HC Deb 26 November 1946 vol 430 cc1417-23
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I desire to make a statement in regard to releases from the Forces. On 6th November, the Minister of Labour and National Service announced a provisional programme of releases from the Forces for the first six months of 1947. This announcement has created disappointment, particularly in the Army. Everyone will sympathize with those who have to stay on in the Forces for a longer period than they thought probable at one time, and all will share their disappointment. I wish therefore to place before the House, and them, quite frankly, the reasons which have made it imperative for His Majesty's Government to take these decisions.

From the outset His Majesty's Government have made it clear, first, that they intend to fulfil the tasks which have been laid upon them following the war; and second, that the rate of release could not be definitely determined in advance, but must depend on the speed and success with which these tasks were completed. This was made quite clear in the Defence White Paper of February, 1946. In paragraph 12 it was stated that the programme aimed at a strength on 31st December, 1946, of 1,100,000 men, with an additional 100,000 men under training, a total of 1,200,000. The White Paper then stated: It must be reiterated that the achievement of these target figures depends upon the development of events, and upon the successful settlement of many problems left over from the war. Here let me emphasise that for many reasons His Majesty's Government would wish to complete the tasks laid upon them as soon as possible. But, the speedy and successful solution of these problems does not lie entirely within the power of His Majesty's Government. On 21st November, I informed my hon. Friend, the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg), that events prevented us from achieving the target of 1,200,000, and that the total strength at the end of the year is likely to be 1,385,000. The same reasons which have made it impossible to achieve the target strength at the end of 1946, prevent His Majesty's Government from providing for releases in the first half of 1947 at a higher rate than that announced on 6th November.

The reason for the higher number of men retained in the Forces, and the slower rate of release, is quite simply that progress in the work of concluding peace treaties and establishing normal conditions in the world has been much slower and more difficult than we had a right to expect when our plans were drawn up at the beginning of the year. We are now able to withdraw our Forces from Indonesia, but we are not at present in a position to do so from any part of Europe. Furthermore, the unsettled state of affairs in Palestine puts a continuing strain on our Forces. In Austria, we have been unable even to begin consideration of the Peace Treaty, although we have been pressing for months past for an early start on this work. In Venezia Giulia, the frontier between Italy and Yugoslavia is not yet settled, and we are pledged to keep our troops in Venezia Giulia until agreement in this matter has been reached in the peace treaty and the relevant portions of the treaty implemented. As regards Greece, the House is aware that our forces have remained there at the request of every successive Greek Government to help in the restoration of order and tranquillity.

In accordance with the White Paper on call up to the Forces in 1947 and 1948 (Cmd. 6831) we are calling up as many young men as possible in order that they may, in due course, take the place of men who have seen a long period of service. In particular, a stricter standard is being applied in granting deferment from call up than was current during the war. By the end of 1946 all men under 30 will have been called up, or be in process of being called up, except those who cannot be spared if essential production such as coalmining, agriculture and building is to be maintained. But, the new recruit cannot step into the place of the trained man at once, and our Forces must retain an adequate proportion of trained men to discharge the tasks which fall to them, and to man effectively the many highly technical branches in all three Services, and to train new recruits.

It has been suggested that the disparity in the age-and-service groups being released from the three Services is a departure from the release scheme, and a breach of faith. This is not so. It was recognised when the scheme was prepared, and so stated at the time, that releases would have to proceed at different rates in the three Services to take account of their different structures and roles. It would, for example, be no remedy to transfer men from the Navy to the Army, or Air Force. By the time those to be transferred were identified, replaced where necessary, brought back to this country, re-trained and sent abroad again, most of them would be due for release. In any case, such transfers could not materially affect the rate of release in the other Services unless they were carried out on a scale so large as to disorganise the Navy and render it incapable of meeting its own commitments.

In the light of all these considerations, His Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion that the rate of release for the first half of 1947 is the maximum which can be accepted. We believe that we can keep to this programme, which is calculated to achieve the aim of releasing in 1947 all men called up before 1st January, 1944. By the end of this year we shall have released about 4,300,000 men and women out of the 5,100,000 who were serving in the Forces on V.E. Day. In handling this immense problem His Majesty's Government have never yet gone back on any of the programmes of releases which have been promulgated to the men and women in the Armed Forces.

Mr. Eden

While I do not want to contest the list of present commitments which the Prime Minister has just read out—and to which, I fear, we must now add the deteriorating situation in India— there are two questions I would like to put to him. First, as he will be aware, one of the most important sources of discontent is the feeling among the men who have served for long periods dating from the war, that they are being asked to continue that service, while those who are replacing them will have to serve for much shorter periods. Can the Prime Minister give any undertaking that an attempt will be made to even out that contrast? The second question I would like to ask him is in relation to reserved occupations, with which he has dealt. There were many reserved occupations which had to be created for the purpose of winning the war. It is not easy to persuade serving soldiers who have served a long time. that these reserved occupations must remain exactly as they then were. Can anything be done to ensure that those in reserved occupations are reduced to the absolute minimum for national needs, and that those who need not be retained for that purpose can go and do their service, as others did in the war?

The Prime Minister

In answer to the first part of the question, we naturally do not want to call up people for longer periods than are necessary. It is inevitable that people who are called up now will not be serving for periods as long as some of those who had to be kept serving during the war. With regard to the second point, I will look into it to see if anything can be done in regard to reserved occupations. We are trying to get relief for the people who have served for a long time by calling up everybody except those who are absolutely essential at the present time. If the right hon. Gentleman has any specific points, I will look into them.

Mr. H. D. Hughes

Can the Prime Minister give an assurance that the statement in the White Paper on call-up, that men serving in the Forces on 31st December, 1946, will be released before the end of 1948, still stands?

The Prime Minister

That is our aim.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Is the Prime Minister aware of the colossal blunder which the Government have committed in having demobilised the Services of this country down below the safety limit and then having to adjust them afterwards, with consequent hardship to our serving men overseas and their parents?

The Prime Minister

No. There was no blunder. Perhaps the noble Lord will remember the line taken by hon. Members opposite on this subject.

Mr. Shurmer

Is the Prime Minister aware—I say this respectfully—that it is not sympathy that wives and parents want, it is their husbands and sons? Is he aware that owing to this hold-up in demobilisation, many men serving in the Middle East, who would have been eligible for leave, will now spend their fourth or fifth Christmas away from home, as a result of this slow-up in demobilisation? It is not good enough.

The Prime Minister

I will certainly look into the question of leave, but I think I have fully explained the reasons, and the fact that we gave a target, but we said that it must necessarily depend on circumstances.

Brigadier Head

Is the Prime Minister aware that had this statement been made two or three weeks earlier, a great deal of discontent, misunderstanding and correspondence might have been avoided?

Mr. Henry Usborne

Does the Prime Minister realise that whereas most people realise that there are international commitments which require the presence of troops, they also feel that those troops ought, if possible, to come from a United Nations police force? Will the Prime Minister say whether the Government are considering the creation of such a force?

Mr. Speaker

That seems to be opening up a rather wider vista.

Sir Frank Sanderson

In view of the large number of letters which hon. Members are receiving from overseas on this subject, would the Prime Minister consider issuing a statement in the form of a White Paper, available at the Vote Office, so that we could include it in our mail?

The Prime Minister

The statement will be printed. I am also proposing to broadcast a statement over the wireless tonight so that it can then be sent over to the troops and broadcast to them.

Mr. Paget

A large number of young men have had their university careers interrupted by service, and men up to Group 55 were released under Class B in the current year. Could the Prime Minister give us any indication of what groups will be able to resume their university education at the beginning of the 1947 year, because it is important that these young men should be able to make their arrangements?

The Prime Minister

I cannot answer that question without notice. Perhaps my hon. Friend will put it on the Order Paper.

Mr. Walter Fletcher

Is the Prime Minister aware of the very bad effect on newly-joined troops of finding the mental attitude of men who are discontented because they think they have been let down, and have had to serve too long? Will the Prime Minister take steps to put all the facts of the case before recruits when they join up?

The Prime Minister

I think everyone should take care not to encourage troops to think that they have been let down, when they have not been.

Mr. Stokes

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that we cannot call up young skilled and semi-skilled men and at the same time have a high output? Will he give instructions to the Departments concerned. to bear that point very much in mind?

The Prime Minister

They are very well aware of that. There has to be a balance in these things. On the one hand, hon. Members, quite rightly, say that it is a hardship for the people to be kept overseas. On the other hand, I have had claims from industry, from universities and others that we must not spoil young men's careers. We must try to have even justice.

Mr. Pickthorn

Without in the least wishing to suggest that a university career should be an excuse for a soft option, might I ask the right hon. Gentleman a supplementary to his earlier answer to the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) to hold up the hands and support the efforts of other Ministers, especially the right hon. Gentleman on his right, in remembering the importance of the actual time of year of release for university students?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I quite agree with the hon. Member. I am in contact with my right hon. Friend. That is certainly a thing which should be done.

Mr. Gallacher

I want to ask the Prime Minister if he is not aware that the statement he has made today will not ease the bitter feeling which many of these soldiers have; and will he make certain that what happened at an R.A.O.C. camp in the Middle East, where infantry with Bren guns and armoured cars were sent to patrol the camp will not be repeated— that such a shameful action as British soldiers being used against British soldiers will not occur again?

Mr. C. S. Taylor

Will the Prime Minister—

Mr. Gallacher

May I have an answer?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member put an argument, not a question.

Mr. Gallacher

I asked if it is not the case that infantry was used against other British soldiers. I want an answer to that.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

Would the Prime Minister consider issuing instructions that a summary of this statement might be reprinted in formation or even unit orders overseas, so that the troops may have the benefit of it?

The Prime Minister

We are taking the greatest care to see that this is brought to the notice of the troops.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think it is time we got on to the next Business.