HC Deb 28 January 1964 vol 688 cc282-95

Not amended (in the Standing Committee) considered.

7.13 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Peter Kirk)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill returns to the House unamended, but that does not mean that we did not have a good discussion in the Committee, where I hope that we managed to clear up some of the points that then worried hon. Members. On the basis of those discussions, I should now like to say a little more about one or two points in the Bill.

The concept of a small, mobile and highly-trained Regular Army of the kind we now have carries with it the consequence that there must be adequate reserves to support it, and these reserves must be trained and available. It will be generally agreed, I think, that there must be two main categories of reserves. First, there must be the reserves that are available immediately—as it were, for short-term purposes—and there must also be those required in a situation of general mobilisation which means, as we must all face, the situation of general war, with all the consequence that that brings with it at this time.

Clause 1 deals with this last situation, and I want to say a few words about it, because there have been some misconceptions about the rôle of those made liable under the Clause. These men will be required primarily for the reinforcement of the Territorial Army in a grave emergency. As I said, the emergency we are here contemplating is that in which mobilisation will be general, and the threat of war will be general—the situation in which the country will need to be able to call on every trained man to give his services. The Army General Reserve liability imposed by Clause 1 applies to the latest of those who have completed whole or part-time National Service. We think it right that we should apply this provision only to those in the last possible category. It is in pursuance of the same objective that we have arranged for the liability under Clause 2, which sets up the long-term reserve.

There is a great difference between the L.T.R. and the A.G.R., in that the former is a voluntary reserve, in the sense that the liability for service is assumed with full knowledge by the recruit when he enlists. The long-term reserve will in due, course take the place of the Army General Reserve, and those in it will be liable to be called in much the same conditions in which those in the Army General Reserve would be recalled. I do not feel that this sort of liability is one that will in any way act as a deterrent to recruiting, as it is long-term—one might almost say remote—and the circumstances of recall are such as would involve virtually the entire nation.

Clause 3, again, applies only to future enlistments—those occurring after the enactment of this Measure—and here I would say something that applies to both Clauses 2 and 3, and which was raised both on Second Reading and in Committee. I think that there was a feeling that we might be trying to conceal from people the long-term liabilities they would assume, and those hon. Members who were on the Standing Committee will recall that we had a discussion about the clarity with which the liabilities for reserve service would be made known to any recruit.

I want, once again, to assure the House that no man will be enlisted in the Regular Army without being fully informed about the long-term reserve liability and the extension of the power to designate this special liability. After the Bill has come into operation, it will be made absolutely clear to the recruit when he signs on just what his liabilities are. Hon. Members will recall that my right hon. Friend read out in Committee the terms of the amendment to the various forms; and that he promised to place these forms in the Library, so that any hon. Member could see them. There are, indeed, existing statutory requirements which oblige us to make this amendment, and they will be carefully observed.

That is all I want to say at this stage. I think that the objects and implications of the Bill have been adequately discussed during Second Reading and in Committee. The Measure is a necessary solution of several of our problems. I ask the House to give the Bill its Third Reading.

7.19 p.m.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

I agree entirely with the sentiment expressed by the Under-Secretary of State—that although no Amendments to the Bill were accepted in the Committee our discussions were valuable and fruitful.

Two issues were canvassed about the Clauses, the first being concerned with the requirement that, as set out in Clause I, those National Service men who have already been called on to do extra duty as a result of the extension of National Service by six months to those who were then serving, should not have to suffer a period on the reserve, or, if they did, that some compensatory action would be taken.

We felt at the time that the Government's action in retaining these men was unfair and that it would need all the advocacy and logic of the Minister for Science to persuade them that they had been properly called upon to do a term of duty. Be that as it may, we are disappointed that the Secretary of State for War was not able to accept the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds), who has apologised for not being able to be with us tonight.

The other issue in respect of which we derived considerable value from our discussions in Committee concerned the desirability of making it abundantly clear to all who enlist after the Bill comes into force what are the terms of their enlistment. We had a long discussion on this point in Committee, and I am glad that the Secretary of State clarified the issue then. According to what he told us, the attestation paper will now include a statement setting out the long-term reserve liability, and an additional question will be added to the existing ones. Further, he said that a specific instruction will be given to recruiting officers to make sure that all recruits who enlist after the Bill comes into force have the new terms of service carefully explained to them.

In the light of that statement from the Secretary of State my hon. Friend was satisfied. As the years go by I hope that the War Department will make sure that these instructions to recruiting officers are properly carried out. It is of fundamental importance that this new liability should be made abundantly clear to all who enlist.

The other issue relating to the operation of Clause 2 concerns the effectiveness of the machinery for keeping the War Department in touch with the reserves. From time to time my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and I have criticised the ability of the War Department to contact the reserves when they are needed. My hon. Friend, being a sporting man, offered to place a modest bet that if the War Department wanted to discover the whereabouts of their reserves it would have some difficulty in discovering where 75 per cent. of them were.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

The lot.

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend now indicates that he is willing to increase the figure to cover the lot. I was quoting from a speech of his which was made a long time ago. He then estimated that there would be difficulty in contacting 75 per cent., but he now says that the difficulty will operate 100 per cent. I understand that the Under-Secretary is willing to take the new odds, although he was unwilling to accept the challenge of 75 per cent.

I am afraid that in the past the Army General Reserve was no more than a paper army. The responsibility lies clearly on the shoulders of the Secretary of State's Department. In the past there was a list of names, but there was no adequate check, first, to ascertain who these people were, secondly, how well they were, thirdly, whether they were sick or suitable for service if called to the Colours, and, fourthly, where they were. I am sure that the Bill will cut the losses of the Government in this respect. They are trying to wipe the slate clean, and I hope that they will be more effective in the future in discovering where their reserves are.

In Committee, the Secretary of State referred to the powers that be now has under Clause 2(5). That subsection puts a more direct obligation on reservists to supply such information as is required by the War Department. The Secretary of State took the view that because of this obligation, ipso facto it would be easier to discover the whereabouts of the reservists. As the Clause stands the Secretary of State has power to draft Statutory Instruments laying down the obligations which are to be put upon the reservisis to get in touch with the War Department.

I hope that those regulations will be sufficiently lightly drawn to be effective—certainly more so than regulations have been in the past. Secondly, I hope that regular checks will be carried out to discover where the reservists are, how well they are, and how many could be called up at short notice.

As the Under-Secretary has just said, an effective Regular Army must have effective reserves. It is not good enough to have a large paper reserve which is difficult to contact and almost impossible to call to the Colours unless there is general mobilisation. The Regular active Army needs a reserve which can be called upon when necessary to perform its duty. Although this is a minor Bill, it draws attention to the need for the War Department properly to organise its reserves. That is its important facet. I doubt, however, whether the Bill indicates a sufficient effort by the War Department to carry out this necessary task.

There is a real problem in providing adequate reserves. On far too many occasions in the past the War Department and the Ministry of Defence have not properly calculated the number of men required for the Army, and have had to move the target from one figure to another. The task has not been scientifically thought out. To digress for a moment, at Question Time one day I referred to the question of the number of staff aimed at for the War Office. I said that one important witness who came before the Estimates Committee agreed that the figure of 7,000 men was just a figure, and that there had been no scientific basis for its calculation. That happens far too frequently.

In the past, the Government have not provided us with either an adequate Army or an adequate reserve. Our troops are now strung across the globe and are faced with ever-increasing obligations. We have been able to succeed where there has been limited or no opposition, as in the case of Kuwait. I congratulate our troops on what has been done in Africa. So far, we have been able to carry out our obligations. But even with the present Bill and with what the War Department have done to date—which is very little—if we were faced with any real opposition, or were called upon to answer two calls at the same time, with the present size of our Army and the effectiveness of our reserves I very much doubt that we shall be able to carry out our obligations.

The Government have made no adequate preparation for this. The cupboard is not exactly bare, but there is very little in it. The only inference which hon. Members on this side of the House can draw is that the Government are leaving it to the Opposition to make this provision when we form the Government.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

One thing we can be sure about is that this Bill has no relevance to the current emergency. That is equally true of the argument which goes on about selective service. This country, as a result of policies which have been pursued and which are already operating, for better or worse, must face the consequences of those policies. The next five years, in my judgment, will be years of unparalleled weakness.

There is nothing one can do, however urgent the need may be, to provide anything more effective for a considerable period after the inception of a new policy. For example, at present there are nearly one million men on the General Reserve. I once offered to bet that the whereabouts of 75 per cent. of these men is unknown and that no one knows where these men are unless one happens to have a relative who is concerned or there is somebody living next door. There was no registration system at all. The Government has seen the force of taking powers to impose on members of the General Reserve the same obligation as are borne by those in Sections A and B of the Army Reserve. They are required to supply their names and addresses. The Government have taken powers to make a Statutory Instrument which will require men to do that and to prosecute them if they fail to notify a change of address.

Before people become too optimistic on this point, I should point out that when Section A or B men notify their names and addresses they do so in order to receive their reserve pay. When they report they do so in the hope that a money order will arrive, but in this case the Secretary of State takes powers to make men give their names and addresses and says that if they do not do so they will be prosecuted. How can he prosecute those he has lost? I am not at all sure it is a sensible thing to do when it is unrelated to the need of a man to get his reserve pay by reporting his whereabouts. Of course the majority will report, but a minority will not do so. Nevertheless, this is an important step forward and I for one welcome it.

Equally, let us be quite clear about something else. Do not let us prate too much about having a voluntary Army. Clause 1 is another form of selective service. The majority of those National Service men who were caught at the end of the Act, men with a university degree, doctors, professional men and men who have undergone technical training, were well above the age of 18 when they were called up. The majority were in their early twenties and as they will not have completed their National Service before 31st December, 1962, an arbitrary date which suits the Government's convenience, they will be caught up in Clause 1. For they will be brought into the General Reserve and an obligation which will also be imposed on the Regular soldier. So long as he knows what he is doing there will be no great cause for complaint about the provisions of Clause 11 because the Regular on completion of his reserve service, if he wishes, can opt for Section D and receive reserve pay. He has undertaken a voluntary obligation and he is to be warned of his Reserve liability and on this point I am completely satisfied with the assurance given by the Secretary of State in Committee.

Then there is Clause 3. There the period of designation, that is to say, the call-up without proclamation in Section A, will be extended from one year to three years.

As regards this Measure as a whole, this is not some piffling little Bill which has been worked in at the end of the day's proceedings. It has very illustrious ancestry. It goes back to the Queen's Speech of 31st October, 1961. A paragraph of that Speech dealt with the North Atlantic Alliance, and said: Legislation will be proposed giving power to retain for an additional six months certain National Servicemen who are serving full-time, and to recall for a similar period National Servicemen who have a liability to part-time service. In addition the reserve organisation of My Army will be reviewed. That was followed by the 1962 Act which kept National Service men with the Colours for six months and gave the Government power—which they still possess—to recall 100,000 National Service men without notice. They would be called up on a selective basis. That was made quite clear on Second Reading by the Secretary of State, but let me repeat paragraph of the Queen's Speech ends with these words: in addition, the reserve organisation of My army will be reviewed. Then, in the Defence White Paper, 1962, in paragraph 38, the last sentence says: An examination of the whole reserve system is in hand. I should be out of order if I pressed this point too hard, but I should like to know from the Secretary of State if he has read the extremely brilliant speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on 16th January and has taken the point about stretching our manpower, and whether he accepts this Measure as the foundation of the Government's reserve policy—whether or not it is the final word.

I add my voice to the tributes paid in the House yesterday to the technical efficiency, the courage and devotion in accordance with the great traditions of the British Army, of those who have been engaged in the last few days. But I ask the House to remember a couple of things. Only on 16th January, in the debate on defence, we were talking about the Army being stretched in relation to Borneo and Cyprus. Since that time we have had a whole host of commitments which were not on the horizon at that time. Now we have the Army spread out in a lot of penny packets. It has gone into Africa and done well, but, having gone there, when will it come out?

Every one of those areas of action is an additional commitment. What happens to deployment of the Army if things go wrong in other places? All that can happen is that the Government will fall back on the reserves which they now have. As I remind the House on every occasion when I have the chance, the existing reserve forces give the Government access to very considerable and effective reserves for a period of two years. But by the end of 1965, when the Army Reserve Act of 1962 will be defunct, things will look very different.

When we come to the end of 1965, the powers of Clause 2 will have gone and all that the Government will have left will be the new General Reserves, limited in number, those in Section A, comprising a very small number indeed, the Section B Army Emergency Reserves and the "Ever-Readies". Their numbers are nothing like what was envisaged when the Army Reserve Act was first introduced. It is on these resources, however, that the security of Britain may depend.

I would be out of order if I dealt in great detail with the problems we must face. Let me make it clear that I am under no illusion. I may be wrong. When I see the Americans being charged with not backing this Government's action in Borneo, I begin to wonder. I do not think that they are overdosed with original sin and want to do us down. The truth is that they do not completely trust us. We undertake commitments on paper which they do not believe we have the national will to carry through. They are not convinced that we will stay in Borneo, so it is understandable why they wish to flirt with Sukarno.

This all represents a dangerous doctrine. It springs from the fact that there is an appreciation of what is happening in the Kremlin and Washington. They will see what is behind this Bill and they will not be satisfied. Nor am I satisfied. Great risks are taken, but with whom? The answer is simply that those risks are taken with the lives of British soldiers. Time and again this century the bill has been paid for politicians' mistakes—the lack of courage of politicians or their unwillingness to tell the truth—in many quarters of the globe by British soldiers who have been asked to do things they should never have been asked to do because, when the chips were down, the resources were not there to back them up.

For my part, this small Bill is an important one. I do not believe that it should be the last step. I cannot believe that the reorganisation, the re-examination, that was promised in the Queen's Speech of 1961 and the Defence White Paper of 1962 can now be completed with the passage of this Bill. I believe that this Measure is a small step designed to deal with a situation which must be dealt with.

I would like to know from the Secretary of State—and I would welcome it if he says that this is only a first step and that before long there will be a comprehensive review and a far-reaching, far-ranging Measure—how this Bill stands in the light of what needs to be done. If risks must be taken—and I appreciate that certain problems must be faced—we must be told what they are and about the measures that need to be taken if the worst happens. Most important of all, we must not leave our troops out on a limb, as they have been left before, because there are no reserves available to support them. I trust that I have not strayed out of order in asking the Secretary of Stae to give a categorical assurance on this point.

7.44 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

The House as a whole has welcomed the Bill and I am grateful to all hon. Members for their co-operation during its various stages.

The hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. J. Morris) has recapitulated our discussions in Committee and I was glad to hear him say that we had been able at that stage to clarify the issues which arose out of the second of his hon. Friend's Amendments. I can assure him that we will watch the operation of the instructions we intend to give to recruiting officers, because our object on this is the same as his: to ensure that no one who enlists does so in ignorance of what will be his obligations.

The hon. Member for Aberavon returned to the question of the effectiveness of the machinery for recalling general reservists. Various bets were laid and taken across the Floor of the House. Under the operation of the 1954 Act we now have a large pool of Army general reservists to draw upon. The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) mentioned the figure of 75 per cent. as a likely return from this pool in the event of a call-up. I can assure him that that would be quite enough, with some to spare.

Mr. Wigg

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman completely understood me. I was saying that 75 per cent. would dodge the column of the existing general reservists. At least, that is what I intended to say.

Mr. Ramsden

In which case, I had the hon. Gentleman's argument the wrong way round; and now I cannot accept it.

I am saying that, granted the imperfections in the system of recall such as operates under the 1954 Act, we are satisfied that out of the large pool of men available, there will be enough. When this Bill is passed there will be fewer men still subject to the liability and, therefore, that entails a correspondingly greater need that a call-up should be effective. We will in future keep a closer check—we are satisfied that we will be able to do that—and ensure that the results in terms of numbers will be all we need.

Mention has been made of the long-term reserves. Under Clause 2(5) we can make regulations under which an obligation is laid on the reservist to keep us posted of his whereabouts. We will check the operation of this machinery. We are satisfied that we can do that and we will use the powers under the regulations to enforce the obligation as required.

The hon. Member for Aberavon concluded his speech with what I thought was a rather ungenerous criticism of the Government in the light of the recent circumstances in which the Army has been involved. He congratulated the Army on its performance and I was glad to hear him do that, but he criticised the Government, if I recall his words aright, for failing to provide an adequate Army or reserves. I am perfectly content to be judged on results.

The hon. Member for Dudley returned, at the beginning of his interesting speech, to the charge which he had already preferred in Committee: that in some way the Bill prejudices or vitiates the principle of a voluntary Army because it continues the use of ex-National Service men who cannot be called part of the voluntary system and thus part of our reserves. In fact, the Bill provides that in future the Army General Reserve type of reservist should be based on the voluntary principle and should be found from among those who have volunteered in the full consciousness of the liability which they are incurring.

It is true that some National Service men, the minimum number because many of them have been released from their liability, have been kept under the Bill on a continuing liability, but this, I would have thought, was inevitable as part of the necessary transition from a National Service system to a voluntary one. Although the hon. Gentleman made a fair point, I hope that he will not make too much of it, and will not go so far as to say that the operation of the Bill will prejudice the whole concept of voluntary forces.

Mr. Wigg

I did not use the words "prejudice" or "vitiate". If I had to use a word, I would say "strengthen". Do not let the right hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friend dance the fandango about the voluntary principle, when they have Section 2 of the Army Reserve Act, 1962. That is all. I do not throw anything at the right hon. Gentleman for doing it. I throw something at him only when he pretends that he has not done it.

Mr. Ramsden

We shall continue to claim credit for the introduction of the voluntary principle, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will continue to reiterate the arguments that he has proferred tonight.

I thought that the most important part of the hon. Gentleman's speech was his reference to previous announcements —and I think he quoted two about two years ago—that the Government were embarking on a review of our reserves, and asked whether the Bill was the only result of that review.

It is true that about two years ago we announced that a review was to be held, We thought it proper to hold one because from every point of view the moment of transition to an all-Regular Army seemed an appropriate time at which to review the support provided by the reserves to a Regular Army and to see whether changes were necessary.

We held that review, and as Under-Secretary of State for War I was in the chair of the Committee which conducted it. We took stock very fully and over a considerable period of the whole position of our reserves. While it is true that the Bill is the only legislative fruit of our labours, the only result in the form of legislation which we have had to bring before the House, there were other results, not least being the conclusion to which we came that, in general, our system of reserves has stood the test of time, and that it looks like standing the test of anything that may be laid on it on the future.

There were other positive results of the review. I referred to one of them last week when I made an announcement in the House about the Territorial Army. The hon. Member for Dudley asked whether I would refer to this again during the debate on the Army Estimates. Certainly I shall. I always try to say something about the Territorial Army during that debate, but this is not the time to elaborate on the statement that I made last week.

Another result of our review was to confirm our opinion of the continuing value and importance of the new reserve, the Territorial Army Emergency Reserve, and, again, I can say more about that on a future occasion.

The hon. Member for Dudley also asked whether there was more to come, and gave it as his view that there should be. As I have said, we are satisfied that, generally speaking, the present organisation of the reserves gives us what we want, and so there is no more legislation in contemplation.

It is worth recall what the present organisation of the reserves, coupled with what is provided in the Bill, provides. It makes available to us for use before proclamation the Territorial Army Emergency Reserve, Section A of the Regular Reserve, and the Army Emergency Reserve, Category I.

Mr. Wigg

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not forgotten the category listed in Section 2 of the Army Reserve Act, 1962.

Mr. Ramsden

I deliberately omitted that category knowing that it was one that had recently been in the hon. Gentleman's mind, and I hope the fact that I omitted it may be some indication to him of its immediacy in our thinking.

After a proclamation we should, of course, have the Regular Reserve, Sections B and D. the Army Emergency Reserve. Category II, the Territorial Army on embodiment, and the Army General Reserve, There are one or two other smaller categories, but those are the principal ones.

I assure the House that in our view, after consideration of this problem in the light of future requirements, we are satisfied that this basic structure is adequate, and that the present procedure—the pre-proclamation and post-proclamation procedure—gives us sufficient flexibility to cope with the needs which we foresee.

I think that I have answered the various points made by hon. Members. I cannot accept the picture painted by the hon. Member for Dudley, in terms now familiar to the House, of British troops left out on a limb for want of proper provision by the Government of a reserves policy and other measures which we should have taken. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Aberavon, I am content to let events speak for themselves.

I was, of course, grateful for the tributes paid by hon. Members opposite to the performance of all the Services concerned during recent events, and I hope that the Bill—though not in any way a major Measure—which provides certain essential improvements to the support given by the reserves to the Regular Army in the task that it has to do, will be accorded a final Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.