§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Mr. LEWIS
I wish to ask the Secretary of State for War to give the reasons why the proposed change has been suggested and some argument to show that 2711 it is either desirable or necessary. When I first read the Clause the impression formed on my mind was very unfavourable. The Clause proposes to repeal part of Section 146 of the Army Act. That Section deals with restrictions on the right of serving officers to take part in certain forms of local government. It provides that serving officers are not allowed to be sheriffs, and that part of the Section is not to be touched by this Clause. It also provides that a serving officer shall not be a mayor or alderman, or hold office in a municipal corporation. It goes on later to say that these restrictions shall not apply in the case of a county council. That part of the Section with regard to eligibility for membership of a municipal or county council is to be struck out by the new Clause. I am not concerned to argue whether Section 146 of the Army Act is good or bad, but I am concerned to observe that it is something that has been laid down by Parliament, and, as I understand, it is now proposed to take the matter out of the hands of Parliament and to deal with it departmentally. In this Section we are dealing with the limitation of the right of certain citizens to take part in local government, and that is pre-eminently a matter which should be decided by Parliament and should not be left to be decided by a Department of State or any Minister.
It may be that Section 146 is not working very well for some reason, and if that be the case the better course would be for the Secretary of State to propose that an alteration in the regulations laid down in that Section should be confirmed by Parliament. I do not like the suggestion that it is to be taken out of the hands of Parliament and to be decided by the Minister or the Army Council or whoever it may be. There is no doubt about that being the intention, for in the Memorandum to the Bill under the heading "Clause 5," there occur these words:The position of officers and soldiers in regard to candidature for local government councils will then fall to be dealt with by departmental regulations.It may be argued that in practice it is difficult, perhaps even impossible in some cases, for members of the Army to take part in local government. That can be argued of almost any occupation. It 2712 may be argued that a doctor or a lawyer is too busy to sere on a local council; nevertheless, some of them do so serve. If it be argued that there are some special reasons of State why it is not desirable that members of the Army should take part in local government, that appears to me to raise serious issues which should be decided by Parliament and not by any Department. I took the precaution of warning the Financial Secretary that I was going to raise this matter, and I hope that the Minister will be able either to say that he does not propose to proceed with the Clause, or to give some serious reason why this departure of practice should be made. Otherwise, the House ought not to pass the Clause. Anything that tends to differentiate between those who are serving the armed forces of the Crown and ordinary citizens is to be deplored. We do not wish this country to create anything corresponding to the military caste which we see in some other countries and which always ends in an ultimate clash between the military and the civil authorities. If we are to be told that those serving in the armed forces are to have their civil rights restricted, we ought to be told the reasons, and the restriction should be specifically laid down by Parliament.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. LAWSON
This is one of those matters which surprises one at first sight because it deals with complicated things that are not easily understood by civilians. I am not sure what is the definition of an officer on active service, and I do not know whether it includes a man on reserve. This is one of the sections of the Army Act that one can easily overlook. It was news to me that an officer on active service cannot serve on a municipal council but, can serve on a county, district, or parish council. I do not know why such a distinction was made. Was it because the county council was not looked upon as a very dangerous body at the time the regulation was made? As I understand it the present position is that a serving private soldier cannot in any circumstances serve upon any municipal body or local authority unless he gets the authority of his officer, and for all practical purposes that rules the private soldier out of active service as a civilian. But according to this Section of the Army Act: 2713An 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"—I am not sure what is the definition of "within the meaning of any Royal Warrant"—shall not be capable of being elected or nominated to be Sheriff in any countybut he is capable of serving on certain local authorities, which gives him a right over and above that enjoyed by the private soldier. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) says that he wants those who are serving to be put on the same footing as civilians, but does he want the same right for the ranker soldier as the officer has at present? That is another issue, and we should have a great deal to say in favour of that view, but I wish to hear what the Government have to say as to the exact position of an officer at the present time. Personally, and I think I speak for most of my hon. Friends, I should not support officers having rights in this matter over and above those of the common soldier. If it is true that the common soldier cannot serve upon any local authority while he is in the Army it seems invidious that an officer should have any such right.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Mr. DUNCAN
I only intervene because I was interested in this matter when, on 29th March last year, the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) moved an Amendment to this particular Section of the Army Act with the object of giving a private soldier the same rights as an officer. I took the opposite view, that neither an officer nor a soldier should be allowed to serve on county councils and parish councils. The reason I then gave was that county councils have changed since the days of Queen Victoria, when Section 146 of the Army Act was passed. County council elections are being fought more and more on political lines. That is a point I would commend to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. O. Lewis). Last year I instanced London, Durham and Glasgow as places where local government elections are fought on political lines, and no doubt other hon. Members could give other instances. I wanted to keep both officers and private soldiers out of party politics. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Camborne (Lieut.-Com- 2714 mander Agnew) reinforced what I said, and in reply to us the right hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hacking) who was then Financial Secretary to the War Office, said: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 there is a great deal to be said for their proposal."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th March, 1935; col. 2235, Vol. 229.]I suppose that Clause 5 of this Bill is the result of the consideration given by the War Office and the Air Ministry to the promise made on that occasion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chorley. It is, I think, a compromise between the hon. Member for Gorbals and myself.
§ Mr. DUNCAN
I should like to stop both officers and private soldiers from serving on county councils at any rate, because they are becoming political, but the hon. Member for Gorbals would like them to be allowed to serve. I think the suggestion of the War Office, if I am interpreting it aright, is that, generally speaking, there should be a restriction, but that in particular cases, where there may be advantage to the War Office or particular advantage to the district concerned, a particular officer or a particular soldier may get special permission from the War Office to stand for election.
§ Mr. DUNCAN
That is one of the things which I am hoping my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War will explain. I am hoping that the view I have offered is the correct one, and if it is I shall be completely satisfied.
§ 8.33 p.m.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
I am very much interested in this Clause, because I drafted the Amendment which was put on the Paper last year. I went through the Army Act previous to the discussion on the Bill last year, and I made this 2715 discovery, and then I drafted the Amendment and my hon. Friends put it before the House. I also raised the matter on the Army Estimates this year, and asked what had been done in fulfilment of the promise made by the right hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hacking) when Financial Secretary. The Secretary of State for War gave me an answer that a mistake had evidently been made last year by the representative of the War Office, that there really was not anything wrong and that he was taking steps to put it right. I did not myself catch the statement of the Secretary of State for War and had my attention drawn to it by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who said that those were the words of the Minister—that there really was nothing wrong but that they were taking steps to put it right. Possibly he will be able to explain his words.
Like the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. O. Lewis), I take objection to the action of the War Office in making this a matter of Departmental regulation. It is of the utmost importance that the House should keep those things in the position in which they can come before the House and be dealt with. The practice has been growing up in the administration of the Army that, when a difficulty occurs, it is taken out of the Army Act and becomes a matter of departmental regulation. It practically passes out of the direct control of the House of Commons. For example, there is the question of church parades. Hon. Members who felt very strongly on the question of compulsory church parades used to put down Amendments year after year to the Army Act. They now find that this has become a matter of departmental regulation. The volume of opinion was growing so much that it was almost certain that what happened on another question would happen in that connection also. The War Office, having got protection for itself from the growing opinion of democracy, continues to carry on its treatment of the soldier on the traditional lines which they think ought to be observed. I do not want that to happen.
The House, more especially in these days, ought to have the rights of the soldier before it every year in the Army 2716 Annual Bill. It may be said that such questions can come up on the Estimates in the same way as any other question, but although one may raise a particular question on the Estimates, other hon. Members can raise other questions, and the discussion wanders here, there and everywhere. When questions of this sort come up in the discussion of the Army Bill, it is in a precise and definite way, and upon the particular subject to which you wish to draw the attention of the House.
I agree with the protest made by the hon. Member for Colchester. The position that he has taken up that no unnecessary distinction should be made between the soldier and the civilian is very sound. Soldiers, sailors and airmen have certain rights; for example, the right to become members of industrial organisations. When the Unemployment Bill was before the House last year, questions were addressed to Ministers on the subject, and they answered that there was that right and they made a parade of the fact, although they knew that the right was ineffective and could not be used. I want hon. Members and members of the Forces to be clear with regard to their rights. There ought to be the right of representation on local authorities, in this House and anywhere else, as citizens. They may be called upon to take part in a campaign, if war breaks out again. Surely those men are entitled to be in the House if they can find an electorate.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
I am sorry if the illustration that I was using about the right to Parliament caused hon. Members to be under a misapprehension that the Clause had anything to do with election to Parliament, and I am very grateful that you have taken the opportunity of saving hon. Members from that misapprehension. I can assure you, and through you hon. Members, that I was simply seeking to use that as an illustration of the Clause in the Bill to which this has reference. The position taken up by the Independent Labour Party on the right of the officer to be elected to a county council was that that right should extend to every member of the Force 2717 and not only to the officer. If the man serving in the Army can find an electorate to elect him to the county councils, he should be entitled to go there, when he can get there. Members of local authorities may find, on occasion, that they are not able to attend. I have known Members of this House not to be able to attend on occasion, for business reasons. If an electorate, knowing the position of the member of the Forces, desires that person to represent them in the county council, the individual concerned should have the right to do so.
Reasons may be given, and the hon. Member for North Kensington (Mr. Duncan) gave one, why it is not desirable that soldiers should take part in politics, but I put it to hon. Members opposite that they know that that is very largely not the case with respect to officers who are in politics. This House is full of them. I know they are retired, or on half pay, but that does not get away from the fact that soldiers are in politics. They have their vote. Yet, while they have their vote for the county council, they are not to be allowed to develop their party politics. That is quite wrong. They are men like ourselves; they are men with ideals and with a desire to see great changes in the locality in which they are, and the needs of which they know. They think and reason like the rest of us, and they are entitled to electoral rights and to representative rights, because the representative rights really ought to go with the electoral rights. I would not be a party to any attempt to take from one section its right in this respect, but I would insist that the same right should be given to the other section of the forces.
This matter is to be governed by Departmental regulations, and very probably we shall not have anything like the opportunity that we have to-night to discuss it when the Estimates come before us again. This is probably the only occasion that we shall get unless the matter comes before the House. When these Departmental regulations come into effect throughout the rank and file of the Army, there may be so much discontent because of the way in which they are being treated under the Departmental regulations that the attention of Parliament may be directed to it.
2718 I believe that the way in which the Secretary of State is handling this matter is simply an attempt to maintain the caste or class privilege way of dealing with it—that the officer class will in effect be allowed to go on acting as they have been acting all along. The hon. Member shakes his head; he has a different view. As a realist, and as one who looks at what is happening to-day, I am sorry I cannot accept his assurance. I would not take the assurance of the Secretary of State for War or the Prime Minister unless we got it as a right given to the individual by Statute. I would only take it if there were statutory provision for equal treatment of all concerned, and the only proper treatment is to give to those men, whether they are privates, corporals, sergeants, majors, colonels, or whatever they may be, the right to be elected to a county council, just as a major is entitled to be elected to this House and become Secretary of State for War—and no doubt in many cases they would make a better job of it. I am quite conscious that, after the proceedings of last week, the drilling and discipline on the other side of the House will not enable us to get justice for the rank and file of the Army, but I hope that the men in the regiments will agitate for full citizen rights such as are enjoyed by any other members of the community.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Sir Victor Warrender)
The history of this subject goes back to the Debate on the Army (Annual) Bill last year, and something that the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) said just now has given me a clue of which I was not aware before. He tells us that it was he who drafted the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan). That Amendment was drafted under a complete misapprehension, and, owing to the fact that very little notice was given of it, the subsequent Debate was also based on a complete misapprehension. Now we can fasten the blame for leading the House astray on the hon. Member for Camlachie. If I recite the history of this question, I think I shall be able to answer the complaints, if complaints they may be called, which have been voiced on both sides of the House this 2719 evening. In the first place, it is quite incorrect to assume that, under Section 146 as it now stands, any private soldier or non-commissioned officer is deprived of the right of standing for election to a municipal body. In fact, other ranks in the Army have been eligible for election to these bodies for a great many years. Section 146 merely deprives officers of the right to hold office as mayors or in county boroughs, but enables them to be members of county councils. The effect, therefore, of Clause 5 as it appears in the Bill this year is, not to deprive men and noncommissioned officers of rights which they previously possessed, but to give to officers the same rights which other ranks have always had.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
I would like to be clear about this matter. May I ask the hon. Baronet whether, under the Clause as it stands, it is the case that if a private soldier is serving in, say, the Gordon Highlanders, there is nothing in military law to prevent him from becoming a candidate for, say, the Aberdeen Town Council?
§ Sir V. WARRENDER
No; under this Clause he will certainly be able to become a candidate for the Aberdeen Town Council, and in point of fact he always has been able to become a candidate for such a body. The point is that the officer has not had that right, and we are merely giving to the officers the right which the men and non-commissioned officers have always had.
§ Mr. LAWSON
Is it not a fact that, while the soldier has had that right, it was subject to the consent of his superior officer?
§ Sir V. WARRENDER
If I may be allowed to proceed, I shall be able to explain the position. The result of this Clause will be that in law regular officers on the active list, and all other ranks, will be eligible to hold office on local government bodies. The point has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) and other hon. Members that we are proceeding to implement our desires in the wrong way. Hon. Members object to the rights of officers and men to serve on these bodies being made subject to departmental 2720 control. Our reason for taking that line is that, in 1925, a committee presided over by Lord Blanesburgh went into the whole question of the candidature of Crown servants in regard to local government activities, and they came to the unanimous recommendation that servants of the Crown should be eligible to hold these offices, but that they should only do so upon the discretion of their Departments, and that is the practice which holds to-day in the great Departments of the State. It so happens, however, that we have had this section in the Army Act handed down to us from past years, and the Army is thus out of line with the practice in other Services of the Crown.
We, therefore, propose that officers and men should be put upon the same basis as civilians who are also in the service of the Crown—given the same liberties and upon the same basis. There is no question of the Army Council wishing to restrict the liberties of either officers or men in the way they spend their leisure time, but we must have some say in the matter and, indeed, the Blanesburgh Committee recommended that this should be done, for they stated in paragraph 72 of their report:It has been urged that municipal elections are as political as Parliamentary elections. This may be true, but the work after election is primarily administrative. Further, the objection to Parliamentary candidature, that it is an attempt to make a fusion of the functions of employer and employé, does not here apply. On the other hand, there are Departments whose duties largely consist in the regulation of local authorities, and in these cases it would be clearly wrong to allow candidature. It is to us unthinkable that an official of the Ministry of Health should serve on a local authority.The Committee definitely took into consideration that there might be conditions under which it was undesirable that servants of the Crown should take part in municipal government. Our chief concern is that the activities of members of His Majesty's military forces should not conflict with their service in the Army and, although each care would naturally be treated sympathetically and upon its merits, we must obviously claim the right of refusing to both officers and men leave to take part in these activities if it is clear that they are going to interfere with their military duties or, to use the words again of the Blanesburgh Report: 2721Municipal candidature should be left, as at present, to Departmental discretion, subject to no moral or material interference with official duties.It will be seen that we are not discriminating in any way as between officers and men. All we are doing is to give the officers exactly the same rights as the men have always possessed, and in those circumstances I hope my hon. Friend will consider withdrawing the Amendment. In reply to the point raised lay the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson), this Clause only affects officers and men actually on the active list. Officers and men on the Reserve are naturally free to do what they like. There is one other point in connection with the first sentence of Section 146. We retain the inability of officers to become sheriffs. The reason is that, if they happen to be pricked, they will be forced to undertake the office of sheriffs. Obviously officers and men have to be protected from such compulsory service, so it is necessary to retain the protection that is given in the first sentence. I hope the Committee will realise that we are not endeavouring in any way to restrict private activities. In fact we are going very much further than the Amendment that my hon. Friend drafted last year.
§ Mr. A. HENDERSON
In the event of a private soldier or officer desiring to become a candidate, is the decision taken by his Commanding Officer on his own discretion or does the Commanding Officer merely have to enforce a regulation applicable to all cases affecting officers and soldiers wishing to become candidates and, if so, do the regulations prohibit such people becoming candidates in any event?
§ Sir V. WARRENDER
When the Bill becomes law we shall have to amend the King's Regulation, laying down that before either an officer or a man can agree to stand for election to any of these bodies he must get the concurrence of the Army Council and, if and when these cases arise, which I imagine will be very infrequently, they will come to the War Office and each case will be considered by the Army Council.
§ Mr. LAWSON
I take it that the present situation is that a soldier must have the consent of his Commanding Officer.
§ Mr. BENSON
It is rather extraordinary that the representative of the Army should come to the House without relevant and obvious information.
§ Mr. MANDER
It does not seem to me that the position outlined here is very different from what happens in civil life. An employé has to get the permission of his employer, as he may have to attend meetings in the afternoon. No reference has been made to the Air Force. I assume that all these facilities are now open to officers and other ranks of the Air Force.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Mr. STEPHEN
I make no apology for having brought forward the Amendment last year. It has been of service in helping to clear the position and to make it known not only to Members of the House but also to the men concerned, who very probably have been unaware of their rights. The Financial Secretary seemed for some reason or other to think that I had erred very greatly. My resources are very limited with regard to the King's Regulations and the rest of it. It seems an extraordinary thing that, with half a day's notice, there was no one in the Department who knew about it. I am not blaming the Department over much because of what was said about these applications being so infrequent. It is of the utmost importance that the fact of that infrequency should be emphasised. It is precisely similar to what I drew attention to previously—the right of a soldier to join his trade union. Soldiers are not aware of it, but I hope they are going to become aware of it and that we are going to have hundreds of soldiers becoming candidates for local authorities. If as a result of this Amendment we find hundreds of privates and non-commissioned 2723 officers serving on local authorities in the future, it will have been of the greatest service to the cause of the working class that this right of the soldiers has been made known.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr. LEWIS
I should like to elucidate a further detail from my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office. Should I be correct in saying that it is not the intention of the War Office to lay down any general Departmental regulations depriving any particular class of men or officers on the active list of the right to sit upon any particular kind of local body, and that all that is intended, is to lay down regulations to deal with individual applications to exercise the right to join these bodies?
§ 9.7 p.m.
§ Sir V. WARRENDER
Yes, the Regulation will be amended so as to bring the War Office into line with other Government Departments in this matter. Any officer or man who is invited or wishes to become a candidate for a municipal governing body will make an application which will be considered on its merits by the Army Council.