HC Deb 29 March 1935 vol 299 cc2231-9

"In section one hundred and forty-six of the Army Act (which relates to officers not to be sheriffs or mayors), after the word 'officer,' in line one, there be inserted the words 'or soldier,' and after "officer,' in line eight, there be inserted the words' or soldier.'".—[Mr. Buchanan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.24 p.m.


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

This Clause relates to the right of the private soldier to stand for a public body. If hon. Members will look at Section 146 of the Army Act, they will see that it reads as follows: An officer of the regular forces on the active list within the meaning of any Royal Warrant for regulating the pay and promotion of the regular forces shall not be capable of being nominated or elected to be sheriff in any county, borough, or other place, or to be mayor or alderman of, or to hold any office in, any municipal corporation in any city, borough, or place in the United Kingdom: Provided that nothing in this section shall disqualify any officer, for being elected to or being a member of a county council.

An officer is entitled under that Section to be elected to a county council, and our Amendment simply says that a private should be allowed to become a member of a county council as well—in other words, that there should be no class distinction as between the private and the officer in regard to election to a county council.

I must confess that I cannot anticipate what the Financial Secretary is going to say on this question. He or his officials, or a combination of both, are able to produce the most ingenious reasons for not accepting Amendments, and I do not doubt that in this case also they will produce an ingenious jig-saw puzzle of a reason. As far as I can see, however, the officer is able to stand for election, and, if the electors are wise or foolish enough, according to their views, to be elected to a county council; and I can see no reason why that should not apply to privates also. In these days, when we are told in public bodies that the rights of citizens of all ranks should be as nearly equal as possible, and that there should be no bar against any one class of people in civil life, I cannot see why there should be a bar against the private soldier in this matter, and although the Financial Secretary, like all his predecessors, seems disinclined to accept any Amendment at all, I trust that we shall see some change in his attitude to-day, and that, whatever he may have said on other occasions, he will extend to the ordinary private soldier an equal right with the officer to become a member of a county council.

1.27 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

I am in agreement with the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) that there should be no class distinction in the regulations which govern the admission of officers or men into local government bodies. The first part of the Section which the hon. Member has quoted is restrictive; it says that officers may not take part in the more urban forms of local government, to put it shortly; and the hon. Member, in his desire that soldiers should be on the same footing, seeks to make that restriction applicable also to soldiers. I am in entire agreement with that. But the proviso, as the law stands, enables officers to sit on county councils, and the Amendment seeks to make the same conditions applicable to soldiers also. While I am in entire agreement with the restrictive power of the Section, I should like to ask the Financial Secretary whether he could not consider, before the next Army Annual Bill is brought to the House of Commons, inserting an Amendment in the Bill which would have the effect of prohibiting officers and also soldiers from sitting on county councils.

My reason is that, whereas it is admitted by implication in the first part of the Section that the urban forms of local government have tended to become—and they have in fact become in many cases—party political, in that the members who sit on those bodies represent the ordinary party political alignments in this country, it has not been recognised that the same applies to county councils, and, indeed, in the case of the majority of county councils, it does not apply to them. But there is, unfortunately, a small number of county councils—that of London, for instance—where the party alignments are broadly the same as they are in ordinary national politics, and I think that for that reason it would be desirable formally to amend the law and to declare a severance between serving officers and soldiers and any form of local government at all, since county councils as well as the now prohibited forms of local government have tended to become, and in some cases have become, party political.

1.31 p.m.


I desire to support the proposed new Clause, because I cannot see that this distinction between officers and men is justified. After all, the common purpose of both is to fight for their King and country, and both give the best of their lives in that service; and if any privilege like that of serving on a county council is going to be given to the one section, it ought to be to the other. I do not see why there should be any distinction at all. It might have been justified in the early days, because, as is well known, from the point of view of education the common soldier was not the equal of the officer; but we have gone beyond that now. The common soldier to-day is, generally speaking, fairly well educated—he has to be—and, therefore, can take part in county council or other local government work equally with an officer, and in my opinion there is no ground which can justify the giving of this privilege to the one and not to the other. I think we are indebted to the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) for bringing this matter forward and drawing the attention of the House to the position at the present time. It may be that the Financial Secretary may say that the time has come when the common soldier is entitled to the same rights and privileges as the officer, and in that case my speaking for the Clause will have been unnecessary.

1.33 p.m.


I desire to support my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Camborne (Lieut.-Commander Agnew) in asking the Financial Secretary to the War Office if he will consider at some early future date the deletion of the proviso to Section 146 of the Army Act, which now enables an officer to sit on a county council. I notice that this Section dates from the days of Queen Victoria, and in those days county councils, when they were set up, were largely non-political. To-day they are becoming increasingly political, and the elections in various parts of the country are being fought more and more on political lines. In places like London, Glasgow and Durham the county council elections are now being fought on political lines, and I think it is time that officers should conform to the general rule of keeping out of politics, and should not be allowed to stand for a county council.

1.34 p.m.


The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) is wondering what excuse will be made to justify the argument that has been brought to bear on this matter so frequently in the House. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) paid me the compliment of an ingenuity which I must share with some of my predecessors—


Certainly; we do not wish to give credit to one more than another.


I know, however, that the hon. Member realises that if any mistake is made the responsibility will be mine, and, therefore, I think it is only fair that some of the credit also should rest with me. The hon. Member was wondering whether I could produce an ingenious reason to defend the present position. I am very disappointed indeed that I am unable on this occasion to produce that ingenious reason which he, I am sure, expected would be forthcoming. The hon. Member for Gorbals said that there should be no distinction between the private and officer in connection with county council elections. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Camborne (Lieut.-Commander Agnew) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Kensington (Mr. Duncan) suggested that they were in agreement, at any rate with the restrictive portion of the new Clause but they propose to disqualify an officer from being elected or becoming a member of the county council in the same way as a soldier at the present time is disqualified. I think that there is a great deal to be said for their proposal.

I cannot for the life of me at this moment bring forward strong enough reasons to ask the House to vote for the status quo, but, on the other hand, a great responsibility will be placed upon the two hon. Members sitting below the Gangway if I cannot here and now agree to accept their new Clause. The responsibility is theirs, because they have given me such short notice in connection with the new Clause. It only appeared on the Order Paper this morning, and the probabilities are that had I had an opportunity of making my position absolutely certain, I could have accepted their suggestion, but, as they have given me such short notice, I really must ask for a little more time in which to think this matter over. At the moment, I repeat, I am not satisfied with the present position. My own personal views, for what they are worth, are that there should be equal treatment both for officers and men in this matter of county council elections. As it is said, these are becoming very political and, therefore, it appears to be wrong that either officers or men should take such a prominent part in political elections of that kind. I hope that the hon. Members will withdraw their Clause on this occasion on the definite promise that the matter will be looked into with a great deal of sympathy between now and next year when the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill is produced.

1.38 p.m.


I have to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very great frankness. If it had been the Minister of any other department standing at that box, I would have apologised for the shortness of notice we had given, but we expect the War Office to be always on the qui vive. One of our Scottish regiments has this motto, "Aye, ready" and we could have hoped that the War Office responsible for directing the activities of that regiment in the field would have had a similar motto. I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that if he were called upon to direct this force he would have to get out his mobilisation papers pretty quick and make decisions in shorter time than he is called upon here to do. Therefore, we do not have to apologise to him for giving him the best part of 24 hours' notice.

Sir WALTER WOMERSLEY (Lord of the Treasury)

He has to sleep.


I am sorry to hear that; it is different from the Navy. The Lord of the Treasury says that he has to sleep. I do not know why.


I do not think that sleep has very much to do with it. If I had sat up the whole of last night it would not have helped me in this particular instance, because the Order Paper was not delivered to me at my house in London until 10 o'clock this morning, and I had to be sitting on this Bench at 11 o'clock in order to hear the speeches of hon. Members.


I would just pass on this tip from the Independent Labour Party to the War Office, and I hope that they will not be too haughty to take advice from such a quarter. When we are interested in something which is to come on on the next day we do not wait for the Order Paper. We go to the Table and enter into friendly conversation with the officials sitting there who are always ready to give Members of this House, and even Ministers, all the information that is necessary in order to carry on their legitimate business. Therefore, the Army has been a little lax in not finding out last night what its job was for to-day.


Let the hon. Gentleman be quite fair. I am very glad to learn of the friendly relations between the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) and the gentlemen who sit at the Table—I think that that is a very good thing indeed—but I also imagine that there should be friendly relationship between the hon. Member for Bridgeton and the official who sits on this Bench, namely, the Financial Secretary to the War Office. If the hon. Member for Bridgeton had been good enough to acquaint me personally that he had handed in this Clause at the Table and had given me notice of his proposed amendments and thus given me an opportunity of considering them overnight, I should have had my 12 hours' consideration and, no doubt, then would have had a more satisfactory reply to give to the hon. Member. So I really think he must accept a little responsibility for having been a little less friendly with me than I had anticipated. This is not the only amendment in respect of which I have a complaint. Seven new Amendments were put down, and I had several new proposals to consider between 10 and 11 o'clock.


I certainly at once apologise on behalf of myself and colleagues for any apparent act of discourtesy. The one thing we always try to be is a model of courtesy to the whole House, but the right hon. Member will recognise the limitation of our party staff and resources. At the time when we would normally have been telling him about this Clause and explaining precisely what he should be doing to-day, we were engaged in earnest conversation with another Government department over another matter which was also important, but on another occasion we will try to give him the additional time he apparently requires. We wish to divide the House on this new Clause, for this reason. There are two elements involved in the approach to this matter. One is that of putting the soldier on to the same level as the officer, and on that side we have the support of two hon. Members who are normally supporters of the Government. Their object is to put them on a level which is more restrictive than that which presently obtains, and to reduce the right of an officer to participate in the public and civil rights of the nation. That is where they are only agreeing with us in putting the officer on the same level as the soldier. In other words, they want to bring the officer down to the lower citizenship level at which the private is to-day.

I gather from the reply of the right hon. Gentleman that that is the position with which he is in sympathy, but that is not our view. It is to put the two on the same level so that the rank and filer should be on the high level of citizenship that is presently enjoyed by the commissioned officer. We do not want the soldier to have fewer but to have more citizenship rights. We think that that is the trend of the times and not the other way; that the soldier shall be less of a class apart and more of a definite citizen with the rest of us. For these reasons, we propose to carry our Clause into the Division lobby.

1.45 p.m.


In regard to the lack of notice given to the Financial Secretary to the War Office, I should like to absolve my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) of any responsibility. Whatever blame there may be in regard to the matter rests with me. I was engaged with the Minister of Labour on a certain matter, otherwise the Financial Secretary would have received earlier notice.

1.46 p.m.


It is reasonable that the Financial Secretary should have an opportunity of considering the matter raised by the new Clause. In the meantime, would he be willing to effect a compromise between what is asked in the new Clause and the present position? The word "soldier" obviously means a private soldier, and the suggestion is that the soldier should be given the opportunity to have democratic representation

The following new Clause stood upon the Order Paper: