HC Deb 04 December 1950 vol 482 cc87-98
Mr. McCorquodale

I beg to move, in page 2, to leave out line 36.

The Deputy-Chairman (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I think we could consider this Amendment with the next one in the name of the right hon. Gentleman—in page 2, line 38, leave out "six" and to insert "eighteen."

Mr. McCorquodale

I was going to suggest that, Sir Charles, for the two Amendments are closely related.

This matter refers to National Service men who volunteer to stay on for a further period at the request of the military authorities. The present situation is that by this Bill National Service men are covered up to two years and keep their reinstatement rights. They go on to the Territorial Reserve for four years.

The matter to which I wish to refer was raised on the Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Low), who may wish to say more on the subject. The Air Force have instituted arrangements by which they encourage the young conscripts to serve for three years full time in the Air Force and three years part time, afterwards, instead of for two years and four years. I am not quite sure whether the other Services have followed the example of the Air Force, but I am assured that it is quite invaluable to the Air Force. It enables young men to be taught aircrew duties, radar, and other matters requiring high skill, for which the period of 18 months or two years is too short. I understand from such inquiries as I have been able to make that the Air Force, who are to be congratulated on initiating this move, have been highly successful, and that a great number of young men are volunteering to serve three years full time and three years part time instead of two years full time and four years part time.

But now comes an anomaly, and I must ask the Committee to consider whether it is fair and just that, while young men who are to serve, two years full time and four years part time are covered by reinstatement assurances that they will get their employment back, young men who volunteer at this time for three years' service get no rights under this Bill or under the previous legislation. They have lost the rights to reinstatement and their previous employers have no obligation to take them back.

I cannot believe that the Government really intend to continue in this way. I believe that everybody will think that, if a young man serves three years to give us protection, and volunteers, in order to protect us, to serve three years to get the higher skill necessary to make himself a proficient member of the Air Force, and is left out of this protection, it is unfair. I believe that this has been so felt that where young men have wished to volunteer for the three years to get their higher training they have approached their employers, or their employers have been approached on their behalf by the Air Force, to ask them individually whether they would be good enough to keep the jobs open for them. That is very good; but it would be better if the young men had the right to have their jobs again, in the same way as the young conscripts for two years have their jobs kept open for them.

There is one further consideration which we must bear in mind. I understand—indeed, the Minister has told us on more than one occasion—that the employers have been extremely helpful in operating the whole system of reinstatement, and that the number of cases of dispute have been relatively trivial; and it may be considered that it is not fair to place upon the employers any further burden. However, I believe strongly that there is no employer in this country at the present time, especially when we realise the need to meet which this Bill is to be passed, and which, of course, was initially the trouble in Korea, and which lies in the difficulties in which we all find ourselves in regard to the necessity for rearmament—there is no employer who would say, "No, I am prepared to cover two-year conscripts but I am not prepared to cover three-year men who are undertaking voluntarily this further training"—which is for three years, and three years on the Reserve, as against two years and four years. The point has only to be put factually in that way to make it appear that such an attitude would be most unreasonable.

I am told further that by volunteering for the extra year these young men are rendering the highest possible service to their country at the present time. The constant theme of the Secretary of State for Air—whom I am glad to see here—when introducing the Air Estimates, has been how important it is to have men in the Air Force for a certain period in order that they can be trained for certain highly skilled jobs. I therefore suggest that these young men are, possibly above all at this moment, fulfilling the very best service they can for the State, and I urge the Minister to accept these Amendments and allow these young men to have the proper protection afforded by the reinstatement Acts which they would otherwise have as young conscripts. In seeking to change the six months to 18 months, we cover the extra year's service. I trust that the Minister will be able to accept what I regard as a reasonable proposition.

6.30 p.m.

Air Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

I support what my right hon. Friend has just said. There is a very strong case for accepting these Amendments. Three years out of a young man's life is a considerable period, but I think that in this instance he is getting a very great advantage out of this service: it helps him and it helps the Royal Air Force, particularly at a time like this, when there is a world crisis and the Service needs these men and can use every minute of their time.

There may be one or two employers who will not perhaps go so far as to give the assurance that is wanted. I should think there are very few indeed, but it would be better if the man himself knew that he was covered for reinstatement after his three years. In almost every case, when a firm takes a young man back after his service with the Royal Air Force, he is an infinitely better tradesman, or whatever it may be, than when he entered the Service.

The Air Ministry are to be congratulated on having arranged for this extra period of service. I understand that in most cases it is done in co-operation with the firm concerned, and that the men follow their original trade or calling. I ask the Minister to accept these Amendments. It is a small point, but it is one which may make all the difference in a young man's mind when considering whether he should give this service which the country now requires.

Mr. Isaacs

Let me say at the outset that I am sorry, but I cannot accept this Amendment. I shall explain the reasons. Following what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air Commodore Harvey), I must say there is not the slightest doubt that these young men who stay on in the Royal Air Force are not only giving much needed service to the country, but are also getting first-class training, and will be very useful people when they leave the Service. It must be borne in mind that this Bill relates to National Service and the protection of men who are called up for National Service. It is not meant to be an Amendment to the ordinary military Acts, whatever they may be called.

It is now suggested that a man who volunteers to continue his service should be covered in that period of voluntary service in the same way as he was covered in his period of compulsory service. The whole purpose of these reinstatement rights is to ensure, with the consent of the employer, that a man who is taken from his work by the State and sent on the service of the State is restored to the position he occupied before the State took him. Let me say at once that that has been most honourably observed by employers throughout the country.

Where a man has volunteered, however, such protection has never been given. If we bring this arrangement into the realm of voluntary service we should have to relate it to all the other Services. We should get this peculiar anomaly. A National Service man who has finished his 18 months or two years' service and volunteers for an extra 18 months would get preference over the ordinary volunteer who signs on for three years. There are many branches of the Services for which a man can join ordinarily for three years with the Colours and a certain time on the Reserve. For that three years he is not guaranteed reinstatement rights. We are bothered, not so much with the principle as with the operation. We see a danger, if we extend the period in which an employer can be compelled to reinstate a man who volunteers for this period, that we may be called upon to go beyond three years.

During the years I have been at the Ministry of Labour, dealing with reinstatement in civilian employment, out of 4,500,000 men and women demobilised, not more than 700 cases have arisen in which there has been any difficulty about reinstatement. That says a lot for the way in which employers have co-operated. It is clear that in the present circumstances of employment, apart from desiring to do so employers will find it necessary to reinstate these people. I prefer to say, however, that they desire and are willing to do it. To accept this suggested period would make things a little difficult for many employers. An employer may have a man who is very valuable to him who decides that he would like to go in the Army—and good luck to him. When he leaves his employer he does not usually say, "I can find you another man to take my place." That is left to the employer. The man leaves, not compulsorily but voluntarily and the employer gets another man whom he trains for the job.

If this Amendment were accepted, when the man who left voluntarily returns at the end of three years the employer would have to take him back into his old job, although he may have lost a good deal of his skill, because these men cannot be put on to exactly the same kind of work that they were doing in civilian life. That is not fair to the other man, for one thing. He may be an older man, who perhaps has done his National Service, or served as a Regular. If this Amendment were accepted he would have to be pushed out to make room for the man who had left.

We are anxious not to get into the field of having compulsory reinstatement for those who may be long-service men. If we make it three years now, sooner or later we shall be asked to make it five, and then seven, and it would be difficult to resist. This has worked very well, and will continue to work very well with the cooperation of employers. In this Bill, which deals only with giving rights to people who have been taken from their employment by the State, we should not seek to deal with those who of their own free will leave their employment and enter the Services. I hope the Committe will not press me on this Amendment. If any other point worth examining is put forward it will be carefully examined by the Department to see whether anything could be done in future to meet the difficulties.

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

I hope the right hon. Gentleman has not said his last word on this issue. I welcome very much what he said about the general working of these Acts, and the figure he quoted was extraordinarily impressive and endorsed what he said about the willingness with which employers co-operate. I hope that on this issue, in relation to the particular category of men with whom we are concerned in this Amendment, the right hon. Gentleman will be willing to re-consider his attitude.

I will not attempt—and if I were to, you would probably call me to order, Sir Charles—to go now into the general question of whether or not the ordinary longterm Service volunteer should be given reinstatement rights. That certainly could not be done under this Bill, and is outside its title. But I think that the category of men with whom we are now dealing has at least as much resemblance to National Service men—with whom the Bill is concerned—as to the long-term volunteer. If I may, I will explain why that is my view.

As I understand it, this particular category, which I believe exists only in the Royal Air Force, consists of people who, instead of serving for two years as National Service men with a subsequent period of four years on the Reserve, enter into a modified arrangement under which they serve for three years whole time instead of two, with a year less on he Reserve. I understand it is arranged by the Royal Air Force because they find it more convenient, partly perhaps from the point of view of training aircrews, to have the man for three years whole time instead of two.

The category, therefore, that we are dealing with is the man who in discharge of his National Service obligations takes on a slightly more onerous burden in as much as he accepts a year of whole-time instead of a year of part-time service. He is, in essence, a man discharging his National Service obligation. He is an admirable example of such a man because he voluntarily takes on an additional burden.

It would seem, first of all, right in equity and fairness that a man who takes on this additional obligation should not as a result be deprived of the benefits which under this Bill are given to those of his colleagues and contemporaries who do not take on this obligation. It seems in fairness that he is so entitled. From the practical point of view, I can fully understand what the right hon. Gentleman has said about long-term volunteers, because there are technical and administrative difficulties for an employer in keeping a job open for a long period of time. There will obviously be some difficulty for the employer in keeping a job open for three years instead of two.

It seem to me that when we have to weigh that appreciable but not excessive additional burden upon the employer against the very real gain we get for the serving man, then the balance must come down in favour of the particularly patriotic serving man with whom we are concerned in this Amendment. In addition, there is the factor that as the Air Ministry—and I am glad to see the Secretary of State for Air on the Bench opposite—have introduced this scheme, no doubt in the interetsts of the Service, and I believe it has been a most successful scheme, surely it is in accordance with public policy that we should make sure that those who join up in a scheme put forward in the public interest by a Department of State are not exposed to any unnecessary penalties by reason of the working of this scheme.

For these reasons, I hope—because I personally and other hon. Members feel very strongly about this—that the right hon. Gentleman will at least give some indication that, having heard the argument, and having heard what, I believe, some of my hon. Friends are going to say, he is prepared at least to reconsider this matter and perhaps accept the argument that these men are nearer the kind of type of National Service men who are dealt with in this Bill, than they are to the type of long-term volunteer, who for better or worse, is excluded from the benefits of this Bill.

Mr. A. R. W. Low (Blackpool, North)

Perhaps I may carry on with the last point in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). The right hon. Gentleman was clearly very worried about including in this Bill men serving on an engagement of a similar type to a Regular engagement. I should be worried, too, if that were in fact the case, but I put it to him that that is really not the case at all. The Regular engagement is, at the outset, in the nature of a career, even though we have not satisfied the Committee yet that Regular engagements reach that high state of perfection. When a man goes into a Regular engagement, whether it is the Army, Navy or Air Force, he accepts it as a career, whether a long-term career or a short-term career does not matter.

6.45 p.m.

Then there are the series of engagements which can be grouped under the term "short-service" engagement, which have become popular since the end of the war for a number of reasons, and which usually have attached to them some form of gratuity. Those are clearly quite distinct from the type of engagement that we are considering now. The engagement which we are now considering not only is quite clearly not a career engagement, and not only has it no gratuity incorporated in it, but it is also part of a man's National Service obligation. That is surely the point.

The men who were asked by the Secretary of State for Air to volunteer for national interest purposes for an extra 18 months in the Royal Air Force are National Service men, and they are doing that three years' engagement, or whatever it may be, in lieu of their whole-time National Service engagement. I should have thought that if the Committee viewed it in that way, they would support the Amendment without any qualms or fears at all.

There are one or two other points which were made by the right hon. Gentleman in his speech which I should like to take up. Before doing so, may I say one further word on the volunteering aspect? As I understand it, at the time when these men were asked to volunteer—and they volunteered at the request of the Secretary of State for Air—they were doing very much the same as those who were asked to volunteer for an extra six months by the Prime Minister, four or five months ago. After all, at that time, there was no statutory obligation for two years, and the ordinary National Service period was 18 months.

This Clause is out to protect the men who answered the call of the Prime Minister. I want to protect the men who answered the call of the Secretary of State for Air. They both volunteered in the national interest. Although in the short run the national interest connected with the Korean operations and the shortage of manpower may seem to be the more immediate and important, in the long run I would say that our needs for mechanics, air crews, etc., is every bit as important. I do not think that on national interest grounds we should distinguish between one and the other.

The other point which I wish to make is this: The right hon. Gentleman said words to the effect that it would be hard upon the employer to extend the period to three years. I see that the interest of the employer and the interest of the man himself conflict. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), put the need to draw the balance between these conflicting interests in favour of the national interest and the man, and he put it excellently. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not make too much of the extended period. I think that in 1946–47 and part of 1948 employers were receiving back into their employment men who had served for three years or more. I do not think, on the right hon. Gentleman's own evidence, that any difficulty came out of that.

My last point is this: The right hon. Gentleman tells us—and I know that we are all very glad to hear it—that this question of reinstatement has worked well and smoothly. I think that reflects great credit on him and his Department and on the right hon. Member for Epsom (Mr. McCorquodale). That, surely, is no argument against incorporating this Amendment in the Bill. It seems an argument in favour of it. I hope that the Committee will support the Amend- ment, and that the right hon. Gentleman, having listened to this debate, will be converted in his opinion.

Mr. Leather (Somerset, North)

I should like to underline very briefly one point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Low). As I understand it—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—he has turned down the Amendment on an analogy between the position of the men with whom we are concerned and the position of the men who volunteer for a three or five years' commission. I suggest that is not a fair or valid analogy. The man who volunteers leaves his job and says, "I am going into the Army." He is running his own risk. He does it, presumably, with his eyes open. Therefore, the State is not responsible at that point towards him. It is a voluntary decision that has been taken for his own reasons. The men with whom we are concerned now are in a different position. These are men whom the right hon. Gentleman has taken from their jobs. They are not men who have given up their civilian occupations voluntarily, but men who have been called to the Colours. Therefore, our moral responsibility is of a very real kind.

The second factor is that the Government have taken these men and have trained them. A great deal of time and money have been spent on training them for serving the country. It seems a pity, therefore, that this should be wasted, and that they should be encouraged, which is the effect of the Clause, to "chuck up" on the first opportunity and go back to civilian employment. I think the right hon. Gentleman will agree that our moral responsibility towards these men is something which should not be lightly disregarded, quite apart from the question of the value of the training.

Mr. Isaacs

The hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) has drawn attention to the men who have signed on for three years and those who have signed on for 18 months. He has said that we have a moral responsibility here. I would point out that it is only a difference of degree in the case of a man who has done 18 months and continues to do further service voluntarily. The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) expressed the hope that we would look at this from a practical point of view. I can assure him that we are trying to do so. The trouble is that this concerns the Royal Air Force. In the case of the Army, there are a lot of young fellows who have gone into the Guards for three years, and they can say "Look here, this other Johnny has given only 18 months' Service." He will point out that he has given three years' voluntary service and that there is no guarantee for him.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Low) has brought out one or two points for my consideration. Perhaps the Committee will accept this assurance. I will consult with the Air Ministry to see what can be done, and see what reactions there may be on the other Services. I am not holding out any hopes in connection with this Bill, but it may be possible to do something under the Navy and Military Acts. I am not closing my mind to the possibility of doing something, if we can, for the men who have come up under this arrangement. If the Committee will not press me at this stage, I will see whether something can be done in the matter.

Mr. McCorquodale

I am grateful to the Minister for having said that he will look into this matter again. I appreciate that he may not be in a position at the moment to take a definite decision on the matter, although I wish that he could do so. I believe that on studying the argument he will find there is an overwhelming case for these young National Service men who are doing six years' service, three years' whole-time and three years' part-time, instead of two years' whole-time and four years' part-time, at the urgent request of the State.

If the matter is looked at in that way, it will be seen that it has nothing to do with short or long-service men. I hope that the Minister will not be overruled by the Department or by the employers. I do not believe there is any body of employers that will not agree with the case we have put up today, and if the right hon. Gentleman gets any brickbats from any employers, I shall be very glad to deal with them if he will refer them to me. As I understand the Minister is to look at this matter again and produce some suitable arrangement, either in another place or by some other means, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.