HC Deb 13 March 1947 vol 434 cc1690-6

Motion moved, and Question proposed, That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 1,210,000, all ranks, be maintained for the safety of the United Kingdom and the defence of the possessions of His Majesty's Crown, excluding those serving in India on the Indian Establishment and paid directly out of the revenues of the Governor-General in Council and those serving in Burma on the Burma Establishment and paid directly out of the revenues of Burma, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1948.

2.37 a.m.

Colonel Wigg

Before the Committee takes a decision on this I would like to raise a matter of which I have given notice. This, I was advised, was the proper time to do so. Despite the assurance given by the Financial Secretary, I still think the Committee ought to consider this matter, and it just cannot be avoided on the plea that it is a matter of high policy. There are a number of matters of high policy which, I am sure, the Government would not want to be discussed. There is no reason at all why we should not discuss them. There was a time when this point involved a very important constitutional point, a point concerned with the liberty of the subject. The Vote we are being asked to take tonight is tied up with the Act of Settlement, and in the troublesome times of those days was regarded as preserving and safeguarding the liberty of the subject. It is by the Vote the House now has that they retain control of the number of men in the Army.

I understand quite well the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State, that it is difficult in time of constant change when he does not know the size of a particular arm of service to give the details. The figures, perhaps, would be meaningless almost before they were printed. Nevertheless, we must know that the tendency of the Army Estimate over the years has been to give less and less information, and we have now reached the stage when we no longer know the arms of the Service. Until we do know this, our criticism is quite meaningless. My interest was greatly excited by the Debate which took place the other day in this House on the question of the mark-cum-cigarette swindle. What interested me greatly was that the House, without knowing anything at all, had passed £38 million, and only discovered the matter when it came to discuss the further £20 million. A great deal of steam was let off on that occasion. What is wrong is that the financial advice given to the Army is amateurish advice. When one wants to probe a little further one finds that the financial branches of the War Office are hidden away in Vote 1. The charge for civilians is hidden in Vote 4a, and where the charges are for the other matters I do not know.

Let us push this a little farther. I am quite convinced that one of the administrative reforms which the Secretary of State for War and the Financial Secretary should carry through, and which would save the taxpayers millions of pounds and hundreds of manhours, would be the abolition of the fixed centre paymaster as we know it. I believe the system to be 25 years out of date, and that various officials during the past 25 years have served their own personal ambitions by foisting on this long-suffering country various systems of pay which ought to have been consigned to the "looney bin" as soon as they were born. I think, as an ordinary citizen and a private Member of Parliament, who receives letters from people asking why their son's pay account is messed up, that this needs attention. We should not be pushed on one side on the grounds that this is a matter of high policy.

If, the Financial Secretary had prepared Vote A in some form similar to the 1939 system, he could have broken down the Vote under the various heads according to the Estimates for the Services, and that would have been a step in the right direction. If he had said that the form of the Army has changed the system of giving facts, then there would have been some excuse. But, in some high-handed manner the House is faced with a document which, in my opinion, is quite valueless. We are not told if we shall return to those days when we were given full and accurate information, and I am not prepared to let this pass until the Secretary of State for War or the Financial Secretary gives an assurance that, before the Estimates are given one year hence, he will look to see, not how he can camouflage and hide information he should give, but how he can get back to the way in which information was given at the end of the last war. I would suggest that, on his holidays, the Secretary of State for War should look at the Estimates for the period after the last war. He would find them interesting reading, and he should follow that example instead of coming here and giving us as little information as possible while the Financial Secretary says, "This is all on grounds of high policy—look, boys, let us go home."

2.45 a.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

I have sat through this Debate, and I remember hearing a compact at four o'clock yesterday afternoon that we should not discuss this matter on the Report stage. We have asked for answers, but if we are not to have them we shall want them on the Report stage. We are not party to this compact, and no party to having this Report stage taken formally, according to the wishes of some. I say this because the minority wishes to discuss something else. There are the rights of the minority, and it is proper that they should be safeguarded. There are also the rights of the majority, and it is time that the majority on this side of the Committee had the opportunity to express their views. Let it be quite clear that if the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War is not able tonight to answer the questions which we are putting from this side of the Committee, we will disregard entirely any undertaking given to the acting Leader of the House to take formally the Report stage of these Estimates, and we shall raise in detail at a later stage all the points which we wish to raise, and shall disregard any undertaking given with regard to any debate. I think I speak for all my hon. Friends, and, I think, for a few of my right hon. Friends when I say that.

There are one or two points which I wish to raise on Vote A. I wish to call my right hon. Friend's attention to actual details set out in the first column: Colonial Troops, number of officers, 500, number of other ranks, 87,300. He will now look just immediately below, and see: Polish Troops, number of officers, 1,500; number of other ranks, 7,000. Why is it necessary to have one officer to every 1,500 Colonial Troops, and one officer for every five for the Polish Troops? Either these Estimates are submitted because they mean something, or else they are submitted because they mean nothing. If they mean nothing, we can discuss them at some length on the Report stage. If they mean something, the right hon. Gentleman is in a position to reply. This is one of the points which I believe my hon. Friends on this side of the Committee are prepared to raise. There are a number of other points which I am riot going to raise; I am not going to take the time of my hon. Friends; but if the answers are not given, we shall raise these questions on the Report stage however long the House has to sit.

Earl Winterton

The last speaker has certainly introduced a new note into this Debate. As he chose to adopt a threatening attitude towards us, on this side of the Committee, and to suggest that we were in some measure responsible for the arrangements, let me tell him this: that there is nothing we would welcome more than Members of the party opposite keeping this Government up night after night. We are quite prepared to sit until three or four o'clock tomorrow afternoon. We are not only prepared to do that, but we are prepared on every occasion, on every Report stage, to keep the Government sitting up. But unless the hon. Member opposite is even more foolish than he appears to be from his speech, he will realise that there is nothing more foolish that for a back bench Member of the Government to talk in this threatening way, and to suggest that all this is done to help the Opposition, because the Opposition always have the whip hand and, if necessary, we will keep this House sitting after 11 o'clock.

Mr. Wilkes

My only excuse for speaking at this hour is to raise a point which I first raised in April, 1946. I have had no answer in the whole 12 months from the War Office. I have sought an assurance on this point, which I will explain briefly, and in simple language, so that every hon. Member may understand that it has a certain basic importance in peacetime. It is that the African and West Indian cannot hope to hold the King's Commission, because under King's Regulations, the holders of these Commissions have to be of pure European descent. But in wartime there have been relaxations of this requirement. In the 1914–18 war, and in the last war, Africans and West Indians were allowed to hold the King's Commission instead of the Viceroy's or Governor's Commission. At the end of the 1914–18 war this privilege was withdrawn, and Africans and West Indians, and other members of the Colonial Empire who had served with great distinction, were not even allowed to appear on the Reserve of Officers. Is that position to occur again?

I seek an assurance from the War Office that there is nothing sinister in the fact that although the R.A.F., under very enlightened administration, has given an assurance that the ban under King's Regulations has been permanently relaxed in peace time, as well as in war time, there has been no such similar assurance from the War Office. Consequently, we are faced with a situation in which we all desire to enlist Colonial peoples in the defence of the Empire, to increase the contribution that could be made by the Colonial peoples, and yet we ban the King's Commission, we ban entry to Sandhurst, and we ban entry to the higher ranks of the British Army to West Africans, East Africans and West Indians. I suggest that this is a matter of general interest, upon which, after 12 months of delay and vaccillation, and after 12 months of pressure by the Colonial Office for a favourable decision in the matter, we are entitled to ask tonight for an answer.

Mr. Bellenger

I am very sorry to hear this slight insubordination in the ranks of the majority, not the minority, because I should have thought that the questions that have been put on Vote A had already been debated, to a large extent, earlier in the night. [HON. MEMBERS: "They were not answered."] I think they were. They may not have been answered to the satisfaction of hon. Members, but I think they were answered. I can only try to give some further answer to my hon. Friends. With regard to what my hon. and gallant. Friend the Member for Dudley (Colonel Wigg) said about an assurance in regard to the presentation of the Estimates next year, I am quite prepared to look at that. I have nothing to hide from the Committee; I want to give the fullest possible information I can. Indeed, it is to my own advantage if I do so, judging by the late hour at which we are now sitting, because we might have avoided quite a lot of this discussion, although I have a suspicion that when next year comes, there will be other defects found in the presentation of the Estimates. But I am prepared to give my hon. and gallant Friend the assurance that I will look at this matter, and if I can give more detailed information next year I will certainly do so. With regard to the point put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing)—I forget the point now—

Mr. Bing

Then perhaps my right hon. Friend will allow me to inform him of it? If he will look at paragraph 2, he will see that there are 500 officers for 87,300 Colonial troops; that there are 100,500—

The Chairman

There is no point in the hon. Member repeating the numbers. I believe the Secretary of State is now seized of the point.

Mr. Bellenger

Yes. I apologise to my hon. Friend for not having written down his reference to the disproportionate number of officers in the Polish land forces compared with Colonial troops. The fact of the matter is, the Colonial Army is a properly organised Army, while the Polish Forces are here for only one purpose. I do not particularly want the Polish Land Force, but I am looking after them—as I should have thought my hon. Friend would have been the first to admit—in order that they can either go back to Poland in an orderly way, or be rehabilitated in this country, or elsewhere. I hope that as time goes on, the Committee will not be troubled with these figures in future Estimates, and that the Polish Forces will have disappeared. There is no true comparison, as my hon. Friend has attempted to make out, between the proportion of officers to other ranks in the Polish Land Forces and the Colonial Army. They are two entirely different things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Newcastle (Mr. Wilkes) mentioned what he termed the "colour bar." I do not think it is quite fair to compare the en- lightened administration of the Air Force to—as I presume he means to imply—the unenlightened administration of the Army. They are two totally different Forces. What has happened in the Royal Air Force is that their coloured airmen and officers have been in aeroplanes and only a limited number in the ground forces. It is an entirely different problem in the Army. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I will tell the Committee why, if they will attend a moment. They have to consider not only the coloured people who want to enlist, or who have enlisted in the Army. They have to consider that coloured officers have got to lead troops—white troops—in battle. All I can say at the moment is that it is a problem that does present some difficulties for the white troops, who are the vast majority. Nevertheless, we are considering it, in conjunction with the other Services. I do not propose to say any more tonight on that. I hope my hon. Friends will not press me, at this late hour, to go into more detailed reply to the points they have mentioned. If they wish to pursue the matter in detail, I am prepared to listen to what they have to say.

Mr. Driberg

It is not only the question of commissions and of leading in battle. It is a question of a colour bar against all applicants for regular engagement in the Army in peace time. Will my right hon. Friend explain it a little further?

Mr. Bellenger

Perhaps, my hon. Friend will be interested to know that coloured officers are attending our staff college.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 1,210,000, all ranks, be maintained for the safety of the United Kingdom and the defence of the possessions of His Majesty's Crown, excluding those serving in India on the Indian Establishment and paid directly out of the revenues of the Governor-General in Council and those serving in Burma on the Burma Establishment and paid directly out of -the revenues of Burma, during the year ending on the 31St day of March, 1948.