Orders of the Day — Home Guard.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 18th December 1941.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr David Margesson Mr David Margesson , Rugby

Perhaps I may be allowed to continue. I am coming to that point. Men who are already in the Home Guard will be given a sufficient period in which to make up their minds whether they can serve under the new conditions or not. I remember well being faced with a similar question during the last war, when I was serving in the Worcestershire Yeomanry. I was asked then whether I would accept the further liability of service overseas, and I do not remember many of us having any doubt about the answer at that time. And so, to-day, I have received overwhelming evidence that the more seriously minded and more active members of the Home Guard are willing and, indeed, anxious that this step and this further liability should be carried into effect. This part of my proposal will refer, therefore, to the whole of the Home Guard, whether serving in specified areas or not. I must make it quite clear that resignations from the Home Guard will in no way exempt a man from his obligation to perform part-time service, whether in the Home Guard or Civil Defence, in accordance with the directions of the Minister of Labour and National Service; but such a man will be safeguarded in the same way as other members of the public, and will be able, if he wishes, as a civilian to state his case before a civilian tribunal. I do not anticipate that there will be any considerable number of withdrawals following on these proposals. If, however, the incidence of withdrawals in any particular area should result in the strength of that area being diminished beyond the danger point, we shall have no hesitation in applying powers of compulsory enrolment to that area.

I should like to say a word or two on the subject of training. The Army Council already has power under the existing Defence Regulations to order attendances for training and duties, and to court-martial offenders if the order is not obeyed, but, owing to the voluntary and unpaid character of the Force, members of it are exempt from any form of summary punishment and cannot be fined. In practice, therefore, we have not exercised our powers of court-martial against members who do not attend parades or duties. It is, however, a vital necessity, if the Home Guard is to be fit to perform its duty, that all its members should be definitely under an obligation to attend a certain number of hours for training and for duty. The third part of my proposal is intended to ensure that these attendances for training and duties will be kept. Here, again, I am not prepared to see one section of the Home Guard serving under a different set of conditions from the other. The Regulations will provide that men, who are directed into the Home Guard for part-time service, shall be liable to penalties inflicted by a civil court for failure to attend training or duty. The civil court can inflict a penalty more appropriate to the class of delinquency here in question than the punishment which a court-martial is able to inflict upon part-time unpaid members of the Armed Forces. Moreover, the House will remember that there were civil penalties attaching to the Territorial Army in peacetime, and there is a close similarity between the liabilities undertaken by Territorial soldiers in times of peace and those now undertaken by members of the Home Guard.

I have come to the conclusion, therefore, that a Regulation must be made requiring compulsory attendances for training and duties on the part of all members of the Home Guard, whether volunteers or compelled men, and providing that a member of the Home Guard who disobeys orders or absents himself from duty will render himself liable to a summary conviction in a civil court. The maximum penalty will be one month's imprisonment, or a fine of £10, or both. These penalties, I should like to point out, are exactly the same as those provided for in the case of Civil Defence workers. The Regulation will provide that prosecutions are not undertaken without proper consideration by high military authority. There is no very close similarity, I think, between the duties of the Home Guard and those of most of the Civil Defence Services. The Home Guard is required to perform duty as well as training throughout the Service. Many of them must guard vulnerable points for so many days. All of them must also attend parades for training. For this reason there would be justification, in my view, for requiring members of the Home Guard to give longer hours of attendance than are required of part-time Civil Defence workers.

The Home Guard has the dual function of guarding and of training; therefore it might reasonably be expected that they should give more hours than Civil Defence workers. But it is perhaps undesirable that one class of part-time worker should be called upon to perform longer hours than another, and I have come to the conclusion that, at any rate for the present, it will not be necessary to prescribe longer hours. I propose, therefore, to lay down that a maximum of 48 hours in any four weeks may be required of the Home Guard for training and duty combined. I have, of course, no intention that every home Guard should perform these periods of duty. That must clearly depend upon the standard of training already reached by the individual and the local need to perform operational duty, such as guard and patrols. Full consideration will be given to the position of workers in agriculture and in industry who may for good reasons be unable to give the full amount of time to their Home Guard duties.

There has been some criticism of the decision that women should not be permitted to be members of the Home Guard. There are many objections to such a proposal. In the first place, there is a heavy demand throughout the country for the services of women in a part-time capacity in industry and in other directions, and I should have to be able to show a very strong need for women, even as auxiliary members, before I could feel justified in trenching upon this field, large though it is. I have also to consider whether there are useful jobs in the Home Guard on which women could be employed. I am already deeply indebted to large numbers of patriotic women for a great deal of voluntary work, much of it carried out by more elderly women who will not be caught up under the Bill and whose available hours of service are intermittent and spasmodic and could not be easily fitted into any compulsory part-time scheme. I will keep an open mind on the subject, and, if it should prove later that there is scope for the employment of women in this organisation, I shall not hesitate to review my present decision. But the outcome of invasion will be decided in weeks, and not in many weeks at that. The organisation and administration of the Home Guard in action has been based throughout upon the military model. Its operational command and many of its administrative services are based upon military arrangements affecting the field Army, and I am not yet convinced that there is an adequate place for women in this part-time Army whose role is, armed with the most modern death-dealing weapons we can provide, to fight the enemy to the end. That being so, I must be more fully convinced than I am at present of the need for women if I am to adopt the proposal which some of my hon. Friends urge upon me.

Although it has nothing to do with the proposed new Regulations, I should like to tell the House in broad outline something of other proposals that we have for using the part-time service of the Home Guard to relieve full time soldiers for more mobile roles. The Prime Minister has already announced that we intend to give members of the Home Guard in selected areas the opportunity of manning antiaircraft guns and searchlights. We propose to limit their employment to the heavy types of anti-aircraft equipment with a static role and to some of the searchlight battalions, and these equipments will before invasion be the responsibility of the Home Guard, but only during the night. There will be no restriction upon the numbers of the Home Guard who may be employed on this duty or upon the number of additional Home Guard who may be recruited for it, but existing or new members of the Home Guard will be accepted for service with the guns or the searchlights only if they live close to these sites. The vast majority of the Home Guard carry on their ordinary business during the day, and obviously I cannot expect them to undertake duty every night. Thus it will be necessary to train a number of teams for each gun or each searchlight. This arrangement will obtain up to the time when the Home Guard is mustered. Then, of course, there will not be the need for so many reliefs, and the balance of the men will be used for other purposes. We do not propose to form special Home Guard battalions for these duties. The men will form a part of the existing battalions.

We intend also to accept a limited number of lads on a voluntary basis, between 16 and 17 years of age, for duty with these detachments up to a certain proportion of each individual detachment. Our plans are not yet fully settled, and, though suitable boys may be earmarked, they may not yet be enrolled. We have already decided to use the Home Guard in coast artillery units for local protection purposes and as higher numbers of gun detachments. The same general conditions will apply to them as I have explained in connection with the anti-aircraft units. I am not in a position yet to say how many men can be used in this way, but our plans are now being worked out in detail.

There is one thing more I would like to say to the Home Guard, to those many tens of thousands who will be affected by these new proposals. Some of them may say to themselves, "I have willingly accepted all, or most, of the obligations which you are now going to put upon me compulsorily, but the demands of my civil occupation may well increase as the war reaches its climax, and as a matter of honesty I do not feel I can properly bind myself, as a legal liability, to attend training and duty when I may not be able to do so." I ask Home Guardsmen to dismiss this thought from their minds. I have already explained that the hours of attendance represent a legal maximum of compulsory attendances, and that we shall exercise the power of requiring attendance in a sensible and understanding manner. In my view, there is no reason whatever why anyone at present serving in the Home Guard should decide that he ought to leave it for this reason. My purpose has been to explain as fully as I could my intentions as regards compulsory enrolment and attendance. I hope and believe that they will commend themselves to the House, to members of the Home Guard itself, and to the country as a whole.