HC Deb 01 March 1944 vol 397 cc1448-57

Amendment made: In page 19, line 8, after "twenty-six" insert "or fiftytwo."—[Mr. McCorquodale.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

I rise to make this point. I feel this to be a sincere attempt to deal with an extremely difficult situation, but the best one can hope about the Bill is that it will remain a complete dead letter, because the Government policy is work for all. If that policy is carried out, as we hope it will be, there will be no need to put this Bill into operation. It is a very limited Measure from the point of view of the broad scope of the Government's policy.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent)

We appreciate the passage of this Bill and we are hoping that it will not remain a dead letter. Those of us who have had experience of industry from a very early age, realise the value of a Bill of this kind, and our men who are now serving in all parts of the world and who are looking forward to carrying through the greatest military feat that has ever been carried through in history, will hope that this Bill is not going to be a dead letter.

Mr. Mander

If there is to be work for everybody in this country, then, obviously, people can choose to go either to their own job or to a fresh job.

Mr. Ellis Smith

We also are hoping that employment is going to be provided for all, but we realise that the social system under which we are living has never yet provided employment for all. If this House agrees to the Government introducing legislation that will provide an opportunity for people to serve this country after the war, in the way they have done during the war, no one will welcome that more than my hon. Friends. But we are bound to look upon this in the light of our past experience, and it is for that reason that we have endeavoured to facilitate the passage of this Bill. It means so much to our people if, after serving in the Armed Forces, they are going to be guaranteed a minimum of 26 weeks. After the last war we were guaranteed nothing and, in the main, nobody cared. Now, as the result of that experience and of the action of the Government, there is a minimum of 26 weeks, and 52 weeks, provided that there is at least 52 weeks' employment with the firm prior to enlistment. We want to express our satisfaction with the Government agreement on the suggestion made in the Committee stage, that the 26 weeks should be increased to 52.

In regard to the administration of the Bill, can the Minister give us some assurances? For example, can we be given some idea of what it is proposed to do to facilitate the smooth passage of the Bill in the very difficult times during which it will be administered? I have read that other countries have already sent out an occupational questionnaire. In this case, are we satisfied that there will be sufficient evidence inside the Ministry of Labour, so that the Ministry will have no difficulty with regard to its administration? Apart from that, although we agree that this is a very limited Bill, it is a limited Bill of the kind that means much to our people who have suffered in the past. Therefore, if we can have more legislation of this kind it will create more confidence among our people. As I say, however, if legislation is to be introduced to give full employment to all people after the war, then no one will welcome that more than my hon. Friends.

Mr. Erskine-Hill (Edinburgh, North)

I think that the House will hope that this Bill, as the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) said, will never come into operation at all. But, if it does, I think it deserves the commonsense co-operation of all the parties interested. Unless you get that co-operation between the interested parties, no Bill of this sort can work properly. I am sure the House will send it forth from this place with every good wish for its success. I do not want to leave the Bill without saying just a word about the concession which the Minister made to us on Clause 16. The omission of the words which we agreed to omit on the Report stage, solved a great many of the difficulties felt by those of us who were afraid of delegating too many powers from this House to the Minister. I think I ought to say we feel that we have been very generously treated in this matter, and I would like to thank the Minister.

Lieutenant-Colonel Marlowe (Brighton)

This is a Bill of many defects, but I think it is one which, on the whole, ought to have our support. This is purely my own personal view and one which I express because this Bill has been severely criticised during its passage through this House. I should like to say at once that I think most of these criticisms were valid, but the way I felt bound to approach this question was to ask myself whether, in all the circumstances, I could possibly produce a better Bill. On the whole, I think this Bill is the best that can be done. Of the many criticisms which have been made, I think it has been rightly said that the whole question of demobilisation and employment after the war should be dealt with as one whole plan, but I see no harm in us at least going step by step and doing the best we can with this one particular aspect of those problems.

It has also been said that the Bill is unworkable. I do not think it will be 100 per cent. workable, but again I see no reason why, because we cannot hope to hit the bull, we should not aim at the target. The other criticism that has been made of the Bill is that it does not really meet the pledge that was given. I do not know of any Bill which could do that, but this certainly makes an effort to go as far as possible in that direction. It was perfectly right and proper that it should have been criticised severely and one rather resents that, if criticism is made of it, the Minister waves the big stick and says, "You must not criticise us and must let us have our Bill without any suggestion or comment on it at all." I think that is a fair summary of the effect of what the Minister said on Second Reading. I do not want to pursue that matter but it will be a bad day for us when a Bill is brought before the House and we are not free to criticise it. Taken as a whole, it is an honest attempt to deal with a difficult situation and one that has its eye on the future, where all our eyes should now be. My constituents in Brighton have been very badly hit by the war and many of them are very concerned as to their reinstatement. I think this is at least a small contribution towards the solution of that problem. It is unfortunate that it bears the title "Reinstatement in Civil Employment," because I doubt whether it will achieve that object other than to a very small extent, but to the extent that it will do so it has my support.

Mr. Bellenger

I think it only fair to the Minister to say that he himself, all the way through the Debates on the Bill, has held that it is nothing more than an extension of the original National Service Act, which was passed very hurriedly when the House decided that it had to conscript young people into the militia. My right hon. Friend has been actuated by the best possible motives and he must have realised that all that we have been saying throughout our Debates, is that the Bill is only an instalment. So long as the House accepts it as that, we can reasonably ask him to go on to the next step, which I hope we shall hear about very soon indeed. In parting with the Bill, all we can say about it is that we wish it well and hope it will achieve its very limited effect; but the House will ask of the Minister some further and wider Bills or plans to achieve what we all want, namely, full employment.

Sir Herbert Holdsworth (Bradford, South)

I want to refer to a remark made by the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Smith). I think this is a good Bill and I compliment the Minister upon it, but do not let it be said that it has gone through simply because its passage has been facilitated from the other side—

Mr. Ellis Smith

I only said that we had facilitated its passage.

Sir H. Holdsworth

If I am wrong in my interpretation of what the hon. Member said, I withdraw. The Bill has gone through, because its passage has been facilitated by Members on all sides of the House. The remarkable thing about it to me is this. For employers, it will not be easy to apply, and it will depend upon the good will and co-operation of empoyers to make it effective. We shall all do our best to apply the principles involved in the Bill.

Sir I. Albery

I also think the Minister of Labour had a difficult task to provide a Bill to deal With the problem of carrying out the Government's pledge to reinstate people after the war. There is no getting away from the fact that it will be extremely difficult, and in many cases impossible, for men to be reinstated who have been absent for five years on the same basis, or in anything like the same position that they might have attained if they had remained in the business during that period. It only shows how dangerous it is, at all times, to give pledges which relate to the future. The Minister has dealt with the matter to the best of his ability, no doubt in accordance with advice that he received and with the decision of the Cabinet. I have always regretted that the whole matter was not approached from an entirely different angle and that employers and employees' associations have not been taken more fully into consultation. I am sure they would have given guarantees which would have covered this difficult question to a greater extent than it is covered in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Smith) referred to the shortcomings of the capitalist system. He rather implied that, if there is going to be a lack of employment, it will be possible to blame it on to the capitalistic system. He went on to welcome the Bill, because he said that, at any rate, it guaranteed 52 weeks' employment. I must differ from him right away on that. That is exactly what the Bill does not do. It guarantees 52 weeks' employment in the very small number of cases in which a bad employer is unwilling to take men back when he can take them back, and that is practically all that it does. It is desirable that there shall be no misunderstanding in that matter. On the other hand, I am certain from my own experience of the last war that practically every employer in the country, in so far as he is able, and provided that work is available and enterprise is prosperous, will do everything he can to reinstate men in as favourable a position as possible.

Mr. Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

This is a small and limited Bill designed to do one single, limited job. It does it successfully. It does a job that had to be done but it is too small and limited an affair for the House to spend a long time in wrangling about whose is the exclusive merit of placing it on the Statute Book. I am not going to take part in any such Debate. All the same, it is not quite true that its passage has been facilitated by all Members of the House and that ought not to go on record unchallenged. Nor is it the case that the Minister, or anyone else, objected to any Member exercising his right to criticise, but those who claim the right to criticise must concede the right to reply. All the Minister did was to reply to some very unfounded, unjustified and, I think, malicious attacks upon him. I should have thought the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Stafford (Major Thorneycroft) might have thought it proper at this stage to withdraw some of the things he said about the Minister and the Bill in the Second Reading, Debate, which he must realise now—he is an honest and intelligent Member—in the light of the information which has come to him since, to have been unjustified. He said that members of the Forces should be informed that the Bill was something like an attempted swindle, that they were getting nothing out of it, that it was hypocritical and was a political device introduced precisely because everybody knew it would not work. Either he still believes those things or he does not. If he does, I shall have to withdraw the compliment I just paid him, because then he would not be intelligent or honest. If, on the other hand, he does not still believe them, the gracious thing for him to do now would be to withdraw his statement.

I do not see how the Bill could be criticised except by applying to it standards which do not apply to it at all. Of course, if you are going to look at it in the context of the creation of a new world, it falls very far short, but no one looks at it in that way and it is not quite honest to pretend to look at it in that way. If this were the last word the Government were going to say on the prevention of mass unemployment, certainly the Bill would not get any support from me but I accept it and I think it is right. What it attempts to do ought to have been done a long time ago. It puts right a defect in our former legislation. What it can do it does, but I do not regard it as anything but a very small part of the job the Government have to do. I accept it in that spirit and I look to the Government to produce with rapidity—[An HON. MEMBER: "Like rabbits out of a hat."] I do not know what the hon. Member means by that. When the hon. Member talks about rabbits out of a hat, does he mean that we are incapable of creating new social conditions in this country which would abolish unemployment? I look to the Government to come forward with well-considered schemes for the fundamental social reconstruction of this country so that the worst evils of the past may be avoided. I do not, however, look for these things in this Bill, and it would not be right to do so.

Mr. Lewis (Colchester)

In the discussions in the earlier stages of the Bill some Members expressed anxiety and doubt as to whether the Bill could or would fulfil the expectations to which its Title might give rise. I have never shared those doubts, and I go further and say that even if this Bill were nothing more than a gesture it would have been a gesture well worth making. It shows the intention and desire of the House that, so far as is possible, the men who have been serving should get back to their old jobs after the war. Other Members have argued that because most employers will cheerfully and eagerly fulfil their duty in this matter and will be anxious to take back their old employees, and that only a small minority will seek to evade that obligation, the machinery of this Bill was hardly worth while. I agree that most employers will endeavour to do their best to take back those who were working with them before and who have been serving the country during the war, but it is a dangerous argument to say that because most of them will fulfil their duty steps ought not to be taken to see that the small number who will seek to evade their duty are compelled to carry it out.

On those grounds it seems to me that there is no valid criticism against the Bill. Apart from them, there are three points which of themselves justify the passing of the Bill. The first is with regard to the position of volunteers. It would have been intolerable if those who volunteered for service were put in a disadvantageous position compared with those who were conscripted. The second is the question of priority of re-engagement. The Bill lays down a minimum period for which a person shall be re-engaged. If it were left, as it was originally, so that the obligation of re-engagement might have been satisfied by employing a man for a day or two, it would have been very foolish. The third point is in regard to priorities and the difficult position in which employers are aleady finding themselves where a number of men in the passage of time have held a given position. The question is which of them shall have a prior claim, and to deal with that point alone some legislation was necessary. With regard to the general question of how many people will benefit under the Bill, industry and employment of all kinds have been much dislocated by the extent of the struggle. There is, too, the difficult question of men who go into the Services at 19 or 20 and come out at 24 or 25 and who are so different that it will be difficult to fit them into their old positions. Despite all these difficulties and the fact that, because of them, the Bill will not operate in many cases, the Bill will cover a considerable field, and for the reasons I have given it should be passed. Personally, I shall be pleased to support it.

Lieut.-Commander Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I would like to ask the Minister whether he will take such administrative action as is necessary, in conjunction with the Service Departments, in order to inform all officers and men who have been discharged or will be discharged from the Forces of their rights under this Bill so that no misconception shall exist.

Major Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I do not associate myself with the criticisms which the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe) made of the Minister's attitude in the Committee stage. I moved a number of Amendments in Committee, and I would like to pay my tribute to the way in which they were met by the Minister. It seems to me that the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) supported our contention that the Title of the Bill is wrong, because, as we pointed out in Committee there is a grave danger of its effect being unduly exaggerated. I do not know whether in his reference to "our people" he meant people of the Labour Party, but I am sure that the Bill will be welcomed throughout these islands as a definite step in the right direction.

Mr. McCorquodale

I would like to thank the House for giving an unopposed passage to this Bill through its various stages and to thank unreservedly those who have given the closest study to it in Committee. There is no doubt in my Minister's mind and in my own that the Bill has been improved by the suggestions received from certain quarters. We are grateful for that help because I am sure it is the desire of all in the House to see the application of the Bill a success for the people to whom it applies. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) raised a rather important point to which I would like to refer. He said that the Bill would not be needed if the policy of full employment is satisfactorily applied. I think that he is wrong, because this Bill gives a choice to the returning Serviceman to go back to his old employment rather than to be put into any employment that might be available. The hon. and gallant Member for West Edinburgh (Lieut.-Commander Hutchison) asked whether we would give the fullest information to the men in the Forces about their rights under the Bill, and we will certainly look into that. The hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. Ellis Smith) raised points about administration which we have very much in mind. We are in the closest contact with the military authorities who have the proper information about the class of work in which members of the Armed Forces were before they were called up. I would like to thank other Members, especially the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis), for their unreserved support for this small Bill.

I am confident that it will prove a workmanlike Measure, defining for the employer his obligations and duties to the returned Serviceman, and I know that the employer welcomes it. I would like to thank on my Minister's behalf the representatives of the employers and the great organised trade unions for their unfailing support and good will in the consultations which preceded this Bill and their promise of good will in its application. I am confident that it will help the employer by defining his obligations. It will also help the returning Servicemen and women, of whom there are many millions, by confirming their rights under the Bill and under the pledge that was given and by providing a means of establishing their rights if it is reasonable and practicable. The Bill also brings in many hundreds of thousands of volunteers who were previously left out. For that reason alone, if for no other, the Bill will be justified. It is an integral part, if only a part, of the Government's great scheme for resettlement after the war, and for that reason I commend it warmly to the House.

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

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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