HL Deb 22 January 1959 vol 213 cc710-22

3.12 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill deals with personnel who served, or were liable to serve, for reserve service under the Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves Act, 1954; that is to say, Classes P and N of the Army General Reserve, Class G in the R.A.F., and the Royal Naval Special Reserve Special List. These men would be called up only when there was the gravest war emergency, and it is now possible to restrict the numbers which are liable for this service.

The effect of this Bill is to confine reserve liability to those who entered the Armed Forces after the end of 1948; those who entered before that date will be released from their reserve liability under the 1954 Act at the end of June next. This will mean, in effect, that when the 1954 Act expires at the end of next June, there will be about 3 million men who will no longer be liable to recall to service. This will leave in the Reserves covered by this Bill: Army: about 400,000 men; Royal Air Force: about 240,000 men; Royal Navy: about 17,000 men. By the year 1965 these figures will be rather more than doubled.

We think that the extension of this liability from 1959 to 1964 is enough, at least for the time being. In the first place, the situation may radically change by 1964; and in the second place, we think that Parliament should at least have an opportunity of considering what extension, if any, of the liability beyond 1964 would then be justified.

The decision will, of course, in some measure depend not only on how the situation appears at that time, but also on how the normal volunteer reserves have built up. I should add that there is no training obligation under the 1954 Act, and none is imposed under the present Bill. All the men concerned will continue to belong to what is in peace time an inactive Reserve. They will be called up only in the event of a grave emergency when a large body of disciplined men would be needed. All this Bill in fact does is to extend the period of liability for certain reservists under the 1954 Act, and the liability for the remainder under that Act will cease to be effective as from the end of July this year. I beg to move.

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

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Earl has told us, the objects of this Bill are to relieve those who became compulsorily members of the Armed Forces before January 1, 1949, of all compulsory Reserve obligation on June 30 next; and, secondly, to prolong the provisions of the 1954 Act in respect of men who became members of the Forces after January 1, 1949. These will remain with Reserve obligation, as he said, unless Parliament rules to the contrary, until June 30, 1964. The effect is to reduce the number with this type of Reserve obligation to 650,000 men. As the present number of men with this Reserve obligation is 3½ million, what your Lordships are being asked to do this afternoon—which seems to me a fairly important step to take—is to release from reserve obligation some 2,850,000 men. That is one of the objects of the Bill. I should have thought that the Government, in asking your Lordships to do this, would have given us some evidence that it is safe to do so; that they would have provided some sort of test for us.

The noble Earl has not given us any indication of the safety or otherwise of releasing this vast number of men, and I think we ought for a moment to consider whether it is safe to release these men; and to answer this question we must briefly look at the Government's defence policy, or at that part of the defence policy which is available to us. In the past, my Lords, our forces have sometimes been adequate and sometimes not. In 1914 and 1939 there was a defence policy. In the first instance there was also an adequate force available to support it, with one or two exceptions. In 1939, however, there was not an adequate force; and the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, has told us in his Memoirs that in 1939 the British Army was totally unfit to fight a first-class war on the Continent.

At the present moment what is the condition of our forces? We have recently seen that situation at Suez; and in the dispatches of General Keightley we were concerned to note his complaint that although the period of notice which had been accepted for the start of operations was ten days, in the event he got little more than ten hours; that he had an air-lift of only two battalions; that he had only a limited number of landing craft—in fact, 18 L.S.T.s and 11 L.C.T.s; that he was condemned to base his operations from Cyprus where there was a lack of harbours, anchorages and landing craft hards, and a shortage of airfields. The conditions of the forces, as we see from General Keightley's dispatches, was not such as to meet the Government's defence policy, even in a limited operation like Suez.

What is the broad policy of the Government always has been hard, and seems to be becoming harder, to elucidate. At one time we thought we had it. At one time, so far as the Royal Air Force was concerned, it was to have a strategic bomber force carrying megaton bombs and a fighter force to guard the bomber bases. Both bombers and fighters were said to be within sight of the end of their usefulness. This policy, we were told, was particularly that of the Prime Minister and of the Minister of Defence. It was not, obviously, approved either by the Service Ministers—or not by all of them—or by the Chiefs of Staff, particularly the Chiefs of the Air Force; and as a result of debate and continuous pressure it appears as if bombers and fighters have now had something of a reprieve.

The Royal Navy is dwindling away and is only a shadow of its former self, a ghost fleet; and yet it may well have a vital rôle to play. In the third case, as regards the Army, I suggested to your Lordships as far back as March 6 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 207, col. 1216] that what is required is a highly trained, well-armed, compact and fast-moving force to dial with threats, either to the United Kingdom or to the rest of the Commonwealth, in circumstances where the nuclear deterrent does not necessarily apply. I am glad to see that the Government are coming round to this way of thinking. The Royal Air Force is to have a new tactical freighter to increase the mobility of the Forces, able to carry 70 to 80 armed troops or a freight load of 13½ tons. We on these Benches have long agitated for such a freighter and are very glad that one has now been agreed to.

The defence policy is in the melting pot once more. In another place on December 10 last the Under Secretary of State for War said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 597 (No. 32), col. 387]: It is perfectly true that at this stage the mobilisation plans and the general concept of what a global war would mean for this country are in the process of being developed and worked out. One might think, after all the decisions about strategic bomber forces and fighter forces and the Royal Navy, and now the release of these reserves, that it was a bit late to be in the position now to be working out the global war concept and mobilisation plans. It might have been thought that the Government would have done this before they introduced this Bill. The Government's defence policy is like the Cheshire Cat: you think you have got hold of it, and then you find there is nothing left but the grin!

Let us test the Bill against the policy. Presumably the Government now have in mind the fact that mass armies are likely to be a thing of the past. With little or no opportunity of calling up, sorting out, equipping, posting, and training, the sort of reserves envisaged under the 1954 Act are unlikely to be effective. This is especially so as the War Office, of course, have no complete records of their portion of the reserves, and these reserves are neither enrolled nor allocated to units. Why the personnel arrangements of the War Office are so bad it is difficult to understand. We remember that the records were highly defective, at any rate so far as officers were concerned, during the war, and they seem to be no better in peace. Why, after all these years, they are unable to have a complete record, an enrolment, or an allocation to units of these men, it is very difficult to understand.

Now, strange as it may seem, at almost the very moment at which this Bill is being presented to Parliament for the jettisoning of these men, France is doing exactly the reverse. There, they are having almost a levée en masse: that is, an extension to a total of two years in military service of men from 20 to 37 years of age, a call-up of women in an emergency, and power for the Government to declare general mobilisation if the danger of war is imminent, or to declare a state of emergency. At the age of 37 all Frenchmen will enter the Defence Service for ten years. It is impossible, I would say, for the two policies to be right. One of them must be wrong, and it is a little difficult to see why we and our close Allies, our friends the French, take such very different—indeed, entirely opposite—views of the need for large masses of men in the present day and age.

As to the future, my Lords, two recent immense developments are significant. The first is the United States nuclear-powered submarine, with its enormous potentialities in peace and war, and the second is the Russian man-made planet now revolving in outer space. The Russians forecast that in a comparatively few years there will be a landing on the moon, and a manned satellite in space. No notice was given, I might say, of their intention to fire this rocket: nor was any notice given by the Americans of their intention to fire theirs from Cape Canaveral. Acute problems of International Law arise, and no doubt are being studied by the eighteen-man United Nations Outer Space Committee set up by the Assembly, with which the Russians have refused to co-operate, and by the United States Congress Committee. At the N.A.T.O. Parliamentary Conference in November last, the Conference accepted the recommendation of the Scientific Committee that N.A.T.O. should institute a joint N.A.T.O. research programme in upper atmosphere and space.

To conclude, may I say that in my view this is not the time to consider the political implications of all this. I am sure that the world would welcome a lead on the part of the United Kingdom in the direction of control of these developments, so that their purposes are peaceful and not war-like, but this is not a political debate, and no doubt this will be an important factor in a political debate in your Lordships' House. All I can say now is that, as this is a defence debate, this subject must be one of anxious consideration in the light of these new developments. It may well be that within quite a short time outer space stations will dominate the earth, and that with control of the stations will go control of the world. It is a depressing thought, my Lords, but, so far as this Bill is concerned, it is quite obvious that these developments leave no room whatsoever for the retention of these 2,850,000 reserves. I therefore support the Second Reading of the Bill.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the Minister for his brief statement in regard to this Bill. It is a simple Bill in that it clearly states its intentions, but it is a very important Bill since it affects a very considerable number of citizens who are now to be relieved from military obligations. If the international situation and the military dangers that face this country had in any way ceased since the passing of the last Act, I am sure the House could accept this Bill and pass it with enthusiasm and relief; but, as we well know, conditions are far from satisfactory. We continually have tension and then an easing of tension, only to be replaced by another grave crisis, and I believe that it is in the light of those conditions that we must consider this Bill.

I should like to thank the noble Earl the Minister for giving us a little more information about the strength of the Reserves. This information was asked for in another place, and was not then available. I would ask the Minister whether he would arrange for the Government to issue a White Paper setting out in detail the whole of our Reserves for the three Forces, and whether it could be issued about the same time as the Defence Statement. I ask that, my Lords, because if we are going to consider the whole manpower problem of the Regular Forces, I believe we must consider the Reserves that will back up those Regular Forces in time of trouble. My noble friend Lord Ogmore, in his speech this afternoon, dealt broadly with the problems of defence. I believe that he was right in so doing, in that one cannot divorce the problem of manpower from the problem and question of equipment. This afternoon I wish to say a few words purely on the question of manpower and the Reserves that are now available to the Regular Forces.

As we well know, from 1962 onwards we shall rely on voluntary recruitment for our Regular Forces. A grand figure of, I believe, 375,000 personnel would not appear to be too difficult a target to meet and maintain. But if your Lordships will look clearly at the facts, I think you will agree that we shall be under very considerable pressure to maintain those figures, in spite of the favourable and encouraging results of voluntary recruitment during the past few months. One point struck me very much indeed while reading the Grigg Report, which we debated in this House during the last session. That point was that if we are to maintain that figure of 375,000, out of the available and suitable young men it will be necessary to attract or induce into military service one in three of those who reach the age of 18. When one considers that figure of one in three, one realises the formidable problem that is going to face us in maintaining our Regular Forces.

Even if we are successful in maintaining a Regular Force at 375,000, I cannot help feeling that those will be very slender forces considering the dangers that beset this country, its obligations in Europe and its obligations to its Commonwealth and its Allies in other parts of the world. If we accept that our strength will be slender, I believe we shall agree that it is absolutely necessary that our reserves should be in such a position that they can be efficiently and quickly equipped, mobilised and put on a war footing within a matter of a few days.

The first line of reserve is the Territorial Army. This is a disciplined force, and no doubt could be mobilised within seven to ten days and deployed to stations in the United Kingdom. I should like to ask the Minister whether there is an agreed mobilisation plan for the Territorial Army. Have units been allotted their duties? Have they been equipped? What is the equipment available for them to ensure speedy mobilisation? In the case of the Army, we know that there are a variety of Reserves—for instance, the Regular Army Officer Reserve, the Army Officer Emergency Reserve, and various Reserves for other ranks. I feel that I must ask the Minister to say how quickly these Reserves can be mobilised and personnel posted to war stations.

We should also know a little more in detail how these Reserves are made up and whether their personnel have been allocated duties. If we are going to face a major war, the time element will be of the greatest importance. One hundred thousand Reserves mobilised—-even 50,000—will be vastly more valuable than a million names on paper in the Ministry. And the speed of mobilisation will depend on the efficiency and up-to-dateness of the records in the Ministry. I believe that this is of the greatest importance. I raise this point because I have grave doubts about the up-to-dateness of these records. I speak from my own experience. I am a member of the Army Officer Emergency Reserve, having joined seven or eight years ago. Since enrolment, I have lived in a number of countries and at various residences, but not once have I been questioned about where I lived, about whether have one armor one leg or about my physical capacity. If the records are not kept up-to-date and where the men live and their physical condition known, what earthly use will they be for a speedy mobilisation? I hope that the Minister can give us assurances in regard to these records.

As regards the Reserves affected by this Bill, I hope, with my noble friend, Lord Ogmore, that it is not likely that they will be required in a future war, but it is necessary for us to reframe our ideas of how a future war would be fought. It is interesting to note that a number of Continental countries think quite differently from us about these matters and are paying particular attention to the question of mobilisation and the speedy supply of equipment. It is one thing to have reserves; it is another thing to call them up. I would ask the Minister whether modern equipment is available for these reserves. We certainly do not wish them to face the situation we had in 1939, when we sent the Territorial Army and Reserves to Europe, ill-equipped and badly trained, to fight a determined enemy. We are under an obligation to see that that does not happen again.

I should like to say a last few words about the men who are affected by this Bill They are the men who served the country during the last war. They rendered great service and I believe that the high tradition they set has been carried on by the National Servicemen who are serving in our Forces to-day. The National Servicemen fought not only in the last war, but also under terrible conditions in Korea, under appalling conditions in Malaya, and in most trying and difficult circumstances in Cyprus. I stress this point because I take the greatest objection to paragraph 37 of the Grigg Report which deals with public esteem of the Services. It reads: On the whole, we think that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force still command a good deal of respect in spite of the doubt about their future roles. The Army has perhaps been less fortunate. It has undoubtedly suffered from the fact that the great bulk of National Servicemen have performed their too often reluctant service in its ranks and from the uneasy conditions arising from a mixture of Regulars and conscripts. Every report that I have seen from commanding officers of battalions and divisions who fought in Korea, Malaya and Cyprus speaks with pride of the service of the National Servicemen and of the fact that their battalions consisted largely of National Servicemen. I may have read this paragraph wrongly; I may have read something into it that was not meant; but, as I read it, it is a slur on the National Servicemen of the British Army. In view of that, I am taking this opportunity of asking your Lordships' House, in passing this Bill which releases a large number of National Servicemen from military duty, to express our appreciation of the service of the National Servicemen.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends have raised points which I am sure your Lordships will feel require the serious attention of Her Majesty's Government. The matter with which I am concerned is rather peripheral but I think one which is important. These Service Bills frequently give rise to problems affecting the civil liberties of the subject and I think that it is necessary to make sure of the position. I am speaking this afternoon really in order to get information in respect of the position of those who might have conscientious objections to military service and who are affected by the provisions of this Bill.

Your Lordships will remember that when a similar Bill, now the Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves Act, was passed in 1954 the Government made the announcement that there would be a concession, not contained in the Act itself but made administratively, by which those men who had conscientious objections to military service would be allowed to apply immediately to the appropriate tribunals — that is without having to go through the paraphernalia of being subjected to court-martial in the first instance. I should like to know what the position is going to be under the present Bill in so far as it affects men with conscientious objections. I do not imagine that there will be many of them but, obviously, there may be some, and I should like to ask the Government whether they are prepared to make a similar concession on this occasion and, if so, whether they would consider having a clause in the Bill making this concession statutory, which I think would be the most satisfactory way or, if not in that way, whether they will be prepared to renew the administrative concession which was made on the previous occasion.

If the Government are prepared to take this latter course and not make a statutory provision, I would ask what the position will be about the tribunals under the National Service Acts. Will these tribunals remain in being to deal with possible cases of conscientious objections if the call up is ended in 1960? If not, what tribunals will be set up, who will have the responsibility of making the appointments to them, under whose control will they do their work and will it be possible for members of the public to be present on the occasions when they are sitting and hearing the objections of the men in question? These are, perhaps, from some points of view, quite small matters, but they are important to certain of our fellow citizens, and I hope that the Government will be able to give me a satisfactory reply in respect of them.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should not like the words used by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, in praise of the National Servicemen to go without some echo from the Benches on this side of the House. I agree with every word the noble Lord said in that regard. I feel that whereas an immense amount of attention has been focused on the small number who were not successful soldiers, far too little attention has been given to that overwhelming number who served, in whichever Service it was, as they should have done. I am not going to follow the wider points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, or the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, because I regard this Bill as being consequential on the decisions taken in connection with the Defence White Paper last year rather than as part of a new policy. Whatever that new policy may be we shall see when we come to this year's White Paper.

I want to say only one thing with regard to this Bill, and that is that I regard the provisions about finishing the service of older Reservists as realistic. Those people are not being trained now and have not been trained for a long time. They are therefore an asset purely from the book point of view, and it is right that we should clean our books of those people who could not be of any real use in modern warfare without training, and concentrate on training and properly accounting for those Reservists whom we want in the streamlined forces of the future. I support the Second Reading of this Bill.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, whatever noble Lords opposite may have said, they appear to me to welcome this Bill as it stands. I would only say in further explanation of what I said before that the real crux of the matter as we see it to-day—and I do not think it is seriously disagreed with; in fact, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, more or less acknowledged it—is that what we want in a period of mobilisation is speed. We are dealing in this Bill, as my noble friend Lord Bridgeman said, not with men who are first line or, indeed, second line Reservists but with men who may be regarded as ultimate or third line. They are therefore in an entirely different category and would not normally be closely associated with the Army at the very start should rapid mobilisation become necessary in certain eventualities.


They are not enrolled or put to a particular unit, but they are trained men; they would not otherwise be part of a Reserve.


It depends On what you mean by "trained". If you mean that at some time they have served for two years in the Army, Navy or Air Force, then they are trained; but they will have done very little training since they left the Service. The Army keep a record of what their services were and they know what job they go to when they leave. I admit that they do not—and I think probably rightly—keep a very close contact with addresses. I believe that would be a burdensome task considering what we hope is the extremely remote contingency of their being called up.


But if you have not got that information available, how can you effect speedy mobilisation?


Speedy mobilisation would not apply to these men but to the first or second line Reservists. These are the ultimate Reserves who would be called up. I do not want noble Lords to think that sonic of these men could not be mobilised forthwith if they had the necessary qualifications, but I am not going to pretend that all of them could be brought together quickly; and I do not think that that would be required.

So far as the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, is concerned, I think I can give him an assurance that the position remains completely unchanged; that is to say, the present statutory power for National Service men to go before a tribunal on first call-up remains, and the wider concession at a subsequent date stands exactly as it has been. I cannot say anything about the administrative arrangements which may exist, but I do not think they will present insuperable difficulties in providing what is required. I do not think that there necessarily need be any change in them, although some change may be desirable. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, referred to the possible issue of a White Paper on the Reserve. I do not think that that is practicable, because the actual numbers and extent of Reserves is not a matter which would normally be made public. We prefer to keep the numbers in the higher categories confidential. The noble Lord mentioned, I think with approval, the possibility of reaching the recruiting target, but I want to give him this word of warning. In saying that one in three of our young men have to join the Services, he must be careful of the reservation which the Grigg Report made. I want to underline that they somewhat change the interpretation which might otherwise be held to apply

The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, dealt with a number of subjects from L.C.Ts. to landing on the moon, which I thought were more appropriate for discussion on the White Paper on Defence. I can give the noble Lord an assurance that none of the people referred to in this Bill will, as a compulsory duty, have to land on the moon. I think that that is rather outside the scope of a great deal discussed here.


I do not agree with that. I am sure that if the Government propose—and I agree with it—to release 2,850.000 men, the obligation is on them to say that these men are not needed. All I was trying to do was to give an indication to the House of what I think is the situation. It is relevant, and the noble Earl cannot get away with that.


I never get away with anything so far as the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, is concerned. But I have tried to explain why it is that speedy mobilisation and a high degree of training is necessary, and I do not think the House disagrees with that.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for what he said about National Servicemen. Now that we are releasing a substantial number, it is right and proper to pay tribute to what is in some ways the most difficult form of service, namely, compulsory service in exacting and hard conditions. I should have thought that this country had shown itself to be fortunate in the way that those men have conducted themselves in the nature of the -task they have done. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for having brought that point out.

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