HC Deb 29 November 1948 vol 458 cc1772-82

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

10.37 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

The few words I am going to say tonight on Naval Reserves might well be said on the National Service (Amendment) Bill which is being debated in this House on Wednesday. I understand that the short Title of that Bill is going to be, "The Third Movement of the 1812 Overture." I feel that if I left my remarks until Wednesday there would be some doubt whether I should catch the eye of Mr. Speaker; it will be a much wider Debate than purely naval matters; and probably there will be no chance of a reply from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty. I would ask him therefore to bring to the notice of the Minister of Defence a number of points arising in the short Debate tonight.

The particular question I want to deal with is that of Naval Reserves and what we are now calling already National Service men, although they do not become National Service men until 1st January, 1949. The position as I see it is this. The Minister of Defence told us on 1st March in the Defence Debate that some 150,000 National Service men would be entered for all three Services in 1949, 100,000 of whom will go to the Army, 48,000 to the R.A.F. and a token amount of 2,000 to the Royal Navy. He went on to say that in future years a larger intake of National Service men was likely to be required for the Navy for the building up of reserves.

As hon. Members will observe from these figures, if we go on like that, the Navy are building up their reserves at the rate of 2,000 a year and the Army at the rate of 100,000 a year. If you take the extreme case, say, in 15 years' time, the Army will have a reserve of 1,500,000 and the Navy will have one of only 30,000. The point I am making is that a great many young men who are potential recruits for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve will then either be in the Army or the R.A.F. There is absolutely no getting away from that point.

We have raised this question from this side of the House at intervals. On the last occasion, in reply to a Question from myself on 3rd November, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty told the House that it was "under examination," When I was a boy I always understood that if you gave that answer to a question in an examination, you would get no marks, but if you showed you knew how to work it out and gave some of the working, though perhaps you did not get so far as the answer, you might get some credit and some marks for it. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to go a little further to-night than to say that it is "under examination."

On 3rd November, rather reluctantly, we thought, in answer to a supplementary question, he told us that we were going to take in 6,000 National Service men into the Royal Navy this year. He rather confused us a little, I think, by calling them "National Service men" because, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, we should not really use those words until 1st January next year. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us a little more, now, about that 6,000, and whether the number will be increased next year or will remain at that figure. I fully realise that there are a great many problems and facts, many of which are unknown to me, which affect this question of how many National Service men the Royal Navy can take.

I should like to divide, in the few moments left to me, those problems and facts into three distinct groups. In the first group I would put the overall manpower allowed to the Royal Navy, which of course limits, to a great extent, the number of National Service men which the Navy can afford to take. Also in that group I would put the length of service of these men, which we know is now to be put back to 18 months. I imagine that that means that the Navy will be able to take more of the men, because it will be able to give them more training and to send them further afield. In the second group I would put the overall financial estimate allowed to the Navy. That is, of course, intimately connected with the manpower allocation referred to in my first group. In the third and last group I would put the Regular recruiting position, how it is balanced with discharge by purchase, retirement, and men not signing on for their second period of service.

Also in this last group I would put the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve recruiting. I am not happy about this. In the Estimates this year we were told that the establishment was to be 14,720. The estimate for 1948–49 was 4,675. In answer to a Question in September I was told that the total figure then was only 2,652, only just over one half of the estimate. Lord Pakenham, in another place, said in a Government statement on 28th October that we were going to recruit 6,000 extra R.N.V.R. ratings by next March. He excused himself in that Debate, on the ground that he was perhaps a bit of a land-lubber on the subject; but I would ask whether that figure was correct, or was he confusing it with the 6,000 which the Parliamentary Secretary told me about when he was speaking of the National Service men in November.

Lastly, I would put into that group recruitment for the Royal Naval Reserve. The hon. and gallant Member for Horn-castle (Commander Maitland) is going to raise that matter in a moment. In conclusion, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will explain to us tonight what the real position is. Why is it so difficult for the facts to be given to us? If we had the facts on which these decisions depend, we on this side of the House would, I think, be of some help to the Admiralty in doing what is uppermost in our minds, which is to do the best for the Royal Navy.

10.44 p.m.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

I wish to associate myself with everything my hon. and gallant Friend has said. As he has indicated, I propose to deal for, two or three minutes with the question of the Royal Naval Reserve. I and other hon. Members have asked Questions on many occasions about what is happening about reconstitution of this Reserve. We have not got any further. We have always been told that there were great difficulties, that these difficulties were just being overcome. But they have never been overcome. It is about time that we were told in detail what those difficulties really are. I think the Admiralty ought to take the House into its confidence over this matter.

I understand that one difficulty may be that the Ministry of Transport is being difficult and will not lay down whether men may leave the Merchant Service temporarily to do their training for this Reserve. But the chief difficulty appears to be with the senior ranking officers of whom there is admittedly a shortage. There are. however, plenty of young officers in the merchant service available to go into the R.N.R., and, also, it would be perfectly simple to allow officers from the Reserve, who have retired from service, to come back in order to be members of the Royal Naval Reserve. Officers who have "swallowed the anchor," used not to be able to become members of the Reserve, but they should now be called back to become part of it, should they so desire; and I have little doubt that many would welcome the opportunity. At the present moment there are plenty of officers and men in the Merchant Service busily inquiring if they can join the Royal Naval Reserve or not; they do not know, because everything seems to be at a standstill.

It is absolutely essential that we should have at least some Royal Naval Reserve officers and men in the Service at the beginning of a war. Let us not be sentimental about the matter. The Royal Navy has become such a specialised service that we have not really enough officers who can navigate our ships; it is a most important duty, and if at least some officers who are in the Merchant Service are not available, there may well be a serious shortage because other Royal Navy officers may be tied up with some other specialist duties and may not be available. At the commencement of a new war we may not be able to take all the officers and men whom we should like to have from the Merchant Service; they may, well be—they would be—required for the running of their own ships but, as a war develops, and dilution takes place, there will be a time when they can possibly come to the Royal Navy.

For this they must be trained, and trained now. By training I mean that they should learn the language we talk; learn our instruments, the way in which we live, and, an important thing, gunnery training, and the particular naval training so necessary to them if they are to be immediately available to the Royal Navy. They have done wonderful work in the last two wars, and it would be a disaster if we were prevented from having their help if, unfortunately, the need arose. Furthermore, it is an advantage to the Merchant Service to fly the Blue Ensign. There are too few ships who can do that today for the simple reason that so few have qualified. I do ask the Parliamentary Secretary to put the Blue Ensign back on the seas, and to see that we have these men working to help us in our time of difficulty.

10.48 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Taylor (Paddington, South)

I want to take this opportunity to stress the enormous importance of having a naval Reserve if war should unfortunately break out. It is common knowledge how much we rely on the Royal Naval Reserve if war comes, and it is a lamentable thing that the Government have not taken steps to ensure that Britain has the necessary reserves. Unless these men are obtained in time of peace they will be of little use because it takes some time for officers and men to be trained, and I hope that the Government will take all necessary steps, immediately, to increase the number of trained officers and men. It is a most important matter.

10.49 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield)

May I, realising that time is short, add my plea for an increased number of National Service men in the Navy? I support the arguments of the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble), but I should like to add that such an intake as has been indicated tonight is good for the Royal Navy in a longterm sense. Real sailors of the Royal Navy were good enough to say during the war that they benefited from the increased intake because it brought freshening contact with the outside non-service world. The Navy is a rather closed world but the influx of people from the outside did widen it in many ways. The Navy has always been very close to the hearts of the people of this country, yet until the last war it was in some ways rather remote from places in the interior such as my constituency of Huddersfield and in the Midlands. During the war in every street in every town there was a family who had contact with the Navy and this did bring the Navy closer to the ordinary people of the country than it had ever been before. It would be a great pity if the Government were to allow that contact to be lost, the contact which came about during the war and which would be maintained if we could have a regular flow of "hostilities-only" recruits.

10.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. John Dugdale)

I welcome this Debate, particularly for the reason mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu), who said that the Navy was in some ways remote from many places in this country. A Debate such as this should serve the pur- pose of bringing home to the people in every part of this country not only on the sea coasts, but in Huddersfield and my own constituency of West Bromwich which are far from the sea, the importance of there being an adequate Naval Reserve. I must take exception to the observation of the hon. and gallant Member for South Paddington (Vice-Admiral Taylor), who said the Government had not taken any steps to see there is a Reserve, and I would like to show some of the steps they have taken, and give some idea of the importance which the Government attach, and rightly attach—as I think hon. Members will agree—to the building of an adequate Reserve.

First of all, and this is known to hon. Members who have been in the Navy but not to many outside, we have as a Reserve men who have been in the Navy for some years. In the R.F.R. we have men who have served three years as "hostilities only" men or who have served on short service commissions. We hope to get a large number of men; not less than 50,000 is our target, and although we have not got anywhere near reaching that target we have quite a considerable number. I think the House would be interested to know that the present strength is about 20,000 and it is increasing at the rate of between 700 and 800 men a month. That is one source and an important source of our Reserves.

A second source is that of pensioners who number somewhere about 20,000. These two sources together give us some basis of a Reserve, but they are not the only sources. Another, which I want to mention—and here I would admit we have not got the numbers we want, and for this reason I welcome this Debate tonight as it will do something to encourage recruitment—is the Emergency Reserve, which has not been open for long. We have a large target, but we have not had anything like the response which we want. I would urge hon. Members, therefore, when they go to their constituencies, to encourage young men to join this Emergency Reserve telling them that by doing so they can combine patriotism with profit.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas (Hereford)

Can the Parliamentary Secretary be more explicit about this Emergency Reserve?

Mr. Dugdale

I was just coming to that. What they will get is a bounty of £5 on call-up and no other commitments except that they will definitely join the Royal Navy when called up at the outbreak of any war. The commitment is that they will serve in the Royal Navy during the war, if war should come, and that they will serve as from the first day. This bounty is a very simple way of earning £5 and I hope we shall get a large response, not just because these men want to earn £5, but because they have a sense of their patriotic duty in joining the Reserve.

There are other reserves which I have not mentioned, but I would next come to the R.N.R., mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland). The situation now is very different from what it was before the war. Then the Merchant Navy had what I might describe as a variable population, with men going into and coming out of it. There was therefore much better scope for getting people from the Merchant Navy to join the R.N.R. Today the Merchant Navy is a continuous service. Men remain in the Merchant Navy and that is their job.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)

Does the hon. Gentleman mean the men in the pool being paid but not working—is he including these unemployed?

Mr. Dugdale

Yes. They would be included, but at the same time, we are allowing for the fact that there is much more regular employment. I am not making any party point about employment or unemployment, but simply stating a fact. It is a difficult problem which we hope to solve. The Ministry of Transport and the Admiralty are discussing this and I hope that before very long we may get a solution to this problem. It is not an easy problem and it is one which the Admiralty have very much in mind.

The hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble) talked about the National Service men and was disturbed because he thought we should not get such a large Reserve from those as he hoped we would. Apart from the fact that there are other Reserves, I think he will be interested to know that the intake of National Service men at present—it is not a figure for the whole year—is at the rate of 10,000 a year. I do not say that it will not be increased or decreased, but that is the present rate. In regard to the R.N.V.R. may I say at once to the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea that we are not at all satisfied with the recruitment. We want to get some 13,000 ratings as our establishment for the R.N.V.R. At present our numbers are very well below that, but while we are dissatisfied, I would point out that the task is not an easy one and was not an easy one after the last war. The best comparison I can obtain, though it is not exactly comparable to the present day—was that of 30th April, 1921, when six divisions had started recruiting and had a rating strength of not more than 299. The situation was, therefore, not very satisfactory; but as a result of Debates like this and other methods of publicity, the R.N.V.R. did get built up to a very formidable force, and I hope the same will happen in future.

I should like to give special attention to two aspects of the R.N.V.R. The first is the R.N.V.(W.)R. for which we want some 1,200 for wireless work; and the second is the R.N.V.R. (Air), a service for ex-ratings only. This was only started on 1st September, but it is already growing, and I hope we shall get a good response.

Mr. Austin (Stretford)

May I call the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to one point? Is he aware, and I believe he has the facts of the case that I have sent him, that ex-officers are being discouraged from joining as ratings? Is that not completely wrong, and would he encourage them to do so?

Mr. Dugdale

Certainly, I think it is most desirable that any ex-officer who wishes to join as a rating should have the opportunity, and I hope many ex-officers will decide that it is worth while. They can serve a useful purpose by joining as officers or ratings.

There is one other reserve I should like to mention because it is an entirely new one—the Royal Marines Volunteer Reserve. As hon. Members know, this Reserve was only started this year as a result of a measure this House passed. Our initial requirement is some 1,500 officers and men. Centres have been opened in London and Glasgow, and recruiting began on 1st November. So far it is going very well. I would say to all who want to join that we have a definite limit, and it may be that if people decide to join too late they will find that they will not be able to get in. I hope all those who might like to join this new force—and I understand there are a large number of ex-marines who wish to do so—will take the first possible opportunity. I think that all hon. Members will realise that there is quite a good opportunity for people to join Reserves of varying character, including every kind of work, responsibility and indeed pay.

There is one other reserve which I have not mentioned, and that is the R.N.S.R. This is the Reserve which will take the National Service men as and when they leave the Service. Naturally it is not established yet because men have not been through their period of National Service in the Navy. That is a service to which like the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea, we attach great importance. We hope like him that the Reserve will prove a great success.

There is one step we have taken lately to encourage people to join the R.N.V.R. Previously the age of entry was above the age at which people were called for National Service. It has now been lowered to 17, and as a result men are now able to join the R.N.V.R. before they do their National Service. If they do this they are then in a position to make certain that their period of National Service is done not in either of the other Services but definitely in the Navy. This should have the good effect of encouraging people to join the R.N.V.R. and we are hopeful its numbers may rise quite considerably in consequence.

I am glad that hon. Members raised this subject tonight for it served a useful purpose. Our Reserves are treated as of first-class importance by the Government. We have done everything we can to see they are increased. They are now being increased, and I hope they will be so increased that in time we shall have reserves just as satisfactory as we had in the years before the last war.

Commander Noble

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, would he accept the point I tried to make: How are you going to get recruits for the R.N.V.R. when nearly all the young men are in the Army or R.A.F.? I did particularly want to make that point.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.