HL Deb 03 September 1939 vol 114 cc969-77

Brought from the Commons; and read 1a.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended:

3.2 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill he now read a second time. The object of this Bill is to make all fit male British subjects, aged eighteen to forty inclusive, liable to be called up for service in the armed forces of the Crown during the present emergency. The Bill itself does not in general directly place a liability on such persons to be called up for service, but it provides for a Proclamation to be issued from time to time. This is provided for by Clause 1. By this means it is possible to issue Proclamations as and when they are required making the various age groups liable to be called up for service.

As the Prime Minister said in another place, it is not intended under this Bill at the outset that any considerable number of men other than those already liable shall he called up, and steps will be taken to ensure that the man power essentially required in industry shall not be taken away. By that we shall avoid the fatal mistake made in the last War in which everybody, so to speak, was taken for the Army and many sent out to the front only to be brought back again, sometimes in the space of a few months, because they were required for service at home. The present Bill follows very closely the provisions of the Military Training Act, which was put through this House a few months ago by my noble friend Lord Munster. Men liable to be called up for service will be required to register, they will be medically examined, and they will receive their enlistment notices. The procedure for these purposes will be similar to that which has been applied in respect of militiamen under the Military Training Act. The classes exempted from liability are similar to those exempted under the Military Training Act, except that a new class has been added in Clause 1 (e)—namely, a man in holy orders, or a regular minister of any religious denomination. The Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland nor to the Isle of Man, but there is power to extend it to the Isle of Man by Order in Council.

The provisions of the Military Training Act regarding anticipation and postponement of liability to register are not wholly applicable to men liable to be called up for service under this Bill. There is, however, provision in Clause 6 for postponement of the liability to serve in the forces on the ground of exceptional hardship, and the provisions of the Military Training Act with regard to Hardship Committees, and appeals to the Umpire, have been maintained in this Bill. Similarly, in respect of conscientious objectors the clause in the Bill is almost identical with the corresponding section of the Military Training Act. Under the Bill, as under the Military Training Act, a person with conscientious scruples may either be finally registered in the register of conscientious objectors, conditionally registered in that register or registered as a person liable to be employed only on non-combatant duties. The only alteration which has been made in the provisions of the Military Training Act is in respect of conscientious objectors conditionally registered. Under the Military Training Act there is provision for such conscientious objectors to be required to undergo a period of six months' civilian training. It is obviously inappropriate to provide civilian training for a conscientious objector throughout a war. What is required is that he should be directed to undertake some civilian work of benefit to the nation. Accordingly, the Bill provides that a conscientious objector conditionally registered should be required to undertake civilian work specified by the tribunal, or, if directed by the Minister, to undergo training provided or approved by the Minister to fit him for such work. There is one further modification. It has been found that there are a very few conscientious objectors who refuse to register or to apply to the tribunal. The Bill provides that in cases of this kind the Minister may, if he has grounds for believing that the man is a conscientious objector, provisionally register him in the register of conscientious objectors, and refer his case to the appropriate tribunal. This will avoid the present difficulty of such men being placed on the military training register.

The tribunals to deal with the cases of conscientious objectors under the Bill will be the same as those existing under the Military Training Act. A clause similar to Section 14 of the Military Training Act is included in the Bill in order to deal with what is commonly known as the "cat and mouse" procedure. It is Clause 13. The provision in the Military Training Act is not wholly appropriate to wartime conditions, and has accordingly been modified slightly for the purposes of this Bill. In the first place, the clause in this Bill is limited to persons who have already made an application to the conscientious objector tribunal. The object of the clause is to provide a safeguard for the genuine conscientious objector who may not have been able to convince the tribunal of the genuineness of his convictions, and therefore finds himself in the forces, and the limitation of the application of the clause to these persons is obviously right. Secondly, the clause is limited to offences committed while in Great Britain.

The provisions in the Military Training Act with regard to reinstatement in civilian employment have been included in the Bill. Under the Military Training Act employers are required to take a man back if they can. It is recognised that the circumstances envisaged by the Bill under which the period of service is undetermined may seem to make it more difficult to include a provision of this kind in the Bill, but it is felt that nevertheless it is right to include such a provision in order, so far as possible, to safeguard those called up for service. The Military Training Act gives power by Order in Council to make provision for "consequential matters." This has been used to cover various kinds of civil liabilities. A power of this kind for wartime purposes is clearly necessary, and requisite provision has been made in a number of the Emergency Acts passed two nights ago, such as the Courts (Emergency Powers) Act, and the Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act. It is felt that these and other Acts should be sufficient, but in case experience should show that this is not so, it is proposed in the Bill to give the Minister power by Order in Council to make provision for such matters. If, therefore, it is found that further provision is needed, the Bill provides the necessary power.

Those are the main features of the important Bill which I have to introduce to your Lordships. This is a Bill which in normal times I should probably have taken half an hour or thirty-five minutes to explain, but as we are already at war I hope your Lordships will excuse any further explanation. I should, however, he very glad to answer, if I can, any further question put to me with regard to the Bill. I now beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.(Lord Templemore.)

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure I carry your Lordships with me when I say that the noble Lord need not here apologise, because I think in the short space he really covered the ground very adequately, and I still believe that a ten-minute speech is better than a half-hour one. I have also some brief observations to make on this Bill, speaking for the Opposition. As a party the Labour Party are opposed to conscription. In these things we are very conservative. We have been for decades, and are still, opposed to conscription on principle, Nevertheless, at our Party meeting yesterday, the majority in favour of voting for this Bill in another place was overwhelming. Therefore my noble friends will offer no objection to its speedy passage here.

I have, however, certain observations to make. The noble Lord said that the War Office would discriminate in calling up men so as not to denude important industries of their personnel and hamper production, so as not to make the sort of mistakes that my noble friend Lord Addison has cited, where, for example, they took the chief gauge maker of Vickers and put him to pick up scrap paper on Hampstead Heath. I am sorry to say that that sort of thing is being done now at this moment. A friend of mine, who has a large and important factory making aircraft for the Government, telephoned to me. A number of his skilled men happen to have been Territorials for years. They have been called up and embodied. He cannot get them back and sonic of his production is held up because these skilled men have joined the Territorials. They say "We will get them back in a few days." At present they are mounting sentry and filling sand bags. There is an actual example. I promised my friend I would do what I could. You must release these Territorials who are key men in the aeroplane industry. With great respect to the distinguished military members of your Lordships' House, the production of aircraft is more important at this moment than the enrolment of Territorial infantry soldiers who need three or four months' training before they can take the field in any shape. I can give chapter and verse to any noble Lord whose business it is to see to these matters.

When the Militia Bill was before your Lordships' House I begged the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, as First Lord of the Admiralty, particularly, to see that young mariners, fishermen and others were not herded into the Army. Those men are needed at sea. You may not need many sailors at the moment but you do not know how long this position is going to last. You may need all the men with sea sense and sea experience whom you can lay hands on. I want to thank the noble Earl in regard to one particular case from Hull—a young seaman who had been bundled into the Army but has now been got out and put into the Navy. Both his father and grandfather were in the Navy. What I say is no stigma on the Army of course; it is a different profession. We know at this moment that you do not need a great rush of soldiers. I beg the First Lord of the Admiralty therefore to keep seafaring men for the Navy and let them go on at their present job.

Two criticisms of this Bill are made by my Party. They come from rather different directions but I want to cite them both. Many of us feel that eighteen is too young an age, that a boy's nerves are not set and that it is better to keep to the Militia age, which I think is twenty. Another year or so makes a great difference and you want to preserve your young life as much as possible. I do not know what happened when the proposal to amend the Bill was made in another place and we do not intend to move any Amendments here, but perhaps later on that will be considered. The other thing is that a great many of us think that 41 is a good deal too young.


Hear, Hear.


I am glad to see that the noble and gallant Earl agrees with me there. I speak for many members of the Labour Party. In the Navy we are liable to serve up to the age of 55 and even later. Therefore why 41? There are many men of much more mature years than that who are fit for service. I rather think that the Leader of the House is more than 41, but I know many young men whom I would rather meet in a fighting mood in a dark lane than the noble Earl. We think this ought to be reconsidered Another matter I am going to raise has not been considered by my Party, but it was raised by my noble friend Lord Marley a couple of years ago. Both of us feel that there ought to be some compulsion, if it is required, in reserve in the background for women. I know this will shock many noble Lords but really the objections to it are only sentimental. You have got women doing national service of all kinds and to suggest that healthy young women who might be shirking should not be conscripted when at the same time you are conscripting fathers of families in one-man businesses—that is not equality of sacrifice or equality of the sexes either. I repeat I am not speaking for my Party, but Lord Marley agrees with me. We think that you ought to have, in reserve anyhow, some compulsion for women—if you like for non-combatant services. I myself take my hat off, particularly at this moment, to the women of the battalions of the Polish Army who are standing at the side of their men with their rifles, and I dare say there are many Englishwomen who would do the same. I have no sex feeling in this matter. If women are going to be bombed in their homes they might as well be bombed in the field. There might be these powers for the compulsion of women later on. I do not apologise for making these remarks. My Party recognises the importance of this Bill. We are satisfied with the safeguards in it as regards conscientious objectors, hardship cases and other points. No doubt as time goes on there will have to be amendments and other provisions for hard cases. If there is a Division in your Lordships' House we, like our friends in another place, are prepared to vote for the Bill.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I have few words to say on this very comprehensive and drastic measure. Like the members of the Labour Party, Liberals also view with grave reluctance the extension of the principle of compulsion to military service. Yet in present circumstances I think the whole nation is agreed that a Bill of this sort is necessary at this juncture. The spirit of the nation in this regard is very different from what it was at the beginning of the war in 1914, or even at the time when I was responsible for passing through another place the Conscription Act of 1916. This Bill therefore will receive I am sure the unanimous support of your Lordships' House and the approval of the whole nation. There is only one specific point I should like to raise with regard to it. It is the one that has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, as to the liability to service of the younger men of eighteen and also the liability of young men, say of the age of nineteen, to be sent abroad. I understand that has given rise to considerable controversy in another place to-day and that the Secretary of State for War has made a statement on the subject and has given a certain undertaking. Perhaps the noble Lord in charge of this Bill would repeat to your Lordships either the terms or the substance of the undertaking that he gave.


My Lords, I want to say only one word from the Back Benches in support of the plea for the young men of eighteen. I did not know an undertaking had been given. No doubt my noble friend will read it, and I will not say any more.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the Bill, as I expected it would in your Lordships' House, has received support from all quarters. The noble Lord opposite has raised two very important points. The first was as regards skilled men who, I think he said, have been called up from some aircraft factory for service in the Territorial Army, and presumably are doing the duties of infantry soldiers at Hampstead or somewhere. I have had an opportunity of conferring with my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for War (Lord Munster), and he assures me that this matter will be at once looked into. Although I cannot give an undertaking that these men will be released from service to-day or even to-morrow, I can assure the noble Lord that inquiries will be made and action taken as soon as possible.


I will give the details privately.


I am much obliged. As regards the point raised by the noble Lord opposite and by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, and my noble friend behind me (Lord Balfour of Burleigh), about the age of 18 being considered too young, I should like to repeat to the House the statment made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for War in another place about an hour ago. He assured the House of Commons that it was not intended to call up the 18–20 age group at an early stage. It was proposed to call up men by age groups, and to work upwards—that is, 21 to 22, 22 to 23, and so on. He also said that not only was there no present intention of sending the 18–20 age group overseas to fight, but they would not be called up for some time. He gave an undertaking that they would not be sent overseas, if called up, without Parliament being informed. That is the statement that was made to the House of Commons. That is with regard to the low age limit.

As regard the age of forty-one, which the noble Lord opposite said was too low a limit, the Government have considered that, and they wish to stick to that limit. It gives them a tremendous margin in reserve. If the war lasts a long time and it is found necessary to call up other men, they could call up the men of 45, 46, or even 50, and over, as was done in the latter stages of the last war. I cannot quite remember, but my recollection is that men of 45 were certainly called up. These are the only questions I was asked. I do not think there was any other point raised, and I hope the House is ready to come to a decision.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Bill read 3a, and passed, and a Message sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.