HC Deb 01 December 1938 vol 342 cc597-604
37. Mr. Henderson Stewart

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he can now state the policy of the Government with regard to a national register and national voluntary service?

39. Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he has any statement to make concerning the Government pledge to offer an opportunity to every fit man and woman to serve the country in one capacity or another?

42. Mr. Erskine Hill

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether he is now able to make a statement on the question of a register for national service?

Sir J. Anderson

I hope the House will excuse the length of this statement in view of the interest taken in the subject. I should, perhaps, explain that I propose now to deal only with the problem of the national survey. On the other side of my work, Civil Defence, I hope to be able to make a corresponding statement at no distant date.

In His Majesty's Most Gracious Speech it was stated that, side by side with my duties in organising the preparation of measures for Civil Defence, I would also be responsible for devising a plan for the effective utilisation of the resources of the nation for national voluntary service. I have now been able to bring this problem under review in all its aspects, and I am in a position to-day to state in broad outline the measures which the Government have decided to adopt to ensure that our man-power and woman-power are organised in the most effective and practical way for the voluntary service of the State.

During the last few months there has been much speculation about a compulsory national register. After weighing very carefully all the arguments which can be adduced on either side, the Government have come to the conclusion that a compulsory register is not at present necessary or desirable. It may become necessary, as I shall explain; but, for the reasons which will appear from what I shall have to say later in the course of this statement, we are satisfied that all the immediate needs of the situa- tion can be best met by a voluntary register, combined—as we intend that it shall be combined—with proper measures for ensuring that all who wish to serve their country shall have the means of knowing how their services can best be utilised.

The first step will be to publish a handbook or guide containing particulars of all the services for which volunteers are required for the defence of the country—the Regular Forces, the Auxiliary and Reserve Forces and the various services of Civil Defence, including the police, the fire services, nursing and the like—and giving a clear indication of the types of men and women who can most suitably volunteer for each. A full list will also be made available of all the key occupations which, if this country has to mobilise for defence, would become so essential to the war-effort of the nation that persons above a certain age who are engaged in them could not be spared for any other form of national service. It will be made clear that these persons can best serve the State by remaining at the work for which they have been trained. That is the form of national service in which they can be most useful, and it is from outside their ranks that the Government will look, at any rate in the initial stages, to find the recruits for all the various Defence services. The Ministry of Labour have already done a great deal of preliminary work in classifying the various occupations to be put on this special list; but, in settling the final details, the Government are anxious to enlist the co-operation of the interests concerned, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is taking immediate steps to bring into consultation representatives of both the employers and the workers.

For the handbook, we propose the widest possible distribution; we intend that a copy shall be delivered to every household throughout the country. The special list of vital occupations will, however, be too lengthy to be incorporated in full in this handbook. The full list will be intended mainly for reference, and the handbook will contain merely a general indication of its purpose, telling anyone who is in doubt as to his own position where he can obtain advice. For further publicity for the scheme as a whole I am sure we can rely on the invaluable assistance of the Press.

In addition, steps will be taken at once to build up a national service organisation with local committees throughout the country, by whom full information and guidance can be given to assist individual men and women to decide where their duty lies and to make their choice between the various forms of national service which are open to them.

I hope that it may be possible to prepare and distribute all this literature, and to bring this new organisation into being, by about the middle of January, and we then propose to launch a coordinated recruiting campaign for all the various services for which volunteers are required. In this new recruiting effort we shall not supersede any of the existing recruiting organisations. We shall work in collaboration with them; but there will be better co-ordination, so as to prevent the various services from competing wastefully with one another in the same field, and to ensure, so far as possible, that men or women well qualified for one service shall not be recruited into another for which they are less well suited. We propose further that people who volunteer for certain classes of civilian service should be invited to undertake a more definite obligation of a contractual nature than has been expected of them hitherto.

Our aim is to enrol by these means, early in the New Year, a sufficient number of recruits to bring the numbers of volunteers up to the estimated requirements of each of the various services. We hope also to obtain an adequate number of reserves for each service. Volunteers have already come forward in very large numbers, and I have every expectation that, by the means which I have outlined, the full numbers required will be readily attainable. I believe that the people of this country will respond at once to any further call, as soon as they are told how their services can best be utilised. We are indeed justified in expecting that volunteers will come forward in greater numbers than are required for our immediate needs, and I therefore propose to make provision for the balance in an unallocated reserve which will be registered with the National Service Organisation to be set up under the Ministry of Labour.

While these preparations are being completed, I propose to press forward at once with the expansion of the arrangements for training, in order to be ready to deal with a large increase in the number of volunteers. Each service will, of course, be primarily responsible for the training of its own recruits; but it may well be that in some directions the facilities available may not at first be sufficient to enable all who volunteer to enter immediately upon the full training required for the particular service they have chosen. For these it is proposed to organise some more general preliminary instruction in the principles of civil defence which will be of use to them in whatever branch they intend to serve. We propose ultimately to go further. Under conditions of modern warfare it will be important that every citizen should understand, not only the nature of the precautions which can be taken to reduce the risk of injury from gas, incendiary bombs and high explosives, but also how the problems of civil defence may react upon the normal activities of the community. It has now become a part of the ordinary duties of citizenship to acquire some elementary knowledge of these matters and we hope, therefore, that in due course it may be found possible to extend such instruction as I have mentioned so that it may be made more generally available and, so far as practicable, widened in scope.

When these proposals have been implemented, we shall have registers of all the volunteers enrolled for all the various Reserve, Auxiliary and Civil Defence services, registers of those earmarked as reserves for the various services and a register of the unallocated reserves. In addition, special arrangements are being made for the compilation of separate registers of persons possessing exceptional professional or technical qualifications. Many of the scientific and technical institutions have already taken steps to compile such registers, and these will be available. These various registers, together with the records already available of men included in the special list of vital occupations, will constitute our National Voluntary Register. It is true that we shall not have one central register, but the registers which we shall have will be all the more valuable because they will be available locally in the districts, and with the services, for which they will be required. I believe that these separate registers will be sufficient to serve all our practical needs both before an emergency arises and also for the first few months thereafter.

Our plans do not, however, stop there. If this country became involved in war we should need a complete national register, and to ensure completeness it would have to be compiled under compulsory powers. Such a register would not only be of great value in connection with a scheme of food rationing; it would be required to enable the whole of the national resources both of man-power and woman-power to be marshalled and conserved for a conflict which might be prolonged. The vital difference between prewar requirements and war requirements is that in war it is essential to survey and marshal our resources as a whole; for this purpose the registration only of volunteers would not be sufficient and it would be necessary to compile a universal register. To be effective, however, such a register must be up-to-date, and this condition can be satisfied only if it is compiled at the time when the occasion for its use arises. But, at the same time, I think it expedient to undertake preparations now which would make it possible to compile that register very quickly if the need were ever to arise. I therefore propose to prepare certain machinery for that purpose at once, which can be done very readily and at trifling cost by taking advantage of the organisation for the Census which will be due in the ordinary course in 1941. If this preparation were not undertaken in advance, the time required to compile a complete register on the outbreak of war would extend to many months; if it is undertaken now, the time required would be not more than three weeks, and during that period and for some time afterwards the man-power provided under the system of the voluntary register already described would be fully adequate to meet the needs of the situation, that is, unless our calculations are going to be completely falsified in regard to the potentialities, not indeed of a voluntary register merely, but of voluntary service itself, which, as the House recognises, must be the basis of any plans we make now. The transition from the voluntary register to the complete compulsory register would be smooth, easy and expeditious. I am bold enough to hope that these arrangements will satisfy all who, without being too firmly wedded to any particular method, share the determination of His Majesty's Government that the nation's resources in man-power shall be effectively organised and employed.

Mr. Attlee

In view of that important statement, the full implications of which it will take us some time to realise, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether his policy involves any legislation and whether any supplementary estimate will be brought forward in connection with the matter?

Sir J. Anderson

I am advised that no legislation will be involved. As regards a supplementary estimate, I think that it is too early to say.

Sir Percy Harris

Did the right hon. Gentleman suggest that there will be a day for discussion of his very interesting and constructive suggestions?

Sir J. Anderson

That is not for me to suggest.

Sir P. Harris

Perhaps the Prime Minister will make a statement on that point? One point was not clear in the Lord Privy Seal's statement. Does he propose to start to carry out the work of registering the volunteers in conjunction with the local authorities, or will it be the responsibility of a Government Department?

Sir J. Anderson

It will vary according to the different services. In part it will he done by recruiting organisations, and in part by the ordinary staff of the Ministry of Labour.

Sir P. Harris

Can the Prime Minister answer the other part of my question?

Mr. Stephen

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to include in the register any provision for voluntary offers of money and wealth by the wealthy members of the community?

Mr. Petherick

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider issuing as soon as practicable a complete list of the manpower and woman-power required by the various services to which he has referred, so that the country may have an idea of the actual shortages?

Sir J. Anderson

A question might very usefully be put down on that subject, and I should be happy to answer it.

Sir Edward Grigg

Will the House have an opportunity of discussing the Lord Privy Seal's very important statement?

Mr. Bellenger

In answer to a supplementary question the Lord Privy Seal said that recruiting offices would be engaged in this work of voluntary recruiting. Does he refer to military recruiting offices?

Sir J. Anderson

According to the plan that I outlined, the procedure will vary according to circumstances. In the case of ordinary air-raid precautions personnel the recruiting organisation is under the control of the local authorities, and it is not proposed to change that.

Colonel Nathan

Is it correct to assume that the recruiting for the Territorial Army and the Air Force will be left where it is now?

Sir J. Anderson

Yes. As I said, it is not proposed to supersede any existing organisations but to co-ordinate them.

Mr. H. G. Williams

May I suggest that after the handbook has been prepared by the experts it should be rewritten by people who are more accustomed to the language of the people than civil servants normally are, having regard to the fact that most handbooks of that kind are never read by those to whom they are delivered?

Sir J. Anderson

As an ex-civil servant I appreciate the point of my hon. Friend's question, and I can assure him that we have done our best to avoid the particular weakness which he has mentioned.

Mr. J. Morgan

In view of the exceptional arrangements being made to compile a register of personnel, may I ask whether a register of property and wealth is also to be compiled?

Sir J. Anderson

That is not within my province.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

In view of the extraordinary additional cost which will fall upon poor districts in carrying out the scheme which has been outlined, may I ask whether any steps are to be taken to relieve poor districts of the burden?

Sir J. Anderson

I think the hon. Member is mistaken. The proposals I have outlined should not in the ordinary course involve any extra cost to the poor districts.

Mr. Davidson

I do not put this as a propaganda point, but has the Lord Privy Seal taken into full consideration the terrific amount of physical unfitness in the country?

Mr. H. Morrison

Will the Lord Privy Seal be good enough—I am sure he will—to make it clear that he wishes there should be no interruption in the public volunteering for these services as a consequence of his statement?

Sir J. Anderson

Yes, I am most anxious in making these new plans that we should not interfere with the action and work already in progress.

Mr. Mander

Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that if the best results are to be obtained for this new plan national unity is essential in regard to the objects aimed at?

Mr. Denman

Is it proposed to use the educational service for training youth in civilian defence?

Sir J. Anderson

I have been in touch with my Noble Friend the President of the Board of Education on that matter.

Captain Arthur Evans

Are we to understand that any voluntary enlistments in any of the services mentioned, which may take place in the near future, would be on a contractual basis, or would volunteers be able to withdraw their obligations before an emergency arose?

Sir J. Anderson

What I tried to indicate was that we should introduce in appropriate cases some element of contractual obligation where at present none exists. The actual arrangements will depend on the circumstances.

Lieut.-Colonel H. Guest

Would the Prime Minister say whether we shall be given an opportunity of discussing the statement of the Lord Privy Seal?