Is the Prime Minister not aware that that is a most disappointing reply, tending to reflect very harshly on the competence of Service Ministers? Are not the Government pledged to reduce the period of National Service and, indeed, to abandon the temporary measure of conscription at the earliest possible date? Does the Prime Minister not think that the Service Ministers are competent to prepare plans towards these ends, or when will the Government make a beginning to this job?
The hon. Member may regard it as a disappointing reply; I can hardly think that he regards it as a surprising reply because the position of the Government on this matter is known, and further consideration may arise today. This is certainly a topic on which, I understand through the usual channels, the Opposition may well ask for a debate. We shall certainly welcome such a debate. We think it will be desirable on an issue of this importance.
On 8th October I announced the Government's decision to reduce by 100,000 over the next two and a half years the numbers in the Armed Forces. I said that the period of National Service would be retained at two years and that for the present the reduction would be brought about by raising the age of call-up. We leave ourselves free to decide, in the light of developments in the international situation, whether to continue to use this method or to reduce the period of service.
I also announced our decision to reduce the burden of part-time National Service. Except for certain limited categories, details of which will be announced, the requirement will be reduced from 60 days to a maximum of 20.
As I have said, the House may wish to debate this matter and the Government would welcome such a debate. In order that hon. Members should have as much information as possible before the debate, I have arranged for a White Paper to be laid this week.
A Report prepared under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour and National Service on the effects of National Service on the employment and education of young men—a report which is important and relevant—is also being published this week. We are bringing it forward for publication this week.
Can my right hon. Friend say whether the possibility of speeding up the training has been considered so that the valuable six months of a man's time comes after a year instead of a year and a half, so that the length of service may be cut?
Yes, most certainly. I think that is one of the aspects we might well discuss further. Certain plans about that have been under consideration with the Service Ministers.
Would it not have been better and more in accordance with precedent if the statement in regard to National Service had been made first in this House and not at a party conference? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take note that it is the desire of the Opposition that we should debate this matter at a very early date?
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman should take exception to the timing of the announcement. I did consider that carefully. I was under tremendous pressure even that week from the "Daily Herald." The "Daily Herald" asked me every day to stop considering the subject and to speak about it. I therefore thought I should be meeting the views of the Opposition if I followed the advice thus given.
Is not the Prime Minister aware that before the Korean war the Armed Services sustained much larger commitments than they have now with a period of eighteen months' service? How, therefore, can he in his present statement imply that it is impossible to reduce the period to that level?
I said that in present circumstances it was, but we are, of course, reducing the numbers in the Armed Services. As the right hon. Gentleman, with his experience, knows, the reduction will be about 20 per cent., compared with five years ago, of the numbers in the Armed Forces. I do not want to debate this now, but if it is decided to make a reduction by curtailment of service, quite clearly we shall not get as good military results as we shall the other way. The House has seriously to weigh these alternatives.
The Prime Minister said in his reply that the Ministry of Labour had been asked to make an investigation into the effects upon the young people, and particularly upon apprentices, and so on. Can he say whether or not the T.U.C. and the employers' federation were consulted? Will he publish in the White Paper the opinions of the T.U.C. and the employers' federation about the effect of National Service on young people, particularly apprentices?
This was a factual inquiry, I think the hon. Gentleman knows, conducted with the men themselves, who gave their immediate, direct observations on their National Service to the Ministry of Labour. I do not want to exaggerate its importance, but I think it is a useful kind of document for the House to have when debating the matter.