HC Deb 31 March 1939 vol 345 cc2387-99

The following proviso shall he added at the end of section seventy-six of the Army Act (which relates to the limit of original enlistment):

Provided also that where a person is deemed to have attained the age of seventeen and a-half years and it is proved by his parent or guardian within six months after the date of enlistment that he had not attained that age when enlisted, he shall be entitled to immediate discharge.—[Mr. Tinker.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

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

For a number of years we have been agitating to get some alterations on these lines. When people get into the Army under the specified age and their parents or guardians desire to get them out, they should be allowed to do so. We have been told that the Army has not taken a very harsh line, and that in many cases they have allowed this to happen, but we have not been able to get a definite understanding about it. Last year we moved a new Clause stipulating that a birth certificate should be produced when a boy is enlisted. We put forward the argument that in these days a certificate of some kind is required for almost any employment. Again we did not succeed. It was pointed out, on behalf of the Government, that that would entail a lot of difficulty, would retard recruitment, and would probably bring to light things that the person enlisting did not want known—for instance, illegitimate birth. There were many excuses that did not justify the non-acceptance of the Clause. The Clause was finally rejected on a division, but it was evident that the feeling of the House in general was that something ought to be done. I believe the Secretary of State would have been wise to have accepted it at that juncture, in view of what I believe would have been the decision of the House had the Whips been taken off. Time has gone on, and I believe there will be some accommodation given to us on this matter—I hope so, at any rate. On 14th March, the Secretary of State for War said: Every year on the Army Annual Bill complaint is made that, while our age of enlistment is nominally 18, we refuse to discharge a boy who turns out to be in fact between 17 and 18; now we shall have 17½as the age and I will promise to discharge any boy whose parents prove within a reasonable time that he has falsified his true age. That, I think, will meet the request that has been made for many years from the benches opposite."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1939: col. 350, Vol. 345.1 So it is evident that now the Secretary of State is prepared to go some of the way in this direction. I and my hon. Friends feel that it would be much better if we could have it laid down in definite terms, so that we could know the position that a youth is in. We have put this on the Order Paper so that it may be known to parents and guardians that they can get their boys out of the Army in a reasonable time. In my view, this is quite a reasonable proposal. I know that if the hon. Gentleman opposite has been instructed by the Secretary for War as to what he shall say it will be difficult for him to go contrary to his instructions; but this is one of the things we cannot lose sight of, and we intend to persist every time this Bill comes up, until we get this reform. There is an old saying, "Better late than never", and I trust that this morning we shall succeed in our object.

1.21 p.m.

Mr. Broad

I beg to second the Motion.

I hope to get some indication from the Minister that the Clause is likely to be accepted, so I do not intend to go through all the arguments of last year or meet the reply which was then put forward, which I do not think was creditable to the Minister. Before I spoke last year I had details of some pitiable cases in my own constituency. I think the right of the parent to control the future of his son should be accepted for the Army as in other walks of life. Even in the matter of marriage, which we are told is an honourable state, the law says that, under a certain age, people must have the consent of their parents. If a youngster is entering a factory a birth certificate has to be obtained, and there is no question about the feelings of the youngster because it might become known that he was illegitimate. The practice has been to accept these youngsters considerably under-age in the Army without a birth certificate, and, when parents have drawn attention to the fact immediately afterwards, the authorities have refused to release them unless, as happened, for instance, in one case, a week after the youngster joining the Army £20 was paid for his discharge. We got over that in one case by telling the young man not to allow himself to be vaccinated, and he was then immediately discharged for refusing to carry out the obligation he entered into on joining. It may be that the Department are sympathetic now, but there is no obligation, and the tone of the Department may alter as Ministers change—and in view of the catastrophic changes that have taken place with this Government from time to time we do not know what may happen. I am not going to repeat some of the strong things I said last year, because I have a feeling that the Minister is going to accede to our request.

1.24 p.m.

Capt. Balfour

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) said that persistence is rewarded—sometimes.

Mr. Tinker

I think it is always.

Captain Balfour

I think that when I explain the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Secretary for War, although they may not be in the form which the hon. Member desires it will be seen that they, nevertheless, go beyond the personal undertaking which the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Broad) said was insufficient. In deciding to embody an amendment of the King's Regulations, I think that the hon. Member for Leigh will agree that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War has met him in spirit if not in the actual form of words.

I would like to set out the present conditions governing free discharge. They are: If an application is received before the recruit is 17 years of age he is discharged free. If application for discharge is received when the recruit is over 17 but under 18, he is released if compassionate grounds exist. The authority for such discharges is contained in King's Regulations, paragraph 383, but not in the Army Act. There is no provision in the Army Act that lays down a minimum age for recruits. There has never been such a provision. One of the disadvantages of putting any age minimum for recruits in the Army Act would be that you might want, for some national reason, to alter, either upwards or downwards, the minimum age for recruits, and you would have to have an Amendment of the Army Act before that could be done. The only mention which the hon. Gentleman will find of a minimum age in the Army Act is the age of 18 which is in connection with the starting of pension rights for men who joined the service.

Mr. Lawson

Section 24 of that Act deals with pension rights.

Captain Balfour

There has never been—and I am sure that the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) knows these things better than I do—a minimum age for recruits laid down in the Army Act. But on the Report stage of the Estimates this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War announced that in future the minimum age for recruits would be 17½ instead of 18, and that he proposed to discharge any boy whose parents proved within a reasonable time that he had falsified his true age. My right hon. Friend intends to implement that undertaking by amending the appropriate regulations in that sense. The new rule will apply also in the case of the Territorial Army and the Supplementary Reserve, which are governed not by the Army Act, but by the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907. I think that the hon. Member for Leigh and the Committee will agree that that is another reason against putting down a minimum age in the Army Act in that what my right hon. Friend now proposes to do will cover both the Regular Army and the Territorial Army. Any such amendment of the Army Act, would not cover the Territorial Army, but you would have to have special legislation to amend the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907.

My right hon. Friend intends to issue an Army Order very shortly setting out the change in conditions governing the acceptance of recruits, and it will provide for the free discharge of a recruit who is claimed before he is 17, and of a recruit between 17 and 17½if the application for discharge is received within two months of enlistment. This rule, obviously, will not apply to boys enlisted as such with their parents' consent under the various particular provisions. The King's Regulation, the Territorial Regulations, the Supplementary Reserve Regulations and Recruiting Regulations will be amended accordingly. I hope the assurance which I have given to the Committee, though it is not a personal undertaking, to amend the King's Regulations will satisfy the hon. Members who have pressed so constantly on this matter, and who, I now hope, will find their persistence is being rewarded.

1.31 p.m.

Mr. McEntee

I think that all of us were very glad to hear the statement made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but, personally, I had hoped that it would have gone even further. I am not quite clear in regard to one or two points. The hon. and gallant Gentleman seemed rather to stress the words "who is claimed before he is 17." He seemed to lay emphasis on the word "claimed." Does that mean that unless a boy who is 16 years and six months or 16 years and nine months is actually claimed by his parents before he reaches the age of 17, his parents, if they desire to get him out of the Army, will have to pay compensation to the Army, presumably for the training he has received? There appears to be some difference between the boy claimed before 17 and the boy who may join immediately after reaching the age of 17 and may get out free before he reaches the age of 17½. I presume that, under the new Regulations it is proposed to make, anybody joining before he reaches the age of 17½ will have joined fraudulently, he will have told untruths in regard to his age, and consequently, I assume, and, I hope, rightly, that if his parents claim him because he joined under the age of 17½, they will be entitled to get him out without the payment of any compensation to the Army.

I like to see honesty in legislation, but frankly, I cannot see very much honesty in this legislation. I never did, and I do not now even with the Amendments that are to be made in the Regulations. It is in the Army Act where it is provided that pension rights shall not commence until a soldier is 18 years of age. If it is possible to provide in the Army Act that a man does not become entitled to pension rights until the age of 18, I see no reason why it cannot be put in the Army Act that a boy shall not be entitled to join the Army until 18, or 17½, or whatever the age maybe. Why make a difference between the time he can join the Army and the time he commences to receive his pension rights? The principle appears to be somewhat similar to that which governs those who come under Unemployment Insurance. There was for a long time a gap in the Unemployment Insurance Act, and that has now been met to some extent. Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman be good enough to consult his right hon. Friend and see whether a further concession cannot be made on the lines of the soldier becoming entitled to commence his pension rights immediately he joins the Army? There does not seem to be any reason in the present arrangement at all. If a boy is old enough to join the Army, he is old enough to qualify for pension rights, and I hope that that anomaly and that injustice which is being done to very young soldiers, will be removed.

The age of 17½, I think, is still too young for boys to join the Army. The age ought to be fixed at 18 at the very least. I have always felt that 19 years would be a far more reasonable age. Still I want to express, what I have expressed on several occasions on this Bill, that once a boy has joined the Army he should become entitled to every right that the Army concedes to the older soldier. If a boy is old enough to join, he is old enough to be given the benefits to which soldiers are entitled in regard to pensions. I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter, and that proper provision will be made in the Act. Will he consider putting on the recruiting posters some strong indication that recruiting is meant only for those who are over 17½years of age? Will he make it emphatic so that when the young men see the posters they will know that they are not expected to join under that age, and their parents will know that if they do join under that age they will be able to claim them out of the Army without paying any compensation to the Army authorities?

1.36 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

I can understand the hon. Member for Walthamstow West (Mr. McEntee) desiring that the minimum age of 17½should be put in the Army Act. That is the view of the plain man. It has been my lot during the last few months, as a layman, along with others, to review the whole history and development of Army law. The average person would be much surprised to find how separate the Army is in this respect and how peculiar has been the origin and development of the Army law that applies to-day. The average layman might say that it would be a good thing to recast the whole thing and make it more simple and plain, but in working practice that would not be possible, because of the peculiar conditions of the soldiers' life. Therefore, I can quite see that it has not been possible for the Secretary of State for War to agree that the age of 17½should be put in the Army Act, but he has taken the course that has been outlined by the Under-Secretary of State for Air. The suggestion that he has made does, however, give his proposal practically the force of law, so far as Army law goes, and from that point of view it is satisfactory.

I appreciate the words of the Undersecretary with respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) and others for their persistence in this matter. They have been very loyal to the principle for which they stand. They asked that the minimum age should be 18, but the right hon. Gentleman has compromised at 17½.My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh and others associated with him have been willing to accept the compromise suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. That is a very good thing, as events stand to-day? Year after year on the Army Annual Bill there has been controversy on this subject, but in the circumstances of to-day everybody must admit that it is extremely fortunate that on some of these matters, which have caused great contention in years gone by, a mutual settlement has been arrived at. On behalf of my hon. Friends on this side I may say that we much appreciate the compromise and, speaking as a layman, I am of the opinion that the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman will give the matter the effect of law. Other points were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Walthamstow, which merit consideration.

1.40 p.m.

Captain Balfour

I should like to thank the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) for what he has said and the spirit in which he has accepted the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. In expressing my thanks I am sure that I express the feelings of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. It is very rarely that one is in the fortunate position of having had several of the questions addressed to one answered by an hon. Member from the Front Opposition Bench. The hon. Member for Chester-le-Street dealt efficiently with the point raised by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) as to why the age should not be put in the Army Act. He pointed out that what we propose will really have the force of law. The hon. Member for West Walthamstow, asked why we used the words: "until he is claimed." Those words are necessary because until a young man is claimed as being under age, we do not know that he is under age. If it is claimed that he was under 17 when he enlisted and he is claimed before he is 17, he can be discharged at once, and if he is claimed between 17 and 17½, there is a period of two months after his enlistment during which a claim can be made for his free discharge.

The hon. Member for West Waltham-stow asked me one further question, in reply to which I am in the position of being able to give the Committee one more piece of good news. He asked me why the pension rights begin at a later age that the age at which the recruit is admitted into the Army. My right hon. Friend will consider this matter in connection with the legislation coming forward next year. Meanwhile, any entrants to the Army will not be penalised because of the regulations not being altered before that time. I will mention to my right hon. Friend the suggestion about recruiting posters. The hon. Member will not expect me to say anything more on that subject.

1.43 p.m.

Mr. Tinker

In view of the assurance that has been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy-Chairman (Colonel Clifton Brown)


Mr. Tinker

On a point of Order. I have a new Clause down (Amendment of Army Act, s. 77A) which has not been called, and I should be glad if a reason could be given why it is not to be called. There are several reasons why it should be called. My Clause does not bring into operation any new principle, but only seeks an extension of the existing principle and gives the same benefits to other persons who enlist, when they attain the age of 21.

The Deputy-Chairman

I can assure the hon. Member that we have noted this point carefully. It is an extra emolument which the hon. Member seeks to add, which does not come under the Army Act, and it is a matter which should be raised in Supply on the Estimates. The matter could be raised properly then. In the second place, the Clause deals with enlistment and would enable certain soldiers to continue their period of service. The provision with regard to being placed on the married quarters roll, and the marriage allowance roll could hardly be relevant.

1.45 p. m

Mr. Lawson

A man of 21 years of age-has now certain rights under Section 77A of the Army Act. The point is whether a man who enlists under this Act for a term of 12 years has any right under Section 84 of the Act. As a matter of fact, he has a right under Section 84. The Secretary of State for War pointed out last year that one of the things at which the War Office was aiming was long-term service, so that the Army might be a career. It seems to me that the proposal of my learned Friend will hardly make any charge at all, at any rate it is not a substantial charge, and if the proposal were accepted it would make it possible for a young man 21 years of age to be put on the strength. I want very courteously to suggest that this does not really put any additional charge on the Army which is not contemplated in the Estimates, inasmuch as it is within the power of the authorities to declare who shall be on the strength, and who shall not. I trust, therefore, that, as the point seems to be a substantial one, Colonel Clifton Brown, you will reconsider your decision and allow us to discuss the matter.

The Deputy-Chairman

It is quite out of Order to discuss it on this Bill. The Army Annual Act is concerned solely with the discipline and regulation of the Army and Air Force and, therefore, marriage allowances are not appropriate for discussion at the present moment. I am afraid there is nothing more to be said.

Mr. Lawson

Do I understand from that decision, that although men may take on for long service and may desire to make the Army a career, they are to be discouraged from making any marriage arrangements?

The Deputy-Chairman

No, certainly not. My decision is that this is not the proper time to discuss this matter. It can be discussed quite properly on the Army Estimates, but not on the Army Annual Bill.

Mr. McEntee

Perhaps the Secretary of State for War will be able to bring it in in the form of a regulation.

The Deputy-Chairman

I doubt even whether it would be permissible as a regulation.

Mr. Tinker

I want to thank you for what you have said, and to say that we shall proceed with the matter in another way.

Schedule agreed to.

Question proposed, "That the Chairman do report the Bill, without Amendment, to the House."

Mr. Lawson

At this point I want to mention the fact that a Departmental Committee has been sitting to consider the question of courts-martial.

The Deputy-Chairman

That is not a question on which debate can take place.

Mr. Lawson

I was going to ask a question.

The Deputy-Chairman

I suggest that the- hon. Member should ask his question on the Motion for the Third Reading of the Bill

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

1.52 p.m.

Mr. Lawson

I was expecting some statement to be made with regard to the Departmental Committee which had been considering the question of courts-martial and discipline generally in the Army. I understand that the report is now complete and is in the hands of the authorities, and I am wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman can tell us when it is likely to be available for the convenience of hon. Members.

Captain Balfour

I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate that I am not in a position to answer that question, but what I will do is to bring the remarks of the hon. Member to the attention of the Secretary of State for War. There are other means by way of question and answer on normal days in this House, and I am quite sure that an answer would be given to the question.

Sir W. Alien

The Under-Secretary of State for Air has referred to other ways by which we can get information, namely, by question and answer. I myself have put down questions as to the time when we might expect the publication of the report of this Committee. I have been given to understand that there are certain technical difficulties in the way, but I would point out that the publication of a report of this character has nothing whatever to do with technicalities which, might afterwards have to be raised. It is quite possible to publish the report. On, a former occasion on which there was am inquiry into the same subject, the report was duly published and no action was taken. I cannot see why there should be any delay in the publication of this report. The right hon. Gentleman might afterwards desire to amend the Army Act in accordance with its recommendations, but surely we may have the report published before any action is taken? We are not yet in a position to know what the Committee recommends, and until we know that we cannot find out whether the Army Act requires any amendment. I am sure my right hon. Friend appreciates that not only this House, but the Army and the country, are anxiously awaiting the publication of the report.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Clifton Brown)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is raising matters which are not contained in the Bill, and therefore, he is out of order on the Third Reading.

Sir W. Allen

I quite agree, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. My difficulty is that this is something which ought to have been in the Bill.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It is quite out of order to raise it on the Third Reading.

Sir W. Allen

I appreciate your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I have put my main point, and I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some idea as to when the report will be published.

1.57 p.m.

Mr. Viant

I wish to express my appreciation of the concession which the Secretary of State has made in regard to young recruits taken into the Army. On one occasion, I had to write a strong letter to the right hon. Gentleman on this matter, and no one can be more pleased than I am with the admirable spirit in which he has met this point, which has been raised by a number of hon. Members from time to time. Many of the lads who run away from home and join the Army turn out to be admirable soldiers, and we have never desired to do anything to stop this; but we have always felt that when a lad went into the Army, against the desires of his parents, and a reasonable request was made, it ought to be considered by the Minister. I feel that the right hon. Gentleman has met the position both from the parents' side and the lads' side, and I want to say how much I appreciate what he has done in this matter.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.