HC Deb 03 April 1933 vol 276 cc1501-43

The following proviso shall be added at the end of section seventy-six of the Army Act (which relates to the limit of original enlistment):— Provided also that where a boy is enlisted before attaining the age of eighteen he shall be discharged upon a request to this effect being made by a parent or guardian if such request is made before the boy attains the age of eighteen and it is shown that the boy enlisted without the consent of the parent or guardian.—[Mr. Lawson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.38 p.m.


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

The Committee will recognise this as a proposal which has been made in the House for several years past, and a Clause which reappears continuously must have some special reasons for its appearance. I have no doubt that hon. Members have received letters from time to time which reveal cases showing that the enlistment of boys under 18 years of age and the refusal to release them on the application of their parents creates very great hardship. The enlistment of boys under the age of 18 except for special classes is not legal. In a certain number of cases boys enlist at 17 years of age, sometimes under 17, but they are not a large number. The Financial Secretary told the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) that last year less than 400 boys were discharged and about 500 the year before. Very often boys under the age of 18 enlist in a hurry, owing to various causes; their parents do not know until they are informed, and very often the boy himself repents shortly afterwards; and then the parents naturally take steps to have him brought out of the Army. Parents think that if their boy is under the age of 18, which is the legal age, all they have to do is to apply for his release; and hon. Members will agree that very often a mother or father of such a boy is often puzzled to know why he cannot be released when there is proof that he is under 18 years of age. The Government have agreed to release all boys who are under the age of 17 years—


On the application of their parents.


Perhaps the hon. Member will give us a more detailed explanation later on, but I have never been able to understand why the War Office wants to keep a boy who does not want to stop and whose parents do not want him to stop, if he is below the age of enlistment. The case put forward generally is that a good deal of money is spent on these boys and a lot of time and care taken to make them into soldiers, and that on the whole it would be a loss to the Army financially to countenance the enlistment and then the release of boys under the age of 18. There is not a great deal in that argument. I know that in the Army Estimates a certain sum is set aside for clothing and boots and training, but when you take into consideration that the number of these enlistments is only a few hundreds at the most out of 150,000 soldiers it cannot be proved that the cost of their clothing and training and feeding is really a very important and large item. It would be difficult for the Financial Secretary to prove that this is a costly demand.

The other ground upon which this proposal was opposed, or at least was opposed a few years ago, was that there was not a great surplus of recruits. From that point of view there was a case some years after the War, but there is no such case now. At the present time the War Office can select their recruits, the military standard goes up every year. The Financial Secretary has told us the number of men who volunteered for enlistment and the number who were accepted, and when we pointed out that the percentage of refusals was rather shocking and was getting worse every year he informed us that the military standard had been raised. What was happening really was that the number of rejections have been increasing because the number applying for enlistment was larger and, therefore, the standard of physical fitness required much higher. If the number who offer themselves as recruits is increasing every year, and if the standard to be fulfilled is also rising, it makes it more difficult for the War Office to make out a good case for retaining boys under the age of 18 years, who have enlisted spontaneously and perhaps after some little trouble in the home. I ask the Financial Secretary to meet that point; and also the point of the cost. But from the point of view of the parents this is a real hardship.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; Committee counted, and 40 Members being present


After that count I am prompted to remark that it is rather a pity recruits have not the same privilege of leaving as have Members of this Committee. There is not a Member of the Committee who has come in contact with this problem through individuals involved in it who does not feel that if she or he had a decision to give, a boy would be released. How does the matter affect the average working-class family? Even if a boy joins the Army with his parents' consent, it often means very great hardship for the parents. Parents bring up a family in which a boy, it may be the eldest, is the one on whom they depend to get work and to make some contribu- tion towards the maintenance of the home. It may be that the father and mother have been looking forward anxiously to the day when that boy will help them to bring up the younger children. The average working-class parent to some extent looks upon the 18-years-old boy as a possible family earner. It is not worth while for the War Office to frustrate the hope of the parents that the eldest boy will make a contribution some day towards the family's maintenance.

The matter is becoming more acute now, because very often the 18-years-old boy can get work when his father cannot. Many firms, factories, collieries and shops say, "Too old at 40." As a matter of fact it has almost reached, "Too old at 20" nowadays. When the father loses his job the family have to look more and more to the eldest boy for help. The more distress there is in a district and the keener the competition for such work as is available, the more reason there is for the boy of 17 or 18 to remain at home, because there is more chance of his getting work. On economic grounds, on the ground of the changing circumstances of the time, all the arguments are increasingly in favour of the War Office giving special consideration to the matter. I know that the Bill states: … it being requisite, for the retaining all the before-mentioned forces, and other persons subject to military law or to the Air Force Act, in their duty, that an exact discipline be observed and that persons belonging to the said forces who mutiny, or stir up sedition, or desert His Majesty's service, or are guilty of crimes and offences to the prejudice of good order and military or air force discipline, be brought to a more exemplary and speedy punishment than the usual forms of the law will allow. It seems to me that 18 years of age is early enough for youth to be put inside the four corners of this super law. I am sure that there are Members of the Committee who could quote the cases of lads who have enlisted when under age. An hon. Friend has told me of a case in which patents have repeatedly applied for the release of a boy who enlisted at 17 and is not yet 18. They really need the help of that boy, but in writing letters to the War Office they feel as if they are dashing themselves against a stone wall. I am no milksop in these matters, but I do think it is desirable that the War Office and this House should see that a youth is not called upon to submit himself to a body of law such as we find laid down in the Army Act, which in many cases involves severe penalties even in peace time, and in war time may include even the penalty of death. The Army is not pressed for recruits to-day. In fact the War Office are getting so many recruits, and men of such a calibre, that they are what one might call hand picked. The Army is becoming a select organisation on its physical and mental side; the men show the results of education in their bearing. But the great mass of the parents of these boys are working-class parents, and I hope that the War Office to-night is to give us a much more reasonable answer on this matter than we have had in the past.


In 1929.


We are quite prepared to accept the results of our own shortcomings and sins, but during the past few years there has been a rush of recruits because unemployment has increased. The Conservative Government have one advantage, in that with increased unemployment they get an increased number of Army recruits. While we would not say that we were innocent in 1929, we do say that there is greater reason for this change now than there was then, regarding lads who have enlisted under age. Those who know the facts would not for a moment defend the retention in the Army of boys under 18 years of age.

8.0 p.m.


This new Clause is moved in a slightly different form from that in which a similar proposal has been presented on former occasions. The Financial Secretary, when a proposal of this kind was last made, pointed out one or two features which he said made it unacceptable but I think in its present form those objections have been met, because we make quite clear the position of the guardian or the parent of a boy who enlists under the age of 18 in reference to claiming release. Something definite ought to be done to deal with this difficulty and I hope that hon. Members will not resist our proposal merely on the ground that the Labour Government did not attempt to put this matter right. All Governments make mistakes and we accept the position that it ought to have been done before and that it has not been done. It is no good however saying that because the Labour Government did not do so, the present Government with their big majority are not to put right what is obviously wrong in the present system.

The Financial Secretary on the last occasion among other grounds of objection to a proposal of this kind urged the ground of economy. I do not understand that objection because it is false economy to carry on as we are doing. I have figures which show that in 1923–24 the number of boys who were enlisted in the Army and later on were released on the ground that they were under age, was 793. In 1924–25 the number was 563; in 1928–29, 573; in 1929–30, 575; in 1930–31, 575; and last year 416. The recruiting officers seem to get boys to join without due regard to their real age. Later on representations are made to the War Office and I daresay pressure is brought to bear and these boys are released. All that must involve a great deal of trouble and expense. If we laid it down definitely that the age must be 18 and that proof of that age must be given to the recruiting officer, there could be no excuse afterwards. It ought to satisfy everybody and there would be fewer claims for release. Section 76 of the Army Act is not very clear. It provides that: A person may be enlisted to serve His Majesty as a soldier of the regular forces for a period of twelve years or for such less period as may be from time to time fixed …:provided that the Army Council in special cases … may by order direct that where a boy is enlisted before attaining the age of eighteen the period of twelve years shall be reckoned from the day on which he attains the age of eighteen years. That Section gives the recruiting sergeant the idea that he can recruit people under 18 because it leaves a loophole for the boy. It is not fair of the Army authorities to allow such loose wording in this Act of Parliament. Section 99 provides: If a person knowingly makes a false answer to any question … he shall be liable on summary conviction to be imprisoned with or without hard labour for any period not exceeding three months. If a person guilty of an offence under this Section has been attested as a soldier of the regular forces he shall be liable to be proceeded against before a court of summary jurisdiction or to be tried by court-martial for the offence. Yet we have figures showing that every year between 400 and 500 get into the Army on false attestations. It is evident that the recruiting officers pay little regard to the age of a youth if he is well set up and physically fit. They may put the questions to the youth in such a way as to show that they want him to say that he is 18. If this Section of the Army Act were carried out drastically then every lad who said he was 18 and who is under 18 would be liable to these penalties. Yet we find about 500 every year who are allowed to get off. Under any other law in connection with the making of false attestations—such as the case of persons seeking unemployment benefit for instance—this leniency would not be shown. This wording of the Act has been carried on for many years, and there was probably a time when soldiers could not be got by any other means than by false declarations. But the time has come to put this matter on a proper basis. The Financial Secretary has told us that for the last two years he is getting recruits in abundance. Why should it be necessary in the Army Annual Act to continne to leave these loopholes to allow boys under 18 to get into the Army?

Every year when we raise this matter we are told that we ought to allow these people to go into the Army if they want to do so. We are told that a boy of 17 ought to know his own mind and the kind of occupation which he desires to follow. Of those who join the ranks, I should say 99 per cent. are from the working class. I do not suppose that 1 per cent. of those who join the ranks belong to what are called the upper classes. How many of those belonging to the "upper ten" have made up their minds at 17 or 18 what they are going to do? They are allowed to remain at college until they are 20 or 21, and their parents often decide the occupation which they shall follow. But among the working class we have these youths who, under stress of circumstances, leave their homes—in many cases owing to the straitened circumstances of the home, sometimes owing to pique—to join the Army. When a lad realises the position which he has got himself into, there is a great deal of difficulty and trouble for his parents in appealing for his release and the War Office is put to trouble and expense.

If this new Clause were adopted, it would be quite definite that the recruiting officer, if there was any doubt about a boy's age, would have to demand his birth certificate. There might have been difficulty about this 20 or 30 years ago, but to-day with a little effort the birth certificate can be obtained from Somerset House. Why should the Army authorities allow a continuance of the practice of letting boys under 18 get into the Army, trusting that there will not be any trouble afterwards? I hope hon. Members will realise that the time has come to put this matter right. The Army has been made an honourable profession. The payment is fairly decent, and I feel sure that sufficient recruits of 18 and upwards are available to fill all vacancies. We ought to remove the stigma of the suggestion that we bring in boys under 18 to fight our battles. It is not fair to them and it is not fair to their parents and it is not fair to this House of Commons that it should be allowed to continue. Therefore we press the Financial Secretary, as we have done for several years past, to give this matter consideration.

8.12 p.m.


I desire to associate myself with this new Clause moved by the official Opposition. I cannot see any reason why the Government should oppose it, unless they desire to connive at what may be termed a form of fraudulent statement in connection with enlistments in His Majesty's service. It is not becoming of a Government in this country to encourage in any shape or form the making of false statements by boys who have not reached mature years. One can realise that in time of war, when a Government or a State is passing through what it regards as a national emergency, there is a disposition to wink at a great deal. But in times of peace when men, through poverty and desperation, are compelled to accept what is termed the Army shilling, who could defend a Government which stooped to assist boys of 16 and 17 enlisting in the forces under false declarations?

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) raised one very important point. In these days it is comparatively easy to get birth certificates. Why should not the Government instruct the recruiting authorities to have the age of the applicant in all doubtful cases tested by reference to his birth certificate? When I was aged 17 years and three days, having heard glorious tales of service in the Army and the Navy, I went from my appenticeship at the bench in Glasgow, because I had grown tired of a monotonous life and was craving for change, and endeavoured to enlist in the Army. Those were the days of my youth and indiscretion. At that time there had been a period of unemployment, that the number of recruits available was comparatively large and the military authorities told me that I must have my parents' consent. As I intended to run away from home and had run away from my work, I was in a difficulty about getting my parents' consent, and the recruiting sergeant said to me, "Are you sure you are not making a mistake in your age? Instead of being 17 years and three days, is it not 18 years and three days?" At that time I was rather truthful. I had not entered the House of Commons. I said that I was quite sure my age was only 17, and he looked at me. I suppose I did not know that they enlisted young fellows at so much a skull. He said, "I am sorry we cannot take you. Are you sure you cannot get your parents' consent?" I thought that not only could I not get their consent, but that I should get a very severe thrashing if I went home.

I was thrown back on going to the Naval Department, which was adjacent, and I enlisted in the Navy at 17 years and three days, because the age there was earlier. I discovered that the naval authorities at that time did not seem to be so loose in their methods as the Army authorities, because although it was a matter of five or six miles away from my birthplace, I was told that they must have the production of a certificate before they would accept me; and they not only did that, but they went to my employer to make sure that I had not been guilty of some fraud or something of that nature. They got a copy of my birth certificate, and only on the production of that certificate was I really enlisted in the Navy. I was despatched to Whitehall Place, and then to Chatham, and within 24 hours I had had three baths and one meal, and by six o'clock on the following evening I was very sorry that I had enlisted. I was a very clean recruit, but my stomach was rather empty, and I began to think the change was not a change for the better. I quite realise that many boys enlist from a sense of romanticism, born of a desire to get away from the ordinary drudgery of life, but it is amazing to me that we should attempt to encourage boys of 16 or 17 to join without the consent of their parents.

I should have much preferred it if the Opposition had put down the age of 50 instead of 18, because I think nobody should be permitted to enlist under 50, and the men over 50 who make the wars should go and fight them. But I want to plead for the Amendment. I have come across one or two cases in my own division in this connection. One was that of a boy who enlisted at the age of 16 years and 8 months, and another at the age of 17 years and 3 months, and their parents came to me. I thought, being a recruit myself to the Parliamentary arena, that I had only to draw the attention of the colonel or the War Office to the cases, and that the boys would be immediately discharged on proving that they were not of the proper age. But when I began to write I discovered the same old stubborn type of colonels as we discover in the Tory party in this House, who have no reason, who have never learnt anything and never forgotten anything, and these colonels refused to budge on the question of the age of the boys.

I discovered one of these boys afterwards, and I said to him: "What made you enlist in the Army at the age of 16 yeans and 8 months?" I will give you exactly his words. He said: "Guid God, Johnnie, I had nae claes and nae boots, and I had either to get them by joining the Army or by stealing, and I decided to join the Army and get a suit of claes and a pair of boots." It is a great castigation of the present system that he was compelled to join the Army in order to get a decent suit and a decent pair of boots. We are prepared to give them these things on enlistment at 16 years and 8 months, but we refuse to give them to them when they are thrown on the scrap heap of the industrial army.

This is a reasonable Amendment, and I ask the Minister to give us some real reason for refusing to accept it. There is another aspect of the question that has not yet been touched upon in this Debate. I do not like to see boys of 18 and under becoming associated with grown men in the Army. I think boys of 16, 17, and 18 are usually demoralised by associating with a large number of people who have had a great experience of the world that is sometimes not very creditable. They live in association with men whose stories are not very nice, to put it bluntly, and I always think that when men are in association together, and are divorced from the refining influences of women and the home, then tend to stir up all the muddy waters that one can conceive of. Boys thrown into that environment are thrown into a degrading and immoral environment, and I think we should do nothing to encourage youths of that age to join the Forces.

Personally, I do not mind admitting that I am against working-class boys having any association at all with either Army or Navy, and I would discourage everyone that I come across from having any association with either Service, because I think, from association with the Navy—I say it in passing—there are in the Navy just as disgusting practices that one could be associated with in their youth as anything experienced in this country. I therefore ask the Government to give us real reasons for refusing to accept this new Clause. I ask if they are willing to connive at fraudulent statements of that kind that are made by boys; and if they retain them and refuse to discharge them, they are bound to accept in every way responsibility for the false statements that are made.

8.23 p.m.


This is a subject which the House has discussed for many years, and I cannot help feeling that if the War Office really had its way, it would accept this new Clause in principle, at any rate. I have brought to the attention of various Secretaries of State a large number of these cases, and in practice, I think I can say, I do not think any one case has been refused. There have been many weeks of inquiry very often, but I have always found whoever was in charge sympathetic and anxious to get rid of these boys and to meet the wishes of their parents; and I believe that that is the experience of most Members of this House. The real question is, whether it should be in the Army Act as a provision or whether it should be an act of grace left in the hands of the Minister.

I understand that the case against making it part of the Army Act is that the State is put to considerable expense in feeding, housing, and training these lads, and therefore it is felt that they should not be encouraged, but that they should realise that when they go into the Army lightly, giving a false age, they will not be able to get out again too easily. On the other hand, the parents do come in, and I suggest that what is the general practice might very well be embodied in the Act. I do not think that any hon. Member can produce a hard case of refusal, but a parent does not always realise his right of approaching a Member of Parliament. Surely it would be fairer to the community as a whole if parents knew that they had a right to withdraw their boys provided reasonable grounds are put forward. It would make the matter much clearer and save the Minister a lot of responsibility in having to decide these cases, and it would make the law clear to everybody irrespective of their rights to approach a Member of Parliament.

8.26 p.m.


During the discussion on this matter last year no reply was given to a similar proposed new Clause. At this time of day it is a scandal for the British Empire to endeavour to build up its Fighting Forces by recruiting children of 16 and 17 years of age. I cannot see why we should not in the enlistment into the Army, Navy or Air Force bring into operation the same conditions that apply in civil life where a boy who is seeking employment has to produce his birth certificate in order to verify his age. There need not be the slightest difficulty in recruiting sergeants demanding birth certificates. It is not true, as the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) suggested, that it is easy to get these lads out of the Army. There are many cases of boys who have enlisted recently in which attempts to get them out of the Army have failed. I see no reason why they should be taken in for there is no shortage of recruits. Men are presenting themselves in large numbers and in many cases they are refused because the Army does not need them.

With all the talk that we hear in this House from Members on the Front Bench of the desire for disarmament and peace, surely one of the first steps which the nation ought to take is to lay down regulations which will prevent infants joining the Forces. It is undoubtedly true that many of the 400 or 500 of these cases that occurred last year came from the homes of poor people and they joined through poverty and privation. In many cases also the boy enlisted through some little difference at home without full consideration of what he was doing. Is there any reason why the War Office should not make provision for enlistment in the Army on just as fair lines as enlistment into industry? If my boy wants to join industry at 14, he has to produce a birth certificate. Surely if at 18 he takes the responsibility of joining the Army, Navy or Air Force, his birth certificate ought to be demanded. It is a simple thing to produce it if the parents are willing or the boy is anxious to join. There is no argument that justifies the enlistment of youths under 18 years of age.

If there is the slightest sincerity behind the Cabinet or hon. Members who support them in preaching the gospel of peace and disarmament, there ought to be no hesitation in accepting this mild Clause. I have helped to get birth certificates for young men and women from the elementary, technical and secondary schools when they have gone to fill various positions, and therefore it is not suggesting anything drastic to say that the Army shall make young lads of 16 or 17 who want to join produce their birth certificates. I plead with the House to tell the world that we shall no longer depend on recruiting officers drawing into the Forces, in many cases by unfair methods, children of 16 years of age. If there is to be any fighting, let it be done by men of mature age. Let us give a lead to the world that we do mean what we say when we ask for world peace and disarmament.

8.33 p.m.


As the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) said, in moving this proposed new Clause, this matter has been discussed very often in the House of Commons. He seemed to deduce from that, that because it has been raised so often year after year it must be a good Clause. With that I cannot agree. I have listened to many Debates on the subject, and I have read even more Debates, and I remain as unconvinced to-night as I have been before. I have heard no new arguments in favour of it. Let us be frank about what we are discussing, because a great deal of misapprehension has arisen. We are not discussing disarmament, as the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Price) seemed to think, and any alterations in the rules for enlistment in this country as suggested in this proposed Clause would not be taken by foreign nations as an earnest of our sincerity in regard to disarmament. We are not discussing at what age a boy should join the Army. There is no disagreement upon that. It is the policy of the Army Council to enlist boys at the age of 18, and not under.

We are really discussing what penalties should apply to those who join the Army under false pretences, who make false attestations. It is the policy of the Army at this time, as laid down in the Regulations, that no boy shall be allowed to join under 18 years of age. It is impossible for a, recruiting sergeant to be certain of a boy's age. As we all know, the actual age of a boy or of a man is not really decided by the number of years he has lived in the world. We all know many men of the age of 60 with the vitality of a man of 40, and men of 40 who are really little more good than men of 60, and that difference is not less apparent, but equally apparent, in boys of between 17 and 18. Recruiting sergeants are instructed to select only those who appear to be 18, and if occasionally a, boy who is not 18 but is fully developed and looks 18, gets into the Army by making a false attestation, it is not my view, and it is not the view of the Army Council, that any great misfortune has befallen that boy or his family.


Why not have a birth certificate?


The hon. Member who has interrupted and who seconded this Amendment does not appear to have read it. He has said, "All we are asking is that you shall make certain by a birth certificate about the age of the boy." There is not a word about a birth certificate in the Amendment. If the new Clause were passed the situation would not be altered in the least, because it would be equally easy for a boy to make a false attestation. Exactly the same problem would arise, only then, if he changed his mind later, he would be able to do exactly as he pleased. The question of a birth certificate is a different question. Even if this new Clause were passed no birth certificate would be required, and therefore all the eloquence we have had about birth certificates is really thrown away. Hon. Members should have included birth certificates in their new Clause if they thought it necessary for them to be produced.


All right. We will try next year.


I will tell the hon. Member now what I shall tell him next year, and that may persuade him not to put down an Amendment then, although I am afraid he will. We have always taken the view that it is undesirable to ask men of any age who join the Army for a birth certificate. There are many reasons why, on occasions, people are reluctant to bring forward a certificate. They do not know that it will probably be seen only by the recruiting sergeant. They think that possibly the information contained in the certificate will become known to their future comrades. Hon. Members can use their own imagination as to the reasons why men do not wish to produce birth certificates. It may be that they are illegitimate. It may be, on the other hand, that they have got into trouble in circumstances where it was not their own fault, that they have made a false start in life and want to begin again. They want to change their name and forget all that they have done; and no better opportunity exists for a man to make a fresh start in life than by joining the Army with a clean sheet and under a new name, whatever he may have done. To insist upon the production of a birth certificate would ruin the chances of such a man. That is the reason I shall give the hon. Member next year when he moves his Amendment with the object of requiring birth certificates.

There must be some limit to the age at which men can join the Army, and, if they do not like it, retire, but if this Amendment were passed then next year a similar one would probably be put down with the age of 19 instead of 18. The hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) would bring forward an Amendment putting the age at 50; and, in fact, there is no end to changes which might be proposed on those lines. Therefore, if the Amendment were passed the matter would not be settled. I agree that if the proposal to demand a birth certificate were accepted the matter would be settled, but to my mind the solution would not be satisfactory. Hard cases do arise, and as the hon. Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) has told us, any hard cases are fairly dealt with. We do not want to keep in the Army men who are unwilling soldiers, because they make bad soldiers, but, equally, we do not want to throw back on the labour market at this time men who would merely go to fill the ranks of that unfortunate army, the army of the unemployed. In cases of this kind, where a boy has joined under the age of 18, and it is desired to get him out of the Army, we insist that evidence shall be produced that he can get a job and a lasting job.

The argument about good recruiting and the state of unemployment cuts both ways. It is perfectly true that recruiting is better as unemployment is worse, but because unemployment is worse we are the more reluctant to release people unnecessarily from the Army in order to swell the crowd of the unemployed. Therefore, we insist that evidence shall be produced that there really is a good permanent job waiting for the boy. We insist, also, that it shall be shown that the situation of his parents is such that they really need his assistance. Occasionally cases come forward where it can be shown that a boy is receiving good pay in the Army—where, of course, he has no liabilities, every-thing being found for him, including good food and good housing—and is making no allowance to his people out of his pay, and if he goes back to the precarious life of the labour market we have no certainty that he will then be of any more assistance to his parents.

I definitely think that it is a very good thing for a boy to join the Army. I do not deplore it when a boy of 17 drifts into the Army owing, perhaps, to some hasty determination, because I think he has a better chance there than probably anywhere else. The hon. Member for Shettleston says that the association with the men in the Army is not the best that young boys could have, because the stories and the language are not all that are entirely desirable. I am perfectly willing to grant that, but what is the alternative before most of these boys? It is not the life of the cloister, it is the life of the streets, where they meet similar men with less discipline and with just as bad language. The hon. Member gave us a very interesting chapter of autobiography about his own efforts to join the Army, and what he has told us about what occurred on that occasion redounds to the credit of our recruiting officers. They refused to accept him. Probably it was a misfortune both to the hon. Member and to the country. He has said that he feels that the influence of the House of Commons upon him has been wholly deleterious; just as he has gained some prominence in this House so he might have risen in the Army and eventually, perhaps, have drifted back here just one of those old colonels whom he describes as being incapable of learning anything or of forgetting anything.


Or he might have been shot by this time.


It is obvious that the argument for granting perfect liberty to recruits to change their mind and to get out of the Army raises a very serious consideration. If this Clause were passed it would be open to a family to say to a boy of 16 or 17, "Times are bad, so go into the Army for a year. At any rate, you will get good food and be looked after, and it won't do you any harm, and if you don't like it and we find a job coming along for you, we have only to ask and we can get you out." I think that is a result which everybody would deplore. This Clause would also enable parents to take a boy out of the Army against his own desire. I think it right that a boy who wishes to join the Army should be allowed to join it even although his parents are against his doing so. I am sure that the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) who spoke of the penalties that are attached to the Bill would not want to increase those penalties, or to have them enforced. I do not know whether he noticed the figures which I gave in reply to a question this afternoon. Those figures show that during the last year there has been a remarkable decline in the number of cases of recruits discharged from the Army for misstatement of age; 416, I think the figure was, as against 575. That decline is very largely due to the new attestation form that has only been in force for a year, and on which appears in large black letters: You are hereby warned that if, after enlistment, it is found that you have given a wilfully false answer to any of the following eight questions, you will be liable to a punishment of two years' imprisonment with hard labour. Then follow questions with regard to age, etc. That is carrying out the policy in regard to enlistment of boys of 18 years of age. When, owing to a misstatement, a boy under the age of 18 drifts into the Army, we retain to ourselves the right to say whether the penalty shall be enforced against him, and the maximum penalty that we ever impose is insisting that he shall remain, when, in the opinion of his commanding officer and of the people best qualified to judge, it is in his best interests that he should do so. In the circumstances, the Government cannot accept the new Clause.

8.47 p.m.


It is the weakest possible argument of any Minister to say that, because a principle that is brought before the House has been refused before, he will also refuse it. That was the opening statement of the hon. Gentleman and that has been the only argument that he has used against the new Clause which is now before us. I do not think there is much in that idea, because if an hon. Member, a Minister or a Government cannot agree with circumstances and conditions, and see a case as it should be seen, and not in the light of what someone else has said before, I have not much hope or faith in them. The Minister is a danger in regard to another statement that he made. He said that he is in favour of reducing the age of personal consent of a boy, and he preferred that a boy should be able to give consent himself and to stand on his own feet, even at the age of 17. I cannot hope, in that case, that he will accept a new Clause of this kind.

The Debate has been quite interesting in view of a case that came to my notice yesterday morning. The father of a boy, who enlisted last September, and who was 17 years of age, came to my house to see if his boy could be got out of the Army. His boy enlisted in the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and is stationed -at Halifax. He was at home on leave this week-end. The boy wants to be out of the Army, and the father also wants him out of the Army. The boy enlisted because the death of his mother three months before December drove him to join the Army, but now he knows that there is a good home waiting and that he will be cared for, and he would like to get out of the Army because he has work to go to. He has a good job to go back to, and his father has been trying to get him out of the Army. I had the opportunity of seeing a letter from his commanding officer. It was very interesting to hear what was said by the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris), and by the Minister a minute or two ago, with regard to the way in which boys can get out of the Army. The people who came to see me have been trying for some time to get the boy out of the Army. The letter from the commanding officer showed that the boy was better off than he would be in employment. I think that it would be an advantage to the boy if he could go back to his occupation and become a craftsman rather than that he should stay in the Army and be comparatively useless. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] He would be of much more use as a craftsman, and I should disagree with anybody who contradicted that statement.


Is a colonel or a general a craftsman?


I should say that the boy will be much more useful in his own particular kind of work than in the kind of work that is required in the Army. The hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green said that he has never had any difficulty with the War Office in getting boys out of the Army, and that he has always been able to do it if they were under 18 years of age. He has always found the War Office very sympathetic. To-morrow morning I shall be in possession of all the facts relating to the case that I have mentioned, and I hope that I shall be able to get some consideration from the Financial Secretary to the War Office, after Question Time tomorrow, when I go to him on behalf of this boy, who is so anxious to be out of the Army and to be at home.

The question of a birth certificate is a very important one throughout life. You have to have a birth certificate when you attend school and when you commence work. I have seen scores of boys who have been anxious to go to work before they were of age to do so, and who have been sent back home when their birth certificate was brought forward. You have to have a birth certificate if you want to insure your life, because insurance companies are very particular, and they charge you more if you try to deceive them by saying you are younger than you are. You must have a birth certificate if you want to qualify for a widow's pension or an old age pension. The authorities are always very particular to know what is the age of a person who happens to die, and before they can get to Heaven, as one of my hon. Friends says. If this is the case in so many directions, why is it not the case in the Army? Why should the Army take these boys? I do not think that it is good for the Services to take these boys from their homes and from their mothers. No influence in the world is like that of a mother. The age of 17 is too young to take boys into the Army, and I do not see that there is any necessity to do so at this time.

I put a question to the Financial Secretary to the War Office a week or two ago, and he told me that nearly 50 per cent. of the recruits had been rejected last year on physical or other grounds. I should have thought, if we are anxious to get young men into the Army and if we are anxious for recruits, that they might have accepted some of these boys above the age of 18 years, rather than boys of 17, as they do to-day. It is not in accordance with the Regulations to accept them; the Minister has been quite clear about that. Why should there be any difficulty in the War Office accepting the proposal of the Clause? I appeal to the Financial Secretary. I know the futility of appealing to him after his statement, but I feel that this is a Clause that will have to be accepted by some Government, and I believe that it would be to the honour and glory of the Financial Secretary if he accepted it on this occasion and incorporated it into the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act.

These questions of the acceptance of boys into the Army, and the money that we are going to sepnd on recruiting in one way and another, have been a very special feature of our discussion, although we know that the temper and the tone of the people are fur peace and for the abolition of all that makes for war. Believing, as I do, that this country ought to be in the van of progress in the direction of peace and disarmament, I would rather see the Government going ahead in the direction of reducing the numbers in the Services, as they are to-day, and lowering the standard of efficiency, as we call it. If we were determined that there should be no war, I have not the slightest doubt that this country could influence the world very much in that direction. At all events, whether there is to be an Army or war in the future or not, I see no reason why we should enlist young boys of 17, and I would appeal to the hon. Gentleman to accept this proposed new Clause, which is put forward with the desire to carry out what most Members of the House would regard as a proper principle.

8.56 p.m.


I have great pleasure in supporting the proposed new Clause, and I think that, before I have finished, I shall get the Minister to accept it. My reason for thinking so is that the Financial Secretary to the War Office has always been very amenable to reason, as far as I am concerned, on this very subject. I have been very successful indeed with the War Office in getting boys of this description off, and none of those with whom I have dealt have been more sympathetic than the hon. Gentleman with whom we have to deal at the Treasury Box to-night.

The individuals who are going to be affected by this Clause are working-class boys, and I would ask the Financial Secretary to the War Office always to bear in mind the fact that we are appealing for working-class boys. If the War Office turns down the proposed new Clause at this juncture, it is bound to go out from the House of Commons to the homes from which they derive their Army that the Army to-day, the War Office to-day, and the Government of the day are depending on the simplicity of boys who, when they come to manhood, would not join the Army. There must be something wrong here. Is it going to be said of this, the most powerful of all Governments of modern times—a Government with such a majority that they can put through anything they wish—that, in order to get recruits for their Army, they have to impose on the simplicity of the boyhood of the country? You cannot get men to join the Army. Even in the midst of unprecedented unemployment, there is difficulty in recruiting soldiers, particularly in Scotland. They cannot get Scotsmen to join the Scottish regiments.

The last speech that I heard the Financial Secretary to the War Office make in the House was one of the highest possible tone in favour of peace. One of the best speeches that have been delivered in favour of peace was delivered by the Financial Secretary to the War Office. It is to that same hon. Gentleman that we are appealing here to-night on behalf of inexperienced boys who have acted in the heat of the moment, or because of the love of adventure that is still in the breast of the youth. It ill becomes grown men, with a world of experience, to take advantage of those who have that love of adventure before they come to the age of discretion. While you would not give such a boy the vote, yet you ask him to go and fight for his country—the country that refuses to give him a right to vote.

The last case of this kind that I negotiated was about three weeks ago. I negotiated it locally; I did not require to go to the length of applying to the War Office. It was that of a lad from a decent, typical, working-class, artisan home. He had served three years of his time as an engineer, but he got suspended. He was not paid off in the usual fashion—cut off—but suspended. He took it very much to heart. He was a good boy, he had a good mother, he had been employed ever since he left school, and he had a horror of being thrown on the streets, like thousands of others whom he saw roaming aimless, with nothing to do, debarred from the right of improving themselves, of educating themselves, or of equipping themselves to be useful citizens. His horror of that was such that, without telling his mother, never mind his father, the next morning he ran off to Maryhill Barracks, in Clydebank, and enlisted. He was 17 years old, but said he was over 18. He was a bonny Scottish boy, and would, without doubt, have made a good soldier. In order to get him off, I had to guarantee him a job, and that is a job and a half. I have seen the day when I would accuse the captain of putting that up to me because he knew I could not do it, but I have had a good many dealings with him, and I have no right to say unkind words about the officers as far as that is concerned. But I got the boy off.

When Members of Parliament get on to the Government Bench, they act differently from what they ever acted before. I am satisfied that, if the Financial Secretary were not the Financial Secretary, he would be supporting this new Clause. I do not say that idly. I have reasoned with him. When I have been arguing, as I have been with practically every man who sits on that bench before he was there, he was favourable to these reasonable demands that we make, but now, when we make them to Members of the Government, our demands become unreasonable. The Financial Secretary is treating this Clause as if it was a bloody revolution. Think what it is for a Member of Parliament to be approached by mothers to get their boys off. They have never been away from their mothers before. They have not been sent to Eton or Harrow. They have been with their mothers. It is a greater trial to a working-class mother to lose her boy than it is for the ruling-class mothers to lose their boys, for they never have them in the real sense of the term. Ruling-class mothers do not suckle their boys. They consider it beneath them. They hand it out to strangers. The word "mother" is the most sacred word on a working-class boy's tongue. These boys have never had any chance in life. They are robbed of all the rights that the boys of this country ought to have. Why do they go? The last boy I got off was suspended. He was going to be unemployed. He felt that he was being driven out.

In his last speech at that Box, when we were discussing these Estimates, the Financial Secretary pointed out that the spirit of peace was abroad in the land. It is no use paying lip service to peace. Here is an opportunity to prove that actions speak louder than words. Do not let it be said that, the older the boys get, the less they will come to the Army —that they will have more sense. Do not let that idea get abroad, because that is the only reason that you are able to adduce. I ask the Financial Secretary to accept the Clause if he wants to get the business of the Committee carried on. If we have to hold the business up—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] We will hold it up. We know how to do it constitutionally, and we will do it constitutionally.


The hon. Member had, perhaps, better not take me into his confidence.


It should be sufficient if the parent or guardian intimates that the boy, when he enlisted, was under 18 years of age, and the commanding officer should liberate him. Otherwise you are leaving it to the discretion of the officers, and it is very difficult to get a boy, if he is a good boy, out of the Army. It is not fair that working-class boys should be taken advantage of in this manner when they joined the Army in the heat of the moment without knowing the consequences and understanding what was involved in handing over their lives when they had never before been away from the parental roof. [Laughter.] Hon. Members are laughing because some of them have never known what it is to be under the parental roof. It is a joy which they have never had, or they would not laugh. A boy is taken away from his mother when inexperienced and is put into the hands of the drill sergeant to be drilled and disciplined and made into something which man was never intended to be—a fighting machine. Men in a responsible position claiming to represent the people should not take upon themselves to saddle the responsibilities of a soldier upon a man who is not able to understand what he is undertaking. These boys do not understand. It is in order to prevent the youth of the country making the mistakes which have been made by tens of thousands in the past, and to make it impossible for the recruiting sergeant to take them on before they are 18 years of age that I support the inclusion of the Clause.

9.20 p.m.


I imagined, when my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) was speaking, that there was some hope of the Minister getting up and saying, "Yes, I will agree" because my hon. Friend said in plaintive tones that he had only to make an appeal and the Minister was bound to respond. I have been waiting most anxiously, but there has been no response as yet. I was really surprised to hear the Financial Secretary to the War Office make the remarkable statement that he could not see any objection to boys of 17 years of age joining the Army.


That is not quite what I said. I said that if boys of 17 years of age wanted to join the Army, I did not think that it ought to be in the power of their parents to prevent them. It is not our policy to recruit them at that age to-day; we wait until they are 18 years of age.


It was mentioned a short time ago that there was no reference in the proposed Clause to birth certificates. Surely, if the hon. Gentleman is entitled to make reservations now, or to add to what he intended to say, we also have the right to say that birth certification is implied in the Clause which is now before the Committee. There is a common understanding with regard to age. The age is 18 years. There is nothing indefinite about it. Whether the boy looks that age or not, the question is surely not one to be determined by the sergeant-major, or the recruiting officer. Birth certification is the method of proving age unless someone who was present at birth is able to substantiate the age. We want something more than ordinary gossip. The hon. Gentleman said that there might be reasons why a certificate should not be produced. I agree that in regard to many lads the Army offers an opportunity of making a fresh start in life and of forgetting the past, but in cases of that kind the knowledge that the lad is desirous of getting away from undesirable conditions can be made known to a responsible officer. An honourable man in the Army would understand the position of a lad who came along and wished to leave the past and seek pastures new. The proposed new Clause does not deal with such cases. It would be as well to say what it really does mean. It says—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"]—I am glad hon. Members say, "Hear, hear!" It is a justification for reading it: Provided also that where a boy is enlisted before attaining the age of eighteen he shall be discharged upon a request to this effect being made by a parent. A parent should have some right in the disposition of the life of his child. If a boy has no parent alive, it is a different matter, but there, again, there may be guardians with a sacred trust imposed upon them by parents to take charge of the boy and see that he gets a proper chance in life. I believe in the family life, and I believe that a nation can never be great or glorious unless the parent has an absolute right to the custody of the child. When there is a statutory obligation, as in this case, then a parent has a special right in the eyes of the law. The law says "18 years" and does not say "looks like 18 years." The Minister said the recruiting sergeant is not too particular. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member denies that, perhaps he will say what the Minister did say.


The hon. Member is looking at me, but I made no interruption. The hon. Member was interrupted, but not by me.


The Minister said that the boy was enlisted if the recruiting sergeant, on looking at the boy, thought he appeared to be 18. He added that there were various cases where the certification of birth was not desirable. I agree in regard to the special cases he mentioned, and I think honourable men in the Army would certainly make exceptions in those cases. I am referring to the case where a boy under the age of 18 has enlisted without the consent of the parent or guardian. Even if all the House were in disagreement with our case, it would not affect its justice. What argument can be brought forward to justify maintaining a boy in the Army, if it can be proved he is not 18, when the law says he has no right to be recruited unless he is 18? If it is said the boy has made a false statement, it can also be said that the recruiting officer is acting immorally in only looking at the boy and not testing his age. [Interruption.] Most hon. Members seem to think this is the second house in a music hall, and, looking at both sides of the Committee, it does look like it, but I am at a loss to know on what side the clowns are. I would like the Minister to tell us what is wrong with the request we are making for the discharge of a boy under 18 when the law says he should not be recruited until he is 18? There is something wrong with a system that allows a recruiting officer to accept a boy into the Army knowing he is not 18. I am referring to cases where one party knows he is not 18 and the other does not want to know definitely. In such cases, when the parent comes along and when the boy's future is at stake, there ought to be an opportunity for the boy to go back to his parents. The whole system is immoral.

The Minister to-night has not shown himself in his usual high standing. I honestly believe he is a fine Minister, and that we could not have a better Minister in his place. This is not sob-stuff, for I am not so sanguine as to expect to get this Clause passed. I ask the Minister to imagine the case of a boy of 16 years of age, whose parents have done their best to give him a chance, in life and who has just started out in the world. It does not matter from what home he comes if he has got the grit, for then the world is before him. He comes out into the world at 16 and after a while finds that everything is not as he would like it, and so he joins the Army. It is not asking the Minister too much to ask him to discharge the boy if his parents come along and are anxious to give him, a chance in life. There are plenty of others that could be found for the Army where they make men. They can tame lions and tigers there. I have heard that stated, and I have seen men they have tamed. When a boy, who has a chance in life joins the Army, under age, surely you do not want to keep him against his will. The parent has a right to demand to have that child back again, and there is no one, who can deny the right of the parent in that respect. When the Army are not able to prove that the child is of age, the benefit of the doubt ought to be given to the parent, and the child ought to be released. I do not believe that the child is the child of the State; the child is the child of the parent. [Laughter.] That statement may tickle the fancy of some hon. Members, but I am talking of legitimate cases. If laughter you will have, then it can only be from lack of understanding. I am speaking in the House of Commons where we are supposed to have a moral tone.

I want it to be understood that in my opinion the child, from the cradle to the grave, belongs to the father and the mother and not to the State, and because I honestly believe that I say that the State has no right to refuse this Clause. I appeal to the Minister but not so hopefully as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton l3urghs (Mr. Kirkwood). I do, however, ask him to give us any legitimate reason, seeing that the age for entrance into the Army is 18, what objection there can be to releasing a boy under that age, if he has a home to go to and his parents desire his release. I hope the Minister will not pay much attention to the laughter that comes from the benches opposite, laughter which reminds me of the beating of a drum. The more empty the vessel the greater the sound. I ask the Minister to pay some attention to the reasoned speeches from these besches, to reconsider the Clause that we have put forward and to agree to it.

9.38 p.m.


I listened with full attention to what was said by the Minister, and I must confess to serious disappointment. I have had regard for some of his speeches but to-day he made some suggestions which I would ask him to reconsider. He said that we were not really considering the age of 18 but the making of a false attestation. We are not considering any such thing. We are considering the actual words in the Act, and the meaning of those words. Those words can only have one meaning, and that is that a boy shall be admitted into the Army and shall have the right to remain there of his own will if he is 18 years of age. That is what the Act says, and the Minister could give no real reason for any departure from those words. All that he could do, and he did it in a very bad way, was to make excuses for a breach of the Act. I cannot understand why in the case of anyone associated with the Army they should be permitted to break the law and the Minister should stand up in the House of Commons and tell us, with deliberation, that he not only intends to continue to break the law but to make excuses and endeavour to give reasons for the breaking of the law.

Parents have come to me asking me to get their boys out of the Army, because they were under 18, and in one case the boy himself asked me to help him. In almost all those cases there was not one reason given for asking for the release of the boy that was not justifiable. I have not failed in one solitary instance to get a boy out of the Army, when he has joined under age. If the Financial Secretary was in my position, or in the position of any ordinary Member, and any constituent came to him with a plea such as that contained in the new Clause, he would immediately say to that parent "You have a moral right to have your boy released from the Army," and he would do his utmost to see that the will of the parent was given effect to. I think he will admit that that is so, and I think that every hon. Member will also agree on that point, but when a plea is made from these benches, in good faith, and we desire to see justice done and to see the law as it stands administered, we are subjected to a good deal of ridicule, not by the Minister but by hon. Members who appear to have little better to do than to ridicule people who are attempting to get the law administered as it is.

A man can buy himself out of the Army. I think the cost is about £35. [An HON. MEMBER: "£25."] In one case that I have in mind the man could not be discharged on the appeal that was made, but if he desired he could have been released by buying himself out, and my recollection is that the amount was £35. On moral grounds, on the ground of keeping the law, the Minister is prepared to say: "I will not discharge this boy, but, if he is prepared to pay £35"—or £25 if that be the amount—"I am prepared to discharge him." Surely; the House has some regard for morals, and when an Act of Parliament lays down specifically the age at which admittance into the Army is legal, they ought not be prepared to defend an immoral and illegal act. I cannot imagine that we are prepared to pay more attention to the question of a few pounds of money, which the Government does not need, than to the moral and legal aspect of the matter. That is a position which I should feel sorry that this or any Government should take up and accept as a position which should continue to exist.

The Financial Secretary has said definitely that at 17 years of age a boy ought to be allowed to remain in the Army even if his parents do not consent. If that is the feeling of those behind the Financial Secretary they should put it into an Act of Parliament and not mislead the public or continue to do an immoral and illegal thing. Let them put it in the Act and say that 17 is the age at which they will enlist boys into the Army. On the other hand, as long as they maintain the Act in its present form they should be sufficiently interested in the law to administer it fairly. If a boy joins the Army under the age of 18, deliberately misleads the recruiting officer, and it can be proved afterwards that he is not 18 years, even with or without a birth certificate, to which the Financial Secretary attaches a good deal of importance, that lad ought to be released from the Army.

The Financial Secretary made a reference to parents which I was surprised to hear. I have an acquaintance and a personal knowledge of more working-class parents in this country than the hon. Member. I have lived among them all my life, and worked among them, I have been friends with them, and when the hon. Member says that a large number of working-class parents in these times says to their boys of 16 and 17 years of age, "Go into the Army for a few months and I will come along later and get you out just before you are 18," he is saying something which is not true. It is an insult to working-class parents and cannot be justified by evidence. I know of no working-class parents who would drive their boys into the Army for a few months so that they may get food; who would say to their boys, "You will get good food and education and experience in the Army, and I will come along and fetch you out before you are 18 years old." It is preposterous; it is untrue, and it is an insult to the parents of this country. The Financial Secretary said that the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) might have gone into the Army and come out as a colonel. I might have done so too. I joined the Army as a boy but, fortunately for me, I only remained in for approximately 24 hours. Had I remained in the Army, lived to the age I am now, and come out as a colonel, I should, at any rate, have looked the part better than the hon. Member for Shettleston.

The argument as to the cost of training assumes that the cost of training a man is more than the value of his services. Nobody can justify that statement. If a man goes into the Army he is underpaid not overpaid, it does not compensate for the services he is giving during the time of his training. Compare a young lad in the Army with an ordinary apprentice in the workshop. Anyone who has had any experience knows that the employer has the advantage so far as the services of an apprentice are concerned. The same can be said of the lad during his training period in the Army. It is short; but he is rendering service all the time. I hope the Minister will come down from the immoral and illegal stand which he occupies at the moment of his own choice. It is not moral to break the law or justify a false declaration made by a lad under age. The Financial Secretary appeared to ridicule the production of a birth certificate; but it is being asked for by his own Department. Nobody can enter the Civil Service without the production of a birth certificate. The hon. Member appears to imagine that when a lad goes into the Army he is hiding the past and that it would be wrong to ask him for a birth certificate, but when he goes into the Civil Service he is asked to produce it. In fact, there is hardly any public service which you can enter without the production of a birth certificate. I hope he will accept the new Clause. The principle underlying it is good. It is a moral principle, and I am sure that if he accepts it many of his own followers, as well as Members on this side of the Committee, will agree that he is doing a good thing for the Army.

9.55 p.m.


The whole Committee will have noticed with what earnestness my hon. Friends have advanced the case for this new Clause. We do attach real importance to the proposals of the Clause, and we are very anxious that the principle embodied in it shall be accepted by the Committee. Some hon. Gentlemen seem to have the impression that we are making much ado about nothing, and that in point of fact the number of boys involved is very small. If hon. Gentlemen will have the curiosity to look at the General Annual Report of the British Army they will be astonished to find what is the proportion of these boys to the total strength of the Army. The officers and men in the Army on 30th September, 1932, were 183,019. Of these no fewer than 4,180 were boys under the age of 18. That represents a proportion of about 2.2 per cent., and it is not a small proportion. How are these boys distributed? A boy enlisted with his parents' consent, or accepted without his parents' consent so long as they do not object, is liable to be sent wherever his commanding-officer orders him to go.

Where are these boys actually employed? As to 3,111 they are with the home forces; 336 are overseas, except in India; and as many as 640 are in India. If hon. Gentlemen will have the further curiosity to see with what arms of the Service these boys are specially associated, they will find that the boys are associated with the Cavalry of the Line, 615 are in the Royal Artillery, 216 in the Royal Engineers, and substantial numbers of them are associated with those elements of the Army that are called upon to do the really difficult belligerent work. It is no use, therefore, arguing that if a boy gets into the Army because of his immaturity of age, he is likely to go into some more peaceful side of the Army's activities.


Buglers and band boys.


We will take them too. Do you want all these hundreds of buglers in the Artillery? But let me grant the point of the Financial Secretary so as not to be unduly controversial. It does not affect my main argument. These boy s are taken into these branches of the Army. Let me present another figure that is not without significance. I hope I am not doing injustice to the Financial Secretary, but I think I heard him state that the number of boys released last year was 416, and 500 the year before. Here is art interesting fact: Since 1st October, 1923, the proportion of boys under 18 per 1,000 men has steadily remained at about 22, or 2 per cent. We are now in days when it is not difficult for the Army to get recruits. Adults can be obtained quite easily, and I do not see why adults should not perform as well as boys in the band or as trumpeters. The Army can get adults for the various branches of the Service. Therefore the case for not recruiting boys under 18 is doubly strong.

We have been told by the Financial Secretary that if these boys are enlisted and are then discharged on the appeal of their parents, that imposes on the War Office a certain amount of expense. That is obvious. But I think the hon. Gentleman should have taken, in that regard, the merit of our Clause. He says that the proposed new Clause will make no difference at all, the age of recruitment being still 18. But the merit of our Clause surely is that if it were adopted by the War Office it would be a break upon any recruitment of boys without the authority of their parents, because if the parents once knew they had authority to withdraw them because of failure to comply with the Act, of course the Army would know that it would incur expense unnecessarily in accepting the boys. Our Clause would stiffen up the recruiting authorities against the recruitment of boys who might ultimately be a cost to them through their discharge two or three months later.

But we want to put the matter on a different plane. Toryism, Liberalism and Labour will agree that the pride of the Army is that it has always rested upon a voluntary basis, and that there is no conscription about it. Theoretically a person goes into the Army because he has said to himself, "I choose this as my profession." That is the basis on which people enter our Army, except when economic pressure is brought to bear on them and even in that case the principle applies to some extent. If that is the principle which applies, can we argue fairly that a boy of 17 is in a position to choose a career for himself? The hon. Gentleman opposite and I are fathers. Would he consent to a child of his own being free to determine his or her career at the age of 17? Of course not. The hon. Gentleman may say that he can see no objection to a boy of that age going into the Army, but, with all respect, I say that he would not dream of allowing a boy of his own to determine his career for 12 or 14 years ahead in this manner. I feel sure dm hon. Gentleman would insist on being consulted in the matter. We have noticed a controversy in connection with the son of one of our own Members. We all know that parents do take, as they ought to take, a lively interest in the destiny of their children and a boy of 17 is nothing but a child in these matters.

In what circumstances, generally speaking, does a boy of 17 choose this particular career? It is frequently the result of some crisis in his own life. Perhaps some parental censure is imposed upon him rightly or wrongly and in a moment of pique and resentment he goes straight off to have his revenge, as he puts it, upon his parents, by joining the Army. In a moment of feeling and sentiment he determines his own future for a matter of 12 or 14 years. Such a, thing ought not to be contemplated. I recognise of course that there is a spirit of adventure in boys —a spirit of bravado if you like. A boy is attracted by fine clothes and shining buttons and handsome parade dress. It is very attractive, and it is designed for that purpose, but an attractive dress is not sufficient justification for determining one's career in this fashion 10 or 12 years in advance. I do not think that sufficient weight has been given to the point made by the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern).

There is no need to attack the Army or to say unkind things about it as an institution. One may object to it as an institution, or as a career for oneself, but men go into it of their own free-will. Yet there is no denying that where thousands of men of adult age are gathered together, men who have had varied experiences in life—some of them creditable and some not so creditable—the conversation is not always of the most idealistic character and the talk is not always the most beneficial to a young person. That is not the atmosphere into which to throw a child of 17. When boys are sent long distances oversea, to India for example, as we are sending them now to the number of about 1,000 I suggest that this is a matter for consideration. It is not good to throw boys, or to allow them to throw themselves into an atmosphere which, without making any unkind references to the Army, may be described as less beneficial to them morally than most of us would desire.

Two years ago when I, with others, was trying to defend a Bill to raise the school age, I heard many Tory Members say, "What right have you to prevent a child going into industry? What right have you to retain them at school for the extra year?" Here to-day we are pleading that if a boy is under 18, and if his parent or guardian so insists, that boy shall be withheld from the Fighting Services of the Crown. It is not an unfair or an exaggerated claim. It will do little if any harm to the efficiency of the Army and it may save many a boy from a great deal of temptation. I admit that there are temptations in the street, but the child who is at home has the environment of the home to counterbalance that evil influence. Once in the Army he is daily, hourly, nightly in the presence of thousands of men and there is the absence of home influence. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport seems inclined to controvert what I am saying.


When the hon. Gentleman speaks of boys being in the presence of thousands of men daily and hourly and nightly I do honestly believe that he is exaggerating.


The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion. I am not denying his right to it, but, I deny his right to challenge my right to my opinion. He or I or anybody else, if thrown into the company of thousands of men at the immature age of 17 would be thrown into an environment in which we would need great moral strength to stand up to the temptations involved. That is a proposition which is well-founded in experience. I would expect some support in this matter from hon. Gentlemen opposite. Over and over again those who belong to the Socialist movement have been twitted with the accusation that they are seeking to destroy the family and the home. That accusation is not well founded in fact or in theory. Here, anyhow, we are defending the claim of the parent that he should have a voice and a determining voice in the formation of his own child's decision concerning a career. Surely no one has a better claim than the parent. If our Clause is carried it may not make a big difference to the actual number detained in the Army. The Army would be making a very small concession. We attach great importance to the acceptance of the spirit of our new Clause, so that the Army authorities themselves shall not engage in the habit of recruiting boys of immature age. For that reason, I once again appeal to the hon. Gentleman to accept our new Clause.

10.15 p.m.


I should be very loth to prolong unduly a Debate which has lasted a considerable time to-day and which has taken place in this House a great many years. My only reason for rising is that I listened very carefully to the reasons put forward by the Financial Secretary to the War Office in resisting the new Clause moved by the hon. Gentleman above the Gangway, and I found them just as unsatisfactory as I have found the reasons given on previous occasions. One of the principal reasons is that the Clause does not include any reference to birth certificates. We are in Committee, and if there was any prospect of the Government accepting the new Clause, it would not be difficult to make the necessary adjustments in that respect, and I should not think the hon. Members above the Gangway are so wedded to the particular form of words on the Paper as to make any difficulties to that course being adopted.

But apart from the question of the form of words, the Minister took the view that there might be serious objections to people producing their birth certificates, that there might be something about the birth certificates of which they felt ashamed, that they did not want anybody but the sergeant, who would seem to be a sort of father-confessor, to see them. It was quite safe to trust the sergeant, but the sergeant-major, or the quartermaster, or the lieutenant, or the captain, or the colonel—it would not be right that their profane eyes should see a document that the sergeant could safely survey. I should not think there was any need for any secrecy in the Army about your birth certificate, and people who are sensitive about entries on their birth certificates have usually had to get over it long before they were 18, because it usually has to be produced on entry at school and, I believe, on leaving school, and it usually has to be produced in the registration at Employment Exchanges, and, if I remember rightly, everybody has to produce it when marrying. So why we should be sensitive about asking a man who is going to join the Army to do something that all of us have to do at some time or other, or on several occasions in the course of a normal lifetime is something that I cannot understand.

I was more than interested in the hon. Gentleman's further argument, which seemed to indicate that one of the great social values of the Army was that it was a place of asylum for the escaping criminal or a sanctuary for the penitent sinner, where he got great opportunities for rising from the ashes of his dead self to re-make a blasted character. That seems to me rather a etherealised view of the British Army as we know it, and while I would not take the harsh view of my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) that it is merely one great congregation of sinners damned to eternal fire, whose practices and conversations are the last word in immorality, yet there is surely some middle view that is nearer the truth than the one suggested by the Financial Secretary, when he suggests that it is a great school of reform for people who have gone wrong. But the idea of the young sinner of 17 years of age, who has so sinned in the sight of society and in the sight of God that he must go into the Army for a. period ranging from seven to 12 years before he can re-establish himself in his place in the life of the community, is a very harsh view to take of our social order at the present time. Our Scottish poet Robert Burns pointed out Though they may gang a kennin rang, To step aside is human. I think that in society generally human beings are not prepared to say that when a youth of 17 commits some fault it is necessary for him to hide his name and his birth certificate and to rush into the Army, take a false name, and work out his regeneration by a period of walking up and down a barrack yard and spending his leisure time in a canteen. It is a preposterous view for the War Office to take. I would very readily abolish the armed forces of the Crown in this country altogether. I believe that that would be a valuable step in forwarding the progress of the world. I recognise, however, that we have an Army just now and that the majority of the Members of the Committee wish to continue that Army, at least for a considerable period; but surely we do not need in times of peace, when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are running all over Europe in an endeavour to secure disarmament by agreement among the nations, to press our boys into compulsory service whether the compulsion be due to poverty or to flying from the consequences of some misdeed, or to any other of the social pressures that might be brought to bear upon a young man.

Surely it is not necessary for Parliament to do what the Government ask it to do, to condone a lie. Last week we were discussing in the Scottish Grand Committee a private Member's Bill which was strongly supported by the Government, to make stringent penalties for the giving of false oaths. I ventured to say that a seven years' period of imprisonment for a person who made an untrue statement under oath was much too harsh a penalty when we consider what a big part lying plays in business affairs and even in political affairs. There was tremendous resentment in the Committee against the suggestion that we should in any way do anything to alter a sentence so that it might seem that we were condoning a lie, and the penalty of seven years' imprisonment was embodied in the Bill. Yet to-night the Financial Secretary tells us that the War Office find it expedient to permit a lying statement on the part of a boy joining the Army. In some respects joining the Army is very much like taking the oath in the witness box. The Financial Secretary laughs.


I laughed because that is a travesty of the facts. It is the Opposition who are asking us to condone the action of a boy who gives a false statement and to subject him to no penalty whatever. If this new Clause were passed, no penalty at all would exist for a boy who gave a false age.


Does the hon. Gentleman admit, then, that it is a penalty to be in the Army?


It is necessary to hold the boy to his attestation.


The lie is told. The authorities know about it. They get to know. That is the issue in the new Clause. The authorities get to know, and the Government still say that the lie has not been told. That is the official view. The boy is 18, they say, because he said he was 18. Even supposing birth certificates are produced, the boy remains 18 in the register of the Army, and, indeed, remains 18 for the rest of his life. [Laughter.] Hon. Members are entitled to have a laugh over that. What I meant to say was that that age of 18 in the records is taken as governing that man's age throughout the length of his life. I have repeatedly tried to get old age pensions for men who could produce their ordinary records of birth but they also produced their age on joining the Army. It was a false age that was given when joining the Army, but the Ministry of Health insist on taking that as the man's age.


The man would get the pension earlier if they took the later age.


I am making a serious point—not only that the telling of that lie is condoned by the Government, but that it is accepted by all the Government Departments, not merely one, as being the truth in every aspect of the man's life. I am not saying that it is always to a man's disadvantage, nor, I think, would the hon. Gentleman claim that it was always to his disadvantage. The type of case I was referring to was that of an elderly man who told a lie to get into the Army when he was over-age during the War, and they accept that age as being his true age and insist on its being true. If that is not condoning a lie I do not know what is. But if there is some excuse for it in the case of a man of full adult status, there is no excuse for taking advantage of an inexperienced boy who rushes to join the Army in an impetuous moment. If we are to have an Army at all, let us have it composed of men who join of their own free will and who remain of their own free will, and see that they go there with the full knowledge of their parents, voluntarily and freely, and not because of some social pressure put upon them which the War Office feels it necessary to assist them to escape.

I can remember the Minister just before he became a War Office representative making one or two of the finest anti-war and peace speeches that have ever been made in this Chamber, and because I do not believe that his ideals are any different from what they were in those days I urge him not to allow himself to be diverted from the courses which he would regard as right because of any pressure from the Service members of the War Office. My hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) made some scathing remarks about colonels in this House, which were resented by one or two hon. Members with whom we would dislike to quarrel. It is not the colonels in the House who are the really serious menace, but the generals over in Whitehall. I urge the Minister to face this problem as an individual and as a man who has not a mere interest in maintaining an Army but bass certain social ideals and some idea as to how he would like to see the young men of the nation grow up. I urge him to admit that this

new Clause, which he has resisted as it has been resisted by previous Ministers, is a. sound proposal for the protection of the young men of our nation.

Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The Committee divided: Ayes, 55; Noes, 262.

Division No. 106.] AYES. [10.31 p.m.
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, South) Grundy, Thomas W. McGovern, John
Attlee, Clement Richard Hall, F. (York, W.R., Normanton) Maclean, Nell (Glasgow, Govan)
Banfield, John William Hall, George H. (Merthyr Tydvil) Mallalieu, Edward Lancelot
Batey, Joseph Hicks, Ernest George Maxton, James
Brown, C. w. E. (Notts., Mansfield) Hirst, George Henry Milner, Major James
Cape, Thomas Holdsworth, Herbert Nathan, Major H. L.
Cocks, Frederick Seymour Hunter, Dr. Joseph (Dumfries) Owen, Major Goronwy
Cove, William G. Janner, Barnett Parkinson, John Allen
Cripps, Sir Stafford Jenkins, Sir William Price, Gabriel
Curry, A. C. Jones, Henry Haydn (Merioneth) Rathbone, Eleanor
Daggar, George Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Roberts, Aled (Wrexham)
Davies, David L. (Pontypridd) Kirkwood, David Thorne, William James
Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton) Lansbury, Rt. Hon. George Tinker, John Joseph
Edwards, Charles Lawson, John James Williams, David (Swansea, East)
Foot, Dingle (Dundee) Leonard, William Williams, Edward John (Ogmore)
George, Major G. Lloyd (Pembroke) Llewellyn-Jones, Frederick Williams, Dr. John H. (Llanelly)
Greenwood, Rt. Hon. Arthur Logan, David Gilbert Williams, Thomas (York, Don Valley)
Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan) Lunn, William
Groves, Thomas E. McEntee, Valentine L. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Mr. John and Mr. D. Graham.
Aitchison, Rt. Hon. Craigie M. Christie, James Archibald Goff, Sir Park
Albery, Irving James Clarke, Frank Goodman, Colonel Albert W.
Allen, William (Stoke-on-Trent) Clarry, Reginald George Grattan-Doyle, Sir Nicholas
Amery, Rt. Hon. Leopold C. M. S. Clayton, Dr. George C. Greene, William P. C.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Cobb, Sir Cyril Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro', W.)
Applin, Lieut.-Col. Reginald V. K. Colfox, Major William Phillp Grimston, R. V.
Astbury, Lieut. Com. Frederick Wolfe Colman, N. C. D. Gritten W. G. Howard
Atkinson, Cyril Colville, Lieut.-Colonel J. Gunston, Captain D. W.
Baillie, Sir Adrian W. M. Conant, R. J. E. Hacking, Rt. Hon. Douglas H.
Balfour, George (Hampstead) Cook, Thomas A. Hales, Harold K.
Balfour, Capt. Harold (I. of Thanet) Cooke, Douglas Hall, Capt. W. D'Arcy (Brecon)
Balniel, Lord Cooper, A. Duff Hanbury, Cecil
Barclay-Harvey, C. M. Courthope, Colonel Sir George L. Hanley, Dennis A.
Barrie, Sir Charles Coupar Craven-Ellis, William Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry
Batsman, A. L. Croft, Brigadier-General Sir H. Hartington, Marquess of
Beauchamp, Sir Brograve Campbell Crookshank, Col. C. de Windt (Bootle) Hartland, George A.
Beaumont, M. W. (Bucks., Aylesbury) Croom-Johnson, R. P. Harvey, Major S. E. (Devon, Totnes)
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B.(Portsm'th,C.) Cross, R. H. Haslam, Henry (Horncastle)
Benn, Sir Arthur Shirley Crossley, A. C. Headlam, Lieut.-Col. Cuthbert M.
Bernays, Robert Cruddas, Lieut.-Colonel Bernard Hellgers, Captain F. F. A.
Bevan, Stuart James (Holborn) Culverwell, Cyril Tom Henderson, Sir Vivian L. (Chelmsford)
Birchall, Major Sir John Dearman Davies, Maj. Geo. F.(Somerset, Yeovil) Hills, Major Rt. Hon. John Waller
Bird, Ernest Roy (Yorks., Skipton) Dickie, John P. Hope, Capt. Hon. A. O. J. (Aston)
Bossom, A. C. Donner, P. W. Hopkinson, Austin
Boulton, W. W. Drewe, Cedric Hornby, Frank
Bowyer, Capt. Sir George E. W Duckworth, George A. V. Horsbrugh, Florence
Braithwaite, J. G. (Hillsborough) Duggan, Hubert John Howitt, Dr. Alfred B.
Broadbent, Colonel John Duncan, James A. L.(Kensington,N.) Hudson, Capt. A. U.M. (Hackney, N.)
Brocklebank, C. E. R. Eastwood, John Francis Hume, Sir George Hopwood
Brown, Ernest (Leith) Eden, Robert Anthony Inskip, Rt. Hon. Sir Thomas W. H.
Brown. Brig. Gen.H.C.(Berks.,Newb'y) Elliot, Major Rt. Hon. Walter E. Jackson, Sir Henry (Wandsworth, C.)
Buchan, John Elmley, Viscount James, Wing-Com. A. W. H.
Buchan-Hepburn, P. G. T. Emmott, Charles E. G. C. Jennings, Roland
Burghley, Lord Emrys-Evans, P. V. Joel, Dudley J. Barnato
Burgin, Dr. Edward Leslie Entwistle, Cyril Fullard Ker, J. Campbell
Burnett, John George Erskine, Lord (Weston-super-Mare) Kerr, Lieut.-Col. Charles (Montrose)
Cadogan, Hon. Edward Erskine-Bolst, Capt. C. C. (Blackpool) Kerr, Hamilton W.
Campbell, Edward Taswell (Bromley) Essenhigh, Reginald Clare Knight, Holford
Campbell, Vice-Admiral G. (Burnley) Fleming, Edward Lascelles Lamb, Sir Joseph Quinton
Campbell-Johnston, Malcolm Fox, Sir Gifford Latham, Sir Herbert Paul
Caporn, Arthur Cecil Fremantle, Sir Francis Law, Richard K. (Hull, S.W.)
Carver, Major William H. Fuller, Captain A. G. Leighton, Major B. E. P.
Castlereagh, Viscount Ganzoni, Sir John Lennox-Boyd, A. T.
Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.) Gibson, Charles Granville Lewis, Oswald
Cazalet, Capt. V. A. (Chippenham) Glossop, C. W. H. Liddall, Walter S.
Chapman, Col. R. (Houghton-le-Spring) Gluckstein, Louis Halle Little, Graham, Sir Ernest
Llewellin, Major John J Pike, Cecil F. Somerville, Annesley A. (Windsor)
Locker-Lampson, Com. O.(Handsw'th) Potter, John Somerville, D. G. (Willesden, East)
Loder, Captain J. do Vere Powell, Lieut.-Col. Evelyn G. H. Soper, Richard
Lovat-Fraser, James Alexander Pownall, Sir Assheton Sotheron-Estcourt, Captain T. E.
MacAndrew, Lieut.-Col. C. G.(Partick) Procter, Major Henry Adam Spears, Brigadier-General Edward L
MacAndrew, Capt. J. O. (Ayr) Raikes, Henry V. A. M. Spencer, Captain Richard A,
McCorquodale, M. S. Ramsay, Capt. A. H. M. (Midlothian) Spender-Clay, Rt. Hon. Herbert H.
Macdonald, Sir Murdoch (Inverness) Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles) Spens, William Patrick
Macdonald, Capt. P. D. (I. of W.) Ramsden, Sir Eugene Stanley, Lord (Lancaster, Fylde)
McKie, John Hamilton Rankin, Robert Stanley, Hon. O. F. G. (Westmorland)
Maclay, Hon. Joseph Paton Ray, Sir William Stevenson, James
McLean, Major Sir Alan Rea, Walter Russell Stewart, J. H. (Fife, E.)
McLean, Dr. W. H. (Tradeston) Reed, Arthur C. (Exeter) Strauss, Edward A.
Maitland, Adam Reid, Capt. A. Cunningham- Strickland, Captain W. F.
Makins, Brigadier-General Ernest Reid, James S. C. (Stirling) Stuart, Lord C. Crichton-
Manningham-Buller, Lt.-Col. Sir M. Reid, William Allan (Derby) Sueter, Rear-Admiral Murray F.
Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Renter, John R. Sugden, Sir Wilfrid Hart
Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John Rentoul, Sir Gervais S. Sutcliffe, Harold
Meller, Richard James Rhys, Hon. Charles Arthur U. Tate, Mavis Constance
Merriman, Sir F, Boyd Roberts, Sir Samuel (Ecclesall) Thomas, James P. L. (Hereford)
Mills, Major J. O. (New Forest) Robinson, John Roland Thompson, Luke
Mitcheson, G. G. Ropner, Colonel L. Thomson, Sir Frederick Charles
Molson, A. Hugh Elsdale Rosbotham, Sir Samuel Thorp, Linton Theodore
Monsell, Rt. Hon. Sir B. Eyres Ross, Ronald D. Touche, Gordon Cosmo
Moreing, Adrian C. Ross Taylor, Walter (Woodbridge) Wallace, Captain D. E. (Hornier)
Morris, John Patrick (Salford, N.) Runge, Norah Cecil Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Morris, Owen Temple (Cardiff, E.) Russell, Richard John (Eddisbury) Ward, Irene Mary Bewick (Wallsend)
Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh) Rutherford, Sir John Hugo (Liverp'l) Warrender, Sir Victor A. G.
Morrison, William Shepherd Salmon, Sir Isidore Wells, Sydney Richard
Muirhead, Major A. J. Samuel, Sir Arthur Michael (F'nham) Weymouth, Viscount
Munro, Patrick Samuel, Samuel (W'dsworth, Putney) Whyte, Jardine Bell
Nail, Sir Joseph Sandeman, Sir A. N. Stewart Williams, Charles (Devon, Torquay)
Nall-Cain, Hon. Ronald Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir Philip A. G. D. Williams, Herbert G. (Croydon, S.I
Nation, Brigadier-General J. J. H. Savery, Samuel Servington Wills, Wilfrid D.
Nunn, William Scone, Lord Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel George
O'Donovan, Dr. William James Shaw, Helen B. (Lanark, Bothwell) Womersley, Walter James
Patrick, Colin M. Shepperson, Sir Ernest W. Worthington, Dr. John V.
Pearson, William G. Sinclair, Col. T. (Queen's Unv.,Belfast) Young, Rt. Hon. Sir Hilton (S'V'noaks)
Penny, Sir George Skelton, Archibald Noel
Perkins, Walter R. D. Smiles, Lieut.-Col. Sir Walter D. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.
Petherick, M. Smith, R. W. (Aberd'n & Kinc'dine, C.) Mr. Blindell and Commander Southby.
Peto, Geoffrey K.(W'verh'pt'n,Bilston) Smith-Carington, Neville W.
Pickford, Hon. Mary Ada Somervell, Donald Bradley