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.
§ 11.21 a.m.
§ Mr. Thurtle
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
The purpose of the Clause is to prevent the enlistment of youths under 18, which is the statutory minimum age for the enlistment of Regular soldiers. No doubt the Committee is aware that it sometimes happens that youths misstate their age and, therefore, get into the Army under the regulation age of 18. We want to prevent this by asking the War Office to take the elementary precaution of asking a youth to produce a birth certificate showing that he has attained the age of 18 before his enlistment takes place. This Clause would not apply to special categories, which may be enlisted as buglers, drummers and tradesmen, or youths of 17 who enlist in the Supplementary Infantry Reserve with the parents' consent, but it would apply to the ordinary Regular enlistments.
This is a comparatively minor reform for which we are asking. No doubt there are people about, particularly in other countries, who would say that to press for a reform of this kind in these days, when we have so many grave problems confronting us, is to show a lack of proper perspective, but I think that is a wrong view to take of this matter. It is one of the many merits of our democratic system that even when we are con- 2286 fronted with grave anxieties, we can find time in this House of Commons—a little time—to deal with minor cases of injustice, and I think we are entitled even to-day, on that ground, to press for this particular reform. I am very well aware that if I was in any of the dictatorship countries, I could not stand up and plead against the recruitment of youths under 18, but fortunately in this free and democratic Britain of ours I am able to make this plea, and I would like to take this opportunity of saying that I rejoice in the possession of that liberty.
When we move this Clause, we are not to be understood as having any kind of bias against the profession of a soldier. I think all of us recognise that, as things are, the man who joins the Army is rendering a great service to his country, and we owe those people who are undertaking service, in these days particularly, a real debt of gratitude. No one, I think, on this side of the House would dispute that. I have been in the Army. I am an ex-soldier and I would never think of disparaging or belittling the service which soldiers render to our country. In spite of that, I think we are entitled to contend that even to-day there is no necessity for this country to recruit youths into the Army under the age of 18. The change for which we are asking would not imperil the safety of the country. We are in difficult times, no doubt, but they are not so difficult that we need recruit lads under 18.
In the debates last year it was pointed out that there is no special virtue in the age of 18. I am not suggesting there is. It might be a lower age or a higher age, but the fact is that the War Office itself has drawn the line at 18. It says that 18 is the proper minimum age at which recruits should be taken into the Regular Army. All that we want to do is to ensure the proper observance of that statutory age. I do not think anyone will contend that 18 is too high an age for people to be taken into our Regular Army under contract of service. In accordance with our belief as to what is just and proper, we made a law in this country that, so far as civil contract is concerned, a man must have attained the age of 21 before such a contract could be binding. I suggest that the military contract, because of the nature of the obligations it entails, 2287 obligations to sacrifice, if necessary, life and limb, is a much graver contract than any civil contract can possibly be.
Therefore, there is a very strong case for saying that we should not expect youths under the age of 18 to enter into such a contract. The War Office concedes this in principle because it says that the statutory age should be 18, and time after time in Debates in the House on this issue the spokesman of the Department has admitted that there is a strong case for this change. As recently as last year the then Secretary of State admitted that he would like to bring this reform into operation, and the only reason he gave for not doing so last year was that recruitment was unsatisfactory. If that excuse were valid then, it is not valid now because happily a great change has taken place in recruiting. Two days ago I saw this message on the tape:Record Number of Recruits.—Regular Army recruits, states the War Office to-day, continue to enrol in record-breaking numbers compared with previous corresponding periods.If that were the only reason the Department could give us last year for withholding this reform, the present Secretary of State ought to be able to say this morning that in this happy change of circumstances he is prepared to redeem the many half-promises that have already been made that it should be conceded.
There has been only one really serious argument urged against this change in the past, and that is the argument that, if the production of a birth certificate were insisted upon, it would in some cases—it is not suggested that it is a large number—involve the revelation by the recruit of the fact that his birth was illegitimate, and it is suggested that shy and diffident would-be recruits would be reluctant to have this fact brought into public knowledge and that, therefore, the Army would lose what would otherwise be very good recruits. I do not want to go into the detail of that argument now because I think I have been able in the past to demonstrate to the House, and even to the Secretary of State, that there was very little substance in it. I will confine my reply to it to-day not to any detailed rebuttal, but on the practice which obtains in both the Navy and the Air Force. In both those Services the production of a certificate is 2288 insisted upon. If the argument is sound that because of this possible illegitimacy the production of a birth certificate will have an adverse effect on recruiting for the Army, it should have equal validity for the Navy and Air Force. As a matter of fact, so far as these two services are concerned, the argument is completely ignored. Therefore, I cannot see how the argument can hold water for the Army unless the Secretary of State is going to suggest seriously that recruits to the Army are more shy and sensitive than recruits for the Navy and Air Force. I do not think he will do that.
There is one aspect of this matter upon which I am reluctant to enter, but since we appear to be confronted with an obdurate War Office on this matter I feel entitled to refer to it. That is the class aspect. It is a fact that almost all the youths who are affected by this proposal come from poor families. They come from working-class parents, and if hardship is inflicted upon them or upon their parents, it is hardship inflicted almost entirely upon the working-class. Any representative of an industrial constituency, if he has been a representative for any length of time, will realise the truth of that. Time after time we get most distressing cases of lads under 18 who join the Army without the knowledge or consent of their parents, and without really knowing what they were doing. The number of these lads is not large. Their parents have very little influence in the right quarters, and consequently we have had to plead year after year, and plead in vain, for this very small reform. I ventture to suggest with some confidence that if it became a general practice for youths in the middle and upper classes to join the Army under 18 without the knowledge and consent of their parents, we should very soon see a change. The parents of those boys would have sufficient power and influence in the right quarters to see brought about a change which we have so far been unable to bring about because only working-class parents are concerned.
I did not want to have to stress that argument, but I have been driven to do it by the fact that year after year we have established our case, and yet the War Office has not been prepared to concede it. I will leave the matter there. We have now a new Secretary of State, but it is not our fault that that change has been 2289 made. By dint of arguments in the past we had succeeded, I think, in convincing the former Secretary of State that this change was a just one and ought to be conceded, and it would be a little hard on us if we had now to start all over again to try to convince the new occupant of that high office. I hope that will not be necessary. We have a little optimism these days, and I hope that we shall have a pleasant surprise from the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Thurtle
I hope that he will realise that this is a very just and reasonable measure of reform. Although he is a young man himself and has given us evidence of his belief in youth being in power in high places in the Army, I hope that he is not going to press his belief in the virtue of youth to the extent of telling us this morning that the well-being of the British Army is dependent upon the recruitment of a certain number of youths under 18 years of age.
§ 11.37 a.m.
§ Mr. Tinker
I want to support the new Clause. To adopt a military metaphor, the mover of the Clause has advanced from the heights behind me and gone forward to the trenches of the second bench. He is making steady progress, and is ready now for the final onslaught, and so the Secretary of State had better beware if it is not proposed to give way. I do not know what will happen next time; perhaps, he will be found on the other side of the trenches. The last time we discussed this subject it was late at night, but what we have to say to-day will certainly gain the notice of the newspapers, and the outcome will not redound to the credit of the War Office if they do not give way. It may not be generally known that boys under 18 can get into the Army by subterfuge, but this Debate will make it clear. We have a system of attestation, of going before a justice of the peace, and all that kind of thing, but the point about ascertaining the real age of the boy seems to have been put on one side. If the Army is to be an honourable profession, which I claim that it is, well worthy of the recruits who join, everything ought to be clear and above board. The boy ought to be of the age specified on the attestation form, that is 18.
2290 I cannot understand why they have not, in the past, made certain of the boy's age, unless it is that on account of the lack of recruits every means had to be adopted to get youths to join the Army. It takes my mind back to the press-gang days, when certain things had to be done owing to lack of recruits. The present system seems almost to be a continuation of that old system. For several years successive Secretaries of State for War have admitted that point, but they have said that if recruiting should improve they would consider the request we have been putting forward. Last year the then Secretary of State was on the point of giving way. He almost pleaded with us on these Benches not to press the matter to a division, and his assurances seemed to indicate that this year would possibly see him giving way. He did stress the point that if recruiting should improve he could see his way to granting the concessions. When introducing his Estimates this year the present Secretary of State was very pleased with himself as a result of the boom in recruiting. He told us there had been a wonderful response to the appeals made. He also said the Army only wanted men who really believed in the Army as a profession which was well worth following. Therefore, we claim that all the objections have been met: recruiting is improving, and conditions in the Army have been so improved that anybody can join it without any doubts at all. Therefore, I trust that the present Secretary of State will assure us this morning that there is no need now to adopt any subterfuge to get people into the Army. In every other phase of life a birth certificate has to be produced. In the mines when a boy gets to the age at which he can claim the minimum wage for men he has to produce a birth certificate to prove his age; and so it is in other occupations; and why should not a birth certificate be produced if he wants to join the Army?
As to the case of illegitimate children, it has been argued that it would be a shameful thing for a boy to learn that he was illegitimate, but there are very few children now who may have that blot on their birth who do not know about it before they grow up. It cannot be hid from them. Further, illegitimacy is not regarded now as it used to be in the olden days. After all, it is no fault of the child if the parents have done wrong. 2291 No one in his senses would ever blame a child for being illegitimate, and I hope that point will not be advanced again. If the Secretary of State should say plainly to-day, "This is one way of getting recruits, and as we require them I am not going to impose this obligation," I would accept a frank statement of that kind much more readily than any excuse, but the improvement in recruiting and the improvement in Army conditions I cannot see that there is any reason why he cannot grant us this concession.
I do not know what the reply will be; it may be that he will put the matter off for another 12 months, but I hope that he will recognise the earnestness of our plea that we want to help the Army. The men put up from this side to move and support this new Clause have both been in the Army, and so it cannot be said that we on this side have any dislike of the Army. We recognise its needs and we want it to be an efficient Army, and we think those who join ought to be well aware of what they are doing, so that in future we shall not have parents coming to us to ask us to try to get their children out of the Army because they have joined when under 18. If a birth certificate has to be produced, we shall get rid of all that kind of thing.
§ 11.43 a.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Macdonald
I wish to support the appeal made by my hon. Friends. I am sure that the Secretary of State will realise that he would save himself a certain amount of trouble by accepting this Clause. I have had to bring to the notice of his predecessors, and I think to the notice of himself, appeals for the Army to release boys who had joined before they were 18. In industrial districts boys round about 17 or 17½ sometimes find life irksome and hard. The last case I brought to the notice of the War Office was that of a boy working in the mines who was on the afternoon turn, which meant that he started work at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and came out of the pit at 10 o'clock. That boy felt himself deprived of every kind of pleasure which he desired. He could not meet his pals in the evening He tried hard to get on to other shifts, but failed, and finally, against his advice of his parents, he joined the Army. A request was afterwards made to me to try to persuade the 2292 Army to release him. I must say this for the present Secretary of State for War, that he sends me the most illuminating letters I have ever received from a Minister. He takes great pains. He sends me the longest letters that I have ever had, but they are very welcome and they help me to deal with the parents of these boys. He explains the position fully, and I am sometimes able to satisfy parents that they ought not to press the matter further.
Is it fair that the Army Council and the War Office should lay down that 18 is the minimum age for enlistment, and then should be prepared to accept boys under 18 by a subterfuge? We ought to compel a boy to bring proof of his age. He may say he is 18 for some private reason. He may know that if he spoke to his parents they would not let him enlist. I want the Secretary of State to face the difficulties of hon. Members as well as of himself in dealing with this matter. He can easily say that 18 is the age under which no boy shall be allowed to join the Army and that such boy must produce his birth certificate to show that he is 18. If the right hon. Gentleman finds himself unable to go so far as that to-day, whatever his reason may be—and I cannot imagine what the reason can be—and if that reason satisfies him, would he consider the suggestion that when a boy under 18 has enlisted and the parents take objection and bring a birth certificate to prove his age, the right hon. Gentleman should grant a release in such cases? There may be cases of the opposite kind, where parents feel that a course in the Army will do a boy good because they have failed to exercise discipline upon him at home. They would raise no objection in that case. I have one case of that kind in my own constituency where the parents think it will be in the interest of the boy that he should be in the Army. I should prefer that the right hon. Gentleman accepted the proposed new Clause, but if he cannot do so, I hope he will accept the suggestion I have made.
§ 11.48 a.m.
§ Mr. Gardner
The practice of deeming a youngster to be 18 when he is not 18 sometimes gives rise to grievances. A case was brought to my notice, which I laid before the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, of a lad who enlisted in 2293 1915 when he was only in his 16th year. It was a pious fraud and I am sure that we all excuse it. That youngster gave long service. After the War, in 1919 he re-enlisted, and then he gave his proper age. As the Minister is aware, age is sometimes a factor in allowing noncommissioned people to go on for promotion. This lad wanted to go forward for promotion, but he was not allowed to do so because the War Office would not accept as accurate his proper age, but insisted that his age was that which he had given in 1915. In consequence, the lad was not allowed to go forward for promotion. He could get no redress. I took the matter as far as raising it on the Floor of the House during the Army Estimates, but the lad still got no redress, and he still labours under that grievance. I hope that the Minister will give consideration to that side of the question.
§ 11.50 a.m.
§ Sir W. Allen
Hon. Members on the other side are not alone on complaining of this kind of thing. We on this side find the same trouble in our own constituencies. I support the idea that a birth certificate should be produced. There is only one point of criticism that occurs to me. At the recruiting office a boy may decide suddenly to enlist. The recruiting officer may say: "Where is your birth certificate?" and between the time the boy has spoken to the recruiting officer and the time he gets his birth certificate it is possible that he may change his mind. A number of recruits might thus be lost to the Army. If the boy will come to the recruiting office with his birth certificate in his pocket, no harm will be done. It would be a good thing if the present position could be done away with by the right hon. Gentlemen accepting the Amendment.
My own experience was rather different. When I wanted to join the Army I was long over age, and I knew that they would not accept me. I happened to be in a recruiting office when a very likely chap came in to the recruiting officer. "What age are you, my lad?" asked the recruiting officer." I am 42 "answered the man." Well, that is no good "said the recruiting officer but he added, as he looked at the man, who was a very likely looking recruit, "You had better go home and find out your exact age." Not long afterwards, the man came back 2294 and said to the recruiting officer: "I am sorry. You were right, Sir. I am only 32. Its my mother who was 42." That gave me a fine idea, and in a few days I was duly accepted on attestation, which of course contained a lie, but I was able to serve right through the War. That is not the experience with which we want to deal now. We want to deal with the young fellows who are coming in and who do not realise what they are trying to do. They do not know what they are getting. If they had just time to consider and get their birth certificates their parents would not have so much anxiety on their behalf.
We have all experienced cases in which young men are bringing into the family money which is suddenly cut off by their sudden desire to join the Army—which is a very laudable desire, and all the rest of it, but it gets things into difficulties. The parents get into difficulty. I am waiting to hear what the right hon. Gentleman is going to say against this proposed new Clause.
§ Sir W. Allen
If I knew that, I would not continue my speech, but from his appearance I do not think the right hon. Gentleman is going to accept it. I hope that we shall bring this matter up in the House again, because after repeated efforts it will some day be accepted.
§ 11.54 a.m.
§ Mr. Kingsley Griffith
I should like to add my plea to the Minister to accept the proposed new Clause. From watching him I cannot say that he is in a very forthcoming mood, and I am reminded of certain words of the dramatist Sheridan:a damned disinheriting countenance.I should be glad to know some reason why this very reasonable suggestion should not be accepted. If there is a real difficulty, would it not be far more straightforward of the Ministry to go forward boldly and alter the age? Then we should know where we were. There is something quite repulsive to me in the idea that any of His Majesty's Forces should be assisted by a kind of fraud in which the War Office itself takes part. The War Office encourages it while perpetuating this system. I hope that the Minister will either accept this Clause or 2295 indicate that some further consideration will be given to the matter. At any rate, if it is not accepted, I think that some much more solid reason ought to be given against it than any that we have heard hitherto.
§ 11.55 a.m.
§ Mr. Thorne
I am sure that all my colleagues are pleased to see that up to the present there has been no opposition to this proposed new Clause. That shows that the House is unanimous on the proposal. I have never been a recruit, so I do not know what happens, but I did a good deal of recruiting during the War, and I hope I shall never be called upon to do any more in any future war if one should come. I should like it to be understood that we on this side of the House are not against recruiting, though it sometimes seems to be thought by hon. Members opposite that we are absolutely opposed to recruiting of any kind. If I had any sons who were of military age and felt inclined to join the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, I should put no obstacle in their way.
It is, however, a regrettable fact that sometimes boys are, I will not say forced into the Army or the Air Force, but, as a result perhaps of a quarrel with their parents, or a little tiff with their sweetheart, led on the spur of the moment to run away to the recruiting office and tell the recruiting officer that they are 18 years of age. I understand that, if any youth who is under 18 does that, he is liable to be prosecuted. I do not know whether that is true, but I am led to understand that it is. Some very regrettable cases have been brought to my notice where youths under 18 have been accepted as recruits. There is such a case before the court at the Old Bailey at the present time. I am not sure whether I am entitled to mention it, but the Secretary of State will be aware of it. It is that of a youth who, at his trial for an offence, which is not yet concluded, declared that he was only 16 years of age last May. How he was able to get into the Army at the age of 16 I am not in a position to say.
Another thing that I and my colleagues object to is that sometimes youths are forced into the Army. There was a case not long ago, I think at Sutton Coldfield, where a boy was before the local police 2296 court, and the magistrates told him that he could either join the Army or go to prison. I think that that is a wrong thing for anyone to say in a police court. I hope and trust that the Minister for War will agree to this very reasonable proposal. I do not know whether my hon. Friends are going to divide on it, but, if they are, it will be open to hon. Members opposite who agree with us, if they do not care to vote with us, to walk out of the House and thereby at any rate assist us to some extent to carry the Clause. The hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) said he hoped that the Minister for War was going to look into the proposal, but I was watching the right hon. Gentleman very keenly, and saw him shake his head. That means that he is not going to accept it. In any case, if it is not agreed to today, we shall have another go next year.
§ 12.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Tomlinson
I have not been present in the House during the whole of the time that the proposed new Clause has been discussed, but I have taken an interest in this question for many years. It seems to me that one of the reasons why a birth certificate should be insisted upon is that there is a provision that if, within the first three months after a recruit has joined up, for some reason or other his discharge is required, it can be purchased. In the majority of cases that come to our notice where youths have been accepted under age, that happens, as my hon. Friend who moved the Clause suggested, in a family where it is impossible to find the money to purchase the discharge, because, as far as my experience goes, in 99 cases out of 100 the desire for the release of the recruit is on financial grounds.
I was interested to hear the Minister speak, when he was introducing the Army Estimates, of his desire for men of good character as recruits to the Army. I was not only interested, but pleased, to hear him say that, because, in our villages at any rate, the idea has grown up in times past that the one way out of trouble was through the Army. In many instances where boys have entered the Army while under age it has been because of trouble, either at their work or at home—probably something which might easily have been got over in a few days' time, but which has loomed large in the mind of the boy 2297 when he sought this way out, very often at great disadvantage to his parents for economic reasons. It seems to me, that, if the argument suggested by the hon. and gallant Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) is put forward in the reply, namely, that boys might change their minds if they are sent away to get a birth certificate, that could be easily overcome by signing on the recruit and getting the birth certificate afterwards. We are lending ourselves to subterfuge if we continue the present system, and it seems to me that, if all the arguments that have been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman in the interests of the Army can be sustained, the objections to this Clause ought not to be of such a character that he cannot accept it.
§ 12.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Viant
I should like to support the appeal that has been made to the Minister with regard to this Clause. I have in mind a case which happened in my constituency, where a boy, having had a difference with his father at home, ran away, stayed out the whole night, and in the early hours of the morning met the recruiting sergeant, who took him to the office and he joined the Army. His parents were working-class people; his father was just an ordinary labourer. He came to see me about the matter, which caused him much concern; the boy was the only son in the family. After having a talk with him, I said I would take the matter up with the Minister for War, and that, in the circumstances and in view of the age of the boy, I thought he would be prepared to release him. I was amazed when I received the reply from the War Office, for it suggested that they had been put to considerable expense in training this lad. As a matter of fact, the lad had been in the Army only about 10 days or a fortnight. The expense involved was comparatively trivial. If the parents had been asked to pay the commission of the recruiting sergeant I could have appreciated that; and probably it could have been done. The extraordinary thing is that a sum is demanded which it is beyond the ability of the parent to pay.
If the Army has no greater appeal to the youth of the country than appears to be the case from these occurrences, we are in a very poor position for obtaining recruits. If a young man joins the Army, 2298 the Navy or the Air Force he should join it knowing exactly what it implies, and should be able to go into it in a wholehearted way. We should not be prepared to take advantage of a position such as I have illustrated. The circumstances ought to be such that a boy or a youth goes into the Army through sheer desire. In this case, had that lad been sent home for his birth certificate, there would have been an understanding arrived at, and he would not have gone into the Army. Having had a fortnight's experience of the Army, he was desirous of getting home again. I appeal to the Minister to look at the human aspect of this and accept the Clause.
§ 12.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Broad
I wish to add my appeal to the Minister. I have had many cases such as that of which the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) has spoken. I am in correspondence with the Minister now about one. It concerns a lad who joined up, was sent home directly he had been attested, and told his parents what had happened. The father immediately wrote for the release of the lad, who had been enlisted without consent, and was just over 17. He received a reply that, if the parents were prepared to pay £20, the boy's release would be considered; but that if he did not rejoin when sent for, the matter would be put into the hands of the civil police, for him to be fetched back. This is a system of kidnapping. I have listened, in many of these Debates, to some of the excuses made by the Minister for not requiring a birth certificate. They have said that on some occasions there are circumstances in connection with the birth of the boy which would make him rather sensitive about producing a certificate. That is a mean and paltry excuse. There is no other case where a lad is taken into the Services without a birth certificate being required. But I have reason, more particularly, to deal with the treatment accorded to these lads. In one case, I was applying, on behalf of the parents of a lad, for his release. At Christmas, he was allowed to go home for his holidays. He was taken ill and went into hospital, and died of cerebro-spinal meningitis. This lad, without consultation with his parents, had been inoculated for diphtheria and vaccinated on the same day.
The hon. Member cannot raise questions of administration on this Bill. They ought to be raised on the Army Estimates.
§ Mr. Broad
I am very sorry, because in this case I consider that the lad was done to death by dirty doctors. That is the wickedness of it, that such a thing can happen. As I cannot refer to it now, I will defer it to another time; but it shows the advantage they take of lads who, in other circumstances, would be under their parents' control. It is mean to demand from a poor working-class man, on hourly wages, which he loses at holiday times, and with children at school, £20 as a condition for the release of a boy. It means that if he is not able to beg, borrow or steal that £20, he is not able to give his boy a better chance in life. They had done nothing to train the lad, and to demand £20 from that parent is blackmail. If the parent could have found £20, he would have incurred debts as a result which would have impoverished him for years; and to make that an alternative, which does, I admit, give a lower middle-class parent a chance of getting his son out, is discriminating against the poorer people, whose boys are enticed into the Army in this way.
If the conditions in the Army are not sufficiently good to attract lads of 18 to 20, or young men older than that, the Minister ought to be ashamed of this system of inducing these boys to go in unbeknown to their parents. This is a system which has been going on for years, and I believe it is creating a great deal of resentment. These parents do not keep their mouths shut. So much resentment is being created that what the Army gains on the boys it is losing more and more on the older men. I hope that the Minister will at last put an end to this scandalous proceeding and say that for the future, unless the parents' consent is obtained, a lad under 18 shall not be recruited unless he produces his birth certificate, and that 2300 if the lad is enlisted and it is found that he is under 18, then, at the request of his parents, he shall be discharged from the Service in the ordinary way. In any other class of the community no parents would allow the whole future of their boys to be affected by this means. If they incur debts, if they gamble, as so many of their class do, then the law is a protection, whether there is a birth certificate or not; but in these cases there is no protection for the lad if, having been told that he can join at 18 only, he says, "I am 18" and the recruiting officer is satisfied. In view of the large number of cases brought to him by parents I hope that the Minister will at last do the straight and proper thing and say that in future no lad under 18 shall be recruited without his parents' consent, and that if such a lad is inadvertently taken into the Army he shall be discharged on production of his birth certificate.
§ 12.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Crossley
I always rather dislike to hear hon. Members opposite talking about recruiting, even on a specific Amendment like this, because one should always feel that the Army is a fine career for a young man. [HON. MEMBERS: "You have not been here!"] It is quite true that I have not been here all the time to-day, but on the last three speeches, which I have heard, I am entitled to make that comment. Anyway, I have one suggestion to make to the Minister or the Financial Secretary. I have had three cases sent to me during the last year. In two of them I felt that the decision of the Ministry was fundamentally right in turning down applications for release. A very considerable amount of money had been spent on the two boys, who had been in the Army for a period of months. In one of the three cases the lad was under age, and two of them were of military age. In the third case I did feel that there were genuine compassionate grounds, but because it could not be proved that the material conditions of the parents had altered since the enlistment, although the father was a very poor man and the enlistment had taken place a very short time previously, nothing could be done and nothing was done. I cannot help feeling that there is a concession which my right hon. Friend could give in such cases. It is a concession which would be of immense value. It is that he should reduce the sum required 2301 to be paid by parents for the release of their under-age sons in cases where the under-age sons have been enlisted for less than a month. That would give time for second thoughts in a case where a boy has deceived the authorities and enlisted when under age.
§ 12.19 p.m.
§ Mr. Lipson
I have listened with very great interest to the speeches which have been made from both sides on this question, and while I agree that there does exist an evil which has to be dealt with, it seems to me that in this matter, as in so many others before the House, while there is general agreement that an evil exists there is a difference of opinion as to whether the remedy proposed is the one best likely to deal with it. I imagine that as this is not the first time that the subject has been dealt with in the House, it is an evil which must have existed at the time when there was a member of the Labour party at the War Office. I wonder why, if there was such a very strong feeling on that side of the House when the Labour party were in office, they did not deal with the evil. I imagine that if this New Clause is carried every recruit to the Army will have to produce a birth certificate, and it seems to me that as the number of those under 18 who apply for enlistment must be a very small proportion of those wishing to enlist in the Army, it is inadvisable to compel every recruit to bring a birth certificate in order to meet an evil that concerns only a few. It is a fact that a great many people do not possess a birth certificate and it would require a certain amount of trouble for them to procure one if they wished to enlist.
The evil to which attention has been quite properly drawn could be dealt with much more effectively by making it easier for those under 18 who have enlisted to obtain their discharge. I do not know how many it is suggested do enlist quite improperly when under age, and how many of these, perhaps in their own interests, ought not to be in the Army. It may be that in some instances the parents do not wish their boys to be in the Army, but the circumstances of a home may be such that parents are not having the best regard for the interests of their sons, and it may be in the interests of the youths themselves that they should be in the Army. So I feel that if you allow for the 2302 fact that the number under 18 who have entered the Army must be comparatively small, and if you deduct from that number those who in their own interests might very well remain in the Army, the evil really concerns comparatively few people. Therefore, it is not wise to bring in a regulation of this kind which will deal with a very much larger number, and I feel that it is possible to obtain the effect desired in a much simpler way.
§ 12.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie
The hon. Member who has just spoken failed to touch the real point at issue. If this arrangement is necessary in the case of the Navy and the Air Force, why should it not be necessary in the case of the Army? He said that some people have a difficulty in producing birth certificates. They have to produce a certificate when they want the old age pension, and if they happen to be in a trade or occupation in which trade boards operate they have to produce their birth certificates. It has been suggested that the amount to be paid should be reduced if the recruit had been in the Army for a month, but I know that it takes over a month to get a reply from the War Office. In my own constituency there is a case of poor parents who have been penalised in this way. If a lad joins the Army when he is under 18, surely to goodness it is only fair that the parents should not be penalised by being forced to produce £20. I hope that the Minister will agree that the same rule should apply to the Army as to the Navy and the Air Force.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
A number of hon. Members who have spoken have been good enough to say that I am both humane and reasonable, and I hope that that is true. The Committee know well that if arguments were addressed to me that convinced my judgment, I should be the first to yield. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. G. Griffiths) said the other day that he was as pleased with me as a schoolmaster would be with a pupil, that I had done almost everything he asked. It is in that spirit that I approach this proposal. Quotations have been made from previous Debates which I did not hear and for which I share no responsibility. I look at this matter in a new light; I look at it in the light of this Debate. I came prepared 2303 to listen to the case which was advanced, and I will state to the Committee my conclusions. Let me preface that by informing the Committee that I should have expected quite a different type of case to be advanced in favour of a Clause such as that which is upon the Paper.
What is the situation with which we are dealing? The ages between which a man may join the Army are roughly 18 and 28, although, as the Committee know, numbers of boys are enlisted at an earlier age to be given a training in some trade, or to act as bandsmen. But, apart from these categories, the ages are 18 to 28. One hon. Member spoke of our inducing people below that age to enter the Army, and I think he used the phrase "kidnapping." Such a statements bears no relation to the facts. Recruiting officers are specifically instructed by regulation that, where there is the slightest suspicion that a man is under the age of 18, they are not to enlist him without making full inquiries. Further, the medical officer is required to give an opinion of what the age of the man in fact is, judging by his physical condition as disclosed. The boy, or, if you so call him, the man under 18, is given a notice pointing out to him that he is liable to go to prison if he has wrongly stated his age. He makes a solemn attestation, with all the panoply of an oath, that he is telling the truth about his age. Further, he must produce referees who will aver that, in their judgment, he is the right age for recruitment.
In these circumstances, to speak of inducing young men to go into the Army is far from the fact. If subsequently, the man having survived all these tests, it is shown that he is under 17 years of age, he is discharged forthwith and unconditionally. If he is between 17 and 18 years of age, he is discharged at once if compassionate grounds exist, provided it can be shown that his parents would receive more help from him if he went back again into civilian life than they could receive by his remaining in the Army. In every case put to me, the matter is looked at from that point of view. Would he be in a better position to assist his parents? Would he be following a career of greater use to him if he were outside? If there are no compassionate grounds, and it cannot be 2304 shown that it is either in the interests of the parents or his own interests that he should be discharged, he can acquire, like every other soldier, his discharge by purchase. He has entered into a contract, which, presumably, is in his own interests. He has received a military training. If it is neither in his own interests nor the interests of his parents that he should be freely discharged, he can be discharged within three months on the payment of £20, or, if the period of his training is longer, a greater sum. There are in proportion to the whole an infinitesimal number of men under the age of 18 in the Army. We hope to get this year something like 35,000 recruits. A very small number of them will get in, despite all the precautions, under the age of 18, yet we are invited by this Clause to put every applicant who wishes to join the Army to the expense, inconvenience and delay of producing a birth certificate in order to avoid a few odd boys or men under 18 joining the Army.
I am asked to be humane, and I wish to be humane. I, therefore, ask myself, Why do boys come to a recruiting office, when they know that they cannot be enlisted under 18, and say that they are 18? Why do they perform that deliberate act? Why, when they are told that, if they have wrongly stated their age, they may go to prison, do they use every device, including the production of references, to show that they are entitled to join the Army? Anybody who has a knowledge of life can give the answer. The first and most obvious reason is that they want to become soldiers. There is another reason which operates in the minds of some men. It is not every home in this country that is as happy as the Army.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
They feel that they will obtain in the Army perhaps—and it is sorrowful to reflect upon it—better companionship than they get in their homes, and they have deliberately left their own homes, or what, in some cases, are called their own homes, and have enlisted. We are told that because a parent should come and say, "Do give me back my boy," without any further inquiry we should hand the boy back to the condition of affairs from which he has escaped. That is a proposal to which I am not prepared to assent. I should 2305 have expected the argument in favour of this Clause to be that the Army is a bad place, that it is like prison. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Allow me to state what I think would be the case—that the Army is a bad place, that the food is not good.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
I agree: they are exactly opposite statements—and that it is bad for a boy to enter upon this career. No such argument has been advanced. On the contrary, we have been told by hon. Members opposite, and rightly so, that the Army offers a good career. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Thorne) said that if he had a boy to-day he would put him in the Army.
§ Mr. Thorne
No. What I said was that if I had any sons of military age and they wanted to join the Army I should raise no objection.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
The hon. Member would see no objection to his boys joining the Army if they wanted to do so. The fact is—and I ask hon. Members to consider it—that the Army does offer a good career, with good food and a healthy life. There is no reason why obstacles should be put in the way of joining the Army. It offers to the boy seven years guaranteed continuous employment. I do not see any reason why he should regret adopting that career, which is very much better than many others, I cannot see why, as if it were a bad profession, and in order to prevent a few boys, a small proportion of boys, getting into the Army under the age of 18, we should subject every would-be recruit to the Army to the inconvenience and expense of obtaining a birth certificate. I see nothing in the nature of the service in the Army which should cause us to put any hindrance in his way.
I cannot understand the argument which suggests that in 1938, when we need recruits more than we ever did, we should initiate a practice which has been rejected by all previous Secretaries of State, including Labour Secretaries of State, which could operate only as a deterrent and obstacle to recruiting.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
We require many more recruits than the Navy require, and the whole of conditions of service are quite incomparable. The Air Force practice and our own are on all fours-Is the year 1938, when we are increasing our appeal, when we want young men to join, the period when we should come forward and make this proposal?
My hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) spoke upon a different theory. What he did not like was deception. The deception is not on the Army's side, but on the side of the boy who gets into the Army, in effect under age. He said—and I see much force in what he said—"Why do you not be frank and say that a man is suitable to join the Army at 17? Why do you not put that on record and say that you would be very glad to have men in this service at 17, so that they would no longer be accused of deception and liable to punishment if they wrongly stated their age, and you would not be put to the inconvenience of making these inquiries? "Of all the speeches in this Debate, if we seek candour, frankness and objectivity, that is the speech that appealed to me most. To be quite honest with the Committee, I can see no reason why a man should not be allowed, frankly and openly, to enlist at the age of 17.
§ Mr. Hore-Belisha
If that were the case, I should then follow the practice which we now follow of discharging at once upon application anyone who was shown to be under 17 years of age, whether on his parents' request or on his own. That is the present practice. A man is discharged unconditionally and at once if he is shown to be under 17 years of age. I do not know whether I rightly interpret the expressions upon the faces of hon. Members opposite. Some of them, I should say, would prefer that the matter should be dealt with upon those lines, quite openly. If that be the view—[HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] Well, if that is not the view, and if anyone is going to get up and say that a man between the ages 17 and 18 should be forthwith discharged upon the ground that the Army is not a suitable and proper profession for a man—[HON. MEMBERS: "We never said 2307 that"]. If that be said, I say that it is not a good argument. In the meanwhile, I say quite candidly to the Committee, with every desire to reach a fair conclusion, that the speech of the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough appeals to me most.
One further compromise was suggested to me, and that was by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. G. Macdonald). He was anticipating that I could not accept the Clause, and I certainly cannot accept it. It would mean 35,000 people in a year producing their birth certificates. He asked whether I would look on each case sympathetically on its merits, and whether if the parents desired the boy to be discharged and they produced a birth certificate I would then discharge him and remit any fee that was payable. I can undertake that in any case of discharge on compassionate grounds where on inquiry it appears to be in the boy's interest as well as meeting the parents' desire, I will invariable and immediately order the boy's discharge. It is in that spirit that I approach the proprosal that has been made. I have stated the matter as I see it. I have dealt with the arguments fairly, I hope. I am unconvinced that it would be either in the interests of recruits or of the nation to require from every applicant who wishes to join the Army a certificate of his birth.
§ 12.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has missed this opportunity. I am surprised also that he should have confined himself to what has been mainly a debating speech. As a matter of fact, he has shown on this subject far less understanding and sympathy than the previous Secretary of State. In order to show the entire difference of spirit displayed by the right hon. Gentleman and by his predecessor in the two preceding years, I will quote from the concluding words of the speeches of the former Secretary of State. I would further say that if his predecessor had been faced with the position which now confronts him, this change would have been made to-day. In the debate on the Army Annual Bill, in 1936, the Secretary of State said:There is a great deal of force and cogency in the arguments that have been put forward. If recruiting does increase satisfactorily I think it might well be possible 2308 that I should be able next year to adopt some suggestion of the kind put forward today, which would get rid of many of these difficult cases, and which would, after all, put the Army on the same basis as other occupations." [OFFICIAL REPORT: 7th April, 1936; Col. 2740; Vol. 310.]Last year the Secretary of State, in his concluding words, said:I should 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." [OFFICIAL REPORT: 19th April, 1937; col. 931, Vol. 322.]
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
I say that but for the change in the position of the Secretary of State we should have had this proposal carried out this year. It is quite clear, listening to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, that he has not followed the debates on this subject, otherwise he would not have adopted the tone he has this morning. I suggest that he should really consider this matter now that it has been brought to his notice because I am convinced that this is a change which in a few years' time will be made. We have moved three or four Amendments to the Army Bill in previous years and this is the only one left, and it is being opposed merely on the ground of tradition. An infinitesimal number of people only are affected. There are two alternatives. One is that the War Office should demand a birth certificate. The right hon. Gentleman has given us his objections to that. The other is that if a boy enlists under the age of 18 and his parents ask that he should be released, it should be the will of the parents which should prevail rather than the will of the War Office.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
I strongly hold that the welfare of a boy should be decided by his father and mother rather than by the military authorities. The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that the argument on this side is that the Army is not a suitable profession for young men. He must have entirely misunderstood our 2309 attitude. That is not the nature of our argument. It is this. It is accepted throughout the country in every other occupation that when a boy is under 18 his parents are better judges of what is best for him, and also what is best for other members of the family, than any outside authority. That is the point of our argument. The right hon. Gentleman has explained with what care the War Office investigate these cases. Let them continue to investigate them with the same solicitude, let them try to impress parents with their views, but in the last resort, when there is a difference of opinion between parents and the military authorities, we contend that parents, who know a great deal more about the circumstances of the family than the colonel of a regiment, ought not to be deprived of a right which is accepted everywhere else because a recruiting sergeant has made a mistake.
The right hon. Gentleman's arguments this morning were not arguments, but sophistry. He spoke about the Army being more humane than parents, that boys would have better companionship than in their own home. The way in which the right hon. Gentleman looks at this question shows that he is the victim of a class distinction of a most insulting kind. If these were boys of Members of this House or the sons of professional men or men of means, I cannot conceive that they would tolerate a situation in which they would be told that the colonel of a regiment knows better than themselves what is best for their sons. It is a most insulting doctrine to say that parents are so ignorant, short-sighted and selfish, and that the colonel of a regiment is entitled to treat these boys in a way in which in every other case parents can be treated only if they are proved to be guilty of habitual drunkenness, persistent neglect or immorality.
Moreover, it is quite clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that the War Office does not confine itself to what is best for the boys, and for the parents. The Secretary of State, in fact, has said that there are other considerations in the mind of the War Office; they want recruits. If they are considering that, then they are not considering what is best for the boys. Because the War Office want labour they are no more 2310 entitled than any civilian employer to obtain labour by conniving at breaches of the law. When the matter is thought out I do not think the Secretary of State will maintain his position next year. What a small thing it is. The number of boys is infinitesimal, and they undoubtedly create a great deal of trouble. I doubt whether a continuance of this practice is an aid to recruiting. It means that the Army is behaving in a way no civilian occupation would be allowed to behave. It has been said that the Army is a career, and that it is a more honourable occupation than ordinary civilian employment. I oppose the widely prevalent view which is held that the Army is a last resort. That is a view which is most dangerous to recruiting, but it is being justified and perpetuated by the practice which the Army insists on maintaining.
§ Mr. Lees-Smith
That is exactly what I am saying, but the only Member of this House who is justifying it is the Secretary of State for War. He says that these boys have made a contract, and he actually used the argument that they should be held to it. Is he not aware that if a boy under 18 signs a contract it is not regarded as being binding upon the boy? He said that not only have they made a contract but that they have committed an offence for which they are liable to two years' imprisonment. I do not think I am using too strong a phrase when I say that, if that be the case, the Secretary of State and the War Office are conniving at a fraud and a breach of the law. They are obtaining their labour by means which, if any civilian employer imitated them, would cause him to be prosecuted in the courts of law. In those conditions, I say that this is one of the things which justify the belief that the Army is in some way a kind of second-rate occupation which resorts to methods less civilised than those universally practised now in civilian life.
§ Question put, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 61; Noes, 121.2311
|Division No. 161.]||AYES.||[13.57 p.m.|
|Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple)||Gardner, B. W.||Montague, F.|
|Adams, D. (Consett)||Green, W. H. (Deptford)||Nathan, Colonel H. L.|
|Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.)||Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A.||Parker, J.|
|Adamson, W. M.||Grenfell, D. R.||Riley, B.|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.)||Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.)||Ritson, J.|
|Allen, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh)||Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)||Roberts, Rt. Hon. F. O. (W. Brem.)|
|Ammon, C. G.||Hardie, Agnes||Roberts, W. (Cumberland, N.)|
|Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R.||Harris, Sir P. A.||Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)|
|Benson, G.||Hayday, A.||Smith, E. (Stoke)|
|Broad, F. A.||Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Smith, Rt. Hon. H. B. Lees- (K'ly)|
|Bromfield, W.||Henderson, T. (Tradeston)||Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)|
|Charleton, H. C.||Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Thorne, W.|
|Chater, D.||Johnston, Rt. Hon. T.||Thurtle, E.|
|Cove, W. G.||Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly)||Tinker, J. J.|
|Daggar, G.||Kelly, W. T.||Tomlinson, G.|
|Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton)||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.||Viant, S. P.|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Lathan, G.||Watkins, F. C.|
|Day, H.||Leslie, J. R.||Wilson, C. H. (Attercliffe)|
|Dunn, E. (Rother Valley)||Macdonald, G. (Ince)||Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)|
|Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.)||McEntte, V. La T.|
|Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty)||MacLaren, A.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H.||Mathers, G.||Mr. Whiteley and Mr. Groves.|
|Assheton, R.||Hely-Hutchinson, M. R,||Ross, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)|
|Astor, Hon. W. W. (Fulham, E.)||Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth)||Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)|
|Balfour, Capt. H. H. (Isle of Thanet)||Hills, Major Rt. Hon. J. W. (Ripon)||Rowlands, G.|
|Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)||Holmes, J. S.||Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.|
|Beechman, N. A.||Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J.||Samuel, M. R. A.|
|Bossom, A. C.||Hore-Belisha, Rt. Hon. L.||Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir P.|
|Boulton, W. W.||Howitt, Dr. A. B.||Savery, Sir Servington|
|Brass, Sir W.||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.)||Scott, Lord William|
|Briscoe, Capt. R. G.||Hume, Sir G. H.||Selley, H. R.|
|Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Newbury)||Hurd, Sir P. A.||Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)|
|Bull, B. B.||Keeling, E. H.||Smiles, Lieut.-Colonel Sir W. D.|
|Butcher, H. W.||Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose)||Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)|
|Campbell, Sir E. T.||Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.)||Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.|
|Carver, Major W. H.||Lipson, D. L.||Stewart, J. Henderson (Fife, E.)|
|Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)||Lloyd, G. W.||Stourton, Major Hon. J. J.|
|Channon, H.||Lyons, A. M.||Strauss, E. A. (Southwark, N.)|
|Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)||Mabane, W. (Huddersfield)||Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)|
|Conant, Captain R. J. E.||McKie, J. H.||Tasker, Sir R. I.|
|Crooke, Sir J. S.||Macnamara, Major J. R. J.||Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)|
|Cross, R. H.||Maitland, A.||Touche, G. C.|
|Crossley, A. C.||Makins, Brig.-Gen. E.||Tree, A. R. L. F.|
|Crowder, J. F. E.||Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H D. R.||Tryon, Major Rt. Hon G. C.|
|De la Bère, R.||Marsden, Commander A.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Denville, Alfred||Maxwell, Hon. S. A.||Wallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. Euan|
|Doland, G. F.||Mayhew Lt.-Col. J.||Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)|
|Edmondson, Major Sir J.||Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth)||Wardlaw-Milne, Sir J. S.|
|Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E.||Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest)||Warrender, Sir V.|
|Elliston, Capt. G. S.||Morris-Jones, Sir Henry||Waterhouse, Captain C.|
|Elmley, Viscount||Munro, P.||Watt, Major G. S. Harvie|
|Errington, E.||Nicolson, Hon. H. G.||Wells, S. R.|
|Fildes, Sir H.||Orr-Ewing, I. L.||Whiteley, Major J. P. (Buckingham)|
|Findlay, Sir E.||Palmer, G. E. H.||Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.|
|Goldie, N. B.||Perkins, W. R. D.||Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)||Petherick, M.||Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.|
|Grant-Ferris, R.||Pilkington, R.||Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl|
|Gridley, Sir A. B.||Ponsonby, Col. C. E.||Withers, Sir J. J.|
|Grimston, R. V.||Procter, Major H. A.||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Gunston, Capt. Sir D. W.||Ramsbotham, H.|
|Hacking, Rt. Hon. D. H.||Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Hambro, A. V.||Reid, W. Allan (Derby)||Captain Dugdale and Mr.|
|Hartington. Marquess of||Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool)||Furness.|
|Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.||Ropner, Colonel L.|
§ The Chairman (Sir Dennis Herbert)
The new Clause (Rules of Procedure) in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) is either out of Order, or, if it is not out of Order, it is ineffective and meaningless, and, therefore, I shall not call it.
§ Sir W. Allen
On a point of Order. I did not feel competent myself to draw a 2312 Clause dealing with this point. I went to the officers of the House of Commons for their assistance and guidance, and this is their Clause, not mine.
§ Schedule agreed to.
§ Preamble agreed to.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.