HC Deb 31 March 1939 vol 345 cc2365-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.59 a.m.

Sir W. Allen

I wish to call the attention of my right hon. Friend to the words, transfers to the reserve to be delayed in certain cases. I want, first, to congratulate my right hon. Friend on extending the time from three months to six months, because I am sure it will be very convenient, when the soldier is due for discharge, for him to remain six months longer until he can find a place in civil life. But the transfer to the reserve is to be delayed in certain cases, and in the "Notes on Clauses," there are, in the reference to Clause 9, the words So as to give time, in proper cases. These words have statutory effect, and that being so, I want to know who is to determine what are certain cases and proper cases. In a court of law, the judge likes to have words that will guide him in carrying out the law as intended by Parliament. The wording in this Clause is very loose, and it is very necessary that the soldiers and others concerned should know what are the cases referred to and who will have power to determine them. I should like to have some explanation from my right hon. Friend, if not, indeed, some new words that would guide both the soldiers and those who have to determine the cases.

12.1 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) that this Clause contains a very important improvement from the point of view of the soldiers. Those hon. Members who know anything about the vocational training of soldiers will agree that up to the present, where they have had six months, it has been a great boon to the men. I should like to have a statement this morning as to the relative advantages of training under the Ministry of Labour as against the training which the soldier received when the Army vocational training courses were in full swing; and I should like to be assured that the soldiers are receiving at the present time at least as good training as they formerly received. Those who had an opportunity of seeing the courses in operation must have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the soldiers undergoing them and the relationships that existed between the soldiers and those responsible for the training. I do not want to cast any reflections on any other training, for the training is quite good in other branches and departments, but I must confess that my experience is that there was on the part of the soldiers at the Army vocational training centres an enthusiasm for the training which, I will not say is altogether lacking at other training centres, but which is not expressed to such a great degree.

I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is to reply will give us an assurance that the vocational training courses are now in full swing, and that the soldiers support them with the same enthusiasm as they did before the change of administration; and also that any soldier who is willing to have the training will have the opportunity of having it and that it will not be confined to certain cases. I gather that the purpose of the Clause is to give six months' training instead of three months, if necessary, and that in all cases, the consent of the soldier is necessary. Those who know anything about the soldier's life must know that it is a handicap to be segregated for some years from civilian life, and, especially when the soldier has been abroad, he needs an opportunity to familiarise himself with the processes of civilian life, particularly on its industrial side when he returns. The alteration from three months to six months is very good indeed, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman would render a service if he assured us, first, that the consent of the soldier is necessary and, secondly, that the soldier is given full opportunity to express himself freely upon this matter.

12.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Captain Harold Balfour)

The Committee will appreciate the difficulty of my position, because I am now the pilot instead of being, as I had expected, merely a passenger, and they will understand that the reason for the change is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War has had to leave in order to attend a Cabinet meeting. This proposed amendment of the law is an extension of a provision which was introduced in 1937. At that time a soldier, when he returned from overseas had to be transferred to the Reserve and could not remain with the Colours unless he extended his service. In 1937 it was decided that, with the soldier's consent—and in reply to the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) I may say that the principle of the soldier's consent still remains in operation—that he should be allowed to remain in the Service before transfer to the Reserve for a period up to three months. The object was to help the soldier in the task of re-establishing himself in civil life before he ceased to draw his Army pay.

Since 1937 it has been found that in some cases, where the time of the soldier who has been engaged for 12 years is about to expire, a man has arrived back in this country to find the circumstances very different from those which he expected. He may find circumstances over which he can exercise no control, but which may be prejudicial to his chance of re-establishing himself in civil life, and he may find himself unable to take a full course of vocational training. I may say here that six months is the maximum period for a vocational training course. A man may find himself unable to take that course before leaving the Service. In such cases the man had alternatives which, I think, the Committee will agree were not really fair. He could re-engage to complete 21 years' service and then get a premature discharge on the ground of the completion of the course or, alternatively, he could takes his discharge and complete the course as a civilian which in most cases would involve financial disadvantage. This Clause extends the 1937 provision so that the soldier may be permitted to delay his discharge for six months and as I have told the Committee, six months is the longest period of vocational training. I should add that this concession will be made in respect of vocational training only and that it is permissive.

I cannot give the assurance for which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) asked that the soldier should have a definite right to this concession because there are such limiting factors as the facilities available and various other matters which must be taken into consideration and it would be wrong to give a man a right which it is impossible to fulfil. But I can give my hon. and gallant Friend and the Committee this assurance, that it is the intention that this opportunity of delaying discharge should be in the hands of the soldier and it is hoped that facilities will be available, which will enable every soldier who desires to take advantage of that opportunity to do so where the organisation of vocational training enables him to take the necessary course in full. The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street asked for some assurance regarding the efficiency of vocational training. I do not think it would be in order to give information and statistics as to the number of entrants to courses, the number who have passed out and the number who have obtained employment, that information is not actually at my disposal now. But I think I can say that vocational training is entered into by the men who undertake the courses and by those who administer the courses with one object only and that is to fit the man to re-establish himself in civil life. The answer to the question whether these courses are efficient or not, is that they are becoming more and more popular with soldiers as they leave the Army. I trust I have answered all the points which were raised and explained the reason for this amendment of the law and the form in which it is submitted.

12.12 p.m.

Sir W. Allen

I appreciate the difficulty of my hon. and gallant Friend in taking up this matter and the fact that the Secretary of State for War has had to leave to attend a Cabinet. But it is unfortunate that we have to get through the Report and Third Reading stages of this Bill to-day because otherwise I should have asked the right hon. Gentleman to find some words other than these, "to be delayed in certain cases." I am not satisfied by the explanation which has been given. I have not yet heard who is to determine these "certain cases." If these words appear in the Act of Parliament the soldier will have to ask himself, "Am I included in these 'certain cases '?" and the individual who has to make the determination, and will have to say to the soldier in some instances "You are not one of these 'certain cases.' "It is most unfortunate that words of this kind should creep into a Statute. I could understand such words getting into King's Regulations or into rules of procedure which sometimes are recognised by the Army authorities and sometimes are not, but if these words appear in the Army Act the result will be, to say the least of it, very unsatisfactory. I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. Spens

The words in brackets which my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) is criticising are merely a short explanation of what Section go of the Army Act does, and are not enacting words. All that this Clause does is to substitute "six months" for "three months" in the new Section go of the Army Act. The words mean nothing else.

Sir W. Allen

That is a lawyer's explanation. Some other lawyer might give the opposite interpretation.

12.16 p.m.

Mr. Edes

I can only say, after having listened to the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens), that though I am delighted to hear his explanation I should like him to give it on a parade ground to a battalion drawn up at full strength, and that then he should have an opportunity of going into the wet canteen to hear the comments of the troops. I can assure him that any comments that have ever been made by an opponent in the course of his very suave explanation of the law would be very mild compared with what he would hear in such a case. One of the inducements now held out to the soldier on recruitment is that this training course will be available for him at the end of his career. I appreciate that the soldier's rights are surprisingly few, and that one needs to have been in the Army a considerable time before understanding the difference between a right and a privilege. People imagine that one of the undoubted rights of the man who enlists in modern times is this opportunity for vocational training before he leaves the service, and I very sincerely hope that the words which have been used by the Under-Secretary of State for Air are not to be taken as an indication that there is to be any lessening of the efforts of the Army to provide courses for all the men who want to have them.

I am sure that one of the worst things for any long-range recruiting policy is the spread of a feeling among the troops that promises made on enlistment or after enlistment are in fact broken, especially if words that they interpret as a pledge prove to be unavailing just before discharge. Clearly that would be just the time when a man would go back to civilian life with a grievance in his mind, and he would be the very worst possible recruiting agent for other men who might contemplate joining the service. I sincerely hope that there is nothing more here than the habitual caution of the Army Council, the Admiralty and the Air Council in making promises to the troops, and that they will be at least as good as their word, or considerably better. While the troops do not worry very much about the exact words of an act of Parliament, the hon. and learned Member for Ashford would be surprised at the little attention they have for the ability of his profession-. They have a very great regard for the carrying out of the spirit of the pledges given to them, and also for the relations that ought to exist between the troops and those in high places who have them in such very considerable subjection during their period of enlistment.

Colonel Burton

Most speakers have spoken as if vocational training is restricted to three or six months. I take it that in many cases the training lasts longer than that and continues for a further period.

12.20 p.m.

Captain Balfour

I will give my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Sir W. Allen) some light on this problem. If he will turn to page 52 of the Army Act, Section 90, in the last paragraph but one he will find these words: Provided that the competent military authority may, with the consent of the soldier, delay his discharge, so however that he be discharged and the last words will now read: within six mouths from his arrival. I think my hon. Friend cannot be disturbed by the words in brackets in the Bill, on the ground that they have any bearing on the main fact of the Amendment that we are now passing. The hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) asked for an assurance that no words of mine to-day indicated that there was to be any slackening in the vocational training efforts of the Army. Doubtless when he comes to this Debate as he does: fully armed he has the Army Estimates for 1939 with him. In that case I would ask him to turn to page 105, Vote 4, dealing with Army education. In sub-paragraph (5) he will see that "since then additional facilities have been made available in the Ministry of Labour's Government training centres, so that it should be possible to pass some 10,000 men through the Army and Government training centres in the course of a year." That figure, compared with the figure of previous years, will show that there is no slackening of effort, but indeed a growth. We are all anxious to see our Army efficient and happy.

One of the great inducements of the voluntary system of enlistment is that you should look after the man while he is in your care and try to do that which our system allows us to ensure—that when he passes from our care he can retain his citizenship without any feeling that during his military service he has lost opportunity or lost any of the other attributes which we all value. With that explanation I think I have answered the points which have been raised. I hope that when the Amendment is passed we shall have passed an Amendment which will do something substantial to increase the chances of the man who has returned from overseas to obtain the full benefits of vocational training. In reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Sudbury (Colonel Burton), the whole course of vocational training at one of these vocational training centres is six months. That does not preclude parallel vocational training while a man is in the Service. We are providing something which will enable a man to have a better chance than in the past to engage himself in a civilian occupation when he leaves the Service.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

CLAUSE 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.