HL Deb 15 March 1916 vol 21 cc396-409

VISCOUNT MIDLETON rose to ask the Earl of Derby whether he can inform this House what steps have been taken by the Government to deal with—

  1. 1. Men who have entered exempted occupations since the 15th August 1915; and
  2. 2. Unmarried men under 31 years of age now in exempted occupations;
with a view to rendering such men available for military service.

The noble Viscount said: As your Lordships listened so recently to a statement from my noble friend on the question of married men and the position of exemp- tions, I should have hesitated to trouble the House by again raising the matter, but it is probably within the knowledge of everybody that in the interval this has become perhaps the most important of all domestic subjects at this moment. We have even got to the point when a Parliamentary by-election is being contested by a well-known individual as a "married men's candidate." I ask my noble friend the Question which I have put on the Paper with the intention, not of intensifying discussion, but of allaying the anxiety which has arisen in the course of the last few weeks. Your Lordships' House is by far the fittest place in which to raise these questions, for we not only have the advantage of the presence of my noble friend Lord Derby, who is responsible for this particular scheme, but I am also glad to see the noble and gallant Field-Marshal in his place, because, after all, the last word rests with the Government in this matter. In saying that I am by no means suggesting that there is the slightest doubt in any quarter that the pledge given by my noble friend behind me (Lord Derby) will be observed, and that the confidence which the country justly reposes in him will be equally shown by the Government. But I feel that this question requires to be set at rest. I venture to say that the prolongation of this Parliament for eight months would not have been carried last December without great difficulty had, it not been that the operations which the noble and gallant Field-Marshal regards as essential to keep the ranks full were at that moment in process of being carried out under the pledge given by my noble friend, which the country felt certain would be fulfilled. That being so, we have a special interest in hearing what is now the position of exempted men, as regards the numbers of whom Lord Derby expressed great anxiety when he last addressed your Lordships.


My Lords, I am very glad that, my noble friend has asked this Question, because it affords me an opportunity of explaining what has taken place since his previous Question. Much has happened in the last fortnight. There is one phase which I cannot help mentioning because it affects me personally. There has been much personal abuse of myself and much accusation against me for having failed to fulfil my m promise. My Lords, I hope I am right in saving that I can afford to pass by such attacks upon my honour. The result will only be to show those who have made them without any inquiry as to what one was doing, and still less without any suggestion as to what one ought to do, that they were absolutely unjustifiable attacks.

But I want to differentiate between those who make personal attacks and, those who are creating this agitation with ulterior motives and those who, quite correctly and rightly—those who have attested—seeing their position to a certain extent jeopardised, wish for an explanation of what is taking place to secure the fulfilment of the pledge that the single men should, go first. I do not propose to make any defence of myself. I propose to give an explanation of what has been done, and I feel that this explanation will be sufficient justification for my statement now that everything that I could do has been done, is being done, and, will be done to secure the fulfilment of that pledge.

There are three classes, if I may say so, of complaints from the married men. First, from the married men who attested and frankly say that they would not have attested, if they had thought they would ever be called upon to fight. It is a naïve confession, and it is based on a statement of my own—I admit perhaps a too optimistic one—in November last, when I said that I hoped it would be possible to have yet sufficient young men to bring the war to a successful conclusion without having to put the older and, married men into the field of operations. I cannot think that this could be taken as any pledge to the married man who attested that he would never be called upon.

Another type of married man's objection is best shown in the form of a resolution—one of two resolutions which apparently have been adopted, throughout the country. It is in this form—"That this mass meeting is strongly of opinion that in view of the large numbers of married men who have attested, a great injustice will be inflicted unless all other married men are compelled to attest; and strongly urges the Government to make adequate provision for the financial responsibilities of married men who have attested before requiring them to serve." I am not going into that question. I am one of those who have always, long before the war, been for all men playing their part, whether married or single, in defence of their country. I have never deviated from that for one minute, and although I have done all that I possibly could do to make the voluntary system a success, I have always felt, and always shall feel, that it is the duty of every man to do something for his country. If, therefore, there had been such a general extension of the Military Service Bill as to include all men, I for one should not have opposed it. But that is very different from asking me to read into the Prime Minister's pledge something which certainly never appeared there, and that is that all married men should be brought under the scope of the Act. That is a matter of policy for the Government, just as dealing with the financial liabilities of the men is for the Government, and as far as I am concerned it is to the Government I must leave those two questions. They do not in any way come within the scope of my work of endeavouring to the best of my ability to see the pledge carried out.

Then there is the third and the last class, that of the man who is willing to serve, who is making great sacrifices to serve, and who has a legitimate reason for asking whether we are doing all we can to get the single men. Various suggestions are put forward to me as to my personal attitude. Some tell me I ought to resign; others that I ought to stay on; so that whichever I do I should, therefore, be equally blamed by the opposite party. I have no doubt whatever as to my proper duty, and that is to remain at the War Office as long as I can be of the slightest assistance to the noble and gallant Field-Marshal in trying to put this particular aspect of the recruiting question in the position in which both he and I feel that it ought to be.

But I confess that my position is made a little difficult by a speech of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, yesterday. Lord Selborne is an old personal friend of mine. We are both striving in different ways for one object, and nothing that he says will in any way affect my personal friendship for him. It is in virtue of that personal friendship that I would ask leave to express to hint, although he is not here to-day, my deepest sympathy with him in the loss that we know he has sustained, a sympathy which I am certain will be extended to him by every member of your Lordships' House. In his speech yesterday Lord Sel borne made two statements about myself which I think will show the difficulty of my position. If I thought that it really represented the considered view of the Government, there could be no alternative but to ask them to I relieve me of any responsibility and to I accept the whole of it themselves. Lord Selborne said— Directly somebody like Lord Derby, who did not speak with authority, expressed their opinion, the farmers got into a panic. All I hope is that I have the authority, not only of Lord Selborne but of the whole of the Government, in saying that it is the duty of the Government to see this pledge fulfilled to the fullest extent.

I am sorry that I shall have to be somewhat lengthy, for which I hope your Lordships will forgive me, in laying before the House and the country what has been done with regard to this particular question of single men first. In the first place, I think that very few of those who are making the present accusation of breach of faith can have really read the pledge that was made. It is assumed by them that the pledge given by the Prime Minister was to the effect that all single men should go before the married men were taken, that there were to be no exemptions, and apparently no appeals. I would ask your Lordships to allow me to read that part of the pledge which bears particularly on this question. To the letter which I wrote to him the Prime Minister sent an answer, and said that my views correctly expressed the intentions of the Government. In it there was this paragraph— I think it should be taken to mean that the vast majority of young men not engaged in munition works or works necessary for the country should offer themselves for service, and that men indispensable for civil employment and men who have personal reasons which are considered satisfactory by the Local Tribunals for relegation to a later class should have their claims examined for such relegation in the way which has been already laid down. In that pledge it was clearly shown that it was absolutely imperative that there should be some exceptions to the rule that all single men should go first. The letter of that pledge was, to my mind, carried out by the Military Service Bill. It is with regard to its operation that we have to take further steps in order to carry out the pledge as we would all wish it carried out. What we ought to have in mind, therefore, is to get from the various trades all those men who have gone into those trades for the sole purpose of endeavouring to avoid military service, and further, even of those who may be actually and legitimately in those trades, all such men as we can properly ask the industries to supply us with.

When making my original Report I had a fairly clear idea of the number of starred men, but any question as to the number of men in reserved occupations was a matter of guess-work. I frankly admit that I entirely underestimated the number of men who were able within the last few months of last year and the first two or three weeks of this year to secure for themselves berths in reserved occupations. As I warned your Lordships, I view with great anxiety these lists of reserved occupations. I warned your Lordships; I could not do more, as I had nothing definite to go upon. I would like to ask your Lordships to consider what these reserved occupation lists were and how they were framed. They were framed by an inter-Departmental Committee which existed for the purpose of being the mouthpiece of the industries of this country as to what trades and what men in those trades were indispensable for the keeping up of the industries of the country. Anybody is indeed foolish if he disregards any such lists entirely and attempts to put aside all restrictions on recruiting which may be necessary to secure the minimum number of men necessary for the upkeep of those industries. To upset any such arrangements as were made, as had to be made, under the reserved occupation lists was not possible until one was perfectly certain of one's ground, and certain also that the reserved occupations were the real cause of our not getting the number of men that we thought we ought to get. I am not usually accused of not being impetuous enough, and in this particular instance I admit that I acted with extreme caution. That was essential. You may destroy the industries of this country by one false move, and I, for one, was not the person who would like to take such a step. I was also not sure whether the exemptions were due to laxity on the part of the Tribunals.

But as time went on it was perfectly evident that the whole cause of the shortage was the reserved occupation lists. I therefore felt it my duty, with Lord Kitchener's consent, to appeal to the Reserved Occupations Committee to do all that they possibly could to take out of the list certain industries and to reduce the number of men who were starred and exempted in other industries. The result of that appeal was a proposal by the Committee to delete certain individual exemptions—that is to say, the particular occupation of a man in a trade was to be exempted—if the Board of Agriculture would also take some action with regard to men whom they exempted. I am not going to deal with that matter now. I dealt with it when I last spoke. However, the result of this was nil. The Board of Agriculture did not see their way to agree to the Board of Trade proposal, and the whole scheme fell to the ground.

It was evident then that far more drastic action had to be taker than was possible for any individual in the War Office or an inter-Departmental Committee such as the Reserved Occupations Committee. I therefore made a direct appeal to the Government, on the last occasion that I bad the honour of addressing your Lordships, to take certain action. I asked them to lay down these two broad rules:—(1) That no single man who had not attained the age of 31 should be, allowed to plead for exemption on the ground that he was starred, badged, or in a reserved occupation. (2) That all other single men and all married men should not be considered as starred or in a reserved occupation unless they had held their present post or one of a similar character with another firm previous to August 15. I do not for one minute say that this is the whole of the demand that we may have to make on His Majesty's Government. But it was a step in the right direction, a step which I believe could be taken and one which would result in giving us many single men and at the same time allow the industries from which those men were taken—slowly, perhaps, but at all events without undue disturbance—to adapt themselves to the new conditions.

It is now for me to state what steps the Government took to meet my two proposals, and I think I cannot do better than read a letter from Mr. Walter Long which gives fairly fully what has been done in the direction I suggested. Mr. Walter Long writes— The position is as follows. The Prime Minister desired me to summon a Conference of all the Government Departments in order to ascertain if more men could be released from the reserved occupations. The conference was attended, as you will remember, by the Secretary of State for War, the Home Secretary, the President of the Board of Trade, yourself, and other representatives of Government Departments. The President of the Board of Agriculture was unfortunately unable to be there, but he sent his representative. We found that the Committee already sitting at the Board of Trade, and charged with the duty of examining into certain trades, was not sufficiently representative to cover all the ground. We therefore added further representatives, and authorised the Committee to proceed at once to make drastic alterations in the reserved lists and report to the Conference from time to time, any head of a Department having the right, if he sees fit, to appeal to the Conference, whose decision is to be final. The Conference is a Committee of the Cabinet. The Board of Trade Committee is sitting regularly and will, I am confident, deal promptly and effectively with the situation, and I have no doubt this will result in giving us a great many more men. That was satisfactory, and it is still more satisfactory to gather—


What is the date of that?


It was written this afternoon. I do not quite understand the point of my noble friend.


I only wanted to know on what day the letter was written.


The letter was written to-day. The Committee sat the day after I spoke. That, I think, was very satisfactory. I was mentioning that it was also satisfactory that the Board of Agriculture was represented there, and I understand from my right, hon. friend Mr. Walter Long that agriculture is just as much subject to revision at the hands of this Committee as is any other trade or industry in this country. The result, on the whole, is satisfactory as showing a really earnest endeavour on the part of the Cabinet Committee to meet the situation. It will want to do more, but I have no fear that this Committee means to go further, and means to do all that it possibly can to weed out what I will call superfluous single men from all works throughout the length and breadth of the land.

The Reserved Occupations Committee issued in the Press yesterday a statement to this effect— The Reserved Occupations Committee has already reviewed the exemptions for which it was originally responsible, and the following recommendations have been considered and approved. I hope your Lordships will note the next statement they make, because it is an ample justification for everything that I have said to the effect that men were wrongly starred and exempted and were getting shielded falsely from military service— As evidence has accumulated to show that men have been entering certified occupations in order to avoid military service, it has been decided that men in these occupations will be exempted from military service only if they can show that they were similarly occupied at the date when the National Register was made—August 15, 1915. Your Lordships will see that one of my points is granted, as I take it, practically in its entirety. The Committee go further and say— With the same object of preventing abuse of necessary reservations, it has been decided as far as possible to limit exemption of those claiming to hold positions implying considerable experience and responsibility, such as departmental managers, foremen, overlookers, and the like, to married men aged 30 or over. That, again, is a distinct advance. This Reserved Occupations Committee deals only with a certain portion of the industries of the country.

There are large bodies of men employed in other industries which come under other Departments. The mining industry, one of the largest in the country, is under the Home Office. The mining industry—I can speak only for my own part of the world, Lancashire—has given a splendid contribution to the Army. I do not wish for one minute to urge anything further on what I will call the legitimate miners in the way of contributing to military service. But I feel—and I hope it will be proved that I am right—that even in the mines there are a great many men who are not really miners, but who have gone into them in order to avoid military service. I hope these men will be given up to the Army. The Home Office have agreed that any men challenged by the military authorities who cannot be shown by the employer in the Colliery Courts—they are separate Courts front the ordinary Courts—to be indispensable shall cease to be exempted. That is a step in the right direction. At the same time I hope to get a little more from the Home Office when they have more fully considered the question.

Now I come to a branch of industry which is new in this country, at least on the scale on which it now exists, and that is the making of munitions. There is not the slightest doubt that at the present moment there are more men hiding from military service in munition works than in any other industry. But I ask the married men who are affected by the present position to agree with me that, for the moment, at all events, munition workers stand on a somewhat different footing. To disorganise munition work at the present moment, to take away suddenly and by a stroke of the pen all the single men from such works might be doing justice to the married men at home, but it might be dealing death to the married men who are fighting at the Front. We cannot disturb this great industry; we cannot stop the flow of ammunition without its having perhaps a terrible effect on those who for many mouths have been our battles. But at the same time, while I feel that in t his respect one has to work rathee differently from what one would do in other industries, there is nobody who recognises more keenly what I have said as to the desirability of abstracting as many single men as possible from these works than the Minister of Munitions himself. The matter is being gone into most thoroughly, and I can say with absolute confidence that from the Minister of Munitions I shall receive every assistance that he can possibly afford me.

I have a statement here with regard to munitions which I have been authorised to make to your Lordships. The list of occupations starred as important for the supply of munitions necessarily stands on a rather different footing from the other lists. The Minister of Munitions and the First Lord of the Admiralty are jointly considering its revision. They have to take into grave account their several responsibilities for the efficiency of the Fleet and the safety of the Army in the trenches, but they are examining with great care the list of occupations starred for Admiralty and munition work. They are not in a position to state precisely the form which that revision will take, but they hope that in the very near future they will have removed exemption both from the classes of men who have accidentally been shielded by the lists and from men whose work, in the light of recent, experience, no longer justifies the retention upon it of men fit for active service in the trenches. As regards badged men, the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Ministry of Munitions have all issued badges to men engaged on war work, but the Minister of Munitions now acts in some measure as trustee for the three Departments in this respect. I am glad to say that, the three Departments are joining heartily in an active supervision of badges. Inspectors have been instructed to scrutinise most carefully the work at present being done by badged men who would, in ordinary times, be classed as unskilled, and to report all cases in which it appears to them that the work could be equally well done by women. To take one example among many, active steps are being taken to replace with women men who are at present engaged on the lighter forms of shell work. Already women are being drafted into munition works at the rate of 15,000 a month, and there is good reason to hope, in view of the steps which the Ministry of Munitions are taking in this respect, that the number will be very greatly increased during the next two months. This has been time effect of the sitting of time Cabinet Committee a fortnight ago, and I think it justifies me in saying to your Lordships that they are evidently taking the matter so seriously and going into it so closely that we shall secure the single men that we require to extract front these works.

I desire to urge upon the Government the absolute necessity of bringing the Registration Act up to date. Every single man of military age should be challenged to produce his registration card, and if he cannot at the same time show an exemption form he should be considered as belonging to the Army. There is no doubt that with the formation of this great Army there has come in this country a great revolution, and the revolution has not vet taken the full effect that I hope it will take before very long. Up to the present in the competition between industry and naval and military service the presumption has been that a man belongs to industry and that the onus of proof that he is not required in industrial work falls upon naval or military shoulders. Personally I think that this ought to be reversed. As regards all single men, at all events, the presumption ought to be that they belong to the Army, and the onus of proof that they are more useful, from the national point of view, in industrial work should fall upon the industries in which they are engaged. I wish I could think of any other way of getting men whom the country is determined we should get for service in the ranks. I have done, as I hope I have shown your Lordships, all that I possibly can do. I believe that the Government are doing all that they possibly can to second the efforts of the War Office. But it takes time.

There are two ways, and two ways only, in which one can safely say that the pledge has been absolutely kept—not in the letter, as I firmly believe it has been, but in the spirit. The first way would be absolutely to disregard the industries of this country and to take from those industries, regardless of any appeal, all the single men and put them into the ranks. That would be disastrous to this country, and is most certainly not a proposition I would ever put forward. There is the second—that the calling up of the married groups should be postponed until such tame as the noble and gallant Field-Marshal could say that he had got all the single men that he fairly thought he could take. There is not the slightest doubt that this would be the easiest way, but it must take time. Your Act of Parliament passed only a few weeks ago under which all these men can claim the same privileges gives even greater time to some than we should otherwise have given under a voluntary system. Had this been done a year ago it might have been possible to wait. Unfortunately, the Germans will not wait while we are putting our house in order. It is not for me to speak as to the necessity for men. I understand that the noble and gallant Field-Marshal is going to follow me. It is his voice, the voice of real authority, that will be able to tell the country what the position is. But I venture to express the hope that any appeal I may make to the married men, with whom I feel deeply, for whom I assure your Lordships I am doing everything I possibly can, will not fall on deaf ears, and that they by coming forward will prevent it being said that in our preparations for the reinforcement of our men in the field we were too late.

I thank the House for the kindness with which you have listened to, I am afraid, a somewhat lengthy explanation. I hope that your Lordships will agree with me that everything that can be done is being done. In conclusion, let me say to your Lordships and to those outside who are interested in this question that if there is any other way in which we can facilitate and expedite the work we have in hand we shall be only too glad.


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Derby, who has given me so much valuable assistance in the Recruiting Department of the War Office and has worked so whole heartedly for the good of the Army, has been able to explain in detail to your Lordships what has been going on in his Department. Your Lordships will remember that last month I sounded a note of warning as to whether we should obtain the number of men from the groups and classes that we require for the Army, and I then asked all employers of labour to assist us by releasing young men from their employment. Since then we have been following the output from the group and class system, and I regret to say that my fears have been realised during the last month. The original estimate of our requirements for April necessitated the calling up of some of the younger married attested groups, and the deficiencies of March will require the calling up of more groups earlier than we had hoped would have been necessary.

The production and maintenance of an Army of the magnitude we now possess has naturally revolutionised the whole industrial conditions in the country, and the Tribunals have found it necessary to grant temporary exemptions to prevent the disorganisation of industry so as to give time to employers to provide substitutes either from men incapable of military service or from women. These time exemptions have naturally delayed our obtaining many men whom we shall eventually get. But, as your Lordships will agree, this does not help us in providing for our immediate needs. In addition to this delay in obtaining men there are unfortunately many men of those who have voluntarily attested, as well as of those who come under the Military Service Act, who are for the present evading military service in the various manners described by my noble friend. My noble friend has suggested various means by which the services of these men may be obtained, and the country may rest assured that I shall support him in his efforts, and that I endorse his statement that he has done and is doing all that is possible to obtain these men, whom I have not the slightest doubt we shall eventually bring in. But this will require time.

Meanwhile we need men whom we can train to meet the calculated requirements of the war. Married men who have attested should realise that, even if we had obtained all the single men that it was anticipated we should secure from the group system and the Military Service Act, we should still require a large number of the married men within the next few weeks. Men have to be trained. The mere fact that a man comes up on a certain date does not mean that he is at once available. It requires many weeks to make him efficient to take the field. I would therefore earnestly appeal to the married men who have attested to place their patriotism and the national cause before any personal considerations and to come forward without hesitation and join the ranks. The position is an anxious one owing to the disappointing numbers joining for general service. As I have said, we are taking every step we possibly can to secure the single men, and we shall not rest in our endeavours until we have secured all those single men who cannot rightly be said to be indispensable in the national interest in their employment.