HC Deb 26 April 1951 vol 487 cc694-704

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

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

My purpose in discussing tonight the recall of Class Z reservists is not to raise any sensational case where obvious mistakes have been made which could easily be rectified by the War Office. Nor do I intend to attack the general principle of the recall of these reservists, because I supported the Bill cordially when it received a Second Reading in this House. I intend to call attention to two main sources of complaint which have been disturbing my constituents, and which have caused considerable anxiety in the country since the details of the scheme became known. The recall of Z reservists interferes with the normal freedom and daily lives of many people, and that is all the more reason why, in my opinion, the Service Departments should give a full explanation and justification of the way in which this scheme is working. I am particularly grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War has come to the House tonight to deal with this question.

My first major complaint is an apparent breach of the undertaking that few people who served for any length of time during the last war would be recalled. Rightly or wrongly, it was generally understood that the principle of "Last out, first back" would be observed, after attention had been paid to the type of units requiring men with certain specialist qualifications. There is, however, a general feeling in the country that this scheme is not working in that way, and that the call-up is a "hit-and-miss" affair as between one man and another.

There are cases of two men with identical qualifications, one of whom is chosen but the other left alone. From my own experience, and that of other hon. Gentlemen, it seems the older man with longer service appears to be chosen for recall, while the younger man with little or no war service has not been affected this year. I am wondering whether the explanation for this is that given in an article in the "Manchester Guardian" of 8th March last. It seems to me that that article gives the only logical explanation and, generally speaking, it states that the clue to many Class Z mysteries lies in the very simple fact that almost every reservist, whatever his length of service and specialist qualifications, is provisionally allotted to a unit of the Army. That is to say, whether or not he is recalled for training this summer depends on whether the unit to which he has been allotted is one due to take part in this year's test.

Some units are being called for training, and some are not, and the element of chance has been as much in the choice of unit as in the choice of man. Those men marked for other battalions will have escaped training this year. Every Z reservist is allocated to a unit in case of emergency. Some Regular units are not being called this year, and the men allocated to such units are, in many cases, the younger ones; but in many of the Territorial battalions being called up this year, it is the older men who are being most affected. My main comment on this is that any inequity between one man and another could have been avoided if the first step in the process of calling up had not been to allocate everybody to units, but to decide which units were going to be sent for training this year. The men could then have been allocated after screening by the Ministry of Labour to see that a man was not reserved, with the application of the principle of "last out, first back."

Following the end of the war, and the introduction of compulsory National Service, some 450,000 men were called up for the Army, and after making allowances for the selective nature of that call-up, I should have thought that it could have been so arranged that, from the 450,000, there could have been found the 195,000 men now required without having recourse to men who have already served for a considerable length of time in the Army during the war. It was stated during the Second Reading of the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces (Training) Bill that as many men as possible would be found from those called up after the war, and that none over 45 years of age would be recalled, and few over 40.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many men over 40 have, in fact, been recalled? It is difficult, I know, to assess that from age and service groups, but the Minister stated on 3rd April that the "last out, first back" principle had operated in the case of the reservists to be recalled this year to a very marked degree. He stated that reservists of age and service groups 1 to 28, which comprised half of the Z Reserve, would be recalled only to the extent of some 1.6 per cent., whereas, reservists of age and service or release groups 29 to 150 would be recalled to the extent of 11.8 per cent. But that is not the comparison. The real comparison is what percentage of men in the earlier groups is being recalled as a percentage of the recall. In actual fact, Z reservists in groups 1 to 28—the older men who have often served for long periods—are being called back to the extent of 12 per cent.

In the groups 29 to 40, a further 11 per cent. of Z reservists are being recalled. Many of these had long war service and are reaching the age of 40 years or over. It seems a disproportionate percentage of reservists, and I would like to read to the House a letter from a Z reservist, 42 years of age, who joined in August 1939, and served until September 1945. He is in age and service group 16. He is a major in the Artillery. He has been called back for service in a mixed unit and when he has made his representations that he does not think the "last out, first back" principle is working, he has been told by the Records Office that there is an acute shortage of officers in his rank in this particular branch which has necessitated recalling all available majors with any Heavy A.A. experience. In a further letter, this constituent tells me that he knows of other cases where there are majors with more heavy A.A. and mixed unit experience than he has who are available for recall. Yet he is affected and they are not. Another case I have got is of a Militiaman called up in 1939 and serving until February, 1946. After six and a half years' service, mostly overseas, he has again been recalled.

I understand my right hon. Friend did give an indication that mistakes had arisen there, but no notification has been sent to this man that he has not to do his service. I hope cases of this kind will be looked into. My second major complaint has been receiving much attention in Questions in the House this week, and that is the apparent inflexibility of the War Office in giving alternative dates where hardship is involved. We have lots of examples of people being married, of people who have arranged their holidays and people who cannot leave certain jobs because there is a danger of them going down.

If the War Office have come to the decision that on practical grounds they cannot transfer these men, why in the first place were these men invited to make applications on grounds of hardship? I cannot understand why the War Office, with all the facilities at their disposal, are not able to arrange exchanges. The answer given by my right hon. Friend is that the emphasis of this call-up is that these men will work as teams and, therefore, one cannot move one man into another unit because one would break up the team. I should think that one of the main reasons was to test the machinery of call-up and an exercise for mobilisation. I should think it was a better test for their machinery to try to put these men in other units than to say we cannot do it and, therefore, cannot use them. As soon as a man does his training in his unit this summer, it is intended, in the case of general mobilisation, that he should go back to that particular unit with the same personnel. There are many reasons why that may not work out. He may have moved into a reserved occupation, he may be ill, and there may be many reasons otherwise why he cannot serve with the same people. I cannot accept this reason given by my right hon. Friend that he cannot use these men in other units. On 17th April, my right hon. Friend said: In many cases it is impracticable to change the date of call-up of a Class Z reservist and later he added: These units are carrying out training at fixed periods throughout the year and if alternative dates for training were granted it would mean that a reservist would have to train with another unit, and one of the main purposes of the training would be defeated."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 1649.] If he moved a reservist to another unit for Z reserve training when he was called up later in an emergency, one would not expect him to be called up to the original unit but to the unit to which he was transferred. Therefore, to say the team spirit would be broken does not apply in cases like that.

There is one particular case I have been pressing. This concerns a man who was most anxious to do his training, and I have given my right hon. Friend the facts, but the period selected by the War Office for this conflicts with the period when this man is supposed to take a Boys' Brigade to camp. He is the only officer available and unless he can take these boys to camp—doing work of pre-National Service training—these boys are deprived of that camp. The first reply of the War Office was that surely that organisation had sufficient resources at its command to arrange an alternative, but under no circumstances could the War Office do it. It seems to me that the War Office cannot expect a local Boys Brigade to have these resources—which they themselves have not got—and if the War Office cannot arrange that transfer, how can they expect this Boys' Brigade unit to so so?

I have taken this case up again with the Minister. I have impressed upon him the necessity of giving this man an alternative period, because he does want to serve, so allowing these boys who have been looking forward to this camp for a long time to have that enjoyment this summer. I hope in his reply tonight my right hon. Friend will be able to give me some satisfaction on that particular point.

My third complaint is that the War Office promised that where men were to be called up, so far as possible they would do their service near their own homes. Yet I have a case of a man who is in the Durham Light Infantry, with no justifiable grounds for not being accepted as a Z reservist and who, after my explanations of it to him, is willing to do his service in good spirit, but is being posted from the Durham Light Infantry to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry—almost as far in the country as you could possibly send him. I should like some explanation of what remarkable genius in the Records Office at Exeter found that a man from Stockton in the Durham Light Infantry, is serving as near home as possible in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry.

My fourth complaint concerns the general adequacy of the Record Offices to tackle this job. I do not want to raise cases that have appeared in some sections of the Press; but I have some information—subject to verification—that on the same day the same Record Office sent to the same person—one of my constituents —telling him that he had to do training and that he had not to do training—and he does not know which direction to follow. I want to ask my right hon. Friend if he can give me some indication that the Record Offices are reliable, particularly in cases of men demobilised in the period 1945–46.

My general conclusions on all this are: that the real test will begin when the men are actually joining their units. It is only then that we shall find out whether there are many misfits or not. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to answer these two questions for me—how many men have applied for deferment or the alteration of the period of training and in how many cases has this been granted or refused? Finally, I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to give us an assurance that this scheme is working well, that the men will be used properly when they reach these camps. I think we would all like to say to them, "jolly good luck" when they do go.

Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I should like to ask the Minister if he could give us some indication of the number of Z reservists over the age of 40 who have been recalled or are to be recalled because I do not think that the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) mentioned that category. Will the right hon. Gentleman just confirm the figures?

10.55 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Strachey)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this matter, because it gives me an opportunity to give some figures which I think might be of interest to the House, and to the country through the House. I will take up his points one after the other.

My hon. Friend's first main point was the question of the proportion of reservists who had seen war service called up as compared with the proportion who were of the post-war generation in their service. We know the proportion and can give it quite clearly. It is 5 per cent. of the Z reservists who saw war service being recalled this year and 20 per cent. of reservists who are of the post-war generation are being recalled. So we are recalling four times as high a proportion of the post-war generation as of the war generation. I do not think there is any doubt that we are fully carrying out the pledge we gave to weight the call-up as far as we possibly could so that the post-war generation, in proportion to their numbers, should be called up in considerably greater proportion than the war generation of Z reservists.

Mr. Edward Heath (Bexley)

What is the percentage of those actually being called up?

Mr. Strachey

It is quite different because, obviously, there are incomparably more war reservists than post-war reservists; there are only 400,000 post-war reservists to call up. What matters, of course, is the proportion.

Mr. Chetwynd

Will my right hon. Friend dispute the figures I gave about the percentages of those in the earlier age groups and that 12 per cent. are in the age group of one to 28?

Mr. Strachey

That is the figure I have given in the House. I will quote the statement made on 14th February by the Minister of Defence, which makes perfectly clear that the Government intended to do precisely what it has done. My right hon. Friend said: We should have preferred to call only upon this second category, that is the men who saw no active service in war, instead of also calling again on those men to whom the country was already so much indebted. But it has to be borne in mind that our aim is to build up complete, balanced formations—and that means selecting men with the right qualifications for the jobs that have to be done. For this reason it will not be possible to adhere strictly to the principle of 'Last out, first back'."—[Official Report. 14th February, 1951; Vol. 484, c. 416–17.] We have called four times as high a proportion of the "last-outs" as of the earlier generation, so that we have given that principle great weight; but we have not adhered to it strictly and I do not claim that we have. We are calling up, and have had to call up, a cross section of the whole body of Z reservists and those who have war service were, of course, of the greatest value to the units-to which they were called. I put it to hon. Members that we cannot do this entirely to suit the individual Z reservist. The whole point of the exercise is to increase the efficiency and value of the Reserve formations and I readily admit that we have taken that into account equally with the convenience of Z reservists.

We could have got the whole of the 200,000 men we recalled from the 400,000 post-war generation, but, while that would have been more convenient to the men, it would not have been anything like so good for the four first line divisions of the Territorial Army for which we are calling the men, or the supporting units of the Regular Army, or the Anti-Aircraft Command. What they needed was a cross-section, including a reasonable proportion of senior n.c.o.'s, men with war service, seasoned troops who had been through the last war, and that was why, just as we said we would do, we have called a proportion—no one would have thought it a large proportion—of these men.

It does matter and I ask hon. Members in all parts of the House this question: Are we taking this thing seriously and really trying to make the four first line divisions of the Territorial Army a more efficient and more readily mobilisable force, or simply doing it for fun? That is why we have adhered almost exactly to what my right hon. Friend said we would do.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Would the right hon. Gentleman also refer to the statement of the Prime Minister on 29th January, when the scheme was first announced, in which he said that in certain cases key men who had seen war service may be required, whereas it turns out that there are three out of five men with war service?

Mr. Strachey

I have not the words of the Prime Minister in front of me, but there are the words of the Minister of Defence which I have just quoted. They make it perfectly clear, and I should be very surprised if the words of the Prime Minister do not also make it clear, that we were proposing to call up——

Mr. Powell


Mr. Strachey

Three-fifths of the number, because, of course, of the total number of Z reservists an incomparably greater number are men with war service. But we have weighted the number we have called enormously heavily on the post-war generation, four times more heavily to be exact. Hon. Members may think that that is wrong, or right, but that is what we said we would do and that is what we have done. That is all I am saying.

My hon. Friend rightly gives a particular instance of this. I do not think he or the gentleman concerned will mind my mentioning his name. He is Major Smallwood, a man of 42 with war service, who has been recalled to an Anti-Aircraft Regiment. He is, I think, a very good example of the sort of man whose exemption would have spoiled the purpose of the exercise. He had valuable war service. I think my hon. Friend is wrong if he tells us that other men in the same category are not being recalled.

Mr. Chetwynd


Mr. Strachey

Yes. My information is that we are recalling, unless there is some very special reason for exempting them, all majors of that type for Anti-Aircraft batteries. That is a case no doubt inconvenient for Major Smallwood—where the interests of the Service demands the recall of a man who is 42. I do not think that is so very old, after all, and he can give us good service. It is true that he has been called back to a mixed battery, and he did not serve in a mixed battery before, but I should have thought that would have been an attraction rather than the reverse. The case of the militia man which my hon. Friend mentioned must have been an error because a militia man is not liable.

Now we come to the point about transfer. I have endeavoured to explain to the House that it is difficult for us to give a transfer of date. We have either to call the man up on the date we mention or exempt him altogether. Perhaps we are going rather far in our warning note in actually telling the Z reservist how he should make application; but it is not for a transfer, it is for exemption. That is what we put in the statement at the end of the letter. We give him a tip, as it were, to make his application for exemption. We have given that in a large number of cases. It is mainly because of the non-interchangeability of the reservist himself that makes it difficult to give him a transfer.

This question came up in the House a day or two ago when the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) raised it. He asked about a man who, at first sight, had good cause for transfer. But the man was a quantity surveyor who was being called up for a specialist job in a Royal Engineer formation. He could not simply be transferred to the artillery or the infantry or any other category. In a large number of cases, either because of the unit's fixed date, or because of non-interchangeability, or because of a combination of both, it is difficult to give these transfers. On the other hand, we have not set our face altogether against them. In fact, we have made 700 transfers so far. The record offices have been able to give transfers, but I should be holding out false hopes if I said that in the majority of cases we could give transfers.

My hon. Friend mentioned two other cases. In the case of Bramley he has a very strong case. I have looked into it and if no transfer can be effected, an exemption will be given. In the other case where my hon. Friend said that the man had been called to the D.C.L.I., I do not think it is a very great hardship if he does his service with that formation, which is part of the light infantry group, rather than with the D.L.I., which he would prefer. I cannot give the House particulars tonight of the men over 40, but I will get the information if the House would like to have it. The general figures, however, are of interest. So far, we have had just over 9,000 applications for exemption, and when that figure reaches 10,000, as no doubt it will, they will represent 5 per cent. of the total called up. We have dealt with 8,000, and 1,000 to 1,200 are pending. We have granted 4,000 and refused 4,000.

We have, therefore, granted half of those on which we have come to a decision. I do not think that the impression hon. Gentlemen have got can be sustained. They get chiefly the details of the cases we refuse, but we have granted 50 per cent. of the cases put up to us, and we are going on, of course, with the 1,200 pending cases. Therefore, I do not think it can be said that the War Office is being hard-hearted or inflexible. We are, of course, inflicting hardship by the call-up. We said that in the beginning, but I think it is a degree of hardship, and in giving us these 15 days these reservists will be performing a great national service, and I am sure the House will join with me in asking them to do so.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Seven Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.