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New Clause—(Duration)

Volume 478: debated on Friday 15 September 1950

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This Act shall be and remain in force until the thirty-first day of December, nineteen hundred and fifty-one and no longer unless

otherwise provided by Parliament.—[ Mr. Bowen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I would not be justified in detaining the Committee for any great length of time in view of the fact that many of the arguments which support this new Clause were advanced by hon. Members on both sides of the House when we were considering the Second Reading of this Bill.

Shortly, the proposal of the Government embodied in this Bill to extend the period of National Service from 18 months to two years will have had the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of hon. Members of this House. Some, no doubt, will have given their approval because they believe in conscription as a permanent part of our national policy—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I said "some"—and because they consider that the correct period of training should be two years. I think that the overwhelming majority in this Committee do not take that view. It may be that there are differences on the attitude towards conscription as such, but the overwhelming majority on both sides of the Committee consider the extension of the period from 18 months to two years is, at its highest, a most unfortunate necessity and they share my anxiety that this period should be reduced at the earliest opportunity.

It would be only fair to say that this has been the attitude adopted by the spokesmen of the Government in introducing this Bill. Indeed, it is contained in the White Paper. May I remind the House of this phrase:
"It is the Government's hope that as the Regular component of the Services increases, it will be possible to review again the length of full-time National Service."
The Prime Minister expressed similar sentiments when he said this in his speech on Tuesday:
"It is naturally with great reluctance that we have had to decide to introduce this temporary increase in the length of service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th September, 1950: Vol. 478, c. 959.]
I took the Prime Minister to mean, when he used the phrase "temporary increase", that it was an increase which the Government hoped sincerely would not run the full length of the operation of the National Service Act of 1948. The observations of the Secretary of State for War on the Second Reading confirm my interpretation; that is, that the Government hoped, and would work to achieve the reduction of this period at the earliest possible moment. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), expressed similar sentiments. He used the phrase "considered constantly by the Government."

All that the new Clause is asking is that the position should not only be considered constantly by the Government but that Parliament should have an opportunity of considering the position after a suitable time has elapsed. No one can say what the position will be on 31st December, 1951. There will be many developments in the situation which will have a very relevant bearing on our attitude as to whether National Service should then be 18 months or two years. Many factors have been touched upon—the response to the appeal for recruiting, and the adjustment in the proportion of National Service men to Regular soldiers in the Forces.

3.45 p.m.

We may have to adjust our ideas on the balance as between the harm which can be done to our Territorial Army and Auxiliary Forces as a whole by this extension—considerable harm will be done by interfering with their intake—compared with the military advantage of extending the period. We may well have to adjust our ideas as to the harm which will be done to our economy and industrial output.

It may be possible that improvements will be made which will result in a shortening of the period which is necessary to make young men efficient and competent members of the forces. All that the Clause asks is that the question of constant attention should not only be a matter of concern to the Government alone, but that this House, after a period of 12 months, can once again face the issue of whether it considers that two years, as distinct from 18 months, is the necessary period.

Why should this question pass out of the hands of this House, and why should we not once again have a right to consider our attitude to the proposals embodied in the Bill? This extension of National Service has been described repeatedly during Second Reading as, "a further interference with the liberty of the subject" and "a further inroad and disturbance upon our national economy." All these factors make the question one which is the particular concern of Parliament as a whole and particularly of the elected Members of the House of Commons.

We do not, of course, know what Government will be in office. It may not necessarily be the present Government which would have to keep this matter constantly under consideration; but if this Government want the country to believe that they are genuinely desirous of ending this extension of service as soon as possible, I do not see what conceivable objection there is to providing for the reconsideration of this matter by the House after a suitable period has elapsed.

It may be that if the new Clause is accepted some adjustment may be required of Clause 2 (2). As I understand the position under the principal Act of 1948, ordinarily its provisions cease to operate on 31st December, 1953, although power exists to extend the date by Order in Council. If the Government really desire to make it clear that they will not take advantage of the extension of the period in any way to slacken their efforts to get recruits, and that they earnestly desire to make every effort to reduce the period as soon as possible, they should accept the new Clause. I anticipate no difficulty in amending Clause 2 (2) if that is necessary.

There is no reason why this limitation should not be included in the Bill, which has to be linked to the parent Act for all other purposes. As far as the extension from 18 months to two years is concerned, no technical difficulty presents itself and my suggestion could be adopted. By so doing, the Government would certainly convince me, and would do a great deal to convince others who are really anxious on this matter, that it is their intention and that of those in authority to do their utmost to see that the period is reduced at the earliest possible moment.

I should like to recommend the principle of this new Clause to my right hon. Friend. I think it perhaps a little unfortunate that the hon. Member who moved it did not move it on the occasion of the principal Measure, because it seems to me that the principle he is defending is one of general application and not only of application to a Bill which merely increases the length of compulsory service from 18 months to 24. For that reason on the occasion when the principal Measure was before the Committee, I moved the deletion of the Clause which provided for its continuance by Order in Council. I may be mistaken, but I do not remember that I got much support from the hon. Member—

I apologise for my failure of memory. But it was certainly a thing the House might well have done at that time, not because it might not consider that the Measure would go on beyond 1953, but because if it were to go on beyond 1953, it should be a positive act of legislation and not be an executive act.

In discussion about whether conscription is or should be, or should not be, a permanent part of our national life. I think it is sometimes forgotten that there is a sense in which compulsory military service over long periods is contrary to the spirit of our Constitution. The Petition of Right provided with good reason that the Executive should not be entitled to maintain a standing Army for longer than one year and, whatever the necessities, whatever the occasion, whatever the urgency, whatever the state of international relations, or whatever party is in power, it is still part of our law that the standing Army, the Regular Army, cannot be maintained in being for more than 12 months, unless every year this House sanctions it by passing the Army Act all over again.

This seems a somewhat inconsistent position. My right hon. Friend said a few months ago that the principal part of our Armed Forces must always be Regular Forces, and these other compulsory powers were, on a final analysis, auxiliary only. It is a strange thing that the main part of our Armed Forces cannot be continued in being unless the House of Commons say so every year, but the auxiliary parts can go on for ever, provided the Executive from time to time introduce an Order in Council. It seems to me that it is consonant with principle, very much in the spirit of our Constitution and very much in line with what the right hon. Gentleman said a little while ago about the permanency of conscription in this country that we should do with the Auxiliary Forces, who serve by law and by compulsion, what we have done for some hundreds of years in respect of the Regular Forces, who agree to serve, choose to serve and are not compelled to serve.

I recommend the spirit of this new Clause to my right hon. Friend and to the Government. Nothing would be lost if they accepted it and they have nothing of which to complain, I am sure they will agree, in the way in which the House of Commons have received this Bill, Even my pacifist friends, with whom I agree sometimes but not always, have not persisted in opposition to the Bill and the House have not shown themselves reluctant in any way to do for the Government what the Government require in this case. There is no reason to believe that if at the end of 12 months they wanted to continue the Measure, the House would be more obstructive than they have been today. This is a risk which any Government, and certainly this Government, might be prepared to take.

This proposed new Clause has given rise to an interesting discussion. One of the points which was brought, forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) rather confuses me. The point is that we have a standing Army which is kept in being year by year by the annual Army and Air Force Act, and my hon. Friend apparently thinks that National Service men and the Territorial Army are outside the scope of that Act, and therefore that we could end our Regular Forces by not passing that annual Act, but that we would still have the National Service men. But they are all covered by the same Act and are all dependent upon the annual Vote of this House. Therefore, the Service could not be carried on without that annual Vote. That is a point for discussion, and I leave it to the lawyers to work out among themselves. All those in the Service are carried on the War Office Vote, and so far as I can see they are all covered in the same way.

I hope my right hon. Friend will not mind if I say that I am not absolutely certain that his constitu- tional law is absolutely correct on this point, but if it is, surely he would lose nothing by accepting the new Clause.

I agree that my constitutional law might be a little doubtful. I think it is quite common for lawyers in this country to doubt the other fellow's interpretations of constitutional law, so that I am in good company there.

We appreciate the purposes behind the moving of this proposed new Clause. So far as there is a principle which we could accept in this matter, it is the principle that the Government's intention, as I am sure it would be any Government's intention, is to reduce or end National Service as soon as practicable. That we propose to do. We take that attitude, but we ask the Committee not to attempt to bind us by the terms of this proposed new Clause.

In the first instance, it would raise some awkward arithmetical or mathematical problems if, at 31st December, 1951, this Act automatically came to an end. We should have to consider whether the man called up on 30th December was to serve two years and the man called up on 1st January 18 months. Those are the sort of practical difficulties which would have to be faced. Therefore, simply to pass this proposed new Clause without going into the whole question and bringing forward quite a number of Clauses to deal with matters of that sort would not be a practical way of dealing with the matter.

I gather that the right hon. Gentleman is saying that there will be practical difficulties in adjusting the period from two years to 18 months. Does he mean to say that we have to wait until National Service is brought to an end because, until it is, these difficulties will exist?

Nothing of the sort. When the time comes for the Government to say that extended National Service shall be brought to an end, they will have to devise machinery to bring it to an end in the same way as machinery had to be devised for the operation of National Service when it was introduced. We shall have to take into consideration the national circumstances and the international situation when that time arrives.

To do what the proposed new Clause seeks to do would create in the minds of the people of this country what we have tried to remove—and the House has pressed us very keenly to do so—namely, uncertainty in the minds of our people. I have been repeatedly asked to give as long notice as possible of the date when a group is to be registered, with an indication of how long afterwards that group is to be called up, so that those concerned can make their plans for the future. It will be awkward if some time next year those whose boys have been called up are confused as to when then-sons will come out because of the possibility of a change on 31st December. We ask not to be placed in the position of creating that confusion in the minds of those people.

Another point is that existing legislation contains provision for the period of whole-time National Service to be reduced below 18 months by Order in Council and an affirmative Resolution. If this or any Government found between now and any date in the future that they could reduce this term of service, they could do it by a simple Order in Council without reference to the terms of this Bill. I have authority to say, on behalf of the Government, that they will not hesitate to reduce the period as soon as circumstances make it possible. As one who is associated with the labour force of this country, I am obviously most anxious to keep these people in active industrial service. Therefore, we are in favour of the purpose of the Clause, but we ask not to be tied, and I regret to inform the Committee that we cannot accept the new Clause.

4.0 p.m.

I should have thought that the Government would have welcomed this with open arms—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—Why not?—especially after the speech of the Prime Minister and the speech just made by the Secretary of State for War, as a result of which the earlier Amendment was withdrawn, namely, that in the opinion of the Government the best form of defence for this country lies in voluntary system; and that they want as soon as they possibly can to rely entirely upon that and to do away with the conscript system.

Unfortunately we have had two systems running side by side. We have had the voluntary system running since the beginning of the war side by side with the conscript system, and the conscript system was continued after Germany and Japan had been defeated. Although this happened in 1945, conscription was continued until the end of 1948. In January, 1947, the Government came to the conclusion that it was necessary for them to rely still further upon conscription. They were warned at the time of a real danger with regard to that—that the Staff would not bestir themselves to try to get volunteers because they would say, "We can rely on having conscripts"—in the words used in this House at that time—"handed in on a plate, so we need not bother."

There is evidence that that is so in the Government White Paper and the statements and figures issued by the Government. Early in 1947, I think in the Gracious Speech from the Throne, we heard for the first time the desire to continue conscription after 1948. Then the Bill was introduced—I think some time in February or March. In that year the number of volunteers was 97,000. We asked then that improved conditions should be offered to the volunteers in order to bring them in. We put it forward as strongly as we could at that time. Then what happened? The Government did not improve their conditions, except to do away with certain anomalies. In 1948 there were 67,200 volunteers. In 1949 still the Government did nothing. They relied on conscription, or their advisers did. Then, what happened in 1949? The figure dropped to 52,300: this year it is still falling, and I understand the figure is something like 40,000.

Then see what the Government themselves say. They begin the paragraph in the White Paper by saying:
"In the light of our increased commitments, the manpower situation gives cause for disquiet."
Of course, it does. Thereupon they now come to the House and say, "We are now proposing to give far and away betters terms to the volunteers. We do not expect that to have an immediate effect. We want time. But our main desire is to increase the number of volunteers." Then they go on to say, not only in speeches but in the White Paper, "We are hoping to do that in a very short time. The moment that we are satised that the volunteer system is working all right, we will review the matter." Why not take the opportunity of saying that we are setting ourselves a time-limit in which to build up the Army?

The whole situation is disquieting. Why drift in this way? Why not tell the officers, "You have now 15 months in which to build this up; see that you get about it." It would help them, and I should have thought they would have jumped at this, and put everybody on his mettle. What is the right hon. Gentleman's answer? He said that difficulties will arise, and that there will be uncertainties, but there will be uncertainties if the Government review the position themselves. They will be in exactly the same position. Do they not want to put people on their mettle and build up a volunteer army?

Here is a perfect time-limit—15 months in which to see whether these improved conditions will bring about this result. If they do, everybody will be satisfied; if not, of course, the Government will have to come to the House, explain what the situation is and ask for further powers. Maybe they will have to increase the emoluments in order to attract the men. We all want a stronger and better volunteer Army, perfectly trained and mobile, ready to go anywhere, and what better method can we have than that of putting a time-limit to this matter and making it perfectly clear that, as has been suggested time and again, we do not intend making conscription part of our ordinary life? It is surely best to set such a time-limit, and I do not understand why it has not been done.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has argued eloquently, as usual, but, if I may be allowed to say so, not every effectively. Let us assume that the Government have made a mistake in relation to the build-up of the volunteer forces. Let us say that they were too late. I do not admit that, but, for the purposes of the argument, let us assume that it is so. Surely, the answer is this. We have now decided to increase the pay of the volunteers in the three Services, at the request of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am ready to admit that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party, and, indeed, right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition benches, have also had their say about this. Let us assume all that. Nevertheless, we have now decided to try to increase the size of the volunteer forces.

Let me say at once that I have always been in favour of relying exclusively on volunteer forces; so have the Government, and so have hon. Members on this side; but now we must wait and see whether the efforts which we are about to make to increase the size of the volunteer forces for the three Services are successful. There has been a rush to the recruiting officers, but that may be a mere flash in the pan. We cannot tell; we hope it is not, and we cannot rely upon what has happened in the last few days as a guide to the necessary build-up of the Forces. Therefore, we are obliged to await events, and perhaps in a few months there may be a clearer indication whether we are to be successful or not. I beg the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his friends to await results.

Let me come to what I think is the vital point. We have got to be realistic about all this. We are exposed to danger. I am speaking now of an inescapable fact. On the evidence before us, evidence that has been in part, and only in part, presented to the House, we are exposed to danger. What are we to do in those circumstances? To take the risk of abandoning our National Service system, for that is what we have been asked to do? [Interruption.] Let me state my case, perhaps for the first time, without interruption. We have been asked, in effect, to abandon our National Service system within a specified period. It is impossible to accede to that request. I will give right hon. and hon. Gentlemen an opportunity of dealing with the matter much earlier than they desire under the proposal they are now making.

Replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who is very learned in legal matters and, indeed, in other matters, if I may say so without condescension, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour pointed out that the National Service element in the Regular Forces is in precisely the same position under the Army and Air Force Annual Act as is the Regular element.

I did not want to deal with that, because I wanted to deal with the other point. Surely the position is that the conscription Acts are part of the law of the land. Whether the Army and Air Force Annual Act is passed or not will not affect those Acts. What will happen will be that the Acts will be there but that the men cannot be called up because they cannot be disciplined without the Army and Air Force Annual Act.

I was about to deal with that point. If, when the Army and Air Force Annual Act comes before the House next year, the House decide not to pass it, then we cannot continue the National Service element or any other element of the Forces because we have no power to pay anyone. Of course, the matter can be raised when that Act is discussed. There is nothing to prevent the right hon. and learned Gentleman or any other hon. Member raising the issue at that time. On such an occasion the greater would include the less, or vice versa. [Laughter.] I hope I express myself clearly.

I must repeat what was said by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and what was also expressed so succinctly on this specific issue by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War in replying to those of my hon. Friends who have very genuine convictions on the matter of conscription. The Government are not pledged permanently to the principle of conscription or to its practice. I cannot always find the right language and I beg hon. Members to put up with my impoverished expressions; but this is a necessary evil and as soon as we can abandon the evil, all the better for everyone.

I beg the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party in those circumstances to wait and see what happens. If we find, in the course of perhaps 12 months, maybe 18 months, or within the period mentioned in the new Clause, that we can revise the position, I assure the Committee that that will be done. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to use an expression which has been used very frequently recently by the Leader of the Opposition—in fact, he has almost coined the phrase—"We will keep the matter continuously under review."

I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) to consider whether he should press this new Clause in the circumstances of today. I should like to say for myself and for those who sit with me that we feel just as strongly as anyone who has given expression to the same view that this proposal should not be a permanent part of our national set-up. I will not go into the past—we have our own claims, but I am certainly not going into them again—but we feel as strongly as anyone else that what we aim at and want is a strong Regular Army. As far as I understand it, we are all united on this point. We are also united because we have given a Second Reading to the Bill enlarging the period from 18 months to two years.

4.15 p.m.

When the House of Commons has given a Second Reading, it means that a Bill will take the most rapid course to be an effective and practical part of the machinery of the State. I approach it from that point of view only. When I am told by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour and National Service that something will cause uncertainty to the workings of his office and the Service and also, from the experience of the past few years of which he spoke, that it will cause uncertainty to the people who are going to be affected by the Act, that is a very serious matter indeed.

May I put this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party, because I know it touches his mind and heart just as deeply as it touches mine? Apart from the practical aspect with which I have been dealing, there is the effect which today's proceedings will have on the world and, I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman will agree with me, on our friends in Western Europe. They are looking to us and receiving from us today an example of the performance of duty in the face of difficulty and danger. To circumscribe that performance by putting a limit which may cause difficulties would undo a great deal of the good effect of this gesture. That is my considered view.

If there were any doubt, if any great party in the State had not pledged itself to get rid of this increase as soon as possible in view of the international situation, I could understand the difficulty of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. But we are all agreed on this point. It is our common desire. None of us is trying to make party capital out of it one way or the other. In view of the gesture which many of us and many hon. Gentlemen opposite have made with the greatest difficulty, in view of their long-cherished views I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we should go forward unanimously in giving this great lead to the world today.

I rise to support the plea made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe). I regard this Measure as a demonstration of our will to resist the encroachments that are being made throughout the world against what is termed our way of life; but I must at the same time say that I have listened to a great deal of humbug about what is called the voluntary system. I have never known a voluntary system in relation to National Defence in peace-time.

All we have done in the past has been that we have handed over the Defence of the country to the unfortunate elements of society who were the "dead-end kids," who had no real opportunity in life. Owing to unemployment, many of the lower orders economically undertook to defend the country. At that time it was thought that a cheap Army was an essential in Defence. I never believed in the voluntary system. I believe essentially that if society has to be defended and is worth defending, and if one believes in National Defence, every citizen in the country should be trained to perform the duty in any emergency.

I say to the Leader of the Liberal Party in this Committee that to limit the period and to say to anyone outside this country that we are putting a limit to the period is wrong. We should say that we shall maintain conscription in this country until we see a world in which mankind can live in security and peace and co-operation. Until that time, we should retain it upon the Statute Book.

The appeal made by the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) was very strong and so was the statement of the Minister of Defence. The Minister of Defence said that only part of the evidence of the perils with which we are faced has been revealed. It is because we are faced with that peril that we have given a Second Reading to this Bill, with its onerous claims upon the people of this country. We would never have consented to the Bill, and I do not think the Government would have brought it forward, unless convinced of the serious dangers with which we are confronted. There is common agreement about that.

The object of this new Clause is to see that the control of Parliament is maintained and properly exercised. It is a very serious thing to waive the right of control by Parliament, whatever the administrative difficulties may be. Part and parcel of the issue in Europe today is the supremacy and authority of Parliament as the representatives of the people. We have had a solemn assurance both from the Minister of Labour and from the Minister of Defence, and a solemn assurance from the right hon. and learned Gentleman on behalf of the Conservative Party, that at the first opportunity Parliament will review this question. I think that in the circumstances of the time and in view of the seriousness of it, I could appeal to my hon. Friend on this occasion, having established, with the consent of the leaders of the Government and of the Conservative Party that this question shall be raised at the first opportunity, to withdraw the new Clause.

In view of the indication given both by speakers on behalf of the Government and by the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe) on behalf of the Conservative Party, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

4.24 p.m.

The Government for all practical purposes have now got their Bill, which extends the period of conscription by six months. They have got the Bill from a Parliament which has said clearly, I think, on all sides of the House that it does not regard conscription as a permanent feature of the life of this country. In reply, the Government, through their Ministers, have given to the House an assurance that the period of conscription will be decreased at the earliest possible opportunity, and that they do not regard conscription as being a permanent feature of our life.

I want to say in parting with the Bill to another place, that we have to realise that extending the period of conscription by six months provides us with only a small part of the answer to the problems which lie before us today. If the Government desire to see the pledges they have given today implemented, then they have to take a further and more difficult step. They have to lay down conditions on which the world difficulties now facing us may be resolved if conscription is not to become a permanent feature in our life. By that, I mean the conditions under which we are prepared to talk through the Iron Curtain. If those conditions are not stated now, we are going to drift into an unconditional attitude. If that opportunity is allowed to pass, an atmosphere of—

The hon. Member is going beyond the Third Reading of this Bill.

I thought it would be in order to refer to the dangers which lie in front of us, and to point out that not only do we require this Bill but an attitude of mind which will define the conditions under which the pledges the Government have given today may become operative. If we are going to evade that unconditional attitude, then it is imperative that the conditions under which the cold war can be terminated should be stated now.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.