HL Deb 22 May 1939 vol 113 cc71-6

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

7.3 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for having to delay your Lordships by moving the Second Reading of another Bill, but I can explain the object of this measure in a very few words, and it is one which I think will receive the general support of the House. Under the existing law the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces have to be called out in a variety of ways, and this measure is one to simplify that procedure. At present the Government would first have to decide if a great emergency or a state of imminent national danger had arisen and then com- municate that decision to Parliament. The King then issues a Proclamation declaring such an emergency to exist and ordering the calling out of Reserves. This Proclamation must be widely exhibited at convenient places. I have no doubt many noble Lords will recall the Proclamation that was issued at the beginning of the Great War. Coinciding with this Proclamation, individual notices are despatched to the reservists affected, and all this procedure is based on the general assumption that the calling up of reserves to complete the Regular Army to war establishment is necessarily the first step in an emergency. The embodiment of the Territorial Army may accompany or follow that step, but it cannot precede it. The procedure which I have briefly outlined applies both for general and for partial mobilisation.

There is, however, under Section 13 of the Reserve Forces Act a voluntary arrangement to call out certain members of the Territorial Army who have undertaken a special liability, and it is under this clause that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is enabled to man the anti-aircraft defences without resort to Proclamation. The House will observe that this procedure is both slow and cumbrous; in addition, it involves causing alarm to the general public, who have to be informed that a national emergency has arisen. Finally, it does not provide in any way whatever for the Field Force portion of a Territorial Army to be called out until all the reservists have first been notified and called out. The arrangements for calling up the Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Naval Reserve are somewhat similar. This Bill removes the disadvantages to which I have referred. Under its terms His Majesty will authorise the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Secretaries of State for War and Air to call out for service either all or certain specified reserve and auxiliary personnel as and when considered necessary. The House will observe, therefore, that this measure dispenses with that dangerous publicity and delay which are entailed by the present procedure.

Perhaps your Lordships would be interested to hear quite briefly the immediate intentions of my right honourable friend. He proposes to call out batches of the Regular Reserves at convenient dates, who will be required to serve for a period of not more than three months. This will enable the Regular Army to train at war strength. In addition, the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army would be called out in rotation for one month's consecutive training at their war stations. As regards the Navy, the First Lord of the Admiralty explained to your Lordships on May 16 what reservists the Admiralty would call to service after the Bill had become law. I think I need only draw the attention of the House to one portion of this Bill—namely, the words "against any external danger," which occur in the Preamble, and which are inserted to make it clear that the powers can only be used for purposes of defence, and not on the occasion of strikes and civil disturbances. The remaining clauses of the Bill are similar to those we discussed earlier this evening, and I do not think your Lordships would wish me to explain them again. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Munster.)

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends do not want to oppose this Bill or delay its passage. We realise it has certain advantages, and is necessary at the present time. We have one criticism to make, however, and we shall hope to get this matter put right in Committee. Under Clause I (5) it is stated that Section 13 of the Reserve Forces Act, 1882, shall not apply. That section reads as follows: Whenever Her Majesty orders the Army Reserve and Militia Reserve, or either of them, to be called out on permanent service, if. Parliament be then separated by such adjournment or Prorogation as will not expire within ten days, a Proclamation shall be issued for the meeting of Parliament within ten days, and Parliament shall accordingly meet and sit upon the day appointed by such Proclamation, and shall continue to sit and act in like manner as if it had stood adjourned or prorogued to the same day. In other words, when the Proclamation is made calling out the Reserves Parliament would have to be summoned in a certain time. That was a safeguard for the people of this country. Under this Bill that is repealed, and a dictatorial and unscrupulous Government—I make no accusations against noble Lords opposite—might in future, when they had some nefarious design, wait until Parliament was about to adjourn for the Autumn Recess, go back to the old system whereby Parliament did not meet until the following February, proceed to call up the Reservists, and do all these things without any explanation to Parliament or the public of what they were doing or why.

We think that is mischievous and dangerous. We do not like it. I understand the Government argument is: "We can call up these large classes in secrecy and may have to do so, whereas if we summon Parliament all the world will know it." We regard that explanation as unsatisfactory. We do not think it is possible to call up these considerable forces without its being known. Our Intelligence Service knows when there are large troop movements in any country on the Continent, and other countries must know when we call up large forces in this country. You cannot keep a thing of that sort secret. We are prepared to extend the period of ten days, but we think Parliament ought to be summoned. We feel very strongly about this because of the wilful refusal of the present Government to call Parliament together during the so-called crisis in September. We were within an ace of war at that time. It was the most serious situation that had arisen since the end of the last War. Despite the repeated requests of my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition in another place, the Prime Minister refused to summon Parliament, and we might very well have been at war before Parliament met. Your Lordships know that very well.

I repeat that we take this matter very seriously indeed, and we consider it is a defect in the Bill. We are going to invite the Government to remedy it. The matter was debated in another place at a very late hour of the night, and a reading of the OFFICIAL REPORT shows that there must have been some impatience in various parts of the House so that the matter was not properly considered. We hope your Lordships will put the matter right during the Committee stage, and in this way preserve some safeguard for the democracy of the country.

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords on these Benches will support the passage of this Bill. I also have one point which can properly be raised on the Committee stage but which somewhat transcends a Committee point in that it raises a general principle with regard to which your Lordships are always accustomed to be watchful. It arises in Clause 2, subsection (4), at the bottom of page 4, where the Minister of Labour is empowered to make regulations in order to prevent evasions of certain provisions and to provide for the punishment of breaches of the regulations. There has been a tendency in recent years for Departments of State, in making regulations, to provide that the judgment of the Minister is to be regarded as final. Frequently attention has been drawn to this, and alterations have been made in Bills and certainly sometimes regulations have been challenged. The question I propose to ask on the Committee stage, when this clause is reached, is whether it is quite clear that it is not the intention to empower the Minister of Labour to make any regulations of that character.

I should have thought that the wording of the subsection was satisfactory in that regard if it were not for the last words—namely, in line 8, page 5, "with or without modifications." The use of these words might be taken to empower the Minister of Labour to make regulations of the character I have mentioned. I have no doubt the Government will very easily give an assurance on the Committee stage that that is not the intention or purport of these words, but I give notice now that I shall put that inquiry when the proper time is reached.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might reply very briefly to the two points raised, which are in fact Committee points. As regards that mentioned by Lord Samuel, I will certainly look into the matter in consultation with my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour. With regard to the point raised by Lord Strabolgi, I do not think he has quite appreciated that the object of this Bill is to remove certain disadvantages which exist under the present law. We know perfectly well that when the King in Council says that a state of great national danger has arisen it does cause very serious alarm to the general public. We desire to abolish that process for a period of three years by means of this Bill. All other countries in the world can work in close-guarded secrecy. They can call up their Reservists or Militia, if they have one, or any other fighting force without letting their people know, although that is not actually our intention. Our intention has already been indicated to Parliament. Parliament is already aware, by the passage of this Bill, what in effect we are doing. I will certainly, however, communicate the noble Lord's remarks to my right honourable friend, but I have little hesitation in telling him that I fear my right honourable friend could not in any circumstances whatever accept an Amendment of that character.


May I point out that in subsection (4) it is stated that any Order in Council which is made shall be laid before Parliament "as soon as may be after it is made." Therefore it would become public.


The noble Viscount refers to when Parliament is sitting. The noble Lord opposite was referring to the case of when Parliament is not sitting.


I recognise that that does not meet the point raised by Lord Strabolgi, but the noble Earl said the purpose of this Bill is to preserve secrecy when these classes are called up. I do not quite understand how you are to secure that in view of the subsection I have just read.


The Order in Council is made by the King, who can then give power to the Secretary of State for War, the Secretary of State for Air and the First Lord of the Admiralty to call up certain specified reservists.


At any future time.


At any future time, concurrent with the period for which the Order remains in force.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.