Skip to main content

Clause 1—(General Obligation To Serve)

Volume 376: debated on Wednesday 10 December 1941

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move, in page 1, line 6, to leave out "persons of either sex," and to insert "males."

I move this Amendment for the purpose of deleting the reference to the conscription of women from this Bill and so that those of us who oppose this innovation may be able to raise our voices in protest against conscripting women, either for the Forces or for industry. So far as I know, this is the first time in the long history of this country that any conscription of women has ever been suggested, and I am not so sure that I am not right when I say that we are the first civilised country in the whole world to propose that women should be conscripted. These two factors must weigh with every Member of the House of Commons. We are actually taking the initiative in doing this thing. I understand that the Nazis themselves, who do not claim, as we do, that they are fighting for freedom, have attempted to conscript women in Germany and that the attempt failed. I hope the Minister of Labour will not mind my telling him that where the Nazis have failed to compel women, I cannot see how we can hope to succeed.

It may appear strange that a man should move an Amendment of this kind when there are several women Members of the House. But the reason for that is obvious. Men have always held women in very much higher esteem than women seem to hold one another. I think that has been true throughout the ages. Let me, however, make one slight protest in passing before I come to the real issue. I have been in this House of Commons for many years, and I very much regret to see one thing happening during this war. I think I am right in saying that when this Government wants a policy adopted by the House of Commons, it first of all secures the help of the daily Press in conducting a campaign in its favour, and then, when it proposes that policy in the House, it assumes that there is a popular clamour for it. I think that is very dangerous in a democratic country like ours. Let me say something else on that subject. One could imagine, from the speeches delivered on this issue in this House, that there is a great demand for the compulsion of women and for this Bill, that there is so much enthusiasm that the people are clamouring to be conscripted on all sides. The simple fact, however, is that, if there was this tremendous enthusiasm for these proposals, the proposals themselves would not be necessary at all.

Let me give the right hon. Gentleman one reason why he does not get married women to go into the factories and workshops. I know a professional man earning £520 per annum. His wife, who is childless, is a very patriotic woman; she goes out to work and earns £3 10s. a week. Out of that sum she pays about 35s. in Income Tax. Then, she and her husband have to pay for meals outside because the wife is not at home to do the cooking; the laundry is sent out, and in the end they find that the balance is so small that it is not worth her going out to work at all. That is one of the reasons why the right hon. Gentleman is not getting married women to work for him to the extent that he desires. I am very doubtful as to whether this proposal to conscript everybody has been brought in merely for the war effort. I have been a trade union official probably longer than anybody here, and I have an idea that there has been for a long time a demand among some industrialists in this country, even in peace-time, to tie down the working folk in the factories where they want them, to fasten them to a certain industry, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. I am not willing that he should become the means whereby the industrialists and the financiers of this country should tie men and women to certain industries, and I therefore want to make a protest on that score.

The hon. Member raises a very serious point. I think he ought to give some justification for it.

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, he will be very well informed on this point.

Under this Measure women will be conscripted for the Auxiliary Fighting Forces and for industry as well. We are told, of course, that none of them will be called upon to use lethal weapons unless they express a desire to do so. I would like to warn the Committee about what happens here from time to time. It is one of the curious habits of this House of Commons that first of all the Governments ask for volunteers—as in the Home Guard—and when they have volunteered compulsion begins to be enforced. I venture to say that if the Committee agrees to bring women in touch with the Armed Forces and if this war lasts very much longer, compulsion will ultimately be used and women will be found right in the trenches in due course. That is where we are going in connection with this Measure.

This Bill, of course, means industrial conscription. The right hon. Gentleman made a promise once that he would never introduce industrial conscription in this country. I am sure of one thing: if the people of this country want to conduct this war to a final issue, as is suggested here, they will fight it very much more effectively as volunteers than as conscripts, and I have reason to say that because I have had experience of the right hon. Gentleman's handling of labour problems since this war began. First of all, he said to ex-miners, "I want you to register, because we want you back in the pits." They registered, and after registration he directed them back to the pits. There are scores of men in my Division who believe to-day that they have two enemies in this world—Hitler and the right hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.]—It is no use interrupting; compulsion is all right until it comes down to you personally. Some of these ex-miners had been out of the pits for years, now working in other industries for £8 or £10 a week, and the right hon. Gentleman instructs them to go back to the pits at £3 5s. a week. Try that on yourselves, you who laugh at my remarks. Then— and I speak with some feeling—if they will not return to work in the pits, the right hon. Gentleman sends some of them to gaol. When we pass this Measure, if the women will not carry out his directions, I think we shall find that there will be provision to send the women too to goal. I therefore want to say that I object to this Bill, especially as it relates to women.

Now, I come to the main argument that I want to put against conscripting women. I happen to have been for the last 36 years connected with the administration of sickness, maternity, disablement and kindred benefits, and it is my job to try and study the course of events statistically and socially in this country. There is an old saying that the politician usually looks forward to the next General Election and that the statesman looks to the next generation. Let me ask the House to follow me to the crux of the problem as I see it. This Bill has as its background what I shall call the population problem. Our country is faced at last with what are termed the vital and inexorable facts of population. Where do we stand? In 1870 the birth-rate was 35 per 1,000 of the population, in 1890 it had declined to 30, in 1920 it had been reduced further to 22 and in 1940 it was only about 15 per 1,000.

We have established clinics and welfare centres, and we pay maternity benefit too. All those social services have been established in order to induce an increase in population. An hon. Member says "No," and I will accept it therefore that we have done all that to keep alive those who are born. I should have thought the House of Commons would have regard to what is the first essential of our civilisation, the birth-rate, but here we are today talking of conscripting the mothers of the future. Unless I am mistaken, the more we document, ticket, dragoon, drill and compel the mothers of the future, the lower still will fall the birth-rate. I feel almost sure of that. I am as British, I suppose, as anybody here—more British than the English, because we Welsh arrived here first.

I say, therefore, that the Committee has to face this very important problem of population. There is, of course, in spite of that a slight increase in the population of this country.

Is it not a fact that the social services as a rule tend to reduce the birth-rate rather than to raise it?

Yes, but when the National Health Insurance Bill was introduced in 1911 all the arguments used in favour of it were the other way round.

What the hon. Gentleman says may be true in relation to this country, but it is not true in relation to other countries.

Surely the hon. Member realises that men are being conscripted and that it takes two to make a baby?

I do not want to detain the Committee too long, because all these things I say are very unpopular in wartime; the truth is taboo on all occasions when war takes place, so I am not dis- turbed in the least. Some women Members have been clamouring for what they call equality with men. I was once, strange to say, on the platform with Mrs. Pankhurst when we were talking of equality for women with men. She was a Manchester woman, and I lived there. The two main arguments for equality then were these: first, that if women got equality, they would be more merciful in the administration of the law. That was a strong argument then, but, unfortunately, my experience does not bear it out. I do not think women are more merciful than men. It is not sex that matters; it is the type of man or woman who is turned into a magistrate. The next argument was that if women were allowed to come to Parliament, they would prevent war, because they are more peaceful-minded than men. That has not proved to be the case either. I agree with equality for women provided it elevates both sexes; but in this connection we are degrading women, especially in relation to the Fighting Forces. And when we talk of equality, let me remind the House that there has always been a distinction in the law of this country between men and women, and women in this House would never argue in favour of abolishing that distinction. For example, we do not allow women to work in coal mines, and the law in relation to factories discriminates in favour of women, and that is all to the good.

Let me come to my final word. The Minister of Labour wrote this in a pamphlet in October, 1940—he has heard me quote it before, but it is worth while quoting again:
"The Prussian always acts on the assumption that the human being is an automaton, that he can be organised, ordered and driven and reduced to the condition of a robot."
He seems to have changed his mind very much since then, because in proposing this Bill he is going further, probably, in reducing our people to robots than has ever been attempted by Dr. Ley, the Labour Minister in Germany. We are told that we are fighting Prussianism and Nazism. Nobody detests those "isms" more than I do, but I dislike my country contracting the disease that it is fighting abroad, and that is what we are doing in this Bill. I ask the House to bear in mind one thing above all from what I have said, namely, that the time has arrived when British statesmen in declaring wars ought to have regard to the continuance of the British race. Statisticians have warned us that in 20, 30 or 50 years' time the population of this country may be reduced almost to 20,000,000. It is in the interests of the mothers and the children of our race that I am moving this Amendment.

I have much pleasure in supporting the Amendment. I am not objecting to women being ordered to undertake necessary work under the present powers which the Minister possesses. Already he has powers to direct women to particular forms of work. What I am urging in supporting this Amendment is that women should not be compelled to go into National Service. I have maintained, and I still maintain in spite of all that is said about our asking for equality, that military discipline and Barrack and camp life are not suitable for women and are not required; In his speech yesterday the Minister of Labour made rather a misleading statement. He said that he was bringing in this Bill because he thought there had been a good deal of indirect compulsion on women to go into the Armed Forces and that it was better to apply compulsion direct. I think that statement is not quite worthy of the present Minister of Labour, whom many of us hold in high regard, because he knows that although an official may try to persuade young women to undertake National Service they have a right at present to refuse to go into National Service, and, therefore, there is no sense in saying that. Women are not fools, and they learn the position quite clearly. Therefore the fact that an official tries to bully them does not affect them very much when they know that behind them they have the power to refuse.

I represent a big industrial area. I have not had very many complaints from the women about their treatment by Employment Exchange officials. I have had one or two, which have been put right, because the women are intelligent and know they do not need to go into National Service unless they desire. What we are asking in this Amendment is that the position should be left as it is. The Minister can direct women to go to necessary work, and he should not have this power to force them into the Forces. This compulsion is to apply only to single women. Personally, I do not wish to try to push any more women into this category, but under the Bill there is nothing to exclude married women; it is done only by regulation, which can be withdrawn if and when it suits the Government. I remember the old Derby scheme in the last war. One section is taken, and that section clamours for other sections to be put in the same position, until everyone is included. You will not find that it will take very long, if the Government need young married women, for them to take them.

Looking at the matter from the point of view of morals, someone accused me of being Victorian—I I think it was the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Commander Fletcher). I have received from two men a most indignant letter about his speech, in which he suggested I was Victorian. It is true that I was born in Queen Victoria's reign. I can assure the hon. Member—and I think everyone on this side will bear me out, as will the Minister of Labour—that so far as young working-class women were concerned we worked in shops until 11 o'clock on a Saturday night. We were turned out when public houses were emptying. In those days I have walked home through badly lit Glasgow streets in which were drunken men and prostitutes. I learned quite early to look after myself. You must not assume that in Queen Victoria's days women were protected. You hear a lot about the long hours women are working in factories and how splendid it is. In my days that was their normal life. They worked for 12 hours, for six days a week, in factories, workshops and mills, and in the shops we worked 80, 90 and 100 hours a week. I never had a half-holiday or a Saturday afternoon until I was married. I never had much leisure until I got a good man to look after me. I am not one of the people who think that men are worse than women or that they are going about trying to destroy them. I never suggested that. I say that if you take masses of men away from womenfolk and give them no emotional, cultural, intelligent life, train them to be healthy animals, as is necessary for a soldier, and throw some attractive girls among them, the girls will not be too safe. I am not stressing that point now.

Whereupon, the GENTLEMAN USHER of the BLACK ROD being come with a Message, the CHAIRMAN left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.