Orders of the Day — Army Reserve Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th November 1961.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Ness Edwards Mr Ness Edwards , Caerphilly 12:00 am, 27th November 1961

The right hon. Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) has certainly not come down in favour of the Bill. He advocated selective service. The Bill refers only to the selective service of those who have already served and does not refer to those who have not served. In that sense it does not conform to his ideas.

The right hon. Gentleman's ambition to maintain the British flag in all parts of the world, I suppose, is an indication that the ideas of Empire have not died in the minds of many right hon. and hon. Members opposite. The fact is that the debates which we have had on manpower and defence indicate that this country has been trying to maintain a position for which it has not the resources. Every manpower debate that we have had since the last war has brought out the fact that the commitments of this country, and the demands that are made upon its manpower, have always been too great for the manpower that is available.

I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in opposing the Bill. The grounds of my opposition are rather wider than the grounds they have chosen. I oppose it because the suggested addition to the Forces is made necessary by the misguided foreign policy of the Government. I oppose it because of our bloated defence commitments, which make our economy more liable to crisis.

Over ten years ago, two of my right hon. Friends called attention in a dramatic way to the fact that this country's defence expenditure was bound to bring us nearer and nearer to bankruptcy. Every two or three years since then, we have had economic crisis after economic crisis as a consequence of our attempting to maintain a burden which the economy could not bear. My interest in this debate on the military side is directed not to the nature of the instrument, but to the purposes which the instrument is intended to serve.

Cuts in our welfare provisions, a high Bank Rate, borrowings from foreign bankers, the pay pause, postponement of building programmes, cuts in housing subsidies—these are all consequences of our trying to maintain a military suit too big for the economic body. So long as we indulge in this bloated defence expenditure so long shall we have recurring crises when pay pauses, cuts and slashes in the Welfare State and the rest become the order of the day. Some of these things are due—I say this to the right hon. Member for Flint, West—to the policy of maintaining all over the world the tawdry trimmings of a dead Empire. The House must try to put an end to the policy of keeping up appearances which more and more cease to conform with reality. We are not the "big boys" of this world, and it is no use pretending that we are.

The Bill is one of the consequences not of a decision made in 1957, but of our foreign policy. The mess that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer made of foreign affairs he is now making in economic matters, and this is one of the expressions of it. Last week, we discussed his futile efforts to save the economy. This week, we are discussing adding burdens to the economy and taking away the very manpower which could be the means of saving the economy. I was astonished to hear the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Aubrey Jones), who has tremendous industrial experience, say that the men most wanted in the Army were electronics engineers. Are not those just the men who can make the greatest contribution towards solving our economic problems? I was astounded by the right hon. Gentleman's argument.

At whose behest are we committing this folly? We have heard much talk recently about national sovereignty, but in the context of the Bill we are acting on the demand of an Under-Secretary of the United States Government, we allow General de Gaulle to veto our efforts to do away with the need for these forces, and all for the purpose of saving the Germans from the consequences of the defeat which followed their aggression. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, that is the position. The purpose of the Bill is to build up B.A.O.R. What is the function of B.A.O.R. today? It is to save Germany from the consequences of her own aggression. Right hon. and hon. Members opposite may differ with me about that. On some occasion we may have the opportunity to discuss the matter fully.

I remember being in Stalingrad with Marshal Voroshilov, who is now out of favour. As he described what the Germans had done and told of the blood which had flowed in that battle, he slammed the table with his fist, saying, "The Germans will never be allowed to do that again". It is the fear of a united Germany which is the cause of the need for these forces in Europe. Until we face that, we shall go on trying to get more and more men, to build up the deterrent, until, eventually, we bankrupt our economy. That is my view of the background to the Bill.

We oppose the Bill because it contains a complete contradiction of every principle laid down in the National Service Act, 1948. In that Act we were concerned about equality, fair play and the rights of the citizen. We made the needs of the State subsidiary in peace time to those of the citizen. This Bill totally disregards every one of those principles. It lays down no rule. It is completely unfair to the youth of the country. Those who have done nothing are not to be asked to do anything, and those who have done much are to be compelled to do more. Surely that is unfair.

Who decides who is to be retained? What rule governs selection? Are any restrictions to be placed on commanding officers to prevent men being held back because they are good cooks or good batmen? Under the main Act, the citizen had rights in regard to his call-up. Is he to have any rights at all in regard to his retention? Are single men to be retained and married men to be set free? Are men with dependents to be set free and those without retained? What is the rule? What will govern the detention of men under Clause 1?

What is to happen to those who have elected to complete their service first and who have places reserved for them in colleges to which they intend to go? Are they to be detained for another six months so that they waste twelve months of their life? What is to decide between the cupidity of a commanding officer and the rights of a citizen?

The Secretary of State told us that the application against detention would be made to the commanding officer and that, if the commanding officer thought fit, he would send it on to the War Office. The War Office would then send it on to a tribunal. What rules will govern the tribunal? What will be the constitution of the tribunal? Will its decisions be governing and final? What will be the position of the soldier whose application the commanding officer will not send on?

If a commanding officer refuses to send on an application for release, will the citizen then be entitled to write to his Member of Parliament and demand that his case be considered by the advisory tribunal, and will the commanding officer be made to look a fool if the advisory tribunal recommends that the man be released? Is that to be the sort of administrative result which we shall have? The Bill does not provide any protection at all for the citizen and all those things which were clearly put in the main Act are absent here.

Clause 2 is as bad and unfair an instrument, in my view, as the purpose it serves. Will a man who has done his full-time service and gone to college be liable? He may be the square peg for the round hole. Is he to be lifted out of college and transferred to the Army? We are told that that type of person will have the right of appeal, not to the tribunal set up under the main Act, but to the advisory committee. It will be for the War Office and the War Office advisers to decide.

What about apprentices? Is their apprenticeship to be regarded as of lower value than their place in the Army? What about those who have entered into large financial commitments? Under the Tory Government, people can buy their own houses. A man who comes out of the Army perhaps buys his house on mortgage. Is he to be protected? Is that a question of hardship? Who is to decide it?

What is to happen to the men who have done their service and gone into excepted employment in the mines? We are not told anything about this. What of those who have married during or since their full-time service? Are they to be called up? We have had assurances from the Minister, but his assurances do not necessarily govern his successor. If it is seriously intended to protect the Service man and those liable for service, why are there not provisions in the Bill? Or is this an afterthought to placate the criticism that was bound to arise? Neither in the case of those to be retained nor in the case of those to be called up is any safeguard whatever provided in the Bill.

In these days, when we are not at war, the Government at least should have been concerned about ensuring that this instrument, poor as it is, would not cause the maximum of misery, as, undoubtedly, it will, for those who are called up. On Second Reading of the Bill which became the main Act, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) reminded the House of a quotation from Burke: They never had any kind of system, right or wrong, but only invented occasionally some miserable tale for the day, in order meanly to sneak out of difficulties into which they had proudly strutted. That would be a fitting epitaph for those who sit on the Government Front Bench.