which were being made by the people of this country in aiding the country to successfully prosecute the War. Consequently, I am a little afraid lest the title which is used in this Bill, namely, that of National Service, may not give an opportunity to some of these people to again doubt the whole-heartedness of the British people to do their utmost in serving the Allied cause.

However the explanations which have just been given by the Home Secretary has, in a large measure, removed my own feelings on this point, and I may say that I came down here to-day with a very genuine doubt in regard to this measure. If I followed and understood the right hon. Gentleman aright, this Bill is really to provide the means of mobilising the labour of the country now employed in some of those trades which are not essential either to the carrying on of the export trade of this country or are employed in some useless trade or trade of luxury, convenience, or comfort which can well be dispensed with. The person who is to decide as to whether a trade is or is not of the greatest utility, and whether there are or are not an excessive number of persons employed in that trade is, as I understand, to be the Director-General of National Service. He is to be an autocrat in that matter. I confess I have great doubts whether the knowledge or the training or experience of any single individual makes him capable of judging whether this or that trade is or is not indispensable, or whether there are or are not an excessive number of persons employed in that trade. There is no suggestion in this Bill that the Director-General will be assisted by any Member of this House, or that he is to have any representative in this House. There is no suggestion that ho is to have any sort of assessors or assistants who may be responsible or of real assistance to him in the decisions he has to arrive at.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

Provision is made in Sub-section (3) of Section 2.


Yes; but Subsection (3) provides that if anybody is appointed he shall not vacate his seat by reason of his acceptance of this office.


It is proposed to appoint a Secretary to the Director-General of National Service who will have a seat in this House.


That is an ambiguity in the drafting of the Bill, but the explanation which has been given renders it more acceptable to me than it would have been had that point not been made clear. There is another point in this Bill which the Home Secretary may be able to clear up upon which I feel very considerable doubt. When the Bills-were introduced for providing new Ministries and Secretaries words were inserted limiting the period for which the Ministries should be appointed. There is a significant difference between those Bills and the present Bill. Under this Bill the Minister is not appointed for the period of the War or until some brief period after the War, but during the King's pleasure. In other words, the Minister becomes a permanent Minister.


In the Bill as it stands that is not so, because this measure incorporates Section 13 of the New Ministries and Secretaries' Act, 1916, which limits the operation of these appointments.


If the right hon. Gentleman will look at Clause 1, Subsection (l), he will see the words "under the title of Director-General of National Service, who shall hold office during His Majesty's pleasure." If the right hon. Gentleman will look at the Munitions Bill, which I looked at this morning, he will find in the first Section, "The time during which the Minister is appointed is the duration of the War and six months afterwards." If he will later on accept in Committee such words as will limit the appointment of the Minister to a definite period after the conclusion of the War, it will be much more simple and direct than legislation by reference, which may raise some doubts upon the point. Again, I would like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for the full explanation he gave in introducing the Bill, for apparently it has afforded an opportunity of clearing up points of some importance and also considerable ambiguity. There was an expression which the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly used in his explanation which gave me great satisfaction, and that was the repeated use of the word "volunteer."

I think it would be impossible for anybody to read this Bill, looking at the last three or four lines of Sub-section (2) of Clause 1, without feeling very considerable doubt and anxiety as to whether or not an opportunity was not to be seized by this Bill to enforce industrial compulsion. I showed this Bill to two learned friends of mine, who read it carefully, and so great was the difficulty of interpreting it, both of my friends—one is a well-known judge, and the other one of the most important acting solicitors in this country—gave me directly diametrically opposite opinions as to what could or could not be done under the Bill. My learned friend who is a judge said that under this Bill there is no limit to the autocracy of the Minister who is to be appointed, and there is no law which he cannot override by the application of the Defence of the Realm Act. My solicitor friend said it was the most harmless document that was ever presented to the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman opposite has been explicit enough in his endeavour to remove my doubt, and had they not been satisfied, I might have offered a protracted resistance to this Bill, but he has now removed from my mind any fear upon those points. I hope, however, that he is going to put into the wording of the Bill the decision at which the Government appear to have arrived, because unless that is translated into a seperate and distinct form, making the assurance he has given real, and not depending upon the passing opinion Of the Minister, but written upon the face of a settled Act of Parliament, he will not take away that opposition which would undoubtedly have developed against this Bill. This will give us an assurance to which we can attribute more sanctity and security than is implied by the personal assurance of the right hon. Gentleman in his continuance of the office which he now adorns.

There is one point upon which I should like to get some further assurance. The Director-General is to have power to transfer labour from one trade to another, and from one district to another, and he is also to have power to regulate the pay which is to be given to that labour. I understand it is to be in the nature of a voluntary transaction, which the labour to be transferred is to accept willingly and without compulsion, and it is also in effect voluntary on the part of employers of labour. They are to surrender a certain number of their employes, and the employés are to accept transference. In a great number of districts with which I am acquainted, and to which you would transfer labour, you could not house them. I have in mind in particular a district in my own part of the world where a very large accession of labour is required for the purpose of manning new munition works. I suppose it would be possible for the Director-General to obtain the labour from superfluous trades, but at the present time there is not sufficient housing accommodation in that locality, or in the neighbourhood for quite five or six miles round, for any considerable number of men. I should like to know whether, in a place of that sort, it is to be the business of the Director-General to supply the housing, or whether it is to fall upon the Ministry of Munitions as it does at the present, time. The point is one of practical importance, because a great number of the people who will be removed under these provisions will not be young men who are mobile and do not carry, as it were, any domestic impedimenta with them, but they will be men who will be away from their wives and families for a protracted period, and who ought to be entitled, and I hope will be entitled, under the National Service Regulations, to something better than the housing accommodation provided in many of the munition centres. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Tennant) reminds me that it will not only affect married men, but it will also affect women in much greater number than they have been affected up to the present time. It will very possibly affect married women as well as single women, and for them special accommodation must be provided if they are to be housed in accordance with modern ideas. The right hon. Gentleman's explanation has very largely removed my objections, and if he adds words to the Bill to make the promise of the Government upon the question of compulsion as clear in the Bill itself as it is in the Paper which he has read to the House, I at all events shall offer no objection to the Second Reading.


I was in hopes, when the right hon. Gentleman was about to give us the benefit of his legal opinions, that they might be some assistance in guiding us in this matter, but it is clearly evident that in this, as in all matters, it is not difficult to get lawyers to disagree. Like him, I had considerable misgiving with regard to the powers contained in the Bill. I have seen the Director responsible for this scheme, for, unlike many, I do not believe in opposing compulsion unless I have done something to prove that voluntarism can be established. Whilst I oppose, and shall continue to oppose, compulsion, I certainly feel that it is my duty to prove that voluntarism can do what I believe compulsion can never accomplish. It is because I find that neither the Director-General nor the Government are going to use that power that I am going to submit, in supporting the measure, that they ought to go one stage beyond the promise that has been made. There have been many promises and pledges given during the past two years.


All of which have been broken.


The Government, therefore, have an opportunity now of setting an example to all succeeding Governments by saying, "We have given you a pledge, and we are going to show our bona fides by embodying it in the Bill." I do not think we are asking too much in urging the Home Secretary this Afternoon to do that. I hope that there will be no extravagant expectations on this question. Nothing is more fatal than to assume that there is an unlimited amount of labour in this country. It is not true, and those who are engaged in industries that have already been drained to the utmost know the difficulty. Whilst, on the one hand, I admit that there are some non-essential trades and men engaged in non-essential industries, and whilst I realise that it is the duty of the Government to use the power at their disposal to the best advantage, I would ask them to remember that they are putting a very grave responsibility on any one individual if he alone is to determine what is or what is not an essential trade. I have received quite a number of communications from large business men who are in favour of the Government policy and of the principle which is embodied in this Bill, but they say, "Surely there ought to be some arrangement that will ensure that someone with a knowledge of the trade has a voice in settling the matter before such a drastic step is taken as to close or shut down any industry." I hope the Home Secretary will consider that question.

The right hon. Gentleman explained that it is the intention, on an application for workmen, that the Director shall determine whether it shall be acceded to or not. I want to put it to him whether there is provision made to meet the case of a dispute in any industry, or whether he has considered that there may be a dispute in some industry. Let me put it to him in this way: You are going to take men for the agricultural industry, and we will assume for the moment that the wage is 18s. per week. The people coming into that industry are to receive as a minimum 25s., plus 17s. 6d. per week allowance. I agree entirely that the moral effect will be to help the agricultural labourer, because the natural and logical position to take up is for us to see that the agricultural labourer who is learning other people to do the work is paid at least as much as the people who are learning it. Let us suppose the agricultural labourers in any district make a demand for 25s. per week and it is refused by the employer. An application is then made to the Director-General for workmen because of this dispute which has arisen from a demand for the same wages as the people who are being drafted there. In such a case as that, would the Director-General hold that there was a shortage, and that he was compelled to send people who would really be acting as blacklegs? I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that is something that might reasonably arise, and it is something that ought to be seen to immediately and provided for.

The next point is with regard to the advisability of enrolling men in essential trades. If there was one failure in the Derby scheme, it was the fact that millions of men were encouraged to enrol and draw 2s. 9d. when it was known perfectly well that they would never be soldiers. It was a waste of time and of money, and inconvenienced millions of people and caused unnecessary work. There are certain trades to which you are going to draft men, and if there is sufficient power at the present time to enable you to transfer labour in those trades where you want it, I submit that it is unnecessary to ask the men to enrol. At all events, it is a question which you might consider. I believe we have reached a stage when we must use men and women to the best advantage. I believe we have reached a stage, when so much sacrifice has already been made, that we must not do anything that is going to prejudice our position in the War. On the other hand, you are taking great powers in this Bill, and I hope that you will embody the pledge that you have given and take note of the points that I have made, not with a view of hampering you, but with a genuine desire to make the scheme, if it is possible, a success.