HL Deb 15 November 1945 vol 137 cc999-1010

6.9 p.m.

LORD LLEWELLIN moved to resolve, That this House is of the opinion that there is urgent need for an acceleration of the present rate of demobilization of the Armed Forces of the Crown and of the turnover of factories from war to peace production. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not think I need make any apology or excuse for raising the important matter with which my Motion deals. The slow rate of demobilization is indeed causing great concern to officers and men in all three Services, to their relatives at home, to those who are trying to get the wheels of industry and commerce going again, and indeed to every man and woman who takes however small an interest in the affairs of his or her country.

We are faced with this paradoxical situation. We are the country which has been the supreme example of throwing everything into the fight with the paramount purpose of winning the war as speedily as possible. Others, of course, played their part, and their full part. But I know, especially as I had the honour to serve for a year of the war in North America, that fully informed men, both in the United States and Canada, will readily admit that in proportion to our numbers we bore the most onerous share. Having restricted our people most, having divested ourselves of practically all our overseas investments, and having cut our export trade down to the most meagre proportions—and that was after all the mainstay of our standard of living in this country—we are the country which has the greatest need to get back quickest to normal civil production. Yet we find that both the United States and Canada are demobilizing their Forces and getting back to peace-time production far quicker than we are here.

Only last Saturday I gave two Service men a lift in my car. One was an English gunner and the other was a Canadian airman. I asked them whether they were due for demobilization. The Canadian said: "In six days' time I sail from Southampton and as soon as I get back to Canada I will be demobilized." I said to him: "How long will you then have served?" and he answered "Three and a half years." I turned to the Englishman—perhaps it was unfortunate that they were both in the car together—and I asked him when he expected to get out of the Army. He said: "About the end of March next year." I said: "How long will you then have served?" and he replied: "I was one of the people who was called up in the summer of 1939 under the Military Training Act, before ever the war started." There we have two cases, a Canadian with three and a half years' service and an Englishman with almost seven, yet both this country and Canada entered the war practically together. Both have fought it together throughout and both have undertaken their share of the responsibility for the occupation of enemy countries and for creating the conditions under which a lasting peace may, we hope, be established.

Let no one think that I am saying either that the United States Administration or His Majesty's Government in Canada is doing anything wrong. I think they are tackling the problem well. I blame His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. I think they are doing this job very badly, just about as badly as any body of men could do it. Let no one blame the Admirals, the Air-Marshals or Field-Marshals because this is clearly a Government matter. The Government are, of course, right in taking the advice of their Chiefs of Staff, but if the Chiefs of Staff are being too cautious it is the duty of the Government to override them and to govern. It certainly is the Government's responsibility and no one else's.

The general principle of what has gone by the name of the Bevin scheme—although, I believe, a great part of it was due to his very able Parliamentary Secretary—was obviously sound, but that scheme cannot be like the laws of the Medes and Persians so that it altereth not. We even had a revised version of the Bible, so let us see whether we cannot have a revised version of the Bevin scheme. We have got to try to make the scheme more flexible than it is. In the original scheme there was a provision which enabled men to be retained if military necessity demanded it. A number of airmen have been told that under this provision they will be kept longer than their opposite numbers in the other two Services. Similarly, Army officers in Groups 22, 23 and 24 have now received similar unwelcome news.

I want, for one moment, if I may, to digress from my main argument and to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War, why it was necessary to defer all officers in those groups. Officers are not completely interchangeable between one unit and another. I will take, if I may, an instance of how this is working out in Burma. Until the present time, so I am informed, there have been two Movement Control areas in Burma which have been manned by fifty officers. During this week or next they are to be amalgamated into one Movement Control area which will only need twenty-nine officers. Therefore there are twenty-one officers surplus. Out of those twenty-one, nine are in these three groups. Although there are twenty-one surplus officers on dial quite technical work, which is quite different from being a gunner or an infantryman, or anything of that sort, these nine officers are going to be kept on because of this dictum from the War Office that the demobilization of alt officers has got to be deferred.

To come back to my main argument, the House, I think, should remember that this military necessity provision was included at a time when we were still at war with the Japanese and when it was thought that that war would continue well after the time when demobilization had started. The point I wish to make is that things have changed since V J day, but as far as I can see there has been no change, except the one I have referred to about these officers, made by any of the three Service Departments or by the Government. They have not realized that they should, and that they can, hasten demobilization now that the war with Japan is over. Whereas then there was an overriding necessity to keep people on owing to military needs, there is, in my submission to the House, a greater necessity than that at this present time; that is the necessity for this country to pay its way in the world and the necessity to see that the people of this country are able to have many more of the necessary things of which they have been kept short during the past five years.

We all hope that the Prime Minister is going to be really successful in what must be one of the main purposes of his visit to the United States, which is to get such financial accommodation as is needed on terms not wounding to our future or to the future of the British Empire, terms which will enable us to carry on during the interim period necessary for our recovery. But we cannot be dependent for longer than an interim period, and a short interim period, on the generosity of our friends in the United States. We must at the earliest possible moment put our house in order and start our great industries going again at full swing on their civilian tasks.

Nor should we be content to see our people still queueing for food—and the queues are just as long as they were when I was Minister of Food—still queueing for buses, still standing packed like sardines in the corridors of our trains, and still being rationed for goods which, had we the labour, we could produce in ample supply in this country. We should not be content with those conditions for one moment longer than is necessary. Indeed, I now begin to realize why the Government decided, in the Bill which we have been discussing this afternoon, that the controls there provided should go on for five years instead of two. It is because they found themselves completely unable decisively to tackle the problem of demobilization. Their predecessors—both the Caretaker Government and the Coalition Government—were convinced that two years would be enough, but under the present Government we are clearly doomed to the five years' penal servitude which they are about to inflict upon all of us.

While I was at the Ministry of Food, the problem constantly arose with the Argentine, with Brazil and with many other countries of what, if they sent us food, we could send them in return. We must soon be in a position to be able to send them something in return. A Chinese delegation was in this country not long ago to try to place orders, hut no manufacturer could give them firm delivery dates, because no one knew quite where he stood in regard to man-power. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to drift. The most absurd thing of all in a post-war period is to find that some firms, including one or two most important firms from the point of view of our export trade, are losing more men by the call-up of their apprentices than they are getting back from the Forces by demobilization. I am not one of those who would say that these young men, deferred during the war for good reasons, should at no time in their lives do any military training; but I do say that before they are called up arrangements ought to be made so that some demobilized men go back to those important firms to take the place of the men who are being called up for the Army or the other Services.

Again, in nearly every heavy engineering industry, and in all industries that are going to make something different in peace from that which they have made in war, we find that their replanning and reconstruction are being in almost every case retarded because they cannot get their draughtsmen out of the Services. That is going to have a delaying effect and to hamper those industries even when there is a bigger flood of the normally demobilized men. Then take one of our main industries, cotton, an industry most valuable for the export trade generally, and quite invaluable for exports to some of our Colonies. It is very difficult to get people in West Africa to go on working for bits of paper. They much prefer to buy, as I am sure the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, will agree, consumer goods of some kind, and there is a particular demand in that part of the world for cotton goods. We want to keep up our supplies of oils and fats. We want to get this cotton industry going again, not only for those people but for the people of this country too. It is about time that our people were able to get the new clothes, the sheets, the towels and the other household necessities which they need and deserve.

In the spinning section of this industry, whereas there were 150,000 workers in 1939, there are only 75,000 workers today; and, out of the 18o mills which were compulsorily closed down during the war, only forty have been reopened, and they are in the main working to only about 5o per cent. of their capacity because of lack of labour. Many of these mills are still being used as Government stores. In one case the Ministry of Agriculture gave permission for a factory to make 200 tractors, but unfortunately the War Office has some tyres in this factory, and it could not give up the 35,000 sq. ft. used for their storage. There are many people in this country who could do with some tyres! I imagine that the War Office must have millions of tyres in different parts of the world. It should evacuate that factory and let it get on with making these tractors. The War Office should sell off a few of these tyres if it cannot find somewhere else to store them.

With regard to another of our great industries, the coal mines, during the seventeen days for which I had the honour to be President of the Board of Trade—the comment in the Department after I had gone was "That's Llewellin, that was"—I was on to this problem of the miners. That was early in 1942. The matter, apparently, was allowed to drift, and it is still being allowed to drift. I know what you are up against when you try to get a particular class of people out of the Army. When I was commanding a battery in the last war we had nine miners in our small battery, and we had orders to send them away. The sergeant-major said "We cannot spare these men." They were very good men and very good people on the guns. I said to him "If a shell came down and killed those nine men, the battery would still go on, would it not?" And the answer had to be that it would. So we lost those nine men; and within a week the battery was just as efficient as it had been when they were there. We must have more of an effort than we are having now to get men like miners out of the Army and back to their job, because the people of this country cannot be expected always to go on with too little coal and with too little gas and so on.

Then let us look at the building trade. In September I went round a modern brickworks, and found only three kilns doing any work at all. The rest of the battery of kilns were empty and were not being used. I asked why. The answer was: "No labour," or rather "No efficient labour." There was an extremely efficient and courteous foreman and he pointed to three crocks—I cannot call them Englishmen for this place was in Scotland, but they were Britishers and they were crocks—and six Italians. The Italians were not doing a hand's turn. We walked into one of the kilns and we found the six of them just sitting about. There are many brickworks in the same position, and we shall find ourselves—if nothing is done about problems of that sort—with the building trade workers back over here and held up by a shortage of bricks.

Take the case of the ordinary building operatives, the bricklayers, the carpenters, and so on. Before the Election I remember the present Foreign Secretary, who was Minister of Labour in the Coalition Government, promising that 80,000 would come out immediately afterwards under the Class B scheme. That, I am told, would have meant in the North Western region that 15,000 men would have returned. Up to date they have got at most only 1,000 back. I give that as one instance of the sort of thing that is happening. It may be that the Class B conditions are not attractive enough. l am sure that the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the Class B men do not get fifty-six days' demobilization leave but only fourteen.




Oh, twenty-one, is it? I think it is quite right they should not be idle for fifty-six days, but I think it would be much cheaper for the State if they were given a gratuity of fifty-six days' pay and encouraged to come back to these most essential jobs. The thing is to get these men out of the Forces. Let us have -them on the jobs which so much need doing, and let us get on with building houses for the people who so much need them. I am told that the Minister of Health made a very good speech in another place, and I notice that the Minister of Fuel and Power has been making an appeal to the mining industry. 'Well, the country wants deeds not words. I remember both those Ministers, during the days of the Coalition Government, making well-delivered and critical speeches about that Government. I would like to give them this bit of advice: that they should make speeches in the same strain now to their colleagues in this Government. Let them make those speeches in the Cabinet room.

In addition to the matters with which I have been dealing, I would point out that we are still making munitions here in considerable quantities. A factory situated near to the place where I live is still turning out 20 mm. guns. In 1942, when I had the honour to be Minister of Aircraft Production, we had no concern about those guns. We had lots of concern about lots of things in connexion with our aircraft programme, but we were not worried as to the production of those particular guns. Yet, this factory has been working on the production of these guns, and on night shifts since VJ day. Then, too, according to the Minister of Supply, we are still turning out one-third of the number of armoured fighting vehicles that we were producing last May. I would like to ask the Government why are we doing this? What are these vehicles for? Are we shortly going to have them sent to factories so that they may be broken up in order that the brass may be separated from the steel and the aluminium from the other components? Surely we must have masses of that kind of stores for the Army that we intend to keep. It seems to me quite absurd to carry on in this way. These places should now be making tractors, motor cars and, generally speaking, should go back to their ordinary civil industry and help us to pay our way in the world.

I was glad to note that the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for Air, yesterday showed a realization of these things. He was talking about the size of cur Forces in the future, and he said: Then we have to consider the economic capacity of this country. We must export or we cannot live. We also have to consider the financial burden this country can bear. Well, my point is: why not do that now? Why have these vast numbers of men still a Charge on the country, when they ought to be engaged in doing these jobs and making things for consumption in this country and for export abroad? According to the figures which have been given—they may be a week old, they were given in another place—we have 4,460,000 people including, I suppose, women, in the three Fighting Services. By next June, on the Government's own showing, it will only be necessary to have 2,408,000. I think, myself, that probably that is too many but at any rate on the Government's own showing that is to be the number. So, at the moment, we have over 2,000,000 persons in the Armed Services of the Crown that on any military grounds—for I assume they are not going to reduce too much by June— are just surplus, and are doing nothing. They are, in fact, a great paid army of unemployed.

Now take the position in this country. We have 2,160,000 officers and men serving at home. We are told that, excluding those training in the R.A.F., there are 600,000 who are being trained or who are acting as instructors to train them. If we add, say, another 50,000, as representing the necessary personnel of the R.A.F. in this country, and 50,000 for naval shore establishments here—after all that is well over one-third of the vote in 1939—and, say, another 100,000 for airmen and soldiers now in this country, we get a figure of 800,000 whom it may be necessary to keep in this country. That means that there are over 1,250,000 people who are doing nothing useful at all, they are just, as it were, awaiting their turn to go. I know, myself, a gun site which has not been occupied for the past two years but now there are 350 gunners upon it. It is close to where I live. The officers are unable to find anything for these men to do. I asked a soldier from another camp what he and his fellows found to do. He said that for an hour or so every morning they brushed up leaves and after that, for the rest of the day, there was really nothing to do.

These men are just getting browned off, just as brown as the beech leaves they are sweeping up. They dislike this idleness; it is to their credit that they do. It will make it more difficult for them to settle down to regular work when their time of demobilization comes. The country needs them in agriculture, in industry and in the distributive trades. I know how hard pressed the food distributive trade has been, with the older people who have been carrying on until these men come home, and it would be far better for their children if they were back at home. Our figures of juvenile delinquency have, unfortunately, gone up during the war and the overriding reason, as anyone who has studied this question will tell you, is the absence of the father from the home. So I say to the Government that they really must quicken up this process. I know that there is some talk of a shortage of ships. Let this Government take the country into their confidence. Tell us what ships are being used. It is not giving away secrets to the enemy now because there is no enemy to give them away to. Let this cloak of secrecy be removed and then we can all of us judge whether the Government are doing their best to get these men back from Burma and elsewhere.

Besides that, let us know the numbers in the next four or five groups in the Army, of those serving in India and the Far East. Let us know what the problem is, because I think that in the end we may be very well advised to explain to these men that their families at home need the extra coal and the houses. Put that way the British soldier will say: "That is all right. If they get out a month or so before me, so long as I know the Army authorities are doing their best to get me home, I shall be quite happy." Otherwise, so far as I can see, it we adhere rigidly to these groups and if anyone in Surabaya kicks up some trouble and they cannot get home, we shall never get anything going at all. I must say that I deplore the Government's handling of this particular problem. I think it has just been drift, drift, drift, and fumble, fumble, fumble. It is the most urgent and important problem of the day, and I say this despite the fact that at the recent General Election the people were sadly misled and badly misled and were misguided enough to put the present Government into power. Nevertheless, because of their constancy, their cheerfulness and their courage during the years of war, the people deserve a better fate than that which the Government's dilatory methods in demobilization is opening up for all of us in this country. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House is of the opinion that there is urgent need for an acceleration of the present rate of demobilization of the Armed Forces of the Crown and of the turnover of factories from war to peace production.—(Lord Llewellin.)

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, after the very comprehensive statement made by the noble Lord who has introduced this Motion, I intend to delay you for a very few minutes only with some very general remarks. As one who has recently been demobilized, I realize that I am open to the retort that if I had been unhappily detained like some of those who have been described by the last speaker, I might have taken a different view. I think it must be conceded, however, that having no axe to grind I am in a better position to discern the wood from the trees. From the experience which all of us remember after the last war, I am sure that no one would wish us to go through those chaotic conditions and that they should not be repeated. Those of us who remember clearly the end of the last war will realize that there was a very good scheme evolved for demobilization, just like the present one in principle, although not carried out in quite the same detail. But very soon after the last shot had been fired exception became the rule, and I do not think anybody wishes to see that occur again.

Everybody will admit—and the last speaker has referred to it very pointedly —that it is absurd for a man at home to be retained in the Services simply because someone in the same group is unable to be released from abroad for one' reason or another, possibly shipping. While that is true, and we all subscribe to the theory of equal treatment being sound, in this connexion I do not think that extra pay or leave, as was suggested in another place, would go far to compensate those people who are not to get home. Surely the question is larger than just a mathematical fairness as between one person and another. Have we not to guard against this possibility, that in trying to be fair to one we give fairness to nobody and we make the rest pay all too dearly just for a mathematical equality between individuals?

We have embarked in this country on a policy of security from the cradle to the grave. We have agreed that equal opportunity for all is what we should aim at. As I mentioned just now, let us guard against the danger of attempting to be too equal and of giving opportunities to none. I1 has been pointed out forcibly that this country can only live by its trade, and I have a feeling that the more ruthless system being carried out in the United States of America will leave us far behind in this connexion. It may well be that the Americans, with their present methods, will set up a large body of temporary unemployed, but I am convinced that they will, at the same time, get the wheels of their industry going a great deal quicker than we shall.

As has been pointed out by the noble. Lord who moved this Motion, it is true to say, and I think that it cannot really be contradicted, that we are solving a potential unemployment problem by retaining redundant people in the Forces to-day. This is no doubt temporarily uneconomic. But in fairness I must say that the Government should be given credit to this extent, that they are now bearing in mind the very demoralizing effect which the "dole" had in the past and they do not wish that to occur as it did after the last war. Which, then, is the best method? is it ours or that practised in America? I think that only time will show. But is it really necessary that we should choose between one extreme and another? I put it to your Lordships in conclusion that there is a middle way upon which we can embark.


My Lords, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Viscount Samuel.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.