HC Deb 25 October 1939 vol 352 cc1400-1
71. Dr. Edith Summerskill

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty how many boys between 14 and 18 years of age have been killed or wounded or are missing; how many of this age are now serving in the Navy; and whether he will agree to withdraw those who are exposed to danger and replace them by men?

72. Mr. Sorensen

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he will consider the withdrawal of boys serving in His Majesty's Navy from active service at sea during the war?

Mr. Churchill

There are just under 5,000 boys under 18 years of age serving at sea, of whom 137 have been casualties. The Navy is a voluntary service and secures a large part of its personnel by the recruitment of continuous service boys between the ages of 15 and 16½. The consent of their parents is obtained before entry. Training at sea is an essential part of a boy's training, and the great majority of these boys go to sea from the age of 17 upwards. There they perform the task appropriate to their age and training and form an essential part of the ship's company. It is not proposed to alter a system which has been the traditional method of providing personnel for the Navy. In future, however, the consent of the parents will be obtained if, in an exceptional case, the boy's training at sea will start below the age of 17.

Dr. Summerskill

In view of the fact that modern naval warfare endangers the lives of these boys, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the Navy should come into line with the other Services, which do not send boys upon active service under the age of 18; further can the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his answer with the fact that the Government have removed boys of 15 and 16 years of age out of danger into reception areas?

Mr. Churchill

I have considered the matter very carefully. As I say, we have 5,000 boys who are an essential part of the complement of the Fleet at the moment. By making the proposal that, before the age of 17, boys may be prevented from going to sea if their parents so desire, I am making a new departure which adds to some extent to the burdens of manning.

Mr. Sorensen

While expressing my appreciation of the explanation which the right hon. Gentleman has given, may I ask whether he can make the age at which a parent can withdraw these boys higher than 17 years of age?