HC Deb 01 September 1939 vol 351 cc160-71

" To amend the law with respect to the conditions of service of members of the armed forces of the Crown," presented, pursuant to the Order of the House this day, by Mr. Hore-Belisha; supported by Sir Kingsley Wood, Mr. Shakespeare, Sir Victor Warrender, and Captain Balfour; and ordered to be printed. [Bill 230.]

8 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hore-Belisha)

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

The objects of this Bill, which relate to the position of the Services, are mainly as follow. In the first place, to authorise, for the duration of the emergency, enlistments into the Armed Forces, the present position being that enlistments are required to be for a fixed period. The second object of the Bill is to enable enlistments for general service for the period of embodiment into the Regular Army; that is to say, instead of a Territorial joining a given regiment, he may join for general service in the Territorial Army. The third object of the Bill is to authorise compulsory transfers from corps to corps, and the posting of soldiers to any unit of the corps. That is an obvious provision in time of war; and indeed, it operated in the last War. At the conclusion of hostilities the soldier may come to his own regiment or corps, but he may be transferred, in accordance with the exigencies of the Service, during a war or a period of emergency.

The fourth object of the Bill is to authorise ordering the Territorial Army and the Auxiliary Air Force to go out of the United Kingdom. At present, under the Statutes prevailing, it is not possible to take them out of the United Kingdom. Of course, that was a restriction which was removed during the last War, as we propose to remove it during the existence of the present emergency. The last object of the Bill is to authorise the temporary demobilisation of members of the Armed Forces during a period of emergency or embodiment. It may be that they would be required in industry, and this provision is to enable their services to be utilised in a civilian capacity and to demobilise them temporarily. If the purpose for which they have been released terminates, then they will, of course, remain under their obligations. I do not think there is anything startling in this Measure, which is one which is to be expected in the circumstances.

8.3 p.m.

Mr. Shinwell

Hon. Members on this side offer no objection to the Bill, the provisions of which appear to be reasonable in the present emergency, but I want to address to the right hon. Gentleman a question which arises from what he said about temporary demobilisation. The right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members will recall that during the last War some difficulty was experienced in releasing men from the Services for the purpose of engaging in industrial occupations. It has been suggested that in any future war production will be one of the first lines of Defence, and, therefore, we must conserve the labour that may be required for our purposes. I want to have an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the machinery for the purposes of this temporary demobilisation will be sufficiently flexible to prevent any difficulty arising. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has considered the machinery, or whether that is a matter to be left to the commandant of the particular corps or any person appointed for the purpose, or whether there is to be something in the nature of a committee established, to which claims would be presented, presumably by employers of labour or by Government Departments—for example, the Ministry of Labour—if the services of men engaged with the Forces were required for industrial production. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to give us what information he can on this matter.

8.5 p.m.

Colonel Nathan

I do not think it is entirely irrelevant to raise on this Bill the question of the relations of hon. Members of this House to the Auxiliary Forces. The position in that respect is, I think, a little obscure, or at all events a little anachronistic. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can give us any enlightenment on the matter and whether he intends to deal with the matter in Defence Regulations or in some early legislation. As I understand the position, it is that if Members of the House are members of the Auxiliary Forces, at least in the commissioned ranks, after mobilisation, in the event of a General Election taking place, for instance, they would not be permitted to stand for Parliament. Anyone who is not at present a Member of Parliament, but who is a prospective candidate for Parliament, in the event of a General Election or a by-election in the constituency for which he is prospective candidate, would, by reason of his serving in the mobilised Auxiliary Forces, be prevented from standing as a candidate for Parliament. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, that is somewhat anachronistic, and that there is room for a clarification of the position. The second point I want to raise is that Members of the House may not accept certain appointments, or may not be appointed to certain ranks in the Armed Forces, without thereupon immediately losing their seats as Members, by reason of the fact that there are certain appointments known as offices of profit under the Crown. The acceptance of such office or rank by an hon. Member would mean immediately that an hon. Member serving his country in the Armed Forces would automatically cease to be a Member of the House. I speak subject to correction, but I believe than an hon. Member can be a commanding officer of a battalion without running any risk, but if he is appointed adjutant, he immediately loses his seat as a Member of the House by reason of his accepting an office of profit under the Crown. Certain higher ranks in the Armed Forces cannot be held by hon. Members without their forfeiting their seats in Parliament. I hope that, in the public interest and from the point of view of the Armed Forces, this matter will be put right in the Defence Regulations, or that the right hon. Gentleman will find Some other means of dealing with it.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Lees-Smith

I should like to ask a question arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's explanation that under the Bill a Territorial can volunteer for general service instead of distinctive service in one Arm. Will this apply to existing Territorials? Suppose that a Territorial in an anti-aircraft battalion decides later that his services would be more useful in, say, the infantry, would it be possible for him to transfer from one Arm to another? There is another question I want to ask which concerns more than the right hon. Gentleman's particular Department. Take, for instance, men in the balloon barrage. They are in the Royal Air Force, but I can imagine that in the course of a few months we might decide that the air menace had been sufficiently conquered as not to require in the balloon barrage more than the men who are rather elderly, and not the young men. In those conditions, could men manning the balloon barrage transfer from the Royal Air Force to some other service altogether, where they would be more suitably employed?

8.10 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the powers which are being taken under Clause 3 to transfer a soldier from one corps to another or from one unit in a corps to another. The right hon. Gentleman knows the part which esprit de corps plays in the armed forces, and he also knows that there are many men who, even if they are to be called up compulsorily under these powers, would prefer to serve with a particular unit or corps. Hon. Members from Scotland know the strong feeling which exists among Scotsmen in favour of serving with Scottish regiments, and there are others of my hon. Friends here who would prefer to serve in units with which they have special associations. For instance, if I were called on to serve, I would like to go back to my old regiment. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will use these powers sparingly and will bear in mind that there are strong reasons, may of them traditional, why individuals choose to serve in particular units. It may be that there are other members of a man's family serving in a unit and that he would like to be in the same unit. There is another feature to be considered. In transferring a man from one corps to another you may reduce the pay which that man, when he enlisted, expected to receive. For all these reasons I hope that, consistent with military requirements, the right hon. Gentleman will use these powers as little as possible.

8.12 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I wish to put a few points on this Bill arising out of my own experience. Clause 4 states that notwith- standing anything in the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act a man may be transferred without his consent to any corps, and may be posted without his consent to any regiment or battalion. I ask that this Clause should be used with care and with due discretion. Most Members of the Territorial Army have a special interest in the branch of the Forces which they have joined. They may be anxious to serve along with their own pals, or it may be that the unit is associated with a particular area in which they are interested. A certain amount of local patriotism may enter into their choice of a corps. This spirit is stimulated; the men become interested in the corps and they respect the people from their own locality who hold commissioned rank in that corps. This spirit has been developed particularly in the Territorial Forces, and therefore I hope the Secretary of State will recommend all commanding officers to use this power with great discretion.

My next point concerns technical men, many of whom have been trained in skilled trades, and who have joined balloon barrage units, or the anti-aircraft section or the Tank Corps or other technical branches of the service because of some special interest arising out of their own experience. While I realise that we are now faced with a situation in which we must all be prepared to sink our individual differences, we must at the same time remember that we are living in a democratic State and that a certain amount of latitude and of "give and take," consistent with the national well-being, should be allowed. In that way we can weld our people together in a manner which is unknown in other parts of the world. I hope, therefore, that special attention will be paid to the position of these technical men.

I wish to refer, in the next place, to-the conditions under which men are serving. Certain criticisms have been levelled by certain public people and in the Press against some of the Militia camps. I visited a number of these camps during the Recess along with a man who is a specialist in the building industry, and I have no hesitation in saying that there is no justification whatever for the criticisms which have been made by certain people and in the Press on this score. I wish to pay a tribute to the officials of the War Office who have been responsible for the lay-out of these camps. It is true that certain suggestions for improvement can be made, and I hope that opportunities will be given for stating the men's point of view, in order that those who have to live in the camps may make practical suggestions and any justifiable grievances eliminated. But, as I say, fundamentally there is no justification for some of the criticisms which have been made.

The other day, I visited a certain place. I do not propose to mention the name because I do not want to get anyone into trouble. I saw that a number of men had been billeted in a certain building. I put a number of questions to the men, when the officers were not present. I found that the men were satisfied with the food and the treatment which they had received, but that for one week they had been sleeping on ground sheets laid on concrete. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that that is not good enough. These men are entitled to be provided with palliasses. I am the first to make allowances; I realise the difficulties and the fact that Defence is the first consideration. Nevertheless, if we are to have the maximum of efficiency in Defence, if we are to get the best out of the men, if we are to create the proper spirit among the men, we ought not to ask them to put up with conditions of that kind. Nothing should stand in the way of the men receiving all the comfort possible. I know that they are prepared to put up with a good deal in these days, but they ought not to be expected to put up with conditions of that kind while they are serving at home. It will be soon enough for them to expect such conditions if they go abroad, but it is not playing the game, and it is not encouraging the spirit of our people, to have such conditions at home, and I appeal to the Secretary of State to see that all justifiable grievances of this kind are met. Where the grievances cannot be dealt with, where, for instance, it is a question of transport and certain things cannot be obtained, I would be the first to make allowances, but no excuses should prevent grievances of a legitimate character being dealt with. As I have said, we are living in a democratic State and only the best is good enough for our people, having regard to the conditions under which our men are serving.

My final point is this. I was speaking the other day to a man who is responsible for running a section of one of the most important industries in this country, and I learn that concern is being felt as to the amount of skilled labour which is available in certain respects. It was pointed out to me that the armed forces are drawing away a large amount of skilled labour, and I realise that in these days of a mechanised Army and a large AirForce, it is necessary to have a considerable amount of skilled labour in the Forces. I hope, however, that due regard will be paid to the needs of industry, particularly as regards instrument-makers and pattern-makers and skilled men of that character. I hope that the Secretary of State for War will not in this connection overlook the problems of industry.

8.19 p.m.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones

Naturally I do not wish to delay the passage of this Bill or any of the other Bills on the Order Paper, but I wish to take the opportunity of endorsing what has been said by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) in regard to the national character of the regiments which are being formed. I take it that what he said applied not only to the existing Army, but also to the contemplated expansion of our Forces which was mentioned earlier by the Prime Minister. In relation to that, I would ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as far as Wales is concerned—there are Scottish Members who can speak for Scotland—to take particular notice of the national aspect in connection with these forces. There are elements of a nationalistic character arising now in various parts of Wales and Scotland, and I think it would be a great misfortune if we should attempt to do what was done in the earlier part of the last War, with certain unfortunate consequences, and not allow men to join in units having relationship to their own locality, county, or nationality. I hope my right hon. Friend will give special facilities in this regard, because I am sure that, if he does, it will encourage the esprit de corps and the service which the men will give.

8.21 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I should like to say a word in support of what has been said by the last three hon. Members who have spoken with reference to the use of these wide powers in regard to allocating men, not only to different units, but to different Services. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has the whole thing very fully in mind, and I imagine that he wants to have these powers for use only when it is absolutely necessary to use them. If he could give an assurance that that is his object and that there is no intention of any wide dispersal of men from their existing units, it would give general satisfaction. There is no doubt at all that people who join different units, as, for example, the South Staffords, will be infinitely better fighting men because they are associated with those they know, from whatever part of the country they may come, with their own friends, with local associations; and, from a military point of view, I feel sure that it would be far better if they were kept in their own units as far as possible and not dispersed in other regiments.

8.23 p.m.

Major Milner

From what little I have seen of the work of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War in the last two or three weeks, I must say that it has had very remarkable results. He would not claim that the Army to-day is perfect, but he has made very remarkable improvements, and it is to-day a very powerful fighting force indeed. The House is aware that we have seen these Bills only for a very short time, and I could wish that we had had a greater opportunity of perusing and discussing them, but that is not possible. I am, however, very seriously concerned with this Bill particularly. I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would, perhaps in compendious terms, give us the principle of it—something on these lines: May we understand that, notwithstanding the very drastic powers which the Bill gives to the right hon. Gentleman, there will be under it no breach of any existing agreement or term of service except by way of an extension of period of service or in this matter of transfer; that is to say, will existing rights, and particularly existing agreements and pledges, be fully kept, notwithstanding the powers given by the Bill? The right hon. Gentleman knows that he and I have had cases of that sort up between us in regard to allocations during the last War. I am sure that all of us would wish to see that nothing of that sort can possibly take place again.

I notice that there are certain savings here, in regard to Territorials in particular, whereby a man, for example, cannot be ordered out of the United Kingdom unless he has signed an agreement accepting such liability, and similarly with regard to a man who has signed an agreement relating to the particular corps or unit to which he has been transferred. Can we be assured that there is no power to commit a breach of any existing agreement or term of service, except in these matters of transfer and extension of service, or can the right hon. Gentleman enumerate those matters in which such an alteration is possible? I think we ought to be quite clear on this matter, because otherwise these questions come up year after year, and it is very desirable that we should know precisely what we are doing in such an important matter.

There is another short point. I notice that the power to enlist Regular soldiers and transfer them without consent to other corps applies only to soldiers. Is there an existing power in regard to officers, and, if not, why are they not subject to equal liabilities with the ordinary soldier? I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that there is the question raised by an hon. Friend behind me as to existing rights of seniority, of pay, and so forth, being fully safeguarded in these matters of transfer and extension.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I should like to raise a single point of particular interest to hon. Members and of general interest to our constituent's. A good many of us are Territorials who either are now called up or will shortly be called up. I, myself, am on the Territorial Reserve and will no doubt be summoned. What is to be our position then? At present a Territorial can attend his drills in the evening, and it is a form of recreation for him, but when the Territorial Army is embodied we shall be giving full-time national service outside this House. I suppose that we shall be expected to perform our duties as adequately as we are able both in the Army and" in this House, but we cannot do that unless some arrangement is made by which we can get adequate leave to attend our constituency and this House and to do the other jobs that we ought to do. It will be helpful if my right hon. Friend can assure us that adequate leave will in fact be granted in order that we may perform those duties. [An Hon. Member: "With pay."] I do not mind whether it is with pay or not, but I am concerned that the interests of our constituents shall not be neglected. Let us not forget that we are still representatives of the people and that their interests must be safeguarded by us, and some assurance by my right hon. Friend would indeed be welcome.

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

By leave of the House, I will endeavour to reply to the arguments and points which have been put to me. Most of them converge. The British Army, of course, is based on the regimental system, and the War Office by tradition is fully conscious of the importance of conserving the spirit of the county or of the corps Therefore, the whole of the prejudices of those who govern this matter would be in favour of keeping the man in the unit of his choice. If he were a Welshman or a Scotsman, the intention would naturally be to allow him to remain in his own unit or to post him to a unit closely approximating, in spirit or geographical connection, to his own unit. But in war it does happen that when there are casualties you cannot always observe mathematically the exact proportions of any particular unit, and men must be transferred. It is not intended to use this power for the sake of doing so, but only to maintain the efficiency of the Service, and at the conclusion of hostilities the man will always go back to his own unit. No pension rights will be sacrificed, and no rights whatever will be sacrificed. It is not intended to put a man into a certain post in which he would get less pay, unless by his own fault he has been demoted. I think the House may rest assured that a man's general status will always be conserved. If a man were injured in some particular way, he might have to serve in another corps rather than in his own corps temporarily, but it will be the intention, as it has always been, to conserve the man's status. I hope I have dealt with all the aspects of that question that were put to me forcefully by hon. Members.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) was con- cerned with a slightly extended aspect of this particular case which we are now discussing. He apprehended that a man might be transferred not only from one regiment to another or from one corps to another, but from one service to another. There is no power taken here to subject a man to such a transfer. He can be transferred within his own service, but not from one service to another. Therefore, I trust the right hon. Gentleman will be satisfied upon that point. Another series of questions came from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell), who was anxious that industry should not be made to suffer. He asked whether we had worked out a comprehensive scheme for transferring soldiers back to industry. The position will roughly be this. In the Regular Army the question does not arise, because we are dealing there with professional soldiers. It arises in the Territorial Army and discussions are now proceeding between the Ministry of Labour and the War Office with a view to releasing these men from the Territorial Army.

The Prime Minister has explained this afternoon that we have at the moment in the Army most of the man-power which we require. We shall require certain categories of skilled personnel, about whom an announcement will be made, but in the obtaining of the rest of our manpower as and when we require it we desire to proceed in an orderly fashion, and a Bill will be introduced as the Prime Minister explained. We have already adopted the principle in the Militia of the calling up of a particular class, and that is how all continental countries proceed. Regard will be had in this Bill, I assume, to any method of exemption that will be required. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Wandsworth (Colonel Nathan) was concerned about the position of Members of Parliament, many of whom are in the Forces. In the Great War 25 years ago no difficulty, I think, was experienced. Many hon. Members then served in various Forces, some of whom are sitting before me, including the hon. and gallant Gentleman who asked the question. They had no difficulty when they were on leave from the front in attending to their duties in the House of Commons and it would be the desire of the Government to secure that hon. Members who belong to the Forces should have as much liberty as is compatible with their duties to become candidates or to discharge their ordinary political obligations, although I think the imagination of the hon. and gallant Gentleman was rather stretched when he asked whether they would be spared to fight in a general election. I do not think that that is in the sphere of probabilities at the moment. At any rate, the proper liberties of Members of this House will be conserved. My hon. Friend the Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) asked a similar question and I think I have covered his point.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) paid a very generous tribute, which I am glad to acknowledge, to the conditions of the men in the Militia camps. He wanted to make sure that no unreasonable hardships will be imposed on those concerned. He was good enough to say, what I highly appreciate, that on the whole these conditions were very good, but that there were cases, as there always must be, of exception. I do not know where these men were who lay upon concrete, but naturally that should not be the case normally. It is too late now for him to give any particulars, but if any such cases arose it would be the wish of the War Office to bring instant relief. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South East Leeds (Major Milner) was also generous in his tribute and I am grateful to him. I hope I have disposed of all the questions. I would have referred to each Member by name, but they were so numerous that I am afraid the questions would have got out of control.

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

Bill read a Second time; considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.