HC Deb 18 February 1944 vol 397 cc596-605
Captain Duncan

I beg to move, in page 17, line 34, to leave out from "the," to the end of the Sub-section, and to insert "National Service Amendment Act, 1944."

For briefness and convenience, it will probably be an advantage to discuss also the Amendment in my name in the Title, to leave out from "To," to end, and to insert: amend the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, 1939, and the National Services Act, 1941; and for purposes incidental thereto. I move this Amendment for only one reason. The Bill is the method of carrying out the plan in the National Service Acts, 1939 and 1941. It does no more than that, although it admittedly produces machinery for carrying out that method slightly amended. Therefore, I suggest that a Title which shows that it is an amendment of previous Acts is logical and commonsense. I am of the opinion that owing to the shortage of paper and the fact that thousands of Service men are overseas, there is an entirely wrong opinion of this Bill.

Mr. Bellenger

The Minister has admitted it.

Captain Duncan

That is due to the fact that it is called the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Bill. The men read the headlines and get excerpts from the B.B.C. and a short summary in their Service papers. General public opinion in this country does not realise that the Bill is, in fact, what my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery) called it, a limitation of the liability for reinstatement rather than a promise to reinstate every Service man. It does not, and does not pretend to, reinstate into civil employment every man in the Forces. The Bill does not give work to the young men who were not in work before they joined up. The men who are the subject of voluntary agreements, civil servants, small shopkeepers and a whole host of other people are not covered by it.

The Bill does only two things. It gives some power to deal with the employer who does not want to take back a Service man who was in his employment before and whom he could take back reasonably and practicably. The only thing it does, as far as I can see, is to encourage employers to make voluntary agreements if they have not been made already. In these circumstances it is a grave error to let it go out to the world, and to soldiers, sailors and airmen all over the world, that this is a promise to reinstate everybody who is serving. That is the point I want to bring out, and for that reason I suggest that the present Title should be dropped and that the Measure should be called the National Service Amendment Act. If my right hon. Friend has any better Title to suggest I am willing to consider it. I put that name forward, as being logical, considering that it does amend the 1939 Armed Forces Act, and the 1941 National Service Act.

Mr. Bellenger

I hope I am not going to incur the wrath of my right hon. Friend as I did yesterday, for what he would consider an inapt statement or sentence. I am in considerable sympathy with the remarks just made by the hon. and gallant Member. It is obvious that same of his opinions are shared by one or two of us on this side of the Committee although we may express them a little differently. My hon. and gallant Friend is logical. I do not think there is any answer to the case put up by him. In case the Minister is not aware of what is being said in the Service newspapers, let me tell him that I have an opportunity of reading those Service newspapers. He has too, if he would go into the Libary. I occasionally write for "Union Jack," which circulates in the Armed Forces in the Mediterranean, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that it is not only what Members of Parliament say but what is reported in those newspapers there, which shows that the impression is given, wrongly I think—and I think the Minister will agree—that the Bill will give the men almost Utopia when they come hack. I know that my right hon. Friend disagrees with that, because he has said so. I understand that point of view and I agree with it. I accept entirely what he has stated, which is that this is a limited Bill, which does not deal with the question of full employment. Does the hon. and gallant Member really think that by changing the name "Reinstatement in civil employment" which really says, what it means, and substituting the words "National Service Act (Amendment) 1944" that any different impression will be given to the Servicemen serving overseas? I do not think so. Therefore, I do not think that I would support my hon. and gallant Friend, although, undoubtedly, logically, he is quite right.

Mr. Bevin

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend say that he writes for the Service papers because nobody is in a better position than he is to correct a wrong impression.

Mr. Bellenger

I am not.

Mr. Bevin

I said if the hon. Member is writing for the papers, because that gives an opportunity for him to write and explain things. I hope he does not do it quite like he did yesterday, because I would like to edit the article before it goes. [An HON. MEMBER: "Censor it?"] No, not censor it, just edit it. It is clear that when the men in the Forces come out they will, this time, be left under no delusion as to their rights and what these Measures mean. The Government will see to it, not in the Service papers, but in an appropriate publication to them when the time comes, that they are told their rights in regard to pensions and disablement, and under this Bill, and it will be all a part of a pattern, when it is complete. The alteration of title would not make very much difference. I do not think that the soldiers are under any delusion at all about this Bill. Hon. Members underrate their intelligence. They knew what the 1939 Act meant, and most of them knew that there was not much machinery to deal with it. They all know what I am doing in connection with this Bill. I do not think there is any doubt in their minds at all. I attended a very large gathering a week or two back of men in the Armed Forces. Questions were asked me. In fact, they were so good that I thought I was back in a branch meeting. The men are not under any delusion, either overseas or here.

I have not overrated the Bill, from the Second Reading onwards, and I have explained it. Where I think the thing went rather wrong, and it was most unfortunate, was when people tried to score over my modesty in introducing it. I would ask the hon. and gallant Member not to press this point. If the Title is amended as suggested, it would not meet the situation at all. One thing I have done under the Bill, which I should have thought would merit the approbation of Parliament, is that I have extended it to bring in volunteers who were not in the original Act. It includes all the volunteers who have gone into the Services during the war, which is a very large number. I have protected their rights. These do not come within the-ambit of the National Service Act, as is suggested by the Title by my hon. and gallant Friend.

We had better stick to the original Title. Is it not better to stick to the thing? When the time comes I can assure all hon. Members that we are not going to leave demobilisation to be dealt with chaotically. I can say for the Government that in fact we are not going to leave men to come out of the Forces and to rush back in the way they did before, with nobody to guide them. Believe me, I lived through it. I saw the scenes in Whitehall. I saw all this business, and it is burnt into my soul, and as far as I and the rest of my colleagues in the War Cabinet are concerned, we are determined to try to fit these things into such a pattern in order that, in totality, they will be ready when the men return from the Forces. They have done their job, and they deserve it. Therefore, do not let us try to solve the situation by altering the title of this or that Measure.

This part of the business will dovetail in, like disablement, pensions, and other things which we shall do, and reveal to Parliament as time goes on. The whole plan will fit together. This is one piece, and only one little bit. This is only a page in the total scheme. It will fit right; I can assure hon. Members that they will see that in the end. I would not try to remedy anything by altering a word in the title. Take my assurance that, when it is presented by the Government to those who have served us so well in the Forces, it will be in its proper perspective, and no greater value will be put upon it than it deserves.

Mr. Molson

The Committee has heard with great satisfaction during these last few days a very unequivocal and definite assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that he and his colleagues are at work at the present time upon those great plans for demobilisation, for the expansion of industry, and for the provision of full employment, which is the only method by which we can give an assurance to the men now serving in the Army that, when they do return to civil life, they will be reabsorbed into industry. It is because, in the whole of his administration, so much of the work that he has done has been of very high quality, that some of us have—.

Mr. Boothby (Aberdeen, East)

On a point of Order. Have the observations which my hon. Friend is now making any relevance to the Amendment?

The Chairman

I believe that the hon. Member is coming to the point.

Mr. Molson

If I had not been interrupted I was just going to say that, because my right hon. Friend's work has been of such very high quality, it has been a matter of deep regret to some of us that, at this time, he should have introduced a Bill which does appear to some of us to be little more than window-dressing. It is no use explaining to the Committee how modest this Bill is and what a small scope it is to occupy in the general plan which the Government are preparing if throughout the world there goes out the information that the British House of Commons has passed a Bill called the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Bill. Yesterday in answer to a speech by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) the Minister said: I have said three times to-day it is merely trying to make an Act of Parliament work, nothing more or less. It is customary, when it is found that an Act of Parliament does not work, to introduce an amending Bill that will make it work. In the course of the same speech he went on to say: I have said over and over again that to attempt to lead men to believe that the Clause secured them a return to their jobs was wrong."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th February, 1944; cols. 456–7, Vol. 397.] and it is because we believe that the effect of the Title of this Bill will be to give that impression to the many hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of men who from Burma to South Africa will read that this Bill has been passed and will not have any opportunity of studying its provisions that we suggest it would be entirely in accordance with the statements which my right hon. Friend has made if he were willing to amend the Bill in that way. He says he has chosen as a name for this Bill the headings to the sections in the original Bill which is now being amended. But it is not generally the practice, when a major Bill is being amended, to entitle the amending Bill by the name of whatever Clause or Clauses may have been amended. I would therefore ask him to consider this matter again and to give effect to the intention that he has himself expressed, and that is not at this particular juncture to give an impression to the men in the Forces that this Bill is of greater and wider scope than in fact it is.

Mr. Erskine-Hill

This is a short point and I only propose to say a few words. I think it is a great pity that the Minister has not been able to show that same geniality and generosity which he has displayed to so great advantage in the course of the Debate to-day, because I think it is always a mistake to have a label which is not particularly descriptive of the goods upon which the label is placed. I cannot share his view that no grave harm will be done by the name. I am not altogether enamoured of the name suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend who moved the Amendment, but I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman will be able between now and the Report stage to be able to think of a much better Title which will not have the same disadvantages and will not allow someone so intelligent as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) to mistake the meaning of the Bill, because if it is possible for one who knows so much and does so much for the soldier to misunderstand it may well be easy for the soldier on reading the Bill to fall into the same error. I think the right hon. Gentleman will, before we reach the Report stage, with that geniality which is so marked, think it over and will suggest some other title which will make the thing beyond a peradventure. I would like to make an appeal to him to do so.

Mr. Bevis

I am quite willing to think it over but I cannot give any undertaking to-day. I have tried to see whether anything else expressed the purpose of the Bill, but if any of my hon. Friends on either side get a brainwave and I do as well we will put them together and see if anything arises between now and the Report stage. I have not a closed mind as to what is the right thing. On the other hand I think this Title is expressive and correct. Do not tie me to a promise.

Mr. Boothby

I would like to make one observation. I would put this to my hon. Friends who are supporting the Amendment. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour; I do not think that the Forces as a whole are under any illusion about what this Bill is designed signed to do. I think they are very much better informed about current political affairs, and what goes on here, than many people give them credit for. The present Title of this Bill represents a very large ambition. If we pass this Bill and it gives some impression to the public at home that the Government intend to deal radically with this problem, it may in the long run be a good thing. It may be a lever to make the Government live up at a later stage to the aspiration expressed in the Title of this Bill.

Sir A. Southby

I should like to express my sincere gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour for promising to look into this again. I think he is as anxious as all of us that neither the Title nor the contents of the Bill should arouse in the minds of Service men hopes which cannot be fulfilled. We do not want to raise false hopes. The right hon. Gentleman is not the only person who remembers the bitterness, unhappiness and disappointments of the men in the Services after the last war. I would however like again to say how grateful we are to him for his kindness and forthcoming-ness to-day. He combines in an amazing degree the toughness of the mate of a Yankee clipper with the pathetic appeal of the orphan of the storm, and he is never so appealing to us as when he stands up at that Box and appears to be looking for some refuge sufficiently ample to hide his shrinking form from the blasts that are blowing upon it. In the role of Little Humphrey being misunderstood by everybody and the target for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and of his friends in the House, he makes a great appeal. He has helped us on this Bill certainly during the Committee Stage. We who had a couple of Amendments down to which he has put his name welcome Saul as coining at last among the prophets. If anyone can make this Bill work for the Service man I am sure he will.

Captain Duncan

The right hon. Gentleman said the plan of the Government would be unfolded as time goes on, piece by piece as the stage is set. My point in bringing forward this Amendment is that if we waited until time went on an impression would have been gained, indeed is being gained now, and the effect of that will be when the real news comes out that this Bill does not reinstate everyone there will be that disillusionment I want to avoid. My right hon. Friend said also he had lived through it last time. Surely if that is so it should be all the more important that he should raise no false hopes at all this time. May I impress upon him that the name of the Bill has no effect on the Bill itself, and, therefore, cannot upset the structure which he has laid down for the future? I would be very grateful if he would bring the best brains in his Department to bear on this question, to see whether we cannot find a better name and a truer description of what we are aiming at. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)

I want to ask the Minister a relatively simple question, on the meaning of Sub-section (2), which says: This Act shall come into operation on such day as the Minister may by order appoint. The right hon. Gentleman was at pains on the Second Reading stage to explain that he wanted this Bill now, and quickly. I want to ask him, therefore, whether the appointed day will, in fact, be the day of the giving of the Royal Assent, or some day subsequent to that? If it is some day subsequent to that, what is the reason for the delay? What machinery is turning round in his Department?

Mr. McCorquodale

As the hon. Member has said, this does not provide for the Act to come into operation on any particular date, but on a day to be fixed by the Minister. We intend that to be as soon as possible after the Bill has received the Royal Assent. But there are a certain number of formalities to be gone through, a certain amount of machinery to be set up, and a certain number of Regulations to be drawn up. I cannot give any estimate of when that will be done, but, as soon as possible, we shall set the Act to work.

Mr. Bellenger

Might I ask—[Interruption.] I would urge my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to be a little patient. We are discussing a very important Bill, probably just as important a Bill as he wants to bring before us. Are we to understand that when the appointed day arrives the rights of those who have been discharged from the Forces will be preserved, and that they will still come under the Act; and that it will not apply only to those discharged from the day that the Act starts to operate?

Mr. Bevin

Those who have been discharged already have been dealt with, or have had their rights protected under Defence of the Realm Regulations. It is the new men coming out who will be under this Bill. I have to look after the people who have already been discharged. If they are under direction at present they have not been able to exercise their right, but those who have come out and have had their jobs back have been disposed of.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

First Schedule agreed to.