HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1571-9

1.40 p.m.

Brigadier Low (Blackpool, North)

I would like to raise the question of the retention of Army officers who are due for release. I hope that the Financial Secretary to the War Office will come in shortly and listen to what I have to say, because if he does not he will be answering in the air. In making my remarks I wish to refer not only to the deferred groups 21 to 24, but to the practice, growing more and more frequent of deferring officers on the ground of military necessity. This is an urgent matter.

Squadron-Leader Sir Gifford Fox (Henley)

On a point of Order. Is it not generally the custom that the Minister responsible should be present when a subject like this is raised?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not a point of Order. The Minister has been in and has gone out. Arrangements have been made to send for him.

Brigadier Low

May we wait?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Brigadier Low

This matter is urgent. because we are now going into Recess for a month, and we have had many assurances from the Secretary of State for War, and only the other day from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, that the practice of deferring officers would cease. When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Solihull (Lieut.-Colonel Lindsay) asked on Tuesday for an assurance that no further hold-up of officers beyond demobilisation dates would take place, the Secretary of State replied: I cannot at present give that assurance."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1945; Vol. 417, c. 1247.] He also said that he is still working out the requirements of officers for the spring of 1946. Perhaps the remarks which I and some of my hon. Friends have to address to the House will assist him.

My object in raising the question today is to get the War Office to do one or all of the following things: first of all, to release back to industry and work of all types at home where they are so badly needed, all those officers who would have been released if they had not had commissions and who are not operationally necessary; secondly, to restrict the operation of the military necessity clause—I believe this practice of deferring officers on grounds of military necessity has been given the name of DOV, which is rather an ironic way of indicating the misuse of the scheme of deferment on grounds of military necessity, which was obviously designed for the continuance of a state of war in the Far East; thirdly, I should like him to reassure us about the system of granting commissions.

Are enough officers being granted commissions and, in connection with that, is he satisfied that the delay in the Service Departments in publishing the conditions of service for officers of the future Army, Navy and Air Force is not having a bad effect upon the number of officers remaining? Fourthly—and this is as important as the other three together—I want him to confirm or otherwise the many promises, forecasts and hopes which have been held out by his right hon. Friend and which were, as I said before, repeated only the other day by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour.

I raise this question not on behalf of any one section of the community, but purely on the grounds of national interest. If the hon. Gentleman does not accept that it is in the interests of the nation that we should get as many skilled, energetic men, full of drive, who are so badly needed in all walks of life, back here, perhaps he will accept at any rate that it is in the interests of some of his right hon. Friends, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Health, and the President of the Board of Trade, to mention only a few.

The fate of those officers, following the statements made by the Secretary of State for War on 16th October, has gone unnoticed largely because of the fact that, as the Secretary of State said, the officers who are affected by the decision will accept it in good spirit. Of course they will, but it is not right that we in the House should neglect the bad results which come from the wholesale deferment of these groups simply because the officers who have been deferred do not make such a fuss as some other members of the community. As I understand it, the reason given for the deferment of these troops was that Field-Marshal Montgomery and Field-Marshal Alexander found they were short of officers. I accept that. My own short visits to Germany proved to my satisfaction that there is a very great shortage of officers in the B.A.O.R. I believe that to be absolutely true amongst those troops who were lately under Field-Marshal Alexander's command. I believe it to be due to the fact that, as the war in Europe ended, young officers were sent out to the Far East, and it is due a little to the demands of military government.

Those conditions, however, do not apply to other theatres throughout the world, and yet the deferment has been made general. So far the only ground on which the Government have justified this treatment of the problem is that the Secretary of State of War demands that there should be equality of treatment as between various theatres. I am one of those who are quite certain that, as a general proposition applied to the Bevin scheme of demobilisation as a whole, it is a cornerstone of that scheme that there should be equality of treatment between theatres. That is absolutely vital. I am sure the Government should not depart from that scheme. But why, when they have departed from the proper use of the military necessity clause in the Bevin scheme, should they come slinking back to it on this point and choose to justify their wholesale deferment of groups of officers in these groups all over the world by reference to this principle, which becomes inapplicable immediately you break the principle of fairness by misusing the military necessity clause? I see no reason to suppose it will affect the morale of the Army in any way. I am sufficiently confident of the loyaltyand understanding of the officers who will be affected. I see no reason to suppose that we want to apply this principle of equality of treatment to the officers in these groups. By now there may be other reasons to justify the Government's action. If there are other reasons, let the Government say so. I and many of my hon. Friends are not satisfied that it is necessary to defer officers at home who are doing nothing, officers in the Middle East who are doing very little, or officers in India and the Far East who may or may not be doing a lot — perhaps we shall hear about that— merely because there is a shortage, and a very understandable shortage, of officers in the B.A.O.R., the B.T.A. and some other parts of the Mediterranean.

On this matter I would like to refer particularly to the Indian Army. The Indian Army is in a peculiar position in this regard because, as I understand it, no part of the Indian Army was serving either in the B.A.O.R. or in that part of the Central Mediterranean Forces which was affected by the shortage of officers at the time. Therefore, I fail to see any justification for saying that there are any grounds for deferring officers of these groups belonging to the Indian Army. Many arguments have been put forward before—and I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for India has them in mind—showing the different conditions of service in the Indian Army. It may be that there is a very good reason for the shortage of officers in the Indian Army. I have had letters from officers in the Indian Army who have been serving in the Middle East, and some of whom are now in India, who say that there is no shortage of officers in that particular part of the world. There may be a shortage of officers further East. If so, and if that is a justification for wholesale deferment, perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman will let the House know.

I now pass to the question of how long this deferment is going on. Is the Army going to be less short of officers in the later groups? It is quite clear that, since the Government have not yet made up their mind about the deferment of officers in the future, they may find it difficult to answer that question. I ask the Financial Secretary to the War Office to remember that there have been, if not definite promises, very optimistic forecasts made by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and other Ministers on this subject. On 16th October, when the Secretary of State announced his decision to defer these groups, he said: It is confidently hoped that these deferred groups, in the case of military and A.T.S. officers respectively, will be rapidly released as soon as the balance is restored, and that the provisional dates of release already announced for subsequent groups will be very little affected, if at all." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 925.] Then, in reply to the Debate on the Adjournment on 8th November, when the same matter was raised on slightly different grounds, the Secretary of State said:

Groups 25, 26 and 27, then take their place in the ordinary release groups. I hope that is pretty clear." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 1569.] Only the other day, on 14th December, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour said that even the officers of Groups 26 to 28 would be out by the end of May. I am a little dubious of some of the promises or expressions of hope by the Secretary of State for War, because he did add in his statement: This Measure will not result in officers being held in this country doing nothing." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th October, 1945; Vol. 414, c. 925.] Only a week ago, in a Question to the Minister, I mentioned the case of an officer doing nothing, and I know that many hon. Members know of many cases of officers in these groups doing nothing at all at home. The most important point on which I think these promises are going to prove to have been in vain lies in one example of the misuse of the military necessity clause. I have in front of me a note of an Order of the B.A.O.R. issued on 13th December which refers to Group 22 being released between 10th and 24th January, quite in accordance with the statement made by the Secretary of State for War, and then goes on to say: Officers will be warned that extensive deferred operational devices will be necessary in certain arms. At the earliest possible moment information will be given of the arms, age and service groups affected, and the likely periods of retention. Definite arrangements for return to civil life should not be made until receipt of this information. That is a grave departure from the spirit of the promises that have been given. If it is necessary now, it will probably be necessary in the future. When the Financial Secretary replies, I hope he will touch on that point. I think what I have said so far should satisfy the House that the position is not good. I would like now to touch on another problem; where more officers are to come from if more officers are to be needed, or where perhaps we can save officers. I will deal with the latter point first. I believe great play has been made in this House of the overstaffing of headquarters. When I went to Germany I had personal experience of seeing what was happening in the cutting down of headquarters. I am quite satisfied—and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will confirm what I say—that very thorough steps were taken to restrict the size of that headquarters to the very minimum. I saw some rather quaking officers waiting to go in front of the Staff Duties Section of the Headquarters which seemed ready to axe right and left people whose positions could not be justified. I hope the same system is being adopted elsewhere in the world. We have been given examples of overstaffed headquarters, and obviously there is waste.

I do not believe that the blemish lies there. I believe the blemish lies in the way in which we are getting officers at the moment. In the matter of emergency commissions, 1,500 fewer commissions were granted in the six months preceding 31st October of this year than in the previous six months. Perhaps we shall go downhill even further. If we are so short of officers, I should have thought the first thing for the War Office to do would have been to re-energise the system of granting emergency commissions. It appears that nearly 18,000 officers have been voluntarily deferred, having agreed to serve for a longer period. It appears that only 297 officers were granted Regular commissions from V.E-day to 13th November. Is that sufficient? The number is far too small. This brings me to the point I made at the beginning of my speech. Are the Government satisfied that the delay in announcing the terms and conditions of service for officers in future is not hindering them in the matter of the release of officers?

There are two other points I wish to make about officers. First, the House will agree that plans must have been made for the continuance of the war against Japan, and among those plans there must have been plans to provide officers to fill the places caused by casualties. Those casualties are not, thank God, occurring. Somewhere in the Far East there must have been a surplus of officers. What has happened to them? My second point refers to the question of indispensability. From what one hears from individuals, there appears to be growing up a habit of treating some officers — usually the best officers and those who are most badly needed at home — as indispensable. Surely by now, six months after the end of the war in Europe and four months or so after the end of the war elsewhere, there has been time to train officers to fill the places of these so-called indispensable officers. I was always taught in the Army that no one was indispensable. I do not know whether the same doctrine applies to the Government Front Bench, but I believe it to be a truism that applies to all walks of life. I have taken up rather longer than I intended. I hope that we shall have some reassuring statement so that not only may the Financial Secretary to the War Office, the Secretary of State for War, and some Members of this House who are interested, have a happier Christmas, but that some, at least, of these officers who are affected shall be given a chance of knowing whether or not the promises which have been made to them arc to be fulfilled and whether there is any chance of the Government reconsidering the decision announced on 16th October.

I am sure that we must accept that the object of any demobilisation scheme is to get men back home to industry. I am horrified to see in a pamphlet which has been issued by the War Office that the primary objective of the release scheme— I know the difference between an object and an objective— is fairness. I am sure that it is a primary principle; I doubt whether it is an objective, and I am certain it is not an object. We want to get these men back home. I believe we have tampered with fairness on quite good grounds by keeping officers back in Europe for occupation duties. There is a good ground for that but, having tampered with fairness, do not let us make matters worse by justifying wholesale retention on the ground of fairness itself. Many of these officers have been abroad for five or six years. Most of them joined up at the beginning of the war and worked their way up to the positions they now occupy. By the very fact that they are officers, they show they have the character and ability we most require at home at present. I ask the War Office to reconsider this question. If they cannot give us an answer that is satisfactory today perhaps they might reconsider it during, or after, Christmas.

2.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for India (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

It might be for the convenience of the House if I, at this moment, dealt with the specific point to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman referred, namely, the postponement of the release groups 21 to 24 as regards officers serving in the Indian Army. May I at once reassure him as to the reason why the Commander-in-Chief in India decided, following the decision at the War Office with regard to British Service officers, that it was necessary to adopt the same course as regards those particular groups in relation to Indian Army officers, not merely on the grounds of uniformity, of doing something in India because it had been done in Europe. It is true to say that the policy of the Government of India has been, as far as possible, to keep in step with the British Army, not because it did not desire to do better if it could, but because it did desire to avoid not doing as well as was being done, with regard to any particular groups in the British Army itself.

Since the termination of the war against Japan, the Commander-in-Chief has been faced with very considerable difficulties, largely by reason of the increased commitments which circumstances in the Far East, especially in a country like Java, have compelled him to accept. May I say in this connection, that the suggestion of the correspondent of the hon. and gallant Gentleman that there is no shortage of officers in the Indian Army is not, I am afraid, in accordance with the facts. [Interruption.] I think, with respect, we must take the over-all position. He and I have both had military experience, and we know one can always produce an individual officer who may say he has not got sufficient to do, just as one can find other officers who have too much to do, or say they have. Therefore, I do not think we would accept that as being the general position.

As regards the over-all position, there is no doubt that there is, and has been for a considerable time, a definite shortage of officers in the Indian Army. It is common knowledge that there has been a remarkable expansion during the past five years. The Army has been increased from 200,000 to well over 2,500,000. It has been officered, and very efficiently officered, but only by bringing in a considerable number of British Service officers who have had, to be attached to Indian units. Those British Service officers are entitled to their rates of release according to their group, and many of them have already been released from the earlier groups. Not only that, but the Indian emergency commissioned officer, as opposed to what I might call the European emergency commissioned officer, has also the same rights of release as those which apply to the European officer.

The Commander-in-Chief is, today faced with a serious shortage of officers, and it was because of that situation that he felt compelled to postpone groups 22 to 24, as has been the case with the British Army itself. May I say with regard to these particular groups, that I did give a reply some days ago, in which I indicated that it was hoped the Indian Army Command would be able to begin to release the officers of group 22 towards" the middle of next month, as is to be the case with the officers of the British Army in Europe and elsewhere. I am afraid I cannot take the matter beyond that. I hope I have deal twith the specific points to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman referred, and I can only say that this is a matter of great concern to all those who are responsible for dealing with the Indian Army, and we can only hope that circumstances will improve so as to permit of the intensification or the expediting of the time factor in relation to the problem of the release of officers of the Indian Army.