HC Deb 15 May 1953 vol 515 cc1643-53

3.32 p.m.

Brigadier O. L. Prior-Palmer (Worthing)

I beg to move, That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to take all possible steps to promote recruitment for the voluntary defence services as being essential for the protection of this country. It might seem inopportune at this moment, when there is a glimmer of light on the dark international horizon, to talk once more about home defence, but I do so quite deliberately because I believe that just for that reason any danger of relaxation must be resisted. I propose to speak this afternoon on the purely voluntary aspect of the defence of these islands, and it is in that spirit that I proffer my remarks. This debate affects practically every Minister in the Government, so I shall not expect from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary a reply to all my questions, but perhaps he will pass on some of my remarks to other Departments with due emphasis.

I should like to deal first with the over-all picture of voluntary manpower in the Home Guard, Civil Defence, Fire Services, Hospital Reserve, and so on. I am glad to hear that recruiting is improving in Civil Defence, but it is by no means satisfactory yet. Civil Defence has only 55 per cent. of the provisional police establishment, the Auxiliary Fire Services 25 per cent., and the Hospital Reserve 33 per cent. I shall have a word to say about them later. The Home Guard position is even less satisfactory. I wish to emphasise that I do not believe apathy is the cause of this unsatisfactory state of recruiting. That is the usual catch-phrase used. I believe it is ignorance of the present situation which makes for lack of recruiting, and the sense that there is not necessarily any danger.

I should like this, if nothing else, to be said this afternoon. The Territorial Army was originally organised for the defence of these islands, but nowadays it is the first-line reinforcement for our Regular Army overseas, and is expected to be out of the country within six weeks of a crisis, leaving nobody at all behind in these islands. At present every one of our Regular divisions is abroad. I am sure this problem is not appreciated in the country, and it cannot be said too often. If people realised the full implications of this they would appreciate that the defence of these islands depends on the Home Guard and the A.A. The Home Guard have now taken over the old traditional role of the Territorial Army—the defence of these islands.

Let it not be forgotten that the Russians have something like 20,000 operational aircraft, and I believe possibly in the region of between 60 and 100 airborne divisions. They were the first in the field with regard to airborne troops. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to suggest that in the unlikely event, as we hope, of a future war that they will have learned the lesson which Hitler and Napoleon learned that, in the final analysis, they fail if they fail to overrun these islands, and the danger, therefore, of airborne attack is extremely grave, if, as we all pray it will not, a war should come.

So far as the part-time manpower of the country is concerned, let me say this. In time of war the whole of the manpower of the country is conscripted, part-time as well as whole-time. It has been suggested that the Minister of Labour should be used now as the co-ordinating Minister of the varying claims of that part-time manpower. In the last war we left this far too late. I do not think that this is the moment for the Minister of Labour to take it over for the reason that not one of these services is yet recruited to full strength. But plans should be ready to be put into immediate operation for the Minister to take over on the conscription of the labour of this country the allocation of the part-time manpower.

I have already said that one of the reasons for lack of recruiting to the Home Guard is the lack of realisation. I do not believe that anyone in this country, even at the time of Dunkirk, really believed for one second that this country would be invaded. That has been our great strength in many situations in the past, but it is also one of our weaknesses.

In the recent conflict, the Home Guard did not do anything but train to become efficient—they never fired a shot. The Civil Defence had a tremendous job to do. That is why we get more recruits for the Civil Defence than for the Home Guard. I am sure that the people who should be joining the Home Guard do not realise what is the new rôle of the Home Guard and how far more interesting and exciting that rôle will be than in the last war.

I hope that the Minister will ask commands to let the Home Guard commanders know in the various areas what specific parts they are to play and what are the vulnerable points. All these tasks vary from one area to another. I have heard complaints of Home Guards being enlisted and of their not knowing what is their job. They are doing all the old things which they used to do in the last war, which have no relation to what they should be doing if another war should ever come. I hope that the Minister will make a note of that point.

Then again I do not think that there has been sufficient publication of the fact that Z Reservists over the age of 45 are free of Z Reserve service and should be encouraged to join the Home Guard. Would it not be possible for Home Guard battalions to be affiliated to Territorial battalions with Home Guard territorial flashes on their shoulders, not from the point of view of training but merely from the point of view of organisation and establishing the club atmosphere and esprit de corps.

I am rushing through my points as time is short. What about the exempted workers? We hear a lot about the exemption of the agricultural workers. Is there any earthly reason why if they get exemption from two years' National Service they should not do two years in the Home Guard? That I think is the least they could do in gratitude for their exemption. I gather that local authorities have not been doing all that they might do in helping in this matter of the Home Guard. One reason, I think, is that they do not realise the necessity for it. I think that they think that we have thousands of troops in this country and the Territorial Army to defend it. They do not realise the problem, and they are also more interested in civil defence.

In one county which I know Civil Defence recruitment is over 100 per cent., and it was done largely by door-to-door canvassing. Door-to-door canvassing for the Home Guard and the Civil Defence recruitment is far the most effective way to do it, and an appeal ought to be made to both the local and the national Press to publicise more frequently and more often the need for this recruiting. Some great statesman gets up and says, "The danger of war is receding," and that gets the headlines, but we do not get the "but" which follows and, invariably, the warning" We must keep up our strength because it is through that strength that the danger of war has receded."

Yesterday, I saw the atom bomb film, which deals with Civil Defence training in that aspect. I wonder that it is not shown in all cinemas, for I believe that it would be one of the greatest incentives to recruitment in Civil Defence. It would prove that, with proper training and adequate personnel to help, the effects of an atom bomb can be very much less than they would otherwise be.

I urge the Minister to consider a quicker and wider issue of uniforms for Civil Defence and to stress the need for more imaginative training. At the moment the training is not as imaginative as it should be. There is great feeling in the Civil Defence services about badges of rank. I hope the Minister will reconsider the decision which he announced a few weeks ago. I do not think it really matters whether someone in Liverpool is carrying the same rank as someone in a small town like Canterbury. We get that sort of situation in the Army. I hope the Government will also reconsider its views about calling the Service the Royal Civil Defence Corps. The Service should become the fourth arm of the Services, and it should be given the same sort of tasks in ceremonial, such as at the Coronation, as the other arms of the Services.

I have no time today to ask what the position is in the minewatching service and the Royal Observer Corps. I do not know whether recruiting in those cases is good, bad or indifferent, but they are both vitally essential services.

Another important matter is that of the voluntary nursing services. The situation here is not as satisfactory as it should be. There are the retired qualified nurses, who come up for a short training period, and also the nursing auxiliaries. The total target is 100,000, and of that we have 2,400 qualified nurses and 29,000 auxiliaries. All that the qualified nurses are asked to do is to undertake a 48-hour refresher course each year, and the auxiliaries are asked to attend lectures for 24 hours and to do training in a hospital for 48 hours each year. Is that too much to ask of these girls whose brothers and cousins are doing two years' solid National Service? Again, it is not apathy; it is because these girls do not realise the need and the importance of it.

Food provides the one bright spot. As in the war, the Ministry of Food have put up by far the best show in regard to Civil Defence and volunteering. This was demonstrated during the recent flooding on the East Coast. Quietly, without anybody realising it, the Food Flying Squads had been organised and trained until they had reached such a pitch that, when, just after 12 o'clock on a Sunday night, the emergency call went out, within two hours the food columns were on the way. They came from as far away as Hexham in Northumberland, Winchester in Hampshire and Reigate in Surrey, and within 90 minutes of dawn breaking on that weary, tragic morning each of these emergency food organisations was actually working. During the course of their operations they issued something like 200,000 meals. That shows what can be done with voluntary effort when the people really put their backs into it, and when you get a person like Lady Reading in charge, for these people were all recruited through the W.V.S. into Civil Defence. We want leadership in these matters.

There are 22 million civilians in employment in this country and many of our voluntary services are not over 30 to 40 per cent. of their normal peacetime establishment. I do not think it is apathy. I think it is ignorance, lack of publicity and lack of personal drive and initiative on the part of local leaders in local authority areas. I urge upon Her Majesty's Government to publicise these things a little more often than they have done and try to persuade local authorities to make them aware of the danger. I will finish up by paraphrasing some words of the Prime Minister: "We should present to the enemy the aspect of the back of a hedgehog rather than the soft paunch of a rabbit."

3.45 p.m.

Colonel J. H. Harrison (Eye)

I beg to second the Motion.

This is a timely Motion, moved with obvious conviction and sincerity by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer). I say it is timely because I think the following story illustrates the situation. A Regular Army officer, who was my second in command in my Territorial battalion, and is now in charge of a firing range and battle area, told me this. On a Sunday three or four weeks ago there were a large number of volunteers firing on the range, and they were all saying, "Really, it is rather a waste of time doing this now because we are going to be friends with Russia and other countries again." Therefore, I feel that this is a most timely Motion which has been put down.

Although we hope that in the international situation we and the rest of the world will take the right turning down the road to peace, it is only by presenting unity, not only in our Armed Forces but in our civilian forces as well that our leaders will be able to impress other countries. It has always been a characteristic of our British race that we are at our finest in our most difficult times, but perhaps we are most vulnerable during the times in between, whilst others re-arm and threaten and we take no action.

It has always been the civilian voluntary element that has come to our rescue, as has been pointed out by my hon. and gallant Friend, and can be instanced by references to the days of the Spanish Armada, Marlborough and Nelson, who built up our faith in the Royal Navy, thus making us isolated from the rest of the Continent of Europe and creating the feeling that whatever happened over there could not happen here. But in the last war we saw the threat of an air attack repulsed largely by week-end pilots who, in normal life, were civilians.

What is the attitude of most people in this country today? It can be summed up in these words, "When they want me they will send for me." The mythical "they" is always brought into it. "They" who need every able grown-up man and woman today are our wives, our mothers, our children and our sweethearts, so that we can build up a form of protection against any kind of attack. We may not have the time to develop our system of defence if war should come. We were given time in previous wars, but with men moving at 10 miles a minute, and with the colossal speeds of projected missiles, we have to be prepared long before the emergency arises. The great strength of our democracy is our voluntary spirit in building up our organisations. It seems that we can get enormous support for a football club's supporters club in which everyone is very interested. Surely the defence of our own country and the protection of those dear to us should have our interest?

The trouble is that the event may not happen but, if it does, we do not know the time when it will happen. If. for example, we knew it would happen in three, five or six years, we could build towards a date. It is the uncertainty which makes people think that it is not immediately necessary for them to do anything at the present time. We have built up our Territorial Army on volunteers, and although today that is changing because of our National Service men coming in, we shall always want a voluntary element in the more senior posts.

My administrative county of East Suffolk has led on a percentage basis, for its size, in the recruitment for Civil Defence. It may be that we are nearer the Continent of Europe or that we saw greater numbers of enemy bombers coming over or that we are more conscious of war because of the Americans who occupy our air bases. If we, as a country, spend £30 per head of our population every year on rearmament, it is wise to back it up by resolute determination and preparedness on the part of our civilians, at any rate for the next five years.

Yesterday I saw the film of the atomic bomb, and those of us who have been on courses at Winterbourne Gunner on either military or Civil Defence realise that this knowledge should be as widespread as possible. By knowing how to defend oneself against danger, one gets the confidence to overcome it. For instance, who realises that it is wise to whitewash one's windows or to wear a light woollen coat rather than a dark one? Such points should be brought home to people.

Although we ask for volunteers, that does not mean that there need be no remuneration for loss of time or travelling expenses. After all. most of us M.P.s are volunteers to some extent, and we get some kind of remuneration.

We in this country are more vulnerable today than probably we have been at any time during the last 300 years, and we must be ready to defend ourselves, by having the necessary knowledge, against enemy attacks. Therefore I confidently ask all hon. Members to support this Motion, which I hope the Government will do their utmost to implement. I know that both the present Government and the preceding Labour Government have realised the situation and it is up to us, as Members of Parliament, to try to put this over in our constituencies. There is a niche for everyone to serve in one or other of the organisations for Civil Defence. By becoming strong in this way within the next few years we shall strengthen the hands of our leaders in their dealings with foreign countries, and thus help the world along the road to peace.

3.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (Mr. Nigel Birch)

The House is indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) for moving this Motion. I can say on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that we accept it wholeheartedly. I do not think it was brought at an inopportune moment because, as the Prime Minister said in his great speech on Monday, unless we are strong all our plans will fall to the ground. If our Forces are to be efficient and to operate economically, they must depend in many instances upon voluntary effort. In our country we have always had the voluntary spirit. There always have been people who, out of love for their country, have been willing to do a little more than they had to do.

As my hon. and gallant Friend said, this is a vast subject and obviously I cannot answer it in five minutes. There are many points, therefore, which I shall not be able to deal with, but they have all been noted. First I should like to take up the point which he raised of whether, in case of war, plans exist for the correct allocation of manpower between all the various Services. I can assure him that that matter has been most carefully studied and that plans do exist, but, as he rightly said, there is no question now of a difficulty of allocation when we are only, after all, setting up peace-time cadres.

I was also very glad that he paid his tribute to the work of the W.V.S. during the floods, in which, I may say, my wife took a part. Most of my hon. and gallant Friend's speech was taken up with the Home Guard, and perhaps I might say a word or two about it. As he said, we have today no strategic reserve in this country, and that makes the importance of the Home Guard much greater than it has ever been before. It is also true that the Russians have strong airborne forces and the aeroplanes to lift them, though I think that when my hon. and gallant Friend reads what he said he will find that he was rather free with his noughts when he was giving an estimate of their forces; but they are considerable and they certainly constitute a threat.

Recruiting for the Home Guard is going on very steadily and not unsatisfactorily at the rate of 1,400 to 1,500 a month. It varies by areas, and on the whole it is better in the towns than it is in the country. But, of course, we have got a good long way to go. The hon. and gallant Gentleman talked about training, and wished that we had made it more imaginative. The Home Guard is only a year old. The first year has been taken up in enrolling recruits and mostly in individual training and weapon training. It is hoped that in the coming years exercises will take place with our Territorial and Regular Forces. Also, Home Guards will have the chance of seeing demonstrations of the latest weapons and of being kept up to date. So it is really a question of development in time.

There is one new development in the Home Guard. As from 1st May sub-units in factories are being formed. I cannot give figures yet—this has only just started—but industry and the T.U.C., through the National Joint Advisory Council, have been most helpful, and it is hoped that in appropriate cases we shall be able to form these sub-units, and that they will perform a very useful task.

On the question of Territorial Army affiliation, the reason it has not been done is, as my hon. and gallant Friend rightly said, that at the moment Territorial regiments and battalions are overloaded with the National Service men coming in. They have such a big training commitment that they cannot very well take on a fresh job. I wanted to say something about the mine-watching service and the Auxiliary Air Force, but I am afraid I must go on to the last point—Civil Defence.

My hon. and gallant Friend rightly referred to Civil Defence as the fourth arm, and, as far as we are concerned, we do grant it what is known as parity of esteem. Of course, we have nothing like the numbers we want, but there has been quite a considerable improvement in recruiting over the last year. In the three main branches of Civil Defence last year we had 94,000 recruits as against only 75,000 in the previous year; so we cannot be altogether despondent about that.

My hon. and gallant Friend said that he would like an answer on the question of ranks in the Civil Defence Corps. I am authorised to make this statement: a circular has today been sent out to local authorities giving them guidance on the ranks and badges to be used in the Civil Defence Corps. The circular was fully considered before issue by the local authority associations and other bodies. Apart from detailing the appointments to be made in the Rescue Section, on which no official guidance has previously been given, the main feature of the circular is that it informs authorities that badges of rank will take the form of a descriptive title, for example, "Chief Warden," to be worn on the shoulder flaps of the uniform. This is a system which is already effectively in use in the experimental Mobile Column.

It being Four o'Clock the debate stood adjourned.