HC Deb 11 August 1947 vol 441 cc2223-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

8.18 a.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

Even at this late hour——

Hon. Members

At this early hour.

Mr. Bing

At this early hour we on this side of the House would be doing less than our duty if we did not try before leaving for the Recess to devise some means of reducing the very heavy burden of the Defence Forces. After all there is nothing more practical we can do. I am sorry to see that after the long discussion on theoretical rights of liberty when discussing practical rights of liberty—the rights of people conscripted for three years—there do not seem to be any representatives of the party opposite present at all. Yes, there is one. The others have apparently left accompanied by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn). Every man we have in the Forces is a dollar liability. We are saving four million pounds by our cuts on petrol, yet the Army Estimate for petrol for this year, let alone the Navy and Air Force, was 13 million pounds, three times the amount we are saving by our cuts. We are spending on aircraft for the Air Force alone—not counting the Navy—four times the sum we are gaining in exporting aircraft in the first half of this year. The Army is using new mechanical transport equivalent in value to half the sum which we are getting for the export of cars in the first half of this year. Every member of the Forces we have at home competes for material like timber, in short supply, and for services like transport which, we are told, is to be in an absolutely critical position this year.

What is the strength of our Forces going to be? Let me recall the last statement made. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said on the 7th of August: At the present rate of rundown the Army will be down to 550,000 men by the end of March, 1948, and to 425,000 by the end of 1948; the Navy will be run down at the present rate to 178,000 by the end of March, 1948, and 166,000 by the end of 1948, and the Air Force will be run down to 279,000 by the end of March, 1948, while the figure for the end of 1948 is still under discussion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th August,:(947, Vol. 441, c. 1686.] I do not know, in the first place, whether these figures are really for men only. If that is the figure for men only there would be no real reduction in the Forces, but if it included the figures for women—and if I may say so the lesser is sometimes contained in the greater—then in that case the Chancellor's figures do give us some indication of numbers the Government proposes to have in the armed forces at the end of 1948. The Chancellor referred to the greater use of air rather than ground troops and that enables us to estimate what the air force would be—250,000 to 260,000 which gives us a total in the armed forces of 840–850,000 in 18 to 17 months from now.

I want first to ask the Minister of Defence where these men are to come from. In the White Paper of 1946 "Call up to the Forces in 1947–48" it was said we should release at the end of 1948 all the men to have been called up in 1947 and 1948 and in answer to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stafford (Captain Swingler) on 4th March the Minister of Labour said he estimated the call up for those two years to be 175,000 men in each year. Recently we have been told those working in agriculture or who have promised to work in agriculture are not going to be called up and in the forces there is bound to be a considerable wastage. Looking at the figures for those released for other reasons than Class A or B release, we find that 14,000 disappear in one quarter. In these circumstances either we are going to increase in this time of crisis the number of people we are calling up or else work to the estimate made by the Minister of Labour in which case we will get rather less than 300,000 conscripts.

Where are we going to get the others from, the other 540,000? The position in the army is that at the moment we have, excluding conscripts, 147,000 volunteers. But according to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that figure is to be made up at 425,000 men by 31st December, 1948. That is a difference of 278,000, practically the whole amount of the conscripts without making any allowances at all for those going to the navy or Air Forces. If we are going to get these men by voluntary means we must have a big recruiting campaign, but as the Secretary of State for War said himself on the Debate on the 30th July the very arms in which the men were lacking were technical arms and the men we need for the technical arms are engineers and electricians, the men we shall need by the end of 1948 for export industries. Is it proposed we shall recruit them and keep them in the army for five years? My figures may be all wrong. I hope they are, but they are taken after all from the figures given us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But that is not the only worry in the matter. The Chancellor explained that out of this huge total of 1,007,000 men by March, 1948, no less than 707,000 would be in this country. Doing what? We are seeking to increase the agricultural output, but how can we if we take over further land for training troops. At the same time, there must be such training land for these Forces—there must be bombing ranges, artillery ranges, and aerodromes—and one has only to look at the figures in the Estimates for service transport to realise what a strain troop movements will be.

I understand why we have this large total in the Forces. The reason is that, if one is going to have a force which is operationally efficient, one cannot run it down beyond a certain rate. As a result, we are always strained beyond our manpower position. But what is the point now of having an operationally efficient Army? It means that we must have big reserves of oil; but we are running these down. It means we must have big reserves of food, but we are running our food reserves down. We need a transport system capable of mobilising these men, and we know from what the Prime Minister has said that any additional strain on our transport system will break it down.

I put it to the Minister that, for the next six months, we should not try to have forces which are operationally efficient. Let us take the risk in the next six months and run down our total, and let us organise reserves because that is the one thing we need and the one thing which we are not providing. Even the addresses of men released on the Class "Z" system are not known, and there is no means of getting them back except through the whole machinery of the Ministry of Labour. Let us have reserves but do not let us throw away our manpower in this country by maintaining standing forces beyond our strength.

8.28 a.m.

Major Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)

I hope that the Minister will see that the defence of this country is adequately safeguarded before cuts are made, and that he will consider the use of mobile airborne forces as a striking force in our defence. I am particularly worried about this total of 707,000 men in the Home Forces, and although I do not know how many are in Germany, I urge the Minister to transfer some of these men to Germany so that we may release land in this country for other purposes than training. I would put these three points to the right hon. Gentleman; first, full defence of this country must be paramount; secondly, consideration of the use of mobile airborne troops to help reduce our manpower commitments in the Forces; thirdly, the use of Germany to reduce the total of land used in this country for training purposes.

8.29 a.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South)

I am glad to see that the only Conservative on the benches opposite has supported us this morning. The Americans accepted the risk of unbalancing their forces, and General McNarney said their forces in Germany were running down. We have had such a slow run-down in our forces that they are now approximately the same size as those of the Americans. To have this number of men today in the Armed Forces is fantastic because military power today is even more dependent than it ever was on our industrial strength. My final point is this—it is no part of the duty of the Minister of Defence to present a blank and unresisting front to every effort made inside the Cabinet and out to reduce our Armed Forces to a size consonant with our military strength. He is misconceiving his duty if he believes it is his job to do that. He is doing the country a disservice if he insists on having such a large number of men in the Armed Forces at this time because he is making it practically the biggest industry in the country.

8.31 a.m.

Mr. Christopher Shawcross (Widnes)

This a matter of absolutely vital importance. My constituency is placarded with posters "We work or want"—but these posters are flanked on all four sides by others. One says "Join the Army"; another says "Join the Navy"; another says "Join the R.A.F.", and below it says, "Join the Palestine Police." That makes absolute nonsense of the Government's campaign which affects us all at present. In the Debate on the manpower "Budget" six months ago, I placed before the Minister of Defence figures to show that it needed one man in industry to support one man in uniform. That means that the problem is very much greater than generally understood—that when you have 700,000 or 800,000 in the Forces it means that there must be an equivalent number of men in industry engaged directly, while others work in other directions such as transport, in sustaining those men in uniform. I think that question should be emphasised and dealt with by the Minister.

8.33 a.m.

Mr. Zilliacus (Gateshead)

I would like to point out that we are maintaining all these vast forces—approximately four times as big as those this country maintained during the two years after the first world war—on the pretext of collective security and defence. As regards collective security, the Military Commission of the Security Council of the United Nations has now reported, and the one point on which its report was unanimous—and that includes our delegate, the United States delegate and the Soviet delegate—was that the international force to which we are to contribute is a force at the orders of the Security Council, which can function only when the Great Powers are agreed on the Security Council, and is to be used therefore only against other States—that is, the minor States. This means, of course, that this international force is quite a small force, to be used only by the United Nations decision of the Great Powers against minor States. That completely wrecks, smashes, torpedoes and sinks without trace the whole of the argument for any vast force to contribute to the security forces of the United Nations.

As regards defence, we have had the solemn statement of the Foreign Secretary on 21st February, 1946, repeated and endorsed by the Prime Minister on 7th March in reply to a Question I put to him. He repeated on behalf of the whole Government that it was inconceivable that this country should ever go to war with either the United States of America or the Soviet Union, and that defence preparations and calculations with the possibility of being at war with either of these Powers did not enter the mind of any Member of the Government. If that is so, it is incomprehensible in terms of defence as it is in terms of collective security, that we should maintain these vast and staggering forces which are breaking the back of our economic reconstruction at home.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I support that, Mr. Speaker.

8.35 a.m.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

It is not exactly the most refreshing time of the day, after an all-night sitting, to engage in a discussion of the detailed statistics and figures put to the House by my hon. Friend this morning, but I am glad to be able to do what I can to clear up the misunderstanding which has led to my hon. Friend's building up in his mind the figure of 840,000 as the strength of the Forces at the end of December, 1948. I quite agree that in his speech on Thursday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the strength of the Army at a possible 425,000, and of the Navy at 166,000, and he did use the term "men." But, in fact, that was the over-all strength which would be there in the estimate of the Service authorities without any re-examination at all of the problem by the Government, as would be done every year, in the general rundown. We have also the undertaking in the Prime Minister's speech to review matters with a view to getting further reduction of the forces in the current financial year, as announced to the House some months ago after having exhaustive inquiries with a view to getting some better planning for the kind of forces we shall want in the future, and which can be related to our economic resources.

To take the figures which he put forward with regard to December 31, 1948, they mean nothing at all really, because that is not a decision which the Government has as yet arrived at. With regard to those figures, I should point out that the hon. Member took them up on the numbers which would be in the Regular Forces, on his assumption, at that date. I should say that those figures would in- clued 35,000 women and we would have, if we go on with the regular rate of recruiting as at present, Regular Forces, including women, of about 445,000 at the end of December next year. The hon. Member said that the Minister of Labour had given an estimated average intake of 175,000 for two years. As a matter of fact, the numbers which I expect will accrue in the years 1947 and 1948 will not be less over-all than about 360,000, an average of 180,000 for each year.

Mr. Bing

Does that mean, then, that it is proposed to call up now more men than the right hon. Gentleman intended to call up in March of this year? If I might remind my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Labour said that the estimated number to be called up for 1947 is 175,000 and, according to present estimates, a smaller number is likely to go in 1948.

Mr. Alexander

The present figures at this time are bound to fluctuate a little from time to time because of different factors. The number in the ordinary way called up by the Ministry of Labour would be affected by the number of deferments in the year before. I have taken care, sine my hon. Friend wrote to me last Friday, to check the figures with very senior officials at the Ministry of Labour and I am giving you the results, not of my wishes, but of the actual figures provided by the Department, and I would say, therefore, that the numbers which he suggested would not be recruited would not be the very heavy figure of 200,000, but would be different by about 100,000. I want to put these figures right so that my hon. Friend may be perfectly clear.

The next main statement I would like to deal with is with reference to the 707,000 which is visualised as being the strength of the Forces at home as a result of the return of a considerable number of troops overseas announced by the Prime Minister last week. Let me say that although a great many people visualise these Forces as being predominantly Army, in fact, more than half that figure, if that figure remains the figure at March 31st, will be Navy and Air Force. It has always been the practice for this island to be used as a main base for supplying all the out stations in both the Navy and the Air Force. The Services complain in respect of the Air Force that they are exceedingly short of skilled men. There is a good deal of falling below operational efficiency because you cannot do the amount of flying training needed if you had the skilled men. What should be the ultimate size of the Forces is the kind of problem which will be considered urgently as soon as we have the report about the shape of things to come and therefore the cases submitted by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member opposite about it being impossible to use more mobile Air Forces will certainly be taken into consideration. There will be no possible doubt about that.

The use of the Forces at home, of course, may well draw attention to the idea that they were very much too large. I myself am not satisfied with the size being as large as it is under present circumstances. We have been working, and are continuing to work, with a view to getting whatever reduction we can for the current financial year but, more important still, to get the kind of balanced forces on the principle of the smallest possible Regular-trained forces and then working upon having reserves available which could be called up in case of emergency. There is no need for the hon. Member for South Cardiff (Mr. Callaghan) to challenge me on the note he used this morning of being always resisted inside as well as outside the Cabinet. I do not think he knows altogether the actual workings inside the Cabinet.

Mr. Gallacher

Tell us something about it.

Mr. Alexander

Two things I absolutely say: First, whoever is appointed Minister of Defence must hold himself responsible to the Government, to the House, for the defence of the country—that is absolutely essential. Second, you may also rest assured from the sentence I put in the White Paper on Defence that I recognise, any sane person would recognise, that the first line of defence is to have economic stability in one's own country. With these two factors in mind, I can assure my hon. Friend that the promise which the Prime Minister made to the House last Thursday is being vigorously explored with the object of getting the largest possible economy we can in this financial year—though I do not bind myself to the kind of figure mentioned by my hon. Friend—and then looking forward to getting a proper, balanced force of the right kind in the years ahead.

Mr. Zilliacus

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, could he give the House any indication when he expects the report from the Chief of Staff on which further reductions can be based.

Mr. Alexander

Reductions in the present financial year would be based on immediate figures that are coming in. I shall be in a position to give the House a considered report before we present the White Paper on Defence for the next Financial year.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes to Nine o'Clock a.m.