HC Deb 31 May 1945 vol 411 cc457-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Buchan-Hepburn.]

6.52 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe (Brighton)

After the hustings performance from the other side, a few moments ago, I want to raise a matter which is of some importance to people in the Services at the moment, and which relates to a decision of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Wandsworth(Mr. E. Bevin) who was, at the time the decision was taken, the Minister responsible as Minister of Labour. It relates to a decision which he made not to call into the Forces people now over the age of 30. I raise the question in all friendliness to the present Minister only for the purpose of hoping that he will be able to throw light on this matter, and will, thereby, be able to give some satisfaction to the members of the Forces who are concerned.

The Question I put to the then Minister of Labour on this matter was whether he had any information as to the numbers of men who would foe called into the Forces if the age limit were raised to 40 instead of being reduced to 30. The right hon. Gentleman, said he had no in formation at all, and I considered that rather surprising, because it is scarcely credible that a decision of that kind would have been taken by him without his being in the possession of the information—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

My right hon. Friend said nothing of the sort. He said that the information was not available, but that the number involved was small.

Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe

If my hon. Friend will turn to the second Question I asked on the same day, relating to this matter, he will find that the right hon. Gentleman's answer was that he had no information, and was unable to give any figures. There can be little doubt that this decision, unless adequately explained, will cause dissatisfaction to those who are now serving. They cannot help feeling that if men over 30 are not called into the Forces their service must automatically be prolonged. The only answer which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Wandsworth has given about this matter is merely to say that that is not so. Well, that is not good enough for the troops; it is not good enough to say that that is not so, and to state that as a bald fact without some adequate explanation. I would like to know whether this decision was taken in full consultation with each of the Service Departments concerned, because it follows that a number of men will be required to be kept in the Army during the next few years, particularly, for instance, in the Army of Occupation in Germany. Such explanation as the then Minister of Labour attempted to give was that there was not time to train men over 30 for them to be used in the Army. I suppose it would be right to admit that probably battle training would take some time, but battle-trained soldiers are not the ones we want for occupation in Europe. There are clerical and technical appointments which could be well filled after a very short period of training. There are men who could be brought home from Germany if their places were taken by men who have not been in the Army at any stage of the war.

There are men who were 24 or 25 when the war started who are now in their thirties and who have been in reserved occupations. That reservation has now come to an end, with the result that they have not been in the Forces at all while other men who have been serving for a long period are retained because these men are not called up to take their places. If there is an adequate explanation I shall be only too glad to hear it. There can be only two possibilities with regard to the position of the present Minister in relation to this question. Either he agrees with the decision which was taken before, in which case I have no doubt that he will welcome an opportunity of explaining to the troops why the decision was taken, or, if he disagrees with it, I have equally no doubt that he will not hesitate to reverse it.

I do not think this matter ought to be complicated by the question of training. It seems to be a simple mathematical fact that if you fix the size of your Army of Occupation and you can bring in, say, 20,000 at one end you can let 20,000 out at the other. That is the simple way in which the soldier looks at it. He is unable to understand why men of 30 to 40 who might provide the 20,000 cannot be compelled to do so. Incidentally, I met a sailor the other day who had some strong language to use about the late Minister of Labour. He said that the question of training was rubbish or, rather, he did not use the word "rubbish," but I gathered he considered that it was not a sound argument. He told me that his training as a naval rating took precisely 10 weeks, after which he was at sea on convoy duty. This is perhaps not unimportant, because though no figures are yet available there is a strong rumour in the Navy that only the low age groups are to be released this year. There is a suggestion that men in the early twenties groups might be released from the Army whereas only about one to seven groups of those in the Navy have any prospect of being released this year.

Serving men cannot help feeling that if men between 30 and 40 were brought in and had 10 weeks' training there would be a prospect of more age groups being released this year. It seems a simple question of the more you get in the more you can let out. There are also certain specialist aspects of this question with which I would like my hon. Friend to deal. For instance, in the case of the medical profession, there appears to be some dissatisfaction among those doctors who are serving in the Army and whose practices have virtually disappeared.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and gallant Member is turning his back on me. I would remind him that he is supposed to address me.

Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe

I beg your pardon, Sir. I apologise humbly for having made that mistake. A number of doctors are feeling a little dissatisfied with their present situation. Many of them have lost their practices, and they have been serving perhaps five or six years in the Royal Army Medical Corps. It is true that those doctors who have been in civilian practices have been mainly very much overworked and they have rendered invaluable services, but there are different conditions for the men who have to serve perhaps in the Middle East and those who are living at home. Many of the doctors in the Services feel that the time has come when there should be a substitution and that doctors between the ages of 30 and 40 should be called into the Services so that those who have been in the Medical Corps for the last five years could be allowed to come out and resume private practice.

There is very much the same problem in the legal world. I suppose that at no time during the war have legally qualified people been more required in the Army than they will be in the immediate post-war period, and yet a decision has been taken which prevents those who have not been serving from being called up now to take the places of those who have been serving. The problem is much the same from whatever point of view one looks at it. It comes down to the simple question whether or not it is right that men who are comparatively young, in the early 30's, should be protected from serving while others of the same age are required to continue serving. I do not put this matter to my hon. Friend in any sense of hostility. If he can give a satisfactory explanation, nobody will be more pleased than I shall be. I hope also that my hon. Friend will be able to give an explanation which will satisfy those who are affected.

7.3 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, Southern)

I support the remarks of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brighton (Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe). There must be very few hon Members who have not received numerous letters from men serving overseas complaining of the fact that the call-up to the Services has now been limited to those under30 years of age. I rise only to ask why it is that we have not been given the information before. Can my hon. Friend now tell us what numbers are involved? Now that the war with Germany is over, security considerations obviously are not of such great importance as they were before. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour to-day gave very detailed figures about men in different categories. I hope my hon. Friend will be able to tell us not only what is the over-all figure for those between 30 and 40 who might have been called up but for the new regulations, in order that we may satisfy our constituents that the number is very small, but also what those men are in broad categories. My hon. and gallant Friend has mentioned doctors. Can we now be told, roughly, how many doctors and others are in that class, so that we can satisfy our constituents when they put individual complaints to us?

7.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. McCorquodale)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brighton (Lieut.-Colonel Marlowe) for raising this matter, because I know there has been a certain misunderstanding in the minds of a great number of men in the Forces, especially those serving overseas. My late chief, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Wandsworth (Mr. Bevin), endeavoured, in answers to a series of Questions put by my hon. and gallant Friend and other hon. Members, to deal with the points that have been raised, but, of course, these matters are not always easy to handle by the simple method of question and answer. My hon. and gallant Friend made great play with the point that this surely must be a question of simple mathematics. It is nothing of the sort. Many other considerations arise. I want to assure him at once that no step of this description would be taken by the Ministry of Labour without the fullest consultation with and approval of the three Services.

The considerations that arise may be divided into two classes. In the first place, there is in the minds of the troops the question, Does the decision not to call up men over 30 militate against the possibility of an early release under the demobilisation scheme? In a recent Debate my right hon. Friend and I gave the most categoric assurances that the fact that men over 30 are not now being called up has no effect whatever upon the pace of the release scheme. The pace of release does not depend upon the numbers of entrants, but upon mechanics. The Government are releasing men from the Forces as speedily as the mechanics of the situation and the demands of the war in the Far East make possible. The over- riding consideration is transport. There are other considerations, such as the number of men who can be handled at the demobilisation centres, fitting them out with suits, the issue of forms, and the proper coaching of the men and women going through the demobilisation centres in what they have to do. These are real considerations when men and women are going through the centres by the thousand. The pace of release depends not upon the calling up of men over 30, but upon how fast we can bring men home, with the transport available, and how fast we can handle them when they do come home. I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will take it from me that, as the late Minister categorically stated, this decision will have no effect whatever on the pace of release in Class A under the release scheme. Class B does not arise in this connection, because it depends upon certain vital needs here.

The second point that should be considered is this: Are we entitled to call up for the Forces men whom the Forces do not need, simply for the sake of calling them up? I do not believe we are. I do not believe Parliament entrusted the operation of the National Service Act to the Government for frivolous reasons; it entrusted it to the Government for the purpose of calling up for the Armed Forces men whom the Armed Forces need for the prosecution of the war and the proper use of military force. The position depends upon the allocations of manpower made to the Forces. The present situation is that there are more than enough men under 30 to meet the allocations which are laid down for entry into the Armed Forces. Therefore, if we were to continue to call up men over 30, it would only mean that young men under 30 would be left in civilian occupations. I do not believe that would be right. If there is a choice between men over 30 and men under 30, I believe it is the men under 30 who should go.

My hon. and gallant Friend asked why we would not give the figures of those over 30 who might be available. The answer is clear. Until we come to consider the individuals, we cannot tell whether they are available or not, because: they have rights of postponement on hardship grounds and of deferment on grounds of occupation. Therefore, it is quite impossible at any one moment to state cate- gorically how many men in an age group are available for call-up, but I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the best guesses we can make in the Department are that the numbers of men over 30 available for call-up are very small indeed. Who are the men, apart from those in the low medical category? In the main they are men who have had postponement on grounds of personal hardship; it may be they are the owners, occupiers or managers of small businesses or shops which would otherwise be closed down. No one in the House at the present time would wish those men to be called up while younger men are available. Others have been deferred, many against their own wishes, by the Ministry of Labour, because of the vital importance of the work which they have been doing during the war, and probably many of them are still doing jobs of the highest importance. Therefore, I suggest that the decision which my right hon. Friend came to as long ago as. last Autumn, when he reduced the age of call-up from 40 to 35, and again this Spring when he reduced it further to 30, was a right decision in the circumstances. We still propose to go on calling up young men under 30 as they reach the call-up age, or as they become redundant, or lose their reservation, if they are in reserved occupations, to meet fully the proper allocations to the Armed Forces.

I know there has been doubt in the minds of men in the Services, and I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend that if one talks about the matter from the point of view of simple mathematics, it does sound normal to say that the more men you put in at one end the more you will get out at the other; but I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that is not so. As I have said, the pace of release from the Armed Forces depends upon the mechanical possibilities of transport and handling. The allocation of men to the Forces in the future can be met by men under 30, and it would not be right to call up men over 30 while there are young men under 30 available.

My hon. and gallant Friend also raised the point that the late Minister, in answering Questions, brought in the matter of training The Noble Lord the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) also referred to that matter. The point at issue really is this. These young men are being called up primarily for the war in the Far East, and if there is only a certain number of men allocated, it is better to call up the young ones who will be available either for the war in the Far East, if they are needed when trained, or for the occupation in Germany, whichever is more desirable in the military situation then prevailing, rather than to call up men who, because of their age, would be available only for the occupation in Germany. With those assurances, that it does not mate the slightest difference to the time the men will be released from the Forces and that we have plenty of young men under 30 whom we intend to go on calling up to meet the proper allocation to the Armed Forces, I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will be satisfied.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

I find a certain amount of anxiety among people in the Air Force and the Army on the question of release from the Forces. Is there any truth in the belief that medical orderlies and staffs attached to doctors in the two Services are likely to be deferred beyond their age group?

Mr. McCorquodale

That is a detailed point about which I could not give any categorical assurance now. I must have the fullest consultation with the authorities in the Services about it, but from my information at present, as far as is physically possible having regard to the paramount needs of the Forces, release under age and length of service will apply to all in the Forces, and doctors and lawyers and medical orderlies and others, will all have their opportunities of release when the turn of their age and length of service group comes. In the Navy and Air Force certain trades are released at a different time. Certain trades in the Air Force groups will be passed through quicker than others, and to that extent it is not possible to meet the Air Force point of view.

Mr. Bowles

Is there any likelihood that doctors and their staffs will be retained to examine men medically on their way out of the Service?

Mr. McCorquodale

Doctors will certainly have to examine these men carefully on their way out of the Services. I hope the military will find enough doctors in their ranks to do that without calling on additional doctors or holding up the release of doctors. But it would not be right for me to anticipate my right hon. Friend's answer on Wednesday.