HC Deb 19 December 1947 vol 445 cc2024-51

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

11.13 a.m.

Brigadier Head (Carshalton)

I would say at the outset of my remarks that I raise this matter in no party spirit, nor merely for the sake of criticising the Government or the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Defence. Nor am I raising it because I have changed my mind with regard to the general principle of National Service. I am raising this matter because it is my sincere belief that the existing National Service scheme, if proceeded with, will in 1949 and the years that follow result in a great expenditure of manpower without any appreciable return in terms of increased effectiveness of the Armed Forces, or in terms of increased safety of the Realm. That being my belief, I make no apology for raising so vital a question at this time on the Adjournment of the House, when there is little or no opportunity for a prolonged discussion. My excuse for that is that if it were not raised now, there would be no further opportunity for discussing this matter until we are faced with a Defence White Paper and the three Service Estimates.

The House will recall that when the National Service Bill was first brought in, the period of call-up was 1½ years followed by 5½ years' part-time service. That was altered to one year's call-up and six years' part-time service. There will be no useful purpose served by my going into the reasons for that, alteration now, but I would say in passing that it was done very quickly and without opportunities for full consultation, certainly with either the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. As so often happens when rapid decisions are arrived at without due consideration, the full import of those steps was not apparent until a much later date, and it is only recently that the full import of this sudden alteration has become apparent.

I would like to tell the House the situation today as I see it from the data available to me. To take the Royal Navy first, this highly technical arm has come to the conclusion that the time available, one year, is insufficient in which to train a man properly for that Service. Therefore, the Royal Navy has, I understand, accepted the principle that they will attempt to recruit by voluntary enlistment all their men and that they will, if possible, do away entirely with any use of the National Service scheme as it exists at present. It is true that some 5,000 men may be absorbed by the Marines, but otherwise it is the intention of the Royal Navy to have none of it. I turn now to the Royal Air Force, another highly technical arm. They, again, consider the period insufficient, but their recruitment on form will probably not be adequate to cover their entire needs, as will probably be the case for the Royal Navy. If one takes what seems to be the likely target of Regular recruitment, it seems probable that the Royal Air Force will absorb some 30,000 or 40,000 men per year.

It thus becomes apparent that of a total estimated intake of 200,000 men a year, which is the figure of the Ministry of Labour, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force between them will absorb some 35,000 to 40,000 men a year, maybe more or maybe less; so let us say 50,000 men a year as a round figure. It immediately becomes apparent that if the existing National Service scheme is justified, it is not justified because of the assistance which it gives either to the Royal Navy or to the Royal Air Force. Therefore, I submit to the House that its justification must come from the assistance it gives to the Army, and I propose in some greater detail to consider its implications for the Army. Again, taking the figures available to me of the general trend of recruiting, on the assumption that by 1949 the strength of the Regular Army should be somewhere round about 200,000 men if the rate of recruiting is maintained—it may be a bit more, it may be a bit less, but I suggest that is a fair working figure to take—I would ask the House to consider the tasks of those 200,000 men in 1949 and the succeeding years.

They will have to train an annual intake of 150,000 National Service men. In addition they will eventually have to provide a small cadre for the training of six intakes of those men during their part-time service. In conjunction with the National Service men in the latter period of their call-up, they will have to fulfil all our policing commitments overseas. They will also have to carry out their own formation and unit training in order to be an efficient and well-prepared Force. It is my absolute contention—and I believe in this I shall be backed up by anyone with experience in this matter, even in the Ministries—that the Army cannot carry out all those commitments thoroughly. Something has to be done sketchily. It is unthinkable that they would purposely do sketchily the training of these National Service men, although I am doubtful, even if they concentrate on them, that the job can be done thoroughly and efficiently. I am quite certain that inevitably it will result in the Regular Army being an ill-prepared and inefficient weapon in comparison with any previous Regular Army.

It may be said, "Very well, let us reject a Regular Army because, in return, we shall get an extremely efficient Territorial Army"—indeed, that is the main claim of the National Service scheme now adopted in this country. Let us then, examine this National Service Army. When the right hon. Gentleman brought in the National Service Bill, he advanced certain reasons for it, and I think the one on which he placed most importance was that it would enable us to have a well-prepared reserve ready for rapid mobilisation. These men will have had one year's service, a great deal of which will be spent on policing duties. They will belong to an Army which is becoming increasingly technical, and where the technique changes extremely rapidly and, during their part-time service, they will have only 10 days a year training.

It is my contention that men who have been trained like that, with modern technique changing so rapidly, will not be capable of really rapid mobilisation. Furthermore, let us consider the size of this Force. If we have 150,000 men a year, at the end of the six-year period there will he 900,000 men. I appreciate that some of them will be in reserved occupations, but comparatively few, for they are young in age. Some will be casualties and not available but, taking a modest estimate, there should be some 700,000 or 800,000 men. I cannot believe that in the future war, if it should ever come, with the immense threat of attack on this country of atomic and bacterial warfare, there will be a chance, with its immense movement and equipping problem, to mobilise that immense number of men, nor do I believe they will be required.

It seems to me that this vast number of men in every way exceeds the practical kind of army which will be required under the circumstances. If the right hon. Gentleman really considers that immense number of men is needed, deserved or justified, I say that he is preparing for the next war not in terms of the last, but of the last but one. Hon. Members may well say "That is what you say, but it cannot be so bad as that, because there are experts in the Ministries who know far more than you do, and they would not allow a state of affairs like that to continue." I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that they are not free agents, and they have been confronted with a situation which was not foreseen when the National Service Act was passed. There is nothing for them to do but to try to alter and ameliorate the impact of the scheme on the three Services, especially the Army. It is as though with a faulty foundation those building the structure were trying to curve the walls in order to make the eventual structure straight. There is only one way out of the impasse. That is to scrap the scheme, think the whole matter out de novo, and get a scheme which fits the needs of the country and the requirements of the Services.

The right hon. Gentleman might ask what can be done, as hon. Members on the other side of the House so often ask what we would do if we were in their places. In order to make my speech not entirely unconstructive, I say that the war of the future as I see it will make three demands. The first demand will be for the three Services to be highly trained, technically up-to-date, capable of rapid mobilisation and having very considerable striking power. Secondly, the speed at which modern invention and modern technology act makes it impossible with only one year and 10 days a year afterwards for six years, to keep a man really up-to-date. Unless we increase the period of National Service all we can realistically aim at is to give the man that basic training common to any man who becomes a good soldier, sailor, or airman. Thirdly, I believe the latent threat in any future war which is most powerful and most to be dreaded is the threat to industry, the civil population and transportation within this country. That demands a Civil Defence organisation far transcending numerically and in skill any organisation which we had even at the worst time of the "blitz."

The right hon. Gentleman may prove me wrong, but in my opinion the right course is now to provide for three Services composed of highly trained specialists and long-term volunteers. If there is any shortage through recruiting, I believe that the money spent in making conditions in the Services sufficiently attractive will be far cheaper than the money spent on the existing scheme, and it would create an immense economy in manpower. I am not certain that I would at present entirely jettison National Service, but I would perhaps call on every man for a short period of, say, six months, or less, in which he would be given the fundamental training common to all three Services, with instructors called from all three Services. That training would be drill, discipline, physical fitness and a certain amount of education. In addition to that, I would give him a thorough grounding in Civil Defence duties. At the end of that period we would have a man who, if he remained in a reserved occupation, or was called up in any Service, would have some useful grounding for his job in war. There are, I know, all sorts of difficulties, including that of policing Germany, which I have not time to go into now. But I believe they would be overcome.

I am not claiming that my ideas are right, but that the present idea is utterly and completely wrong, and that this state of affairs was quite unforeseen at the time the Act was passed. The right hon. Gentleman has one duty which is absolute both to the country and to the economy of its manpower. That is to re-examine the whole matter. There is time, as the Act will not come into effect until 1949. I implore the right hon. Gentleman to put the staffs on the task, not of palliating the present viciousness of this scheme by little alterations, but of examining the whole matter again. If he does that, he will have wiped out many of his past mistakes. But, if he does not, it will be my belief that this scheme is retained not for the vital purpose of saving manpower, but for the far less vital purpose of saving face.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. George Ward (Worcester)

I wish to support my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) in appealing to the Minister of Defence to look again at this situation in the light of the thought he has been able to give to it since the passing of the National Service Act, and also in the light of conversations and discussions he must have had with the Service Chiefs since that time.

In reply to a Question I recently put to the Secretary of State for Air I was informed that on 1st March, 1948, the target for the Royal Air Force was 263,000, of which 50 per cent. would be National Service men. Fifty per cent. is a very large proportion when we consider that of the remaining number of Regulars we must probably have more than half in the training machine, in order to train the National Service men, and to cope with the administrative difficulties in receiving and passing them through the machine. That will mean that far too few Regulars will be preparing themselves for the operational tasks of the Air Force in the case of sudden emergency. The Regulars engaged in training these National Service men will get very much out of touch with operational duties in the Royal Air Force.

I do not suggest that the solution of that difficulty is to increase the size of the Royal Air Force. Such a suggestion at this time would be quite wrong. But the only way to overcome that difficulty is to reduce the number of National Service men to be trained by the available number of Regulars. That can only be done by increasing their length of service from one year to 18 months. I know that is all past history, as the Bill has now become law, but surely it is not too late to go into the matter again? If we can reach the same total number with a third less conscripts to train, we will have a very much more efficient fighting Service. It is quite impossible to train a pilot in one year. He may be taught to take up an aeroplane and bring it down again and the rudimentary aspects of navigation, but when he leaves he has to keep his hand in as a Reservist, which he cannot possibly do under the present arrangements of the Act. Much the best way of doing it is to increase the size of the Auxiliary Air Force. There he is given a far greater opportunity in his own locality to carry on training which he started as a Regular.

This conscription is killing the Auxiliary Air Force. Already the Auxiliary Air Force has dwindled to fantastically small numbers. There are not even enough officers and nothing like enough airmen. There appear to be insuperable difficulties in recruitment as long as young men are waiting to be called up to do their Regular service and then to be passed on to do their ten days a year service for six years. If fewer were called up each year, by the extension of the period of service, I believe that more would go into the Auxiliary Forces, either while they were waiting or when they came out. In that way, they would be kept at a much higher pitch of training than they can possibly be under the new arrangements. I ask the Minister of Defence once more not to close his mind to this suggestion, but to have another look at it, and to let the House know whether there is any chance of the present arrangements being reconsidered.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

On a point of Order. May I draw attention to the fact that in this important Debate, affecting all three Services, there is no representative of the Admiralty present?

11.32 a.m.

Mr. Swingler (Stafford)

We all recognise that the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) is particularly well informed on this matter. With the analysis that he has given this morning, I find myself very largely in agreement, though I am certainly not persuaded that, because of the situation which he has analysed, we can make up our minds at this date to depart from the National Service scheme. I think he has evaded the issue which we had to face when the National Service Act was brought forward in this House this year. A majority of Members of this House were then persuaded that if we are to maintain a policy of full employment, and so long as we have a severe manpower shortage in industry, we just shall not get the volunteers so as to be able to maintain our Forces on a voluntary basis. I believe that, at any rate during the next few years, as long as we have got full employment in industry and as long as this manpower shortage exists—and it will probably become more rather than less severe—that is still the position, and that is why we cannot depart from the National Service scheme, scrap it and go back to the voluntary basis from 1949 onwards.

I wish, first, very briefly to say one or two things about why this situation arises. I agree as to the situation which the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton explained. Why are we faced with this situation, and what is to happen during the next 12 months? I am particularly concerned about that, and I desire to put one or two questions to the Minister of Defence. A situation like this arises, firstly, because the Forces, since the war, have had to maintain commitments on a semi-wartime basis and while they were, and still are, doing so, they have been compelled to run down their strength. The Government have planned, or have attempted to maintain, Forces that are too large and economically insupportable. Therefore, on a number of occasions they have been compelled to speed up the process of demobilisation. That can be seen by referring to the Defence White Paper which we had this year, and to the figure to which the Government are now to reduce the Forces by 31st March, 1948. At the same time, the Government first planned too long a period of service for the call-up, and, quite rightly, in the Act that was passed this year, reduced the period to 12 months from 1949 onwards. I do not believe that the nation could afford more than that, and I believe that the Government were right to take that decision.

Inevitably, however, because of the size of the commitments that are still being maintained, and because the Forces are administratively overburdened—they are still bogged down with administrative tasks in connection with masses of surplus stores and all sorts of other questions of that kind—and because of this reduction in the period of service, the Forces are becoming more and more unbalanced in the ratio of trained to untrained men. The Government have now been compelled to reach another compromise for 1948, namely, the postponement of the call-up by three months, introducing a further complication of the situation. It is upon that particular point that I wish to address a question to the Minister of Defence, because I hope that we shall get this situation quite clear.

The hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton mentioned a figure of a call-up annually, in the normal way, under the 1947 National Service Act, of some 200,000 men a year. I believe that to be an over-estimate. The Minister of Labour recently gave a figure of 175,000, but in the first six months of 1948, the Minister of Labour has said, the number of men to be called up will be 75,000. That is to be done for industrial reasons, because of our manpower shortage. It is also to be done because the Forces cannot absorb more than 75,000 in the first six months of next year, because more men are to be released. Does that mean that 100,000 men or more are to be called up in the last six months of 1948, because the situation, so far as training facilities are concerned, will be more difficult in the last six months of next year than in the first six months?

Is there to be a further postponement of the call-up for another three months, and where shall we be in January, 1949, so far as the call-up is concerned? How many men will be called up in 1948 and how is it that the Forces can cope with 100,000 men in the last six months of 1948 when they can absorb only 75,000 in the first six months? By the end of December, 1948, on the basis of the Government's pledge, they will have in the Forces only those men who have been called up during 1947 and 1948; all the pre-January, 1947, men will be released, so the Government have pledged, by the end of December, 1948. Therefore, the number of National Service men remaining will, I calculate, be a maximum of 350,000, and I believe that the maximum of Regulars will be 450,000 at the end of December, 1948, on the basis of the most optimistic present recruiting figures. I think that the most optimistic recruiting figures which have been given by the Minister would give an estimate of 250,000 in January, 1949.

That is the total number of men—800,000—who will be the Armed Forces at the end of December, 1948. Notwith- standing what was said by the then Chancellor in the Debate on the State of the Nation at the beginning of August, that is less than the figure he gave. If these figures are realised, the maximum will be 800,000, and that depends on whether or not there is to be a further postponement in the call-up, introducing a further complication into the administration of the 1947 National Service Act from January, 1949, onwards.

Accordingly, I would like the Minister to tell us, firstly, just how many men it is intended to call up for military service during 1948; secondly, whether the Government are to stick to the age-and-service release programme during 1948, so that all the pre-January, 1947, men will be released by the end of December, 1948, and how, if the full call-up programme is to go through in 1948, they are to maintain the balance in the Forces, and absorb this bigger intake and train them efficiently. It seems to me that, because the Government have continued all along to overestimate the commitments which the Forces are capable of undertaking, and because they have maintained swollen garrisons, and taken on administrative tasks with which they have not been able to cope, they are now in the position of not having enough people efficiently to train the National Service men who are corning in. At the same time, they have not practised sufficiently a policy of economy in administrative employment to overcome this situation.

I recently asked the Minister of Defence what the manpower economy committees were doing in the Service Departments. I received the answer that each committee is working inside each particular Service Department, but there is apparently, no co-ordination in their work and apparently, they are not dealing at all with inter-Services problems. It seems hopeless to deal with a question of manpower economy on a Service-by-Service basis. It can be dealt with only for the Armed Forces as a whole, including the question of call-up, of co-ordination of the Services and administrative tasks between the Services. I hope the Minister will tell us what steps are being taken to get manpower economy on an inter-Services basis.

11.42 a.m.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

I think the House will be grateful to the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) for raising this important matter. While he has spoken on the subject in general and the Army in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. G. Ward) has dealt with the Royal Air Force point of view. I therefore think it proper, speaking entirely for myself, that I should attempt to give the House what I think is the naval aspect of this problem.

The problem of manpower cannot really be separated from the main problem of security. It is one variant of the equation whose answer must be national security. It is not, even in this difficult time, the most important variant. The most important is the question of finance. I wish to try to show, so far as the Navy is concerned, that National Service is the most wasteful method of getting what we want—always taking into account that we have only a certain amount of money available. It is useless to build the most enormous ship in the world and find that there is not enough money to pay the men to man her, or to secure two million men and find that we cannot afford to build the ships in which to put them.

It is germane to my argument to try to indicate the task of the Navy in war as I see it. It is a traditional task, and it will always very largely continue to be the same. It is to keep open the trade routes, so that we can obtain vital necessities and raw materials, particularly at the beginning of a war. It has another duty, in conjunction with the Royal Air Force, which is to try to hold the ring while these millions of men in the Army—on paper—are getting ready to attack, or to do whatever they have to do. I do not think anybody would suggest that this great paper Army that we are attempting to create is going to be ready to jump off on the right foot immediately at the outbreak of war. The ring must be held for them by a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force which are efficient and ready for immediate action until they are ready. It is also quite useless to think that, because new methods of warfare are being introduced—the atomic bomb and various things of that kind—it makes it any less vital to carry out this traditional function of the Navy. There are more ways of being killed than one. The atomic bomb may be one, but defeat can still be brought to this country almost as quickly, and with just as much certainty, by the pressure of blockade and starvation.

Therefore, the problem of National Service, as it affects the Navy is one of reserves, and that is a point on which I wish to obtain some information from the Minister of Defence. I would agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble) that it is very unfortunate that we have not a representative of the Admiralty here today, although I have a certain amount of faith that the Minister of Defence may know something about it.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

Every inch an admiral.

Commander Maitland

This question of reserves is very important, and will be more important in a future war than it has been in the past. I think it is generally recognised that no longer can we call upon the men in the Merchant Service, or a large proportion of them, as we did in the last war. No longer can we make a sweeping grab for all the men employed in the fishing fleets around our shores. We have got to find them somewhere else. The Merchant Navy man is doing just as good a job in his merchant ship as in a destroyer, and we have to recognise that fact. We are, therefore, left with the problem of where the reserves are to come from, if we do not have them in the form of National Service reserves. It would seem that these would not exist because it is generally understood that in about three years' time, the Navy will have recruited sufficient people to bring them up to full strength on a Regular service basis.

Obviously at the moment the main part of our reserves must come, temporarily, from men who have had war service during this last war. For the next few years we shall be right to rely on men who have been serving in the Royal Navy during that period. But as time goes on we shall have to rely on men who have served a term of Regular service which makes it most important that we should be careful in the length of the Regular service and the terms of service available to men joining the Navy. Obviously, if we want to have a big reserve, the length of the term of service must be reduced; but if we want a first class and efficient Navy when a war starts, the term of service must be kept as long as possible. Somewhere between those two points a balance has to be struck, in order that we may have an effective reserve when the next war begins—if it ever does.

At the moment—and this is the point on which I want the Minister of Defence to give me an answer—National Service is making impossible the only other alternative form of reserve. I would like to see, and I think it is the best way, a really efficient and trained Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. It stood us in marvellous stead during the war, and no one can pay a sufficiently high tribute to it. At the moment we have not got that reserve if we do not use National Service men. The problem is to try to create that volunteer reserve without using National Service men, in the Royal Navy. That is the main problem which we have to solve. I disagree with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler). I think it is absolutely essential that each Service should be treated separately.

The main point is to preserve the security of this country. There is nothing so important as that. I think that we should avoid the blind worship of homogeneity and standardisation which is so dear to the planner when we are considering these problems of manpower in our Services. We stand in grave danger of creating a state of affairs where we think that we are safer than we really are. It is far better to be weak and know it, than to be weak and think that one is strong. If the latter state of affairs ever arises, then this country will be in great jeopardy. The responsibility for that will rest squarely on the shoulders of hon. Members of this House.

11.50 a.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

It is always a great pleasure to join in any Debate inaugurated by the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head). He is lucid and clear, and his arguments are always illuminated by one or two major fallacies which make it a great pleasure to have an opportunity to reply. He said that the Air Force and the Navy believed that they did not require National Service men. Of course, I have no knowledge of what the Navy or the Air Force think, but those of us on this side of the House who supported conscription did so not because we desired to build up, at this moment, a strong striking force in the Navy or Air Force, but because we believed that by the even division of conscripts between the two Services we would have that balance of trained reserves, even though at this moment we saw that we should have weaker forces than we would have had had we had a permanent long-term force.

The hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland) spoke on the question of co-ordination. I am very glad indeed to see that the Minister of Defence is to reply to this Debate, because I think it is very important that we achieve a co-ordination of the Forces and that my right hon. Friend takes responsibility for all three. He has, after all, a certain knowledge of the Navy. I think it is right that he was First Lord of the Admiralty for a longer period than any First Lord since Anson. I know that he cannot claim the title of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) who, in his short period of office in that capacity, was very rightly described as the greatest First Lord since Noah.

Commander Maitland

The hon. Gentleman has commented on the question of fallacies. I would like him to explain how we are going to have a reserve for the Royal Navy if we use only very few National Service men? How then shall we have a trained reserve? Secondly, how can the reserve be properly trained if it consists of National Service men?

Mr. Bing

One of the great difficulties of the Services is their entire lack of coordination. It is most extraordinary that in the Navy one-quarter of the personnel are at present engaged, directly or indirectly, in flying duties and yet that there is no clear co-ordination with the Air Force. There are a number of services, for instance the chaplains—I am not so well informed on this particular subject as possibly some hon. and gallant Gentlemen opposite—but I cannot conceive why there should be that spiritual difference which requires each of the three Services to maintain an entirely separate Chaplains' Department. That is only a small example. However important that may be from a general point of view of morale, numerically the numbers concerned are small, but when one gets to such things as supplies, vehicles, weapons and things of that sort, a larger number is concerned. There is need for the utmost co-ordination, and the Admiralty is the worst offender in this matter because it not only fails to coordinate itself with the other Services but it even fails to co-ordinate with the Ministry of Supply. Hon. Members will know that the first report of the Committee on Estimates going into the question of research called particular attention to this failure by the Admiralty on the question of co-ordination.

I now want to deal with one or two points to which I hope the Minister of Defence will reply. First, there is the very important question of manpower and its relations not only to the men that we can afford but to the supplies that we can afford. To give a practical example the number of men going through an R.A.S.C. training unit should be governed not only by the number of instructors, but by the number of vehicles available and the amount of petrol. If only one man can have an hour's driving instruction a day because of shortage of petrol and vehicles, that is just as bad as a shortage of instructors. The question of manpower is also related to civilian supernumeraries. In the Navy alone, for every man in uniform there is directly employed almost one civilian. He is not employed indirectly through the labour pool of the Ministry of Works, but actually directly paid by the Admiralty. The same applies in a number of other cases. It may be an economy in manpower to employ men in this way, but it is wrong, when considering manpower, that we should have no effective statistics of their numbers or of the use to which they are put.

Finally, the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton very rightly said that we shall not have an opportunity of discussing this matter until we come to the Defence White Paper and the Estimates. I think I shall have support from both sides of the House when I say that this question of defence in its effect upon resources is an important matter. There is, for instance, the question of the amount of steel that we can put into defence as compared with that which we can put into export. Before my right hon. Friend finally formulates his policy in the Defence White Paper and in the Estimates, so that we can do nothing but make criticisms which have no real practical effect, we should have a full Debate in this House in which we can deal with the whole question of the Armed Forces in relation to our national economy. I hope the Minister will make representations along those lines. I know that many other hon. Members want to speak, and therefore, I will leave a great number of other points which I would like to discuss. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, even if he does nothing else, will see that we have an opportunity of discussing, not for an hour but for a whole day, this vital question of defence.

11.56 a.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), since his speeches can always be relied upon to be well expressed, amusing and, occasionally, right. It is perhaps a matter for regret that this is not one of the occasions upon which he fulfilled all three qualifications. I was really astounded at his remarks that it was a good defence of the present system to say that, while admittedly it would leave us very weak in striking force, there would be the compensation—to use his own phrase—of a balance of trained reserves. If the hon. Member had properly apprehended the case which was put with temperateness, reasonableness and very considerable authority by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head), he would have appreciated that, whatever merits the present system may have, it does not have that particular merit.

My hon. and gallant Friend pointed out—and, of course, we shall await any comments from the Minister of Defence—that substantially the Navy was, as it were, contracting out of the National Service scheme, that the Royal Air Force was treating it with somewhat modified rapture; and that only the Army, was a major consumer. If that is right, or even approximately right, the hon. Member for Hornchurch surely will appreciate that the effect in the case of reserves will be that they will be wholly out of balance. There may or may not be an adequate Army reserve, but undoubtedly there will be no Naval reserves and a wholly inadequate Royal Air Force Reserve. That is why I venture to suggest that the hon. Member for Hornchurch was not up to his usual standard of accuracy on this occasion.

The Minister of Defence will recollect that when my hon. Friends gave him certain not unwelcome assistance in the passage of the National Service Act, we made it abundantly clear that in so doing we were not giving to him, or the Government of which he is a member, a blank cheque over the manpower position. We made it quite clear that we would watch closely the use which he and his colleagues made of that most valuable of all commodities in our present economic difficulties. I hope that we made it clear that, while welcoming the general principle of National Service, in no sense did we mean by that that we would be in any degree whatever committed to wasting manpower in deference to that principle.

As I apprehend it, the point which the Minister should answer today is contained in this question: can he satisfy the House, and the country, that the present scheme, based on a period of service of one year, is really making sufficient use of the manpower which it draws from the country to justify its continuance? Those of us who listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exhequer yesterday will recollect the importance which he put upon manpower as a commodity. The Minister of Defence is a very big consumer of that commodity. I think that enough has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend to raise, at any rate, a very serious doubt, as to whether that enormously valuable commodity is being fruitfully and properly used. I re-echo the hope expressed by my hon. and gallant Friend that no question of face-saving, no recollection of the speeches made during consideration of the National Service Bill, will deter the Government from facing frankly the question whether we are getting real value for manpower out of the present system.

In order to satisfy the House that the right hon. Gentleman is getting that value, I think he must deal with the points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend in relation both to the Navy and to the Royal Air Force. Is any real value being obtained from this scheme as it applies to those two Services? I do not pretend to know anything about those two Services and, therefore, I will only pose that question and urge upon the right hon. Gentleman the necessity of answering it.

The only other point I wish to put relates to another aspect. The Minister of Defence will recollect that, on more than one occasion, he and the representatives of the War Office have pointed out that a very large part of the available manpower for the Army will be used in training, during the period of Regular service, and subsequently, as part of the Territorial Army, for the purpose of anti-aircraft defence. I think it is right to say that that will be a very big item of the manpower so used. I should be very grateful if the Minister would indicate what is the answer to the difficulty which occurs to many of us with reference to the use of manpower for that purpose. If, under conditions of modern warfare, our anti-aircraft defences are to be manned, even partially, how is it proposed to face the problem imposed without a degree of mobilisation. Mobilisation may possibly cause an appalling deterioration in the international situation. The right hon. Gentleman will recollect that the very word mobilisation has a depressing sound. Such action taken at a moment of tension might have consequences beyond all calculation. Yet failure to take it would leave the Government virtually defenceless against a sort of aerial Pearl Harbour. Yet in a system which involves that difficulty, we are using a very large part of our manpower, and it surely falls for consideration whether the manpower employed on a Regular basis could not provide us with a very much more efficient system of anti-aircraft defence in this country. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, in dealing with the general report of his stewardship as to the use he is making of the manpower, will also include some reference to that particular subject.

Finally, we are left in further doubt about the system in view of the delay in call-up, a call-up not under the Act we passed last year, but under the previous Act. The system is substantially the same. If we have, before the National Service Act itself comes into operation, a postponing of the call-up because of the labour situation, and because of the Service situation, it would make all the more legitimate the doubts as to the future of the National Service system which have been put forward so forcibly and so authoritatively by my hon. and gallant Friend.

12.5 p.m.

Mr. Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I welcome this Debate this morning. As one who took the lead in opposition to the introduction of the National Service Act I am glad to see that some of the doubts that I then expressed are being felt by hon. Members opposite. On that occasion they took the opposite view to the fears they now express.

Brigadier Head

I should like to point out on behalf of my hon. Friends on this side of the House that we were in favour of retaining the period of 18 months' service. When it was taken off, a great many of us, including myself, refrained from voting entirely for the one year.

Mr. Yates

I appreciate that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has taken up that view, but, nevertheless, in his speech today he has rather asked the Government to scrap the scheme and to go back to the voluntary principle. Surely, that was one of the very strong points that some of us made during those former Debates. We said that there was no evidence that the voluntary system had failed. It was really never tried. When I appealed to the House to defer a decision on this matter in view of the international situation or its possible change, and in view of the difficulties of manpower which were foreshadowed, we got no support from hon. Members opposite. Indeed, I can remember that in the first speech which I made in this House with reference to conscription I expressed surprise that hon. Members opposite, who were supposed to believe in freedom, should support what I believe to be the greatest infringement of freedom. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) was almost ready to devour me.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the hon. Gentleman will permit me again to devour him, may I point out that, in the speech of mine to which I think he is referring, I went out of my way to say that, from this very point of view of personal liberty, I was very unhappy about the matter, that I did not like the idea of handing over a generation to the Ministry of Labour, and that it was with the greatest reluctance, being convinced that the international situation justified it, and only on that ground, that I would support it. I hope that in fairness the hon. Gentleman will recollect that.

Mr. Yates

I cannot recollect all that the hon. Gentleman said, but I do know that he was ruled out of Order in putting a question to me in rather an aggressive manner. When I moved an Amendment to the Address in 1946, the most important point that I stressed was the manpower situation. I still believe that it was a grievous error of statesmanship, in the situation in which the country found itself, that we should have had this imposition, this strain upon the economy of the nation, perpetrated. When this Act was put upon the Statute Book many of us on this side of the House asked the question, Is this intended to be a permanent scheme? The Government gave us a more or less tacit understanding that they had no idea of its permanence in their mind.

The Secretary of State for War has spoken on several occasions recently. He made a speech in which he foreshadowed the shedding of commitments when it was assumed that there would also come some alteration in the question of National Service. But he made another speech the other day in which he is reported to have said: The principle of National Service was a sound one and was likely to endure. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether that represents a change of opinion on the part of His Majesty's Government because I believe that in the present situation, the people of this country would never approve a system of National Service which was permanently pinned to the country. Therefore, I ask that there will be reconsideration of this point of view. I accept the suggestion that the whole scheme should be reconsidered in the light of our manpower position and our very serious economic situation, and I hope the Minister will assure us and the country that it is still not the Government's intention that National Service shall be a permanent feature of the life of this country.

12.12 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

I rise to emphasise one point already well made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland). That is that in the present circumstances the Navy just cannot afford National Service men. The present circumstances to which I refer are, of course, the period of one year service, the manpower shortage and the shortage of money. If more money and more manpower were available, of course the Navy would be able to try to do something with the one year period, but as they are not available, the Navy quite obviously must concentrate on adequate Regulars. If this is the case, I am extremely worried about the future of the Royal Naval Volunter Reserve. If we have the situation described by the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) in which National Service continues and the majority of men go into the Army, how will the Navy recruit its reserves? There is no need for me to emphasise the great part played by the permanent Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the beginning of the last war, and many tributes were paid to it from all quarters. How is it going to be replaced?

12.13 p.m.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Alexander)

May I say at once that I welcome very much the tone in which the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Carshalton (Brigadier Head) introduced this subject; if it means in the future we might have a little less personal recrimination upon this subject which is dear to every patriot's heart—that is, the security of this country—no one will welcome it more than I will.

I must say I find myself in an extremely difficult situation with regard to timing. The procedure which has been laid down in the White Paper for presentation of the estimates for National Defence to the House of Commons, puts the Minister of Defence very largely into the position very often occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in regard to the Budget. He has to prepare a budget based both upon manpower, and upon estimates of revenue and expenditure in addition to manpower, and he has to make constant endeavour with his professional advisers and civil estimators to assess what the situation is going to be. It is by no means easy in what one might call the military assessment year, to give a forecast of exactly what is going to happen upon any particular question of policy.

I must say, therefore, right away that we find it almost impossible this morning—if I may use some of the language used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on similar occasions—to anticipate the kind of military budgetary policy that His Majesty's Government will approve, in which they may or may not accept all my recommendations, which will be presented in such a comparatively short period. The White Paper on Defence ought to be presented to the House early in February, if it is to be studied before the Debate, in order that we should not fall into the kind of procedure which occurred for various reasons last year and resulted in the White Paper on Defence being debated after a number of the Service Estimates had been discussed.

I want to say at once to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) that he may take it as absolutely certain that the Government have no desire to burke in any sense or in any degree the fullest possible discussion with the House on these great problems of manpower, supplies and finance under the present economic circumstances. It is only a question of how that can best be achieved in relation to timing. Of course, if there were a large section of the House which felt with the hon. Member for Hornchurch, that they should have a day for debate prior to the presentation of the White Paper, that is certainly a matter on which I could not pronounce. It is a matter for the Leader of the House in relation to the general Business which the Government have to deal with in a certain time. I should have thought, however that, having regard to the situation and to the discussions with the Staff which are going on at the present time, it would have been very much better to await a really full and detailed debate till we have the White Paper presented.

I am sure that Members of the House, like those who have been in the Services and those who have spoken on both sides this morning, will appreciate the difficulties which the Minister of Defence and his professional advisers have had to deal with in the last ten or 12 months. It has been a very difficult position indeed. The decision on National Service, for example, was taken before the end of 1946. There was then every prospect at least of having a much longer period to get a readjustment of national finance and economy in the light of the discussions which had taken place on the American loan—but that loan has run down very much more quickly than anyone on either side of the House expected at that time. We have had, therefore, in connection with the general economic position, to effect during the year while our discussions and considerations on long-term plans were still in progress, immediate adjustments, such as, for example, bringing home earlier than was otherwise proposed certain of our troops and forces overseas, and at the same time increasing the rate of the rundown of the strength of the Forces. The House will remember that, whereas we estimated to have a number of 1,087,000 as the strength to be reached in March, 1948, that has been brought down by two separate steps, first to 1,007,000 and now to 937,000.

I am sure that all those connected with the Services and the Services' administration will understand how difficult it has been for the Departments and for the professional advisers to deal at the same time with the very complex and difficult problem of considering the longer term aspects, in relation to the transitional year 1948–49, which still has to be faced. In the coming year we shall still have large obligations in regard to terminal expenditure, increased demobilisation costs and final payments in respect of wartime contracts and the disposal of stores. It must be apparent to anyone that the effect of these reductions we have had to make in the current financial year because of the economic circumstances, combined with the very large increase in demobilisation—the first estimated run-out from the Forces was about 500,000, and this has now been increased by over 150,000—must necessarily mean a greater state of unbalance in the forces; it must be remembered that the Regulars and those with the longest experience have been coming out first.

Therefore, while we have had to meet our commitments which still remain, and while we have been taking in men for National Service as well as from voluntary recruitment, it has become very much more difficult for the Services to maintain the standard of training. There is no intention on the part of the Government to try to conceal that aspect of the problem from hon. Members interested in this question. That does not mean that the hon. and gallant Member for Carshalton can expect me to agree in principle, or in detail, with any of the main propositions he has put forward.

Brigadier Head

I was not asking for acceptance, but for consideration of the points I have put forward.

Mr. Alexander

With the world in the state in which it is today, with the constant changes in the possibilities as regards the development of new weapons and new threats, with the increase in development of new offensive weapons, and with no corresponding increased development of defensive weapons in sight, any Minister who approached these matters with a fixed, rigid and closed mind ought not to remain long in charge of a Defence Ministry. We have all got to face this constantly changing situation with the proper amount of flexibility and elasticity. Therefore, while I cannot at this stage answer in detail the points which the hon. and gallant Member has put forward, he can take it from me that in all the discussions which are going on in regard to our long-term programme, none of these questions have been absent from our minds. That does not mean that I agree with some of the personal views which he has expressed as being conclusions upon the various points upon which he has touched. I want to assure the House that there is no question of a closed mind.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman descend from the metaphysical explanations of military defence and explain to the House exactly who is the enemy against whom we are being called upon to defend ourselves? The answer to that question is fundamental to this whole discussion?

Mr. Alexander

The hon. Member has put a very tempting bait before me, but I do not think that is apposite to this Adjournment Debate.

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. Yates) that there is no departure from the statements which the Prime Minister and I made earlier in the year to the House about the duration of the National Service scheme. Although I am speaking from memory, I think I am right in saying that he did not quote the whole of what was said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. I think the Secretary of State was referring to the general principle of National Service as being a sound one. That is not a new statement of principle, although there are a lot of people in the Labour Party who have held the same views as my hon. Friend. We have made it clear in the Act that the period is for five years, or for such shorter period as may be decided upon, and that if the scheme is to be continued, it can only be continued by affirmative decision of the House of Commons.

I have been asked why we brought in National Service in 1946–47. It was brought in because, with the state of the country and the policy of full employment, and the acute manpower shortage, we should have had steadily to expand the inducements, financial and otherwise, if we had relied on voluntary recruitment. This could only have increased the spiral of wages and production costs in industry at a time when we wanted a different approach to our economic problems.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, Central)

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is now saying that the only people who cannot compete for wages are the conscripts? His argument is that the conscript is cheaper and is, therefore more desirable.

Mr. Alexander

I am not saying anything of the sort. I am saying that if we had had voluntary recruitment, we should not have been able to get the minimum number required for national security, without constantly offering over and above what the men could get in their ordinary civil employments. That position remains, and we have to watch it exceedingly carefully. There will be different views both outside and inside the Services on how to make the best use of the time during National Service. I am making no final statement on that matter at all. I would not burke any of these issues in the Debate on the Defence White Paper.

I do not accept the view that National Service is of no use to the Royal Navy. I admit that we might not have as well trained a man to go into Reserve after 12 months' training as we should after 18 months. If we are thinking about the other problem which the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble) has in mind, the present scheme will go far to avoid the situation which we had before the last war. Now there is a large number of men trained may be for five or six months on shore and four at sea with a refresher during reserve. That places us in a better position to man the Fleet than I was placed in in 1941 and 1942, where the men called up had only 10, 11 or 12 weeks' training and were then expected to go into action.

Commander Noble

My whole argument hangs on how many National Service men the Navy is going to take. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us that, because that might destroy my argument?

Mr. Alexander

I would not anticipate the general military budget that we shall finally decide upon and present to the House in a few months time, and that is why I made the statement I did at the beginning.

Another factor we have to take into account in this matter is in connection with the extraordinarily smooth run down which we have made. My hon. Friends on this side of the House appreciate as much as anybody that we have made an extraordinarily smooth run down, and in consequence of that, there has been no great cushion of unemployment. During the whole of that period, if we had not been able to continue the National Service at the present time before the coming into operation of the 1947 Act, we could not possibly, in face of our commitments, have released men steadily the way we have done. That enables me to reply to another question as to whether we are sticking to the age and service group scheme of releases. Certainly we are. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour made a statement in the House yesterday showing the shading off of the periods of service of men called up in 1947 and 1948. That is, in itself, support of what I am saying, that we are sticking to the age and service group scheme.

Mr. Bing

There is, for example, in the Royal Air Force a difference of 14 groups. Is it not desirable to have a somewhat similar disparity introduced into the Army? This would cause no more difficulty than it does in the R.A.F. provided it was correctly explained to the men.

Mr. Alexander

Again I speak from memory but in order to achieve the run down which is planned in the next period, the Army will have to follow to some extent the same kind of principle that has been followed in the Royal Navy, and more in the Royal Navy than in any other, and in that way we hope to speed up certain groups.

Mr. Swingler

I realise that the Minister cannot give a complete forecast of his budget, but there is one question I should like to press if possible, because it concerns the situation of a number of young men next year. It is in regard to the call-up. The Minister of Labour has cancelled the registration and the calling-up of 75,000 men in the first six months of 1948. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether the balance of 100,000 men for those six months are going to be called up during the rest of 1948 or will they be postponed?

Mr. Alexander

What has been done is that registration has been postponed, but let me set my hon. Friend's mind at rest on this. Having postponed registration, we cannot call up for registration in the rest of the year the large proportion of those postponed in the first part, so what we intend to do is to postpone the registration right through the whole of the year on the same basis, so that we shall have a call-up on the same regular basis as in the past. We could not have a wide disparity in the number of men called up in the second half of the year from the number called up in the first half. This particular question will be dealt with more fully when we come to debate the general position next year.

There is another point which I think I ought to answer, and that was the one put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch with regard to the civilian use of manpower by the Services. It is true that we employ a very large number of civilians and always have done so. We have no desire to conceal from Parliament what is the actual amount of manpower so employed. In view of what my hon. Friend has said this morning and also on previous occasions, I have considered carefully what would be the best form in which to bring the details of civilian employees to the notice of the House—whether to put them into the White Paper for the general Debate or whether they should be more amply stated in the particular Departmental Service Estimates. In any event, I think that those Service Estimates will be available in time for the general Debate. I will certainly look at that point.

Mr. Bing

Does my right hon. Friend realise that this is of considerable importance, because in the Economic Survey these persons are shown as in civilian employment, and are contrasted with the total of persons who are militarily employed?

Mr. Speaker

I must point out that these questions are taking time from some other hon. Member and it is desirable to keep to the time table as far as possible.

Mr. Alexander

I apologise if I have taken up some of the time of other hon. Member in my desire to reply to the questions that have been raised. In view of what has been said by Mr. Speaker, I will draw rapidly to a close.

I would like to leave the House with the note I struck earlier in my remarks—that we are in a very difficult position, which is made much more difficult by the economic situation especially as regards manpower. We shall make a general presentation of the case on the basis of manpower and defence to Parliament next year. We shall complete our examination with the greatest possible care and not with a closed mind, but with the desire to do the very best we can first to secure the main prop in National Defence, and that is the most rapid recovery of our economic stability. Without such recovery we would not be able to face the kind of mobilisation about which the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) spoke. We have to be certain of our war potential now that modern war has reached its present stage of development.

Secondly, I believe all of us want to do the very best that we possibly can for the security not merely of our country, but of all those countries which love liberty and who seek to turn it into lasting peace. We have not been very much encouraged in the last 12 months since presenting the first White Paper on Defence by the progress which the world has made in that respect. I do not disagree at all with the remarks that have been made about international tension. Nor are we encouraged by the amount of progress so far made by the United Nations organisation, in such matters as progressive and permanent disarmament or in the control of atomic energy. In the light of these things I am quite certain we will be able to rely upon opinion in all parts of the House to support us in doing the very best we can for security and for the maintenance of peace.