HL Deb 05 August 1942 vol 124 cc237-47

THE EARL OF MANSFIELD, who had given Notice that he would call attention to the apparent lack of system in the methods of selecting, and the manner of calling-up, compulsory recruits to the Home Guard; and also move for Papers, said: My Lords, a few months ago, under pressure from inside your Lordships' House and from public opinion outside, His Majesty's Government introduced conscription for the Home Guard. That conscription, after a commendably brief period, has now been put in to operation, but unfortunately it would appear that there has been little if any attempt made to co-ordinate the activities the Ministry of Labour and of that section of the War Office which attends to the affairs of the Home Guard in regard to the method of putting this conscription into practice. In passing, I may say that it seems slightly remarkable to some of us that it should have been considered necessary to have a ceiling, to use a technical term, for each Home Guard battalion, and to say that recruits in each battalion area should be enrolled only up to the limit of the ceiling. I remember how in the last war in, I think, every area, certainly in my own area, any man of a reasonable standard of health who was exempted from military service was only so exempted on condition that he joined the then volunteers which were the equivalent in the last war of the Home Guard to-day. It seems to me that it would have been well, if such a procedure could have bean followed again, as in my view, having regard to the ever-present danger of invasion, it is hardly to be tolerated that there should be such a thing as an able-bodied man in the country without some form of military training.

The main point I wish to make concerns the way in which this calling up is being carried out. It was originally stated, apparently officially, that the calling up was to begin with young men and to proceed upwards gradually. Despite this, in areas where I am convinced there must be quite enough young men to reach the ceiling for the battalions concerned, men approaching forty years of age, who are already fully employed, are receiving their compulsory enlistment notices, while younger men with far fewer responsibilities are apparently being left untouched. The first question I would like to put is how is this choice of recruit determined, and what steps are taken to ensure that all available young men are called upon first before older men, who are probably engaged in much more important work, are called upon to be compulsorily enlisted? There seems to be a sad lack of liaison, because in my own area various lists were prepared by the companies, and sent in to battalion headquarters, of men whom we considered to be suitable for enrolment in the Home Guard, and these lists were sent to the labour exchanges; but we were politely informed by the labour exchanges that they could carry out all duties connected with compulsory enrolment very nicely by themselves, and that they had no use whatever for our lists. I think that that was a great mistake, and it could have been avoided if some form of organization had been insisted upon which would have correlated the activities of both sides.

Then there is the question of the way in which men are often told to report to Home Guard sub-units at a most inconvenient distance from their home or place of work. Apparently the labour exchanges simply go on the basis that a man should report at whatever town or village is shown as his postal address. That may work satisfactorily in towns and large villages, but in scattered country areas it does not work at all well. For example, in one case of which I know a man on a farm has been told to report at a village which is over six miles away, although only one mile away in the opposite direction is the normal meeting-place of a local Home Guard platoon, and three miles away, in the direction of the village to which he has been told to go, is the meeting-place of another Home Guard platoon. It would have been better had the labour exchanges consulted with local Battalion Commanders as to the areas which fall within each battalion area. We had drawn up long lists giving every address in our area, and these lists would have been invaluable to the labour exchanges, but they refused to make any use of them.

It may be said that these are small points. Perhaps they are, but they lead to a great deal of dissatisfaction, and, what is worse, to a great deal of paper work. Everybody knows how much paper work there is in the Home Guard. Whenever a man is directed to appear at a place outside his own battalion area, the local sub-unit has to communicate with the platoon, the platoon with the company, and the company with the battalion and the battalion has to write back again and to communicate with the next-door battalion as well, and this other battalion has to go through the whole process down to its own sub-unit concerned. The result is that every one of these cases is going to mean a great deal of correspondence, and we have already quite enough paper to cope with in the Home Guard, without having any more when it is unnecessary.

These are admittedly matters of administrative detail, and I should hesitate to bring them before your Lordships to-day were it not for one other point, which I regard as being of very much greater importance. It is this: when a man is told that he has to join the Home Guard, and either he or his employer objects for other than conscientious reasons, who is to give the final decision whether that man is to be enrolled or not? On that subject there exists the most complete confusion. Some labour exchanges take the view, particularly with regard to agricultural workers, that if they deem a man suitable, and the country agricultural committee have no objection, the Home Guard Commander must take that man. The local labour exchange, however, has absolutely no knowledge of the conditions of the man's employment or residence, and in some cases the county agricultural committee also know very little.

Let me again give an actual instance which has happened in one of the companies of my own battalion. A man on a farm in a remote area has been directed to attend at a certain place. There are two men of suitable age on that farm, and the other has been a sergeant in the Home Guard for a considerable period. It is a scattered area, and that sergeant is the only man who is able to drill and instruct both the already existing sub-unit and the new recruits who will shortly join. If the man whom it is new desired to compel to join that sub-unit in fact has to join, then, if he is to attend a sufficient number of drills to make him efficient—and, if he does not, there is no point in his joining—the sergeant will have to absent himself from an equal number of drills in order to look after the stock on the farm. The Company Commander, therefore, does not wish to take this man, because by so doing he would impair the efficiency of the local sub-unit. The labour exchange, on the other hand, say that because they have decreed that the man is eligible he must be taken. Who, I ask, is to decide?

A few days ago I spent a considerable amount of time with the Adjutant of my battalion considering the list of men supplied by the labour exchange whom it was proposed to direct into our ranks. I would mention in passing that so excellent has been the voluntary enrolment in my area that I do not think there is any chance of my being able to get the number of conscripts assigned to me, because men suitable for the purpose do not exist locally in sufficient numbers. We checked over the roll, and decided to take all the men except two, on whose physical condition it was necessary to have a medical report. One of the men strongly objected to being enrolled, on the ground of his agricultural work. We do not agree that his objection is valid, because on a farm only a few hundred yards from his own is a tenant whose position, as far as farm labour is concerned, is even less favourable than that of the man who objects, but who has been a member of the Home Guard since the beginning, and is now a non-commissioned officer. The result is that we are not disposed to agree with the objection; but is it right that the decision whether a man should or should not be taken into the Home Guard should be left to the arbitrary choice either of the local sub-unit commander, who may possibly have a prejudice in favour of or against the man, or to the completely ignorant decision of the local labour exchange official?

I submit that there ought to be some form of independent tribunal for each zone, consisting, perhaps, of three members, of whom the Chairman at least would have to be a civilian, and such a tribunal would be able to decide these appeals. The position at present is leading to a great deal of dissatisfaction, as well as to an increasing amount of the paper work to which I have already alluded. If this state of affairs is not remedied, it means that many men who do not wish to enter the Home Guard, hut who are compelled to do so, will do so bearing a certain amount of animus against their immediate superior officer, to whom they will ascribe, and probably correctly, the decision com- pelling them to enlist. I suggest that, in these circumstances, it would be very much better if the whole system could be reviewed, and some form of organization set up whereby the labour exchange would know beforehand where a man ought to report. I also suggest that some tribunal should be set up to near appeals. In an organization like the Home Guard, where local circumstances vary so very greatly, not only between zone and zone, but between town and town, and company and company, there must always be a certain amount of confusion and overlapping, but this particular form of confusion is avoidable. I submit that it could have been avoided in the past and can still be avoided in the future.


My Lords, speaking of quite a different part of the country, I want to endorse what my noble friend has just said. There seems quite definitely to be a necessity for tightening up the machinery for deciding who is to join the Home Guard and who is not. In the battalion of which I am a member this sort of thing is going on: A request was made for lists to be sent in, and lists were sent in, They were, as far as I know, completely ignored and the curious thing is that of the men whose names were sent up as those of men who were to join the Home Guard, in three cases that I know of the men had been members for a very considerable time, and one of them was even an officer. I make that point as showing the necessity for considerable tightening up of the machinery.


My Lords, the suggestion made in the Motion moved by the noble Earl and in the speech to which your Lordships have just listened is that there is an apparent lack of system in the method of selecting and calling-up compulsory recruits to the Home Guard. Let me deal first of all with the question of selection. It is important to remember that the Home Guard represents a part-time service, and that men called up for the Home Guard are, speaking generally, already doing a full-time job in some other approved work of national importance. It is most important to remember that fact. It is necessary to make in each case a very careful estimate as to where the balance of advantage lies before directing a man from work that he is doing, and that may be recognized as of vital national importance before you take him away from that and direct him to the Home Guard. For example, some men are already giving part-time in civil defence. And there are other questions, such as medical fitness, questions of conscience and of hardship, which have to be considered, and these matters have to be referred to, and are dealt with by, special boards. If a man establishes his claim, on the ground of hardship for example, no further question of selection arises.

But the question that remains after this matter of allocation is settled is whether in the national interest he should be directed to the Home Guard or not. On the one hand, there is the vital necessity to maintain production at its highest possible level, and every man taken away from that vital side of our national effort means a weakening of the process of national production. On the other hand, it is necessary to ensure that the Home Guard should be kept up to the highest possible strength. The question is not therefore, as the noble Earl would appear to imply in his speech, the simple one of whether compulsion should be applied or not. There are many factors that have to be taken into consideration, and the question becomes sometimes very complex.

In regard to exemption, about which the noble Earl spoke, it is necessary to say that workers in specific industries, which I will not delay your Lordships by reciting, have been given temporary exemption. A certain section, therefore, of those not in the Home Guard are engaged in other work for the moment vitally important, and they are therefore exempt. The noble Earl has referred to lists which Home Guard officers were good enough to draw up of men who, they thought, should be compelled to join the Home Guard. The noble Earl said it was perhaps a small point. I submit that it is not a small point that is involved here, but a major and very important point. The answer to the criticism of the noble Earl is that the Government could not in any event surrender to any outside body or person the responsibility of deciding who ought to be directed to enrol and who ought not. The principle involved does not apply only to the Home Guard, but to all forms of compulsory service and, as in the case of men called up for the Army, the Government must have and retain the sole responsibility for deciding, in the light of all the known facts, which men shall be directed to the Home Guard and which shall not. Therefore the suggestion that the local officers of the Home Guard might be entrusted with this duty is one which the Government at least are not able to accept.

Then there are other difficulties. Lists have been drawn up by the Government of men more or less eligible for this service, but the Government have to remember that a man cannot on principle be taken into the Home Guard if, in the emergency of a sudden invasion, he could not by reason of his civil employment he mustered for that service. For example, ambulance drivers, coastguards, police, doctors and others have to be available for the supreme necessity, should that arise, and that has to be taken into account. There are other safeguards against men in key positions being required for Home Guard purposes. It an employer feels, for instance, that the national interest would be prejudiced by the taking away of one of his workmen, or many of his workmen, he could make an appeal to the National Service officer, and he can also appeal in the end to the Government Department concerned.

The War Office makes provision within the Home Guard organization also to meet the needs of a man's civil employment. But there are those immediately "musterable" (if I may use such a word) on invasion and those who cannot immediately leave their work. Quite clearly the question can only be decided by the Government themselves or their responsible agents. The question of selection is difficult undoubtedly, but only one exception to the general rule that the youngest should be taken first, can be made—that is to say, if a young man is due very shortly to be called up to the Armed Forces, it is inadvisable to have him for a very short period in the Home Guard. So far as the Government know, that would not be popular with the Home Guard authorities themselves. That is another of the complicating issues that have to be faced. The numbers called up depend on Home Guard requirements, and these differ in different areas. In some areas the demands are not so heavy as in others, and older men may not even be required in these areas. In other areas the need is very great, and every man capable of serving is expected to respond.

These are the difficulties. I have not attempted to give your Lordships the details of the machinery, but I have said enough to indicate that they are, of necessity, elaborate and complicated. The machinery is not haphazard. It falls in proper sequence, and it is rather refreshing to hear that there is not enough machinery available, because the general criticism in these times is that the machinery is far too elaborate. The procedure adopted is, as I have said, systematic. It provides for things to be taken in proper sequence, and we cannot see any stage in the procedure that could be cut out without serious trouble arising. I have tried to show that there is no simple rule of compulsion to the exclusion of other considerations. The issues involved are variable and urgent, and only those who have responsibility for the organization of the total national effort can know just what these issues are, and what should be done adequately to meet them.


My Lords, before we leave the subject, may I respectfully say to the noble Lord that all he said would have been relevant to the occasion if it had been stated before the Lord Chancellor, from his place here, defined the new Government policy? All that the noble Lord said is completely at variance with the new policy announced from this place. My noble friend referred to men who are "musterable"—a new word, a very valuable word, a very good and useful word—in the event of invasion. Until the Lord Chancellor spoke here, and made his epoch-making declaration restoring the old law, you might have said some were "musterable" in the event of invasion, which is what we are talking about, and some were not. But now we know—and I beg the noble Lord to make a further statement on behalf of the Government because I am sure he did not realize it when he spoke—that all are "musterable," everyone. Standing just here, the Lord Chancellor said on behalf of the Government that His Majesty's Government expect that every stout-hearted man, in the event of invasion, will do his utmost to overcome the enemy, whether be belongs to the Civil Defence or any other Force. They are all "musterable."

It is a sad thing about this business of government, it is such a ponderous machine, so slow moving, that one half does not know what the other half is doing. What must my noble friend really say to this House in view of the new declaration by the Lord Chancellor? He should reply to the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, "Well, of course, the question of compulsion for the Home Guard is a difficult one, but we all realize, in view of the new decision, that we must take every step to train every man to arms, of whatever age, young or old, rich or poor, as was the law of this country until, unfortunately, some Quislings said otherwise when this war began." I appeal to my noble friend to make it clear to the House that every effort will be made to see that every man in this country shall be trained to arms for, unless they do that, they will obviously fail in their duty to save a man from his own folly in confronting an invader of the soil of this country without being taught to use a weapon. I beg my noble friend to make that clear. I support my noble friend Lord Mansfield in what he said, and I hope my noble friend Lord Snell will say now, here in this House—the matter is not one of small importance—that the Government are going to see to it that every man is trained to arms since they have told us that every man is bound to fight on the day.


My Lords, I shall not take any credit for the use of the word "musterable." I wish to say that at once. But I would ask the noble Lord to consider this. It may be quite true that everybody, in an emergency, must give the best service he can to the nation. But who s to decide what is the best service he can give—the local Home Guard officer or the responsible agent of the Government? Is a Home Guard officer to be empowered to call from his duties a coastguard? Is he to be free to call a doctor who may be very urgently wanted? Is he to be free to call a policeman who may have to direct and control civil order? These things must be decided by the responsible Government representative. The whole of our democratic life is involved in that matter. I only have to say to the noble Lord who has just spoken that the Government are not asleep on this matter. They know quite well what the issues are, and what is required, and, within the complexity of the subject, they are doing their very best to secure that the highest possible efficiency is maintained. Every one of us has of course a duty to resist the enemy, but there are many essential civilian jobs which have to be carried on to the very last moment and even perhaps all the time. I only make these observations in response to the noble Lord, without any immediate authority from the Government


My Lords, I must confess to a feeling almost of bewilderment inasmuch as the noble Lord's reply has been, as far as 95 per cent. of its contents are concerned, totally irrelevant to anything which I mentioned in the course of my speech. If the noble Lord will pardon my saying so, he really cannot have listened at all to my remarks, because he said I had made a suggestion that the Home Guard officer should be empowered to have the responsibility of deciding whether or not a man was to be compelled to enrol. It will be within the recollection of most of your Lordships that I spent several minutes saying how I objected to this as being entirely invidious and likely to lead to a great deal of dissatisfaction. One statement made by the noble Lord was that there were special boards which had been set up to hear appeals from those who were dissatisfied. All I can say is that if these special boards exist they have been so admirably concealed that this is the first occasion, as far as I am aware, anyone has ever heard of them.

The noble Lord has not replied in the very least to my main question which was this—who has the final decision as to whether a man is compulsorily enrolled or not? That is the most important thing I want to bring up here to-day. We have heard absolutely nothing about that. All we have had apparently is a Departmental reply dictated by someone in the War Office who did not know what I was going to say, very naturally. I suggest that it would be extremely advantageous to His Majesty's Government and the War Office representatives if they would consider the points I have made point by point, and on some suitable occasion give a direct answer to them, because I must confess that I am totally dissatisfied with the answer that I have received to-day. Naturally there is no question of a Division now. At the same time I must say that I hope this matter will be very carefully considered. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.