HC Deb 21 December 1944 vol 406 cc1957-64
The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

With the permission of the House, I would like to make a statement in regard to an alteration in Government policy on the posting of members of the A.T.S. which has just been decided upon.

In this stage of the war it is more than ever necessary that we should make the best possible use of our available manpower in the Services and in industry. In the Services the chief aim is to ensure that the maximum number of men are released for operational duties and in order to effect this completely men are replaced by women wherever the nature of the work permits. The A.T.S. have given great assistance in this way at home and now the time has come when their services are urgently required overseas to release able-bodied soldiers from the kind of duty which they can perform. Some A.T.S. auxiliaries are already serving overseas but substantially increased numbers are now required. The Government have, therefore, decided to post certain A.T.S. auxiliaries, as required, overseas and are confident that this decisoin will be welcomed as a necessary and expansive deployment of available resources. The Government have, however, decided not to post auxiliaries to India except as volunteers. It is not proposed to send A.T.S. to Burma, or West Africa, either compulsorily or as volunteers.

As heretofore, volunteers will be welcomed and encouraged, and priority will be given to them in the compilation of overseas drafts. The conditions governing the acceptance of A.T.S. volunteers for overseas service are that the auxiliary must be recommended by an A.T.S. officer not below the rank of Senior Commander, and must be of the requisite medical category. Volunteers are not accepted if they are under 19 years of age, or if they have children under the age of 14. Apart from those who volunteer, no member of the A.T.S. will be posted overseas to any theatre unless she is 21 years of age or over, unmarried and medically fit for service abroad.

Accommodation for A.T.S. auxiliaries overseas will be of the best possible standard. In winter they will be accommodated in huts or billets; in the summer months tents may be used, but certainly not in winter. The Government recognise the need for welfare amenities and recreational facilities on a generous scale and the utmost care will be used to make every possible provision. The A.T.S. overseas will receive the same medical attention as at home including their own women doctors and accommodation in their own special wards. They will be eligible for leave on exactly the same terms as soldiers.

The work which A.T.S. overseas will be doing will be similar to that which they have performed, with such success, at home; in particular, signal personnel and clerks are required. The majority will be employed at the larger headquarters and installations in the rearward areas which may of course at any time come under the same kind of bombardment as London. Here their work will be invaluable. The mixed batteries of anti-aircraft artillery and other associated formations will be strictly confined to volunteers, and will of course be employed in any circumstances or stations in which the High Command may require them.

The Government know that the A.T.S. on whose services so many calls have been made, will welcome these opportunities of making a further vital contribution to the war effort, a contribution on which will depend in no small degree the maintenance of Britain's war strength in the successful and unrelenting prosecution of the war.

Sir P. Harris

Could the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance to the House that the members of the A.T.S. will be kept well behind the battle zone?

Sir J. Grigg

That is included in my statement. I thought I made that quite clear.

Mr. Ellis Smith

In view of the great contribution made by our country relative to that of other countries, is not this step going a little too far, and will my right hon. Friend consider fixing the age of the girls who will come under this scheme at 21 rather than 19?

Sir J. Grigg

I thought I had made it clear that the age would be fixed at 21 for those who are posted. The age for volunteers will be 19, as at present.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I understood that, but what I am asking about is the volunteers. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether the age for volunteers should not also be fixed at 21?

Sir J. Grigg

I should be very loath to do that, because I am sure it would create the greatest possible disappointment among the girls themselves.

Mr. Turton

In view of this great extension of the Service will my right hon. Friend consider the relaxation of the rule that prevents a wife serving in the same theatre of operations as her husband?

Sir J. Grigg

I will certainly consider that, but I am bound to say that my first reaction to that suggestion is one of opposition. I can imagine nothing worse than the added anxiety for either spouse if they were together in circumstances of possible danger.

Miss Rathbone

While my right hon. Friend is considering the question of women serving in the same theatre of operations as their husbands, will he remember that in India distances are so vast that a woman could only see her husband once or twice a year, but all the same she would like to be near him; and, further, in reference to what was stated by another questioner, does my right hon. Friend recognise that women are quite as willing to take risks to life in the service of their country as men and, should be allowed to do so?

Dr. Edith Summerskill

In view of the fact that women are going to have more responsibility in this war and are going to replace men, are the Government considering paying them at the same rate?

Sir J. Grigg

In this particular connection and its relation to any other sphere of women's employment, No, Sir.

Mr. J. J. Lawson

In view of this very grave departure from the usual practice, will the Government make arrangements for a discussion upon this matter, as there are quite a number of questions that one wants to ask which could not be answered off-hand this morning?

Sir J. Grigg

I do not think it is a very grave departure, because at any rate in the case of the W.R.N.S. they are already posted abroad. It is not a very great departure, because the practice is already in existence. "Wrens" are posted abroad as well as going abroad as volunteers. I made my statement this morning in order to cover as many of the points as possible and there will be opportunities for hon. Members to raise the subject, but the question asked by my learned Friend should be addressed to the Leader of the House.

Mr. J. J. Lawson

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that where A.T.S. are in mixed batteries serving overseas they are on very real active service, and there are a good many questions about that side of it?

Sir J. Grigg

Yes, Sir, the A.T.S. go overseas in mixed batteries, but purely as volunteers. There is no question of compulsion.

Sir Patrick Hannon

Will officers and members of the A.T.S. serving overseas have the same facilities for leave and the same consideration in that respect?

Sir J. Grigg


Mr. John Dugdale

Is it correct to say that we are the only one among the United Nations who are posting women compulsorily overseas? I take no exception to it, but I just want to know.

Sir J. Grigg

I would rather like to have notice of that Question. I cannot answer it off-hand.

Sir Herbert Williams

Will the right hon. Gentleman say under what statutory authority he is acting in this matter?

Sir J. Grigg

I imagine under the regulations which apply to the Forces of the Crown, of which the A.T.S. form part.

Sir H. Williams

I want to know under which Act of Parliament.

Sir J. Grigg

The Army and Air Force Annual Act.

Mr. Guy

I wish to ask whether India is included in this announcement, and, if so, will the right hon. Gentleman see that conditions there are considerably improved before the A.T.S. are sent there?

Sir J. Grigg

I thought I had made it clear that in the case of India only volunteers will be sent.

Captain Plugge

May I ask whether, when they are off duty, there will be no opposition to officers walking out with privates in the A.T.S.?

Mr. A. Bevan

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to act upon this announcement before the House has had an opportunity of discussing it?

Sir J. Grigg

That was the intention, and it seems to me that it will be in accordance with the general view of the House. That was the intention of the Government and that is why I made the statement.

Mr. Bevan

Is it not a very serious matter to make a statement like this in this manner just before the Christmas Recess? Will the right hon. Gentleman not reconsider the question of taking any action upon this decision until the House has had an opportunity of considering all its implications when we return?

Sir J. Grigg

I think the hon. Member is exaggerating the nature and magnitude of the departure from precedent, because for months past, and I think it may be for years, "Wrens" have been posted abroad.

Mr. J. J. Lawson

While there is no doubt that large numbers of the A.T.S. will volunteer for service—I have no doubt about that—surely the right hon. Gentleman is not going to say that it was within the general grasp of the mind of the average mother or father that their girls were conscripted to go, as I take it, to the Continent? That is a very serious departure. Before he puts this decision into practice the right hon. Gentleman ought to give the House a chance of discussing it, so that if this action is taken it will be with general good will, because I can assure him if there is not some discussion upon this matter before action is taken then that fact in itself will cause great dissatisfaction.

Sir J. Grigg

I will certainly consider whether it is necessary to send any of them abroad before the House reassembles, which is only a matter of two or three weeks, but at the same time I would not like to leave the House under any misapprehension. There is very urgent need for these girls abroad, need for girls who cannot be found from among the ranks of the volunteers.

Mr. Cocks

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the W.R.N.S. is a voluntary service and that anyone can leave it?

Mr. Buchanan

Is the Secretary of State for War aware that when conscription for women was introduced the Minister in charge gave certain definite pledges that the Act would not apply in certain categories such as having to go abroad? That was one of the definite statements made in that House and until to-day it has never been withdrawn by the Government. In view of the fact that this means going back on a definite pledge given by the Government will he not consider deferring the matter until the House has had some opportunity of expressing an opinion?

Sir J. Grigg

I have looked up the statement. It was a statement on current practice, as far as my recollection of it goes, and there was not an assurance that it would hold for all time. As I have said, I will certainly consider not sending them abroad compulsorily before the House reassembles and I hope hon. Members will leave that so for the time being.

Mr. J. Griffiths

In view of the fact that these young women and their parents were under the definite impression when they were conscripted that their services would only be used in this country, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to hon. Members before we go to our constituencies that no girls will be posted abroad until we come back?

Sir J. Grigg

I will certainly give the assurance that no girls will be posted abroad compulsorily until we come back, but in saying that I want to leave the House under no misapprehension. These girls are urgently required and this postponement will in itself represent a definite diminution of the effort we can put forward.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood

Now that my right hon. Friend has given this undertaking to the House, may I ask the Leader of the House to say that early arrangements will be made for the matter to be threshed out in this Chamber as soon as possible?

Mr. Eden

I think that is desirable, but I do not want any misunderstand- ing. The announcement my right hon. Friend made this morning was one which was carefully considered by the War Cabinet before he made it, and I can assure the House it was made only after deep reflection by all my colleagues, because we felt it was absolutely necessary to do it. I agree that it is desirable that the House should express itself upon it. I could not give an assurance that nobody will be sent overseas compulsorily until we come back, but we will try to arrange for an early discussion of the subject.

Miss Ward

While not disagreeing at all with the Government policy I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether the Women's Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Labour were consulted, in view of the fact that in the past we have been consulted on very many matters?

Sir J. Grigg

I certainly consulted my colleague the Minister of Labour at every stage.

Miss Ward

But the Women's Consultative Committee?

Mr. Woodburn

The W.A.A.F. have not been mentioned, and may I ask whether they are also included?

Sir J. Grigg

As far as I know at the moment, No, but I am not entitled to speak for the Royal Air Force.

Lady Apsley

Further to the announcement made by my right hon. Friend, which I know will give great pleasure and satisfaction to the great majority of all ranks of the A.T.S.—that they shall be given this opportunity for rendering further service to their country in the hour of need—may I ask whether he will give attention to the very general request that the A.T.S. shall be made a permanent part of the Army?

Sir J. Grigg

I share the Noble Lady's view as to the general feeling among all ranks of the A.T.S., but the second question she asked does not seem to me to arise out of this general discussion.

Captain Duncan

May I ask whether the main object of this scheme is to increase the chances of leave and the repatriation of men, or is it to increase the build-up in the theatres of war overseas?

Sir J. Grigg

The main object of it is to release for more active operational duties—combatant duties—men who are at present doing work well behind the lines.

Mr. De la Bère

Why cannot it be done voluntarily? Why is it compulsory? That is the objectionable part—sending women overseas against their will.

Mr. Driberg

Could the Secretary of State answer the point put to him by the hon. Member for the Combined English Universities (Miss Rathbone) about the service of husband and wife in the same theatre of war when that theatre is India?

Sir J. Grigg

I did answer.

Mr. Driberg

No, excuse me, the right hon. Gentleman did not.

Sir J. Grigg

I said that I would consider it, but that I approached it with a prejudice against it.