HC Deb 13 April 1937 vol 322 cc927-35

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 no person who is deemed to have attained the age of eighteen years shall be enlisted without production of his birth certificate.—[Mr. Thurtle.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Thurtle

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

This Clause is in a slightly different form from that which we moved last year, although it is for the same purpose. It seeks to prevent the enlistment of youths under the age of 18 years, which is the statutory age for the enlistment of regular soldiers. Last year the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that he thought a good many of our arguments had a great deal of force. I do not propose to reiterate them, but to draw attention to some of the objections to them.

The objection raised by the right hon. Gentleman to giving parents the right to claim their boys under 18, enlisted by mistake, was that it might result in a process of in-and-out in the Army. Boys under age might deliberately go into the Army to see what it was like, and might, by collusion with their parents, get out again if they did not like it. I do not think there is a great deal in that objection. I cannot imagine many boys entering into an arrangement of that kind with their parents, but in order to avoid that difficulty we have altered our proposal. We are now asking that before a boy is enlisted for Army service as a regular soldier, not as a drummer-boy or in a special category of that kind, the War Office shall take the precaution of finding out by means of his birth certificate whether he has attained the age of 18 years.

The Minister said last year that he was prepared to give the matter consideration, and I hope that, after having given it consideration, he will now be able to agree to the change. The practice of insisting on a birth certificate is common in the Navy, the Air Force, the Civil Service, the municipal services, and, in fact. in almost all forms of employment. There were only two arguments that the Minister could use against this change. The first was that there was a certain number of lads—I cannot imagine that there were many—who would want to enlist under a false name because they had done something which had brought a certain disgrace on them; and the other was that there were lads who unfortunately were of illegitimate birth, and who would not want that fact to be known to their comrades in the Army.

I suggest that there is very little substance in either argument. There are all sorts of difficulties nowadays in the way of enlisting under a false name. In the first place, it is going to be very difficult to produce two references as to character from people of standing, which it is the practice of the Army to insist upon. Moreover, the development of Unemployment Insurance and Health Insurance has made it a very serious matter for a lad to enlist under a false name, because when he comes out of the Service, and wants to get back into civilian employment, it will produce all sorts of complications. I cannot, therefore, imagine that the number of lads who will resort to this subterfuge will be at all considerable. The question of illegitimacy is no argument at all. There may still be a stigma on the unfortunate illegitimate child, though I do not think it is what it used to be. But, even if that be the case, there is no reason why the recruiting sergeant or the responsible Army authorities to whom this information is divulged should spread it round the barrack-room so that it might become common knowledge to the comrades of the soldier who had enlisted in those circumstances.

Those were the only two objections that the right hon. Gentleman raised to this proposal last year; but he did say that whether he could concede this point would depend on the result of his inquiries as to the possible effect of the change on the number of recruits. I do not know what the result of those inquiries is. I cannot imagine, looking at the facts without the inside knowledge of the War Office, that the number can be considerable but, even if it is, our people do not want the Army built up of lads under the age of 18. However desperate our need may be for recruits—and I do not deny that we need recruits urgently—we surely have not got to the position where we deliberately want to throw into the fighting services mere boys under 18. I hope, although the right hon. Gentleman has been disappointingly stubborn over the last Amendment, he is going to show greater flexibility of mind and a greater readiness to face facts by deciding to take a broader and more generous view and give us this new Clause which he half promised last year.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

The last time I supported my hon. Friend on this point the right hon. Gentleman said he would consider it if certain things arose. One was an improvement in recruiting, and he appealed to us to help him in that. He also said he would inquire how many would be affected. I suppose he has that information at his disposal to-night. I do not expect to get what we want because of what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, but I am going to put my point of view so that it will be on record. The Act lays it down that persons shall not join under the age of 18. When a man joins the Army, he has to have strict regard to discipline. If we start off wrongly by accepting people under age, it seems to me that discipline is being put on one side at the outset. For the life of me I cannot understand why a country like ours, which is seeking to make the Army an honourable profession, should attempt to get people under age. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will put himself right with the country on that matter. If he is getting a large number of recruits under age, I want him to tell the country that, because it is a stigma on us to let them join before they realise what they are taking on. My opinion is that he will get a better Army if he sticks rigidly to the age. Before presenting himself, the boy and his parents would know that he had to bring his birth certificate, and there would then be none of the trouble about trying to get boys out of the Army. Parents whose boys have entered the Army often appeal to hon. Members to try to get the boys out. We can do so only on compassionate grounds, and if the boys have been in the Army for a certain length of time, a sum of money has to be paid in order to get them out. All that trouble would be removed if the War Office would act in a straightforward manner and stand by the Act of Parliament. I do not expect the right hon. Gentleman to give in to our arguments to-night, for I know his attitude; but we shall repeat our request until we receive satisfaction. Although I do not expect the right hon. Gentleman to give way, I ask him to explain the reasons why he will not do so.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Cooper

The hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) has put his case very briefly this evening. I am grateful to him for having stated it as moderately as he could and for not having repeated the arguments which he made last year in a longer speech. That would have been unnecessary, as far as I am concerned, because I assure him that I have re-read his speech since that time. I also assure him and the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) that when I said on the last occasion that I would carefully consider this matter and see whether I could meet their wishes this year, I was perfectly sincere. I have gone into the case with the greatest care. I was impressed by the hon. Member's remarks last year, and I have been impressed by what he has said this evening. I admit that there is a strong case for the reform which he urges. I can answer the various arguments that he brought forward this evening, although I think he knows the answer as well as I know the arguments.

There is still in the mind of a young man of illegitimate birth great hesitancy and shyness about having the fact disclosed. A boy of that age is very sensitive, and fear of having the fact disclosed might cause him to hesitate. Again, the mere fact of being asked for a birth certificate might cause him to hesitate. The thought of having to go to Somerset House would be enough to put off such a young man. At the age in question, shyness is more prominent than at any other age, and the thought of going to a big building such as Somerset House and asking for a birth certificate would be a very serious proposition.

There is no particular sanctity about the age of 18. Many boys of 17 years are really older than some boys of 19. I admit the strength of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member, although he was not correct in saying that the system he advocates exists in the Air Force. The Air Force is bound by exactly the same regulations, although they have lately been asking for birth certificates because recruiting has been so good. I say again this evening, as I said last year, that if recruiting improves, I would like to adopt such a Clause as that now put forward. If recruiting had improved I should have been able to introduce such an Amendment into the Army Annual Act myself, but I have to have regard to the effect it would have on recruiting and that it might mean a fall of 20 per cent. in the number of recruits. The recruiting for the Army last year, so far from showing any improvement, has been worse than in the previous year, and, therefore, strong as the case for the Amendment may be, and strong as are the arguments in its favour, I cannot adopt a reform which would be likely to reduce recruiting for the Regular Army. I cannot literally afford to go without recruits for the Army at the present time. I do not want to recruit people who are under age, but I cannot allow the recruiting figures to fall below what they are now.

Mr. Jenkins

Do I understand that 20, per cent. of the recruits for the Army are under 18 years of age?

Mr. Cooper

I did not say anything of the sort. I am pointing out that many young men of 18, 19 and 20 years of age who come forward as recruits very often change their minds when they are told that they must get a birth certificate. I do not suggest that a large number of recruits are joining under the age of 18. Under the system which we have introduced youths can now join the Supplementary Infantry Reserve at the age of 17 with their parents' consent, and by joining that reserve they are only committed to six months' service in the Regular Army. Any boy who wishes to join now at the age of 17, with his parents' consent, can join in that way. Hon. Members are quite wrong if they think that a large percentage of young men are joining the Army under age, but my fear is that the proposed regulation would have an effect on recruiting, and if it were only as much as 5 per cent. I cannot afford to give up that 5 per cent. I hope the new conditions which have been introduced will encourage recruiting to such an extent that next year I shall be able, of my own accord, to introduce a reform on the lines of the proposed Clause.

Mr. Lawson

I am disappointed with the reply of the Secretary of State, especially after his speech last year when he gave us to hope that he would be able to accept the Clause on this occasion. We do not propose to continue the Debate on it as there are other matters to be discussed, but we intend to go to a Division on the matter.

11.49 p.m.

Sir Arnold Wilson

I hope that the Secretary of State will think again before next year or the year after he introduces an Amendment on the lines of the present proposal. It would inflict great hardship on a large number of persons. About 26,000 illegitimate children are born every year and many of them are quite unaware that they are illegitimate. To insist on the production of a birth certificate would be a great injustice. What is required is a revised form of birth certificate which would not necessarily disclose the fact

of illegitimacy. It has been introduced into Scotland, and it is time it was introduced into England. Were it introduced into England, thus not disclosing the fact of illegitimacy, it would make a great difference to the whole problem, and I hope that that aspect may be considered before next year.

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

The Committee divided: Ayes, 98; Noes, 168.

Division No. 136.] AYES. [11.49 p.m.
Acland, Rt. Hon. Sir F. Dyke Hall, G. H. (Aberdare) Parkinson, J. A.
Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple) Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel) Potts, J.
Adamson, W. M. Harris, Sir P. A. Price, M. P.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.) Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.) Pritt, D. N.
Ammon, C. G. Henderson, J. (Ardwick) Richards, R. (Wrexham)
Barnes, A. J. Henderson, T. (Tradeston) Ridley, G.
Barr, J. Holdsworth, H. Ritson, J.
Batey, J. Hopkin, D. Rothschild, J. A. de
Bellenger, F. J. Jagger, J. Rowson, G.
Bevan, A. Jenkins, A. (Pontypool) Seely, Sir H. M.
Bromfield, W. Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath) Sexton, T. M.
Brooke, W. John, W. Silverman, S. S.
Buchanan, G. Jones, H. Haydn (Merioneth) Simpson, F. B.
Burke, W. A. Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly) Smith, E. (Stoke)
Cape, T. Kirby, B. V. Smith, T. (Normanton)
Cassells, T. Lawson, J. J. Sorensen, R. W.
Charleton, H. C. Lee, F. Stephen, C.
Daggar, G. Leonard, W. Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
Dalton, H. Logan, D. G. Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)
Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill) Lunn, W. Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Macdonald, G. (Ince) Thurtle, E.
Dobbie, W. McEntee, V. La T. Tinker, J. J.
Dunn, E. (Rother Valley) McGhee, H. G. Watson, W. McL.
Ede, J. C. MacLaren, A. Westwood, J.
Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.) Maclean, N. White, H. Graham
Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty) MacMillan, M. (Western Isles) Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)
Evans, D. O. (Cardigan) Mainwaring, W. H. Williams, T. (Don Valley)
Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H Marshall, F. Wilson, C. H. (Attercliffe)
Foot, D. M. Mathers, G. Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)
Gibson, R. (Greenock) Maxton, J. Woods, G. S. (Finsbury)
Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. Milner, Major J.
Grenfell, D. R. Noel-Baker, P. J. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth) Oliver, G. H. Mr. Whiteley and Mr. Groves.
Griffiths, J. (Llanelly) Paling, W.
Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J. Cartland, J. R. H. Ellis, Sir G.
Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G. Carver, Major W. H. Elliston, Capt. G. S.
Allen, Lt.-Col. J. Sandeman (B'kn'hd) Cary, R. A. Emery, J. F.
Allen, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh) Castlereagh, Viscount Erskine-Hill, A. G.
Anderson, Sir A. Garrett (C. of Ldn.) Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.) Everard, W. L.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Channon, H. Fleming, E. L.
Aske, Sir R. W. Christie, J. A. Fox, Sir G. W. G.
Assheton, R. Clarke, Lt.-Col. R. S. (E. Grinstead) Fyfe, D. P. M.
Astor, Hon. W. W. (Fulham, E.) Clarry, Sir Reginald Ganzoni, Sir J.
Baillie, Sir A. W. M. Colville, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. D. J. Gluokstein, L. H.
Balfour, Capt. H. H. (Isle of Thanet) Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.) Grant-Ferris, R.
Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M. Cooper, Rt. Hn. A. Duff (W'st'r S. G'gs) Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H. Crooke, J. S. Gridley, Sir A. B.
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h) Crookshank, Capt. H. F. C. Grimston, R. V.
Beit, Sir A. L. Crowder, J. F. E. Guest, Hon. I. (Brecon and Radnor)
Bernays, R. H. Cruddas, Col. B. Guinness, T. L. E. B.
Birchall, Sir J. D. Culverwell, C. T. Gunston, Capt. D. W.
Boulton, W. W. Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil) Guy, J. C. M.
Bower, Comdr. R. T. Drewe, C. Hannah, I. C.
Bowyer, Capt. Sir G. E. W. Duckworth, W. R. (Moss Side) Hannon, Sir P. J. H.
Bracken, B. Dugdale, Major T. L. Harbord, A.
Briscoe, Capt. R. G. Duggan, H. J. Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.
Brown, Rt. Hon. E. (Leith) Eastwood, J. F. Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.
Bull, B. B. Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E. Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan-
Hepworth, J. Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir J. A.
Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth) Moore, Lieut.-Col. T. C. R. Sinclair, Col. T. (Queen's U. B'lf'st)
Holmes, J. S. Moreing, A. C. Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)
Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J. Morris, O. T. (Cardiff, E.) Southby, Commander A. R. J.
Horsbrugh, Florence Morris-Jones, Sir Henry Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.
Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.) Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.) Spens, W. P.
Hunter, T. Nall, Sir J. Stanley, Rt. Hon. Oliver (W'm'l'd)
Jones, L. (Swansea W.) Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H. Stourton, Major Hon. J. J.
Keeling, E. H. Nicolson, Hon. H. G. Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Kerr, H. W. (Oldham) Palmer, G. E. H. Strickland, Captain W. F.
Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.) Peake, O. Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Lamb, Sir J. Q. Penny, Sir G. Tate, Mavis C.
Law, Sir A. J. (High Peak) Perkins, W. R. D. Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)
Law, R. K. (Hull, S. W.) Pickthorn, K. W. M. Thomas, J. P. L.
Leckie, J. A. Porritt, R. W. Thomson, Sir J. D. W.
Leighton, Major B. E. P. Procter, Major H. A. Titchfield, Marquess of
Liddall, W. S. Radford, E. A. Turton, R. H.
Lindsay, K. M. Ramsbotham, H. Walker-Smith, Sir J.
Liewellin, Lieut.-Col. J. J. Ramsden, Sir E. Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Lloyd, G. W. Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)
Loftus, P. C. Rayner, Major R. H. Warrender, Sir V.
Lyons, A. M. Reid, W. Allan (Derby) Watt, G. S. H.
Mabane, W. (Huddersfield) Remer, J. R. Wedderburn, H. J. S.
MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G. Rickards, G. W. (Skipton) Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.
McCorquodale, M. S. Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool) Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Macdonald, Capt. P. (Isle of Wight) Ropner, Colonel L. Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)
McEwen, Capt. J. H. F. Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge) Womersley, Sir W. J.
McKie, J. H. Rowlands, G. Wragg, H.
Macmillan, H. (Stockton-on-Tees) Salmon, Sir I. Wright, Squadron-Leader J. A. C.
Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R. Salt, E. W. Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
Markham, S. F. Samuel, M. R. A.
Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J. Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir P. TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth) Shepperson, Sir E. W. Mr. James Stuart and Captain

11.58 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

May I ask the Patronage Secretary whether he can now see his way clear to move the Adjournment? There are quite a large number of new Clauses. One of these is apparently going to take a long time to debate, and I think the right hon. Gentleman should consider if he could move the Adjournment.

11.59 p.m.

Captain Margesson

I regret that I cannot on behalf of the Government accede to the request of the hon. Gentleman. It is true that some progress has been made since I last addressed the Committee half an hour ago. But we must carry on, and I hope the Clause of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen), important as it is, may be put as succintly as possible and that there may be no undue delay. I feel that without sitting unduly late we may be able to complete our task.