HC Deb 16 May 1939 vol 347 cc1217-26

The Minister may by regulations made under this Act impose upon any class or description of male British subjects between the ages of twenty years and twenty-one years who are ordinarily resident outside Great Britain, the like obligation to register as is by this Act imposed on persons ordinarily resident in Great Britain, and such regulations shall make provision for applying to persons thereby required to register the provisions of this Act, subject to such adaptations and modifications as may be prescribed for the purpose of imposing and conferring upon such persons the like duties, liabilities, rights and privileges, as nearly as may be, as are by this Act imposed or conferred on persons ordinarily resident in Great Britain, and may make provision as to the manner in which any duties, liabilities, rights or privileges, are to be performed, discharged, or exercised:

Provided that regulations made under this Section shall not apply to persons ordinarily resident in any part of His Majesty's dominions outside Great Britain, in any British protectorate, in any mandated territory, or in any other country or territory being a country or territory under His Majesty's protection or suzerainty.—[The Attorney-General.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

3.50 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause gives power to apply the Bill to British subjects ordinarily resident outside Great Britain. If hon. Members will look at the proviso they will see that the regulations to be made under the new Clause will not apply to those ordinarily resident in any part of His Majesty's Dominions outside Great Britain, and the purpose of the new Clause therefore is to deal with British subjects ordinarily resident in foreign countries. It is obviously desirable that there should be power by regulation to detal with the special cases of these persons. It is impossible for me to forecast the specific matters with which the regulations will deal, but may I give one example which, I hope, will make clear the necessity for this regulation power in order that the modifications which are necessary to apply the Bill to these persons should be made? It might for example, be desirable to consider whether one should provide that in cases where registration takes place abroad the British conscript should be given opportunities to state his age and other particulars in the country where he is living and residing. These particulars would then come over here and he would then be informed when it would be necessary for him to come and do his training. If there is no regulation of that kind, he has to come over here to register and then might be kept waiting some time before he is called up. It is to deal with matters of that kind, to see that the machinery applies to these special cases with as little hardship as possible that this regulation power is inserted in the Bill.

Mr. Logan

Does that mean that his passage both ways would be paid?

The Attorney-General

I have given one example of the kind of case which would come under consideration under these regulations. I cannot give any information as to what financial provision might or might not be thought reasonable in regard to these special cases. The Committee is now being asked to accept a provision which will enable arrangements to be made to deal with these cases.

Mr. Logan

The Attorney-General has said that it might be desirable for this person to register in, shall I say, a consulate and then be sent over here for military training. The question arises as to the cost of transportation.

The Attorney-General

I cannot give a pledge, nor do I think it would be expected of me, as to what financial assistance might or might not be provided to meet these special cases. I quite appreciate the point of the hon. Member, but it is an example of the necessity for a Clause of this kind, to enable special regulations to be made to deal with the special circumstances of these cases.

3.57 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

What happens to a Dominion national who is living in this country, for instance, a South African? Is he liable to be called up or not? I saw a statement by General Hertzog that no South African national will be liable. Further, I should like to ask what is the position as regards the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Are boys of 20 in the Channel Islands liable to be called up or not? These places are clearly part of His Majesty's Dominions outside Great Britain and have their own Parliaments. Then what is the position of a young employé who is working in Paris or Rome? It is only fair if you conscript a boy at home that you should conscript him also; and why do you exclude a boy who happens to be working in Egypt or Tangiers or any British Colony? Why does he not get notice to serve his term? I object to the whole thing. The plan has not been thought twit at all; it has been done in a rush, and the Government are hoping that regulations made during a week-end will cover all these cases.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

I understand that we are permitted to discuss an Amendment standing in my name to the Clause—at the end to add: This Section shall not apply to persons who are already under an obligation to serve under the military training regulations of a friendly Power. I know that my Amendment is drafted very badly indeed, but it has been put down in this form in order to have a discussion on cases which are bound to arise under the Bill as it stands at present. I should like to ask what will be the position of a young man born of English parents who are living in France? Under French law he is liable to the French conscription laws, and in the event of France and Great Britain serving on the same side in a war, the young Englishman may be called up to serve in the French Army, and also may be called up to serve in the British Army. If he does not respond in either case he might be shot or court-martialed as a deserter. In fact, there was one case during the last War in which an Englishman served with distinction in the British Army and subsequently was imprisoned by the French authorities for not having served in the French Army. That is one case.

There is another case I have in mind which affects a constituent of mine, a young man born of English parents in the Argentine. Under Argentinian law he is bound to serve in the Argentine national service. If he does not do so he forfeits very considerable civil rights, for instance, he forfeits the right to inherit real estate. That young man comes over here for educational purposes and is of an age to be called up as a militiaman under this Bill. Actually in this particular case the young man would like to be called up and is looking forward to it, but he has still a dual obligation which he may not be able to carry out at some future date, because when the time comes he will again offer himself under the Argentinian law to serve under that country's national service regulations. In the event of hostilities who would have the first claim on that young man?

I am advised that there are many cases similar to this. It seems to me that the only way to get out of this rather difficult situation is to come to an agreement with certain friendly Powers; that is to say, if a young man desires to serve with such and such a country where conscription or national service regulations are in force, he shall be exempted from serving under the national service regulations of the other Power; but in this case of dual responsibility the young man should not be called up to serve under the law of both countries, because at some future date he may find himself in a very difficult position.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. R. Acland

I would refer to line 15 of the proposed new Clause. At some later stage of the Bill will the learned Attorney-General not want to insert some words which will show that this line refers to any British mandated territory? As the Clause stands it looks as if people living in a British protectorate would be exempted from the Bill and that all people living in any mandated territory would be exempted. A man living in Syria, which is mandated to France, would be excluded by this proviso. But that is not the intention of the Bill, and the matter should be made clear beyond doubt.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Silverman

Some of the difficult points with which this new Clause bristles have been referred to, particularly by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor). But there are other difficulties. I recognise that the Clause proposes only to take power to make regulations, and no doubt the regulations, when they are made, will take account of the many difficulties, but it is as well that we should realise what will be the effect of such regulations as are made. I take it that boys between 20 and 21 years of age will then be in the same position in places abroad as are those at home, with all the rights that are accorded to those who are at home—for instance the right to appear before a hardship tribunal and to apply to have the period of service anticipated or postponed; the right to claim exemption on conscientious grounds, to appear before a tribunal and make good his claim to be so exempted; and the right to appeal to a central appeal tribunal in London. All these matters are bound to be extremely difficult to work out in practice. Some of us are left wondering how it will be possible to frame regulations that will work if the men I have referred to are to have exactly the same rights as they would have if living in this country.

Another difficulty occurs to me. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) spoke of boys who happened to be living in friendly countries. I do not know what countries he included in that category, but evidently he meant to exclude some other countries that are not friendly. Suppose that the regulations apply to a country like that, what would be the effect? I know that civilians living in enemy countries in time of war are supposed to have certain rights, but these men would have been declared to be, as it were, soldiers, and they are living perhaps in a hostile country. They are not actively combatant, but the effect of the regulations would be to make them part of the military machine. What would be their position? The whole Clause so bristles with difficulties that I am left wondering why the Government have thought it worth while to introduce it at all. I am wondering whether any estimate has been made by the Government as to the number of men likely to be affected by the regulations made under the Clause. Are they so considerable as to make it worth while to overcome the many obstacles? Is there any estimate? If no estimate has been made or if an estimate has been made and it shows that only a very few men are affected, would the Government say why it has been thought worth while to do this thing? Is it really what they call in other spheres of life a talking point, something with which to meet criticism at home, as to people who are not subject to this requirement? The Committee are entitled to some further explanation of how the Clause is to operate.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I believe that if this Bill is to be applied to young men between 20 and 21 in this country it ought also to apply to every other Britisher of that age living in any part of the world; but I want to go on from that statement to ask the Minister whether he has considered something else. It is proposed to apply the Bill to British subjects "ordinarily resident outside Great Britain." According to an Amendment on the Paper in the name of the hon. Member for East bourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor) and other hon. Members, this new Clause is not to apply "to persons who are already under an obligation to serve under the military training regulations of a friendly Power." The proposal enables us to raise a very important issue which has not yet been raised, and it is one that the Committee should consider. I know that in several countries, and especially in one country which is smarting under some bitter experience of a recent date, the young men, and also the young women of this particular country, want to support an alignment of forces which will stand for the preservation and maintenance of law and order in international affairs. I want to ask whether the Government have considered enabling these young men in certain countries, as in our own country, provided they have confidence in the foreign policy—

The Deputy-Chairman

That subject is quite outside the scope of the Bill. We are not legislating for foreign nationals.

Mr. Smith

I realised that I was skating on very thin ice, but this is the only opportunity we shall have of raising this issue and I have had several letters from friends in many parts of the world.

The Deputy-Chairman

I am afraid that this is not an opportunity.

Mr. Smith

Under that Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, I do not seem to get anywhere. The Amendment to the new Clause which I have already quoted says that the Clause shall not apply "to persons who are already under an obligation to serve under the military training regulations of a friendly Power." My point is that when people are friendly towards this country they also should have an opportunity of serving in the way that we are calling upon our own young men to serve.

4.10 p.m.

Captain Heilgers

I wish to refer to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor). In referring to an Amendment which is on the Paper in his name he quoted the case of a boy who was born in the Argentine. I have heard of a similar case of a young man who was born in the Argentine. He lived all his life in the Argentine, until he came nearly to the age for military service. He then returned to this country. He was summoned back to the Argentine to do his service, but he did not go. The position then was that he was under an obligation to serve in the Argentine and he did not fulfil that obligation. Under the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne he not only would have escaped service in the Argentine but he would be released from the obligatoin to serve in this country.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

Let me explain. The position is that if a man does not fulfil his obligation under the Argentinian military laws he forfeits any civil rights he may have as a citizen in the Argentine.

Captain Heilgers

The particular young man to whom I have referred would escape the obligation to serve in either country.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

I see no reason why this Committee should get hot and bothered about young men in the Argentine seeing that we have already decided to give exemption to young men in Northern Ireland.

4.12 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I will deal first with the questions put by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. He asked four questions. I will try to keep within the Rules of Order, though some of the questions arise really on Clause 1 and some of them on an Amendment which is on the Paper. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the question of a South African national. The Committee knows that the Bill does not apply to persons ordinarily resident in the Dominions overseas. That, of course, includes self-governing Dominions primarily, but colonies and protectorates as well. Therefore prima facie a Union national is excluded. If Union nationals come to this country and identify themselves with this country, under South African law they lose South African nationality. The test applied by the Bill to an Amendment passed yesterday is that South African nationals or those who are nationals of other self-governing Dominions, or who are born or domiciled in other parts of the Empire, are prima facie excluded unless they have been here for more than two years—that, incidentally, is the term in the South African nationality law—or unless they can show that they were here merely for a temporary purpose. That seems to be a reasonable provision.

The Channel Islands are excluded from the main provisions of the Bill. The Isle of Man is dealt with in Clause 15. One hon. Member has asked, why do you make the Bill apply to a young man who may be in Rome, whereas you do not make it apply to a young man who lives or is domiciled in parts of the British Empire? The reason is this: Those who live in self-governing Dominions or parts of the British Empire have their own defence obligations in respect of the country in which they live. Those obligations may not be the same as these, but they have those obligations for defence in the British territory or protectorate where they are living. With regard to a British subject living in a foreign country, such a person retains the advantage of British nationality, and he can claim our protection if he gets into trouble in a foreign country. Therefore, it seems right—and the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) supported this—that the Bill should not exclude such a person.

Mr. Benn

As regards the point about the Colonies, obviously there is a defence obligation on a young Englishman in the Colonies, just as there is on all of us. The character of the obligation has been altered in this country, and therefore, there is a case for altering the character of the obligation from voluntary to compulsory in the Colonies. However, it is not worth while pursuing that matter. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will tell us what is going to happen to youths in the Channel Islands, which are not regarded as being overseas.

Mr. Denville

Surely, the King's Writ does not apply to the Channel Islands?

The Attorney-General

The Channel Islands are in a special position. I understand that they have an annual dinner there to celebrate the occasion when they conquered this country in 1066. The Bill as drafted does not apply to the Channel Islands in the sense of bringing them within the liabilities under the Bill. With regard to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. C. S. Taylor), who frankly admitted that his Amendment would not do, I am bound to say that I think there would be great difficulties in defining in an Act of Parliament the sort of man my hon. Friend has in mind. I agree that there are difficult individual cases, and that there is the possibility of a conflict between the nationality laws of different countries, or, if not between the nationality laws, between the laws imposing an obligation of military service. A man may find himself a national of one country under its law and a national of another country under its law. There are cases of double nationality just as there are cases of no nationality. There are cases where the law of a country says that people residing in it shall undertake certain military obligations. All those are difficult problems. They have, of course, arisen already in the case of nationals of those countries which have had conscription as one of the obligations imposed on their citizens. I do not know that there has been any complete and final solution of the problems, so that there shall in no case be a conflict between different conceptions and different duties. All I can say at the moment is that every point which my hon. Friend raised is an argument for a Clause which enables regulations to be made dealing with special circumstances which may arise within the scope of this part of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) suggested that we ought to insert the word "British" before "mandated territory." I am not sure that the hon. Member is right. However, I will look into that point. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) spoke of the great difficulty of framing regulations that would work. Difficult problems will arise, of course, but I am not so pessimistic as the hon. Member is. The problems to which he referred are, of course, problems that have arisen in the past with regard to other countries, such as France, which have had conscription for many years. I agree that there is no absolutely final solution of those problems which is completely satisfactory, but I believe that the principle of making the Bill apply to those who are British subjects but reside abroad is a fair one. There will be difficulties in applying it, but all we are asking the Committee to do is to give power for regulations to be made which, as fairly and effectively as possible, may apply the principle to the cases to which it has to apply.

Mr. Silverman

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer my question as to whether any estimate has been made of the number of persons who would be affected by such a Clause?

The Attorney-General

No. As far as I know, no estimate has been made.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.