HC Deb 09 April 1918 vol 104 cc1354-7

I now turn to the new proposals embodied in the Bill which I beg leave to introduce to-day. Our first proposal is to raise the military age up to fifty, and in certain specified cases we ask for powers to raise it to fifty-five; but that is only where men with special qualifications are needed. For instance, it may be necessary to do it in the case of medical men, in order to secure their services. It may be necessary in certain special classes, with special training and special experience, to secure their services for the Army. When you come to the question of raising the age up to fifty, it does not mean that men between forty-two and fifty are necessarily to be taken, in order to put them into the fighting line. It may be that there are men of that age who are just as fit as men of twenty-five, but I am sorry to say they are the exception, and we cannot therefore depend upon men of that age altogether to make the finest fighting material. There are a good many services in the Army which do not require the very best physical material, and it would be very helpful to get men of this age to fill those services, in order to release younger and fitter men to enter into the fighting line. There is also to be borne in mind the fact that we have to prepare for Home defence, so as to be able to release men from this country, and to fill their places by men between forty-two and fifty, who, I have no doubt, will fight very tenaciously for their own homes should there be such a thing as an invasion. The proportion of men from forty-two to fifty whom we expect will be available is not very high—something like 7 per cent., that is, only 7 per cent. of the men from forty-two to fifty will be available for the Army. I hope I have made that clear.


Can you give us the number?


I cannot do that.


You have already given us the number up to forty-five.


I have given the numbers of men raised up to the present time, but I do hope the House will not press me further. After all, we must not assist the intelligence branch of the enemy.


Before the right hon. Gentleman passes—


I only wanted to reassure the people between forty-two and fifty that all the men of that age are not going to be called to the fighting line. I gave a sort of rough estimate, that it would be only a small percentage of the men of that age who would be likely to come under the provisions of the Bill.

Now I come to the question of exemptions from military service. It is known to everyone who has experience of the difficulty of obtaining man-power that one of the many obstacles to success is the number of exemptions which have been granted, often for reasons which at the time appeared sufficient, but which should no longer be effective at the present time of crisis. The Minister of National Service already has power, under an Act passed this year, to cancel certificates granted on occupational grounds. It is proposed to make free use of this power by means of a Proclamation, and there will toe several of those exemptions which will be cancelled under a power which has already been conferred on the Minister of National Service. But when the existing powers have been used to the utmost, it may be necessary to go further, and to deal with exemptions granted on other grounds. Accordingly, it is provided by the Bill that His Majesty may, by Proclamation declaring that a national emergency has arisen, direct that any certificate of exemption from military service of a nature specified in that Proclamation shall cease to have effect, and that while any such Proclamation remain in force no exemption shall be granted which would fall within the terms of the Proclamation. It will be obvious that under this provision it will be open to the Government to cancel exemptions in respect of men under an age to be specified in the Proclamation. This is another means of arriving at the "clean cut," so as to secure men of military age, fit young men, for the purpose of the Army, under an age to be specified in the Proclamation. Any existing exemptions granted to such men will be superseded, and the men will be taken or left on medical grounds only. [An Hon. Member: "Tear up every pledge"'] The hon. Gentleman takes a different view of the War from the one which I take. We have to choose between either submitting to defeat, or taking the necessary measures to avert it. We will never submit to defeat.


Why not resign?


I need hardly say that this provision will not be used to set aside pledges given to discharged soldiers; they will be carefully observed. It is proposed, further, to make a change in the constitution of the Appeal Tribunals in dealing with exemptions, and to speed up their procedure. I want again to emphasise the fact that time is of the very essence of this emergency. The existing tribunals have done very admirable work, but they will be the first to admit that their work has been hampered by a number of circumstances—the number of tribunals themselves, the facilities for unnecessary and repeated applications, opportunities for delay under recurring rights of appeal, and so on. In these circumstances, it is proposed to take power by Order in Council both to reconstitute the tribunals and to regulate the areas in which they shall work; to standardise the grounds of exemption, and limit the rights of appeal. It is impossible now to specify the precise nature of the changes to be made, but I may indicate the nature of the changes we have in mind. Firstly, the areas within which tribunals may act will be reconsidered, and, in some cases, adjusted; secondly, local tribunals, like the Appeal Tribunals, will become nominated bodies, and will be reduced in size. This does not mean that use will not be made of the assistance of the existing members of tribunals who have rendered admirable service and will be willing, I hope, to continue to work under the new conditions. Further, the continuity of these tribunals staff, and officers will, of course, be preserved. We propose to make an attempt to standardise more accurately than is now done the grounds of exemption, and to prevent conflicting decisions on these matters—different decisions in different localities—which is one of the great grievances felt in the country. Changes will also be made in the procedure, but upon these I do not intend to dwell at the moment. There is also, as I am reminded, the question of the extension of the Act to ministers of religion for non-combatant purposes.


Why not also to the conscientious objectors?


There is a shortage of fit men very largely for the service of the sick and wounded, and I am perfectly certain that ministers of religion would not care to feel that they were exempted from the obligation to serve, and especially to render service of this kind on the battle field. We have consulted several authorities on the subject, and some of them with whom it has been my privilege to communicate seem to feel that ministers of religion would be the last men in the world to claim exemption from an obligation of that kind. It is obvious if this change be made, care must be taken not to put an end to religious ministration in the country, and it has been arranged for this purpose that the Minister of National Service shall endeavour to act in concert with the authorities of the defferent denominations, so that in every denomination an adequate staff shall be reserved.


Why not also deal with the conscientious objector?