HL Deb 21 July 1942 vol 123 cc927-33

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which in another place met with general approval and passed through all its stages without challenge. Its proposals were carefully examined and some necessary clarifications were made during its progress through another place. The purpose of the measure was generally accepted as reasonable and right. I need not, therefore, trouble your Lordships with any detailed explanation of the Bill; but a few words describing its scope and purpose may be useful, and, indeed, necessary. The Bill is intended to complete for the present the series of Acts of Parliament arising out of the presence in this country of seven Allied Governments. Parliament has already passed the Allied Forces Act of August, 1940, enabling the Allied Governments to maintain discipline among persons already serving in the Allied Forces, the Diplomatic Privileges (Extension) Act of March, 1941, providing fitting status for the personnel of the Allied Governments, and the Allied Powers (Maritime Courts) Act of May, 1941, enabling the Allied Governments to maintain discipline in their own ships and to direct their seamen to go to sea.

The policy of His Majesty's Government is and has been to enable those Governments to continue their own administration. All of them have, or are developing, Armed Forces which are giving valuable and very much appreciated help to the Allied cause, and I know that your Lordships would wish to express your appreciation of all that they have done and are preparing to do. Those members of the Allied Forces at present in our country have indeed far more to endure than we ourselves have to endure. They realize that their own homes and land are being defiled by one or more merciless invaders, and I do not know any more moving sight in London at the present time than the sight of these Allied Nationals walking our streets with the agonies of their respective countries reflected upon their faces. The majority of these Allied Nationals are already serving in National Forces. Less than 10,000 remain in civil life, and, probably, at least one-third of these are engaged on important work from which it is undesirable to move them. So far as the remainder are concerned His Majesty's Government and the Allied Governments feel that they should not avoid military service except on grounds of the importance of an individual's civil work. That principle has been agreed to by all the Allied Governments except one, and it is hoped that agreement in that respect will shortly be secured.

The Bill establishes a procedure for ensuring that, when a person has not voluntarily joined up by a certain date, he shall be called up to join the British Forces. The Bill can be applied to the nationals of any country allied with His Majesty's Government, but it can only be 50 applied with the assent of the particular Government concerned. Men who are of British military age may have two months—an Order in Council so provides—within which they must join their own National Forces, and if they do not they may be called up to join the British Forces. It is intended to post Allied Nationals who are called up for the British Forces to the Pioneer Corps, unless they have special qualifications for service in the Royal Air Force. Allied Governments will be entitled at their discretion to issue certificates of exemption to any of their nationals. Men to whom certificates are issued will not be liable to be called up for the British Forces. It is proposed to give employers an early opportunity to apply for the deferment of the calling up of Allied Nationals employed on vital war work. The Government will ask the Allied Governments not to call up such men to their own Forces and they will not be called up to the British Forces. That constitutes a very short description of the purpose and scope of this Bill. It is the result of long negotiations with the powers concerned. It is right in principle, and I hope that your Lordships will agree that it should be passed into law. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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


My Lords, when the original Act was passed, about two years ago, giving to the Allied Governments disciplinary powers over their Forces, it was foreseen that some such measure as this would be brought forward, and those of us who were somewhat suspicious of the powers that might be exercised, either disciplinary or otherwise, did our best to see that this measure, when it did come forward, should be in accordance with our more liberal British traditions. I took a deputation to the Foreign Office, asking in particular that the option of joining the British Army should be given 1o all these foreign nationals. That was finally conceded. The Allied Governments agreed to it, and, above all, our own Army authorities agreed to it. I think that that is a great step in advance, because many of the people to whom this measure applies are merely nominally nationals of another country. A great many of them—Poles, Dutch, Belgians, French and others—have lived here for thirty years or so. They belong generally to the poorer classes, who have not acquired naturalization owing to the expense, and therefore they are still nominally the subjects of a foreign Government. Those people may not even speak a word of the language of the nationality to which they are supposed to belong; they have acquired English habits and customs, and they would infinitely prefer to be in the British Army rather than to be relegated to the Army of a country which they have long since abandoned.

In that respect this Bill is an enormous advance and should be welcomed by all those who have interested themselves in this very intricate subject. There are still, however, two points in this Bill which I think are extremely objectionable. There have been many cases where pressure by some Allied Government has forced their nationals into the Army of that Government already—not legally, but by bringing pressure to bear upon them. The subjects of the Allied Government, not knowing what the law was, were induced to enter the Allied Army; they then discovered that the Allied Government had no power to compel them to join, and so they deserted, and, being within their rights, they went back to civil life. Many of them are now working in munition factories and elsewhere. Under this Bill, however, provided that they have ever served even for a day in the Army of an Allied Government, they are liable to be called up again for service in that Army; they have not the option, given by Clause 5, of joining the British Army.

When this Bill was discussed in another place, what my noble friend Lord Snell has called "clarifications" were made; that is to say, pledges were given by the Attorney-General that in such cases as that, where a man had at one time been a member of an Allied Army, he should not be debarred from joining the British Army, if he had meanwhile returned to civil life. That is what every one in the House of Commons wanted, and I think that it would appeal to your Lordships also as being just and proper; but an ex cathedra statement by the Attorney-General is not the same as a definite provision in the Bill. I am a little nervous about these promises that are given—we have had dozens of cases of the same sort—which cut no ice in a Court of Law. I think it would he worth while considering, between now and the Committee stage, whether it is not possible to frame words which would secure that right which we all intend these people to have; even if they have for a short time served in a foreign Army, they should be in exactly the same position as those who have refused to go into the Army at all. There is one point in that connexion which I wish to make clear. It has been supposed that these people are showing a lack of patriotism in preferring the British Army to the Army of their own Government, but I do not think that any weight should be given to that argument. They are desperately anxious to help in the war, and naturally they like doing so amongst people whose language they speak, and, above all, amongst people who are sympathetic towards their point of view. That is something which ought to be understood, and I hope that we shall be able to make this Bill cover all the people to whom it should apply.

There is one point in the speech of my noble friend Lord Snell which I do not like. These people, who are quite rightly allowed to join the British Army, and who are also allowed to work in our war factories, ought to be allowed to join something a little more active, or at least a little more dangerous, than the Pioneer Corps. They do not want their part in this war against Hitler to be confined to a passive role. The reason for putting them into the Pioneer Corps, quite frankly, is that, being foreign subjects, they may be liable to execution if they have to surrender to the enemy; they are therefore put into the Pioneer Corps because it is thought that that is less likely to involve them in surrender. The Pioneer Corps, unfortunately, have in fact been compelled to surrender quite as much as any active troops, and there is no safeguard for a man's life if he surrenders by putting him into the Pioneer Corps, but only less chance of escape. Moreover, these people do not ask for this security; what they ask for is the right to fight, and I think that, when we take them into the Army, we might give them a chance of fighting. I have received masses of letters from refugees now serving in the Pioneer Corps, not complaining of the conditions in the Pioneer Corps or of the work which they are doing, but saying that their relations have been butchered in Poland, in Germany, in Rumania or elsewhere, and yet they are not allowed to kill a German; they are not allowed to fight. I think we ought to realize that it is no longer the exclusive privilege of an Englishman to be killed in the defence of liberty. I beg the noble Lord who is in charge of this Bill to make representations to the War Office, to the Admiralty and to the Air Force, that these people should be allowed to enter those Services where there is danger, and not be shepherded into those Services which are safe, and therefore less noble. Of the two points to which I have referred, the first can be dealt with in the Committee stage, but the second is impossible of amendment here, and depends entirely upon public opinion. Well, we have some influence with public opinion, and I think we might bring such pressure to bear upon the Fighting Services of this country that these people would be afforded the opportunity enjoyed by all of us of risking our lives in the common cause.

It is idle for me to conceal the fact that most of these people I am speaking of are Jews. I wish I did not always have to speak for the Jews; I wish the Jewish members of this House would do it instead. The mass of abusive letters one gets about Jews is almost intolerable: every Fascist who ought to be locked up under 18B seems to take a delight in writing me anonymous postcards. But this is not a question of the Jews—it affects the Jews, but this is a question of our reputation, of British honour. It is incumbent upon us to see that even those unfortunate refugees who happen to be Jews should have as decent a chance to fight Germany, as decent a chance of justice and fair play, as any other part of the population of these Islands.


My Lords, first of all let me assure my noble friend that his remarks will receive consideration, and if it is possible to meet his desires at the Committee stage, steps will be taken in order to do so. I thank him for his general approval of the Bill. There are few Bills that come before your Lordships' House that some of us would not like to amend in one direction or another. I can only say in regard to the two points that he has mentioned, first of all that of pressure, that for two years now the Allied Powers have been calling up their nationals, and this Bill at least does something to relieve the pressure; that is to say that if the pressure is continued and the persons concerned will not respond to the call, then in two months they will have the privilege, or, if you like, the right, to join the British Army. In regard to the Pioneer Corps, I only desire to say that in the opinion of His Majesty's Government the Pioneer Corps is a combatant corps, and it is an honourable branch of service, in which so far a good many foreigners have served, with very great distinction. Nevertheless, the remarks made by the noble Lord will be considered. I now invite your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

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

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