HC Deb 07 August 1947 vol 441 cc1784-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

10.48 p.m.

Mr. King (Penryn and Falmouth)

I want to raise the matter of the enlistment of boys into the Royal Navy, which is not one of controversy. I am conscious that for two days we have been engaged in a Debate of vital importance to the standard of life of the people of this country, and if I might make one seemingly irrelevant remark, I would say that we listened tonight to what must rank as one of the historic speeches of this Parliament—one of the best I have ever heard—that of my right hon. and learned Friend the President of the Board of Trade. It might be urged that to come from these great matters to something so small as a matter concerning a limited number of 15-year-old boys is too steep a decline from the sublime. I do not accept that view. I think it redounds to the credit of this House that we are able to draw attention to matters of even the smallest concern which touch the lives and liberties of the individual.

We had lengthy Debates on the Conscription Bill. I remember some persons, holding conscientious objections, urging that at the age of 18 a boy was too immature to be able to decide for himself whether or not he could engage in Army service. I took the view that it was perfectly reasonable. I think I should take that view in the case of a boy aged 17. But when we are asked to take that view in the case of a boy aged 15, I think it is quite unreasonable. I would make it clear at the outset that I pay tribute to the qualities of the British Navy, and intend no kind of attack on it, or the recruiting of it. My aim rather is to maintain its highest traditions. I would like to read to the House a letter from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in which it is said: Boys are entered between the ages of 15½ and 16¼ for training as seamen, and be tween 15 and 16 as artificer apprentices for training for the artificer branches. In both cases, boys are required to enter into an engagement to serve for a period of 12 years from the age of 18 in addition to whatever period may be necessary until they attain that age. They have no claim to discharge before the completion of their engagement, but discharge free or by purchase may be approved by the Admiralty in specific individual cases where most exceptional compassionate circumstances arise. What does that mean? It means that a boy—irrespective of his ability, taste, inclination, physical or mental strength—is committed for fifteen years from the age of 15 to give away what may be the best years of his life in a service which, I admit, many will enjoy. We must also admit that a proportion will not enjoy that service. My hon. Friend tells me that they may get away from it by means of purchase. One has only to think a very short time to realise that a boy who entered the Navy at the age of 15 is unlikely to have sufficient funds to take advantage of that. Surely, our personal liberty is freehold? We should not need to purchase it, unless by voluntary act. The engagement—for 12 years from the age of 18, in addition to whatever period may be necessary until they attain that age—is signed by the boys on entry, and no further declaration is necessary when they attain the age of 18. It is said that conditions of entry are carefully explained to all new entries before they sign, and they are required to sign a declaration to this effect. I ask the House what validity has the signature of a boy of 15?

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

Surely, the same thing applies in the Army?

Mr. King

Another question I would like to ask is what percentage of the boys, in fact, enter from orphanages? I believe it is fairly substantial. What percentage of these boys go from naval schools controlled by my hon. Friend's Department, partially or wholly, into the Navy? Do any boys enter naval schools at the age of 12 and on condition that on leaving they enter the Navy? If they do, it means that at the age of 11 a boy without parents goes first to a school and then spends 15 years in the service until he has reached the age of 30. I am very conscious of the fact that a good many boys do have parents who consent to their doing so, but even with the parents' consent I suggest that the decision is too big to take for that period of time. I have no objection at all if a boy of 15 enters for a period of three, four or five years, but to enter for 15 years is, I suggest, something quite different.

I hope my hon. Friend will not quote what is done in the Army and the Royal Air Force. It will not be necessary for him by implication to say that he is standing in good company. I am quite conscious of what they do. When I have finished talking about the Admiralty, perhaps we might turn our attention to them. I simply want to submit to my hon. Friend and to the House that this system is wrong, and something to which we ought to make an end. It may well be that the system has produced very gallant officers; I may here say that it has produced some very gallant Members of this House; but surely the point we have to consider is not the cases where they are successful, but the cases which are unsuccessful; not those who are happy, but perhaps the smaller number who are unhappy. The Lord President, a few moments ago, said the Government were usually reasonable in dealing with the Opposition. I hope that tonight the Government will show themselves reasonable in dealing with their own side. I submit to the House that the Government, unlike Nelson should no longer turn a blind eye to these cases.

10.57 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

I wish to support what has been said with reference to boys who joined the Navy as boys at the beginning of the war. The Parliamentary Secretary, in answer to a Question yesterday by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Mallalieu), said there were some new arrangements being made to enable men who had joined the Navy at the beginning of the war as Regulars, because there was no other way of joining the Navy, to serve now a shorter period. I would like to ask him why it is that those who joined as boys do not come under this scheme. I feel that if boys joined the Navy as Regulars for the same reason, that perhaps there was no other way, there is no reason why they should not be brought into the new scheme and now be able, when they see their friends demobilised, to serve a shorter period. I asked the Parliamentary Secretary yesterday whether some other arrangements were being made for boys and his reply was: Not at present."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th August, 1947; Vol. 441; c. 1451.] I would be glad to know whether he has any other ideas for these boys.

10.59 p.m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

In reinforcing the plea made tonight, I do so as one who joined the Navy at the age of 15½ and subsequently purchased his discharge, because of the fact that he wanted to enter other spheres of life. I would say from my own experience as an artificer apprentice, or a boy artificer, as they are called at the present time, and judging from correspondence I get today, that there is considerable discontent in the Navy with the fact that at the age of 15 one signs away the best years of one's life. Once a man reaches the age of 30, it has become too late to make an entry successfully into civilian life. I appreciate the fact that these boy artificers undergo an expensive training, and I think it is probably correct that the country has the right to expect some service in return for that very expensive training which, if boy artificers were given the right to leave too early, would probably be wasted so far as the country is concerned. At the same time, I cannot help feeling that they should be given a chance of leaving the Service much earlier than at present. Even if the period were reduced to 10 or eight years, or less, after the age of 18, I think it would be a considerable improvement. It would not only help to remove a sense of grievance, but I do not think it would be quite so disastrous as the Admiralty fear.

My honest opinion is this. If boys are to be taken into the Navy, as in the case of those apprentice artificers, at the age of 15½ then the Navy must be opened up much more than at present. The number of boy artificers who are taken for commissioned ranks should be increased considerably in order to give the boys the incentive and to widen their field. I also ask my hon. Friend to look into the aspect of whether facilities could not be given to boy artificers, or to those adaptable for the purpose, to enter the Naval Scientific Service. I think that is an avenue of approach which has not been looked into by the Admiralty. I feel that there is no reason why it should not be done. I think the Admiralty have to look at it from the boys' point of view, and try to remove this sense of grievance, if they are to get the kind of boys they want, types who are satisfied with their job, proud of their work, proud to be in the Service, and giving of their best.

11.2 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

I rise only to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to make clear to the House this question of release by purchase. It appears to me to be an old-fashioned method and seems reminiscent of the days when commissions were obtained by purchase, which was not a satisfactory arrangement. On what conditions are boy entrants to the Navy released by purchase? Do they have to obtain petty officer rank, or are they dealt with on individual merits?

11.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. John Dugdale)

I would like, first, to deal with the individual points on rather separate lines raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble). I quite agree that there would be an extreme case of hardship in the case of boys who joined during the early months of the war as Regular seamen because there was no "hostilities only" entry. That is quite a separate point and deserves special consideration.

There are, as hon. Members know, three types of boys with whom we are concerned—seamen and communication boys, artificer apprentices, and Royal Marine band boys. The system we are discussing is not a new one, but dates from the Naval Enlistment Act, 1884. Under that Act, any person can be entered for continuous and general service for a period not exceeding 12 years, or, if under 18 years, until 30.

Mr. King

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that it is 12 years from the age of 18?

Mr. Dugdale

Certainly. I thought I had made it clear. That would be 12 years from the age of 18 if my mathematics are correct. The present regulations provide for entry between 15 years and 16—probably not very far off 15. Where do they come from? They come from a number of places and every walk of life. I can- not inform the hon. Member of the percentage of orphans. I tried to find out, but it was exceedingly difficult. It would have taken a large amount of investigation, and I cannot give an answer to that particular question; but I can say that quite a reasonable proportion of them do come from the Royal Hospital School, and more still from the Mercantile Training Establishment. That does not mean that they have been coerced into going into the Navy. They go, first, of their own volition; secondly, with their parents' consent, and if they have not got parents, with the consent of their guardians who are acting in the place of parents. To that extent they have reasonable safeguards.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman who raised this question meant to make out, though he was rather inclined to suggest, that they had been driven into a life of appalling hardship. These boys, in fact, enter quite voluntarily into an admirable career. Let me explain further what I mean when I say that the number of boys who in fact apply is infinitely greater than the number of boys who are accepted. There is no question of our going out into the highways and byways to compel them to come in. In fact, during the seven months of this year, 5,000 boys applied to come in and 3,000 of them were rejected; 64 per cent. were actually rejected. I can say that the number who wish to come in is far greater than the number for which we can find places.

Those boys who do not find that the life is what they thought it would be, and who are dissatisfied, are able to get out, to get their discharge, either free or by purchase. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Gandar Dower) was troubled about the matter of purchase. This is not a thing which applies particularly to seamen boys, as I think he realises. The question of discharge is something which applies to all three Services and is a recognised method of leaving the Services, the grounds being that in fact the man has had a great deal of training and that by leaving the Service he will cause difficulties and disturbance in the Service, and, therefore, he pays for the difficulty and disturbance he is causing by leaving earlier than he would otherwise be expected to leave.

Now, the majority of these boys, who do not want to leave, do in fact continue to get, I submit, an admirable training. I have been to some of these training establishments and I have seen the training given them, training such as many boys not going into the Navy would be thankful to get, and whose parents pay large sums of money to give them that training—not only naval training, but general educational training. They get also a very fine career, and I am glad that the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) raised the question of their promotion to officer rank. As he knows we have taken steps to see that as soon as possible the number of promotions from the lower deck will be raised up to a figure which, we hope, will reach somewhere about 20 to 25 per cent. I hope that a number of such promotions will come from these boys.

But I must stress that there is naturally considerable cost to the country in training a sailor. To train an artificer—the boys about whom my hon. Friend the Member for North Edinburgh is particularly interested—costs approximately £600. It is a fairly large sum of money to expend for training a boy. The expenditure on a band boy is £300, and on a seaman boy, £150; but both do take quite considerable time and expenditure of money to train, and we feel that ft would not be right lightly to allow them to take their discharge. As I have said, many of them can, in fact, get their discharge on compassionate grounds, either free or by purchase. But I am willing to agree that there may be cases of hardship with which we cannot at present deal. There may be cases of boys who would like to get out but who believe that applications on compassionate grounds would not be granted.

Commander Maitland (Horncastle)

Can the hon. Gentleman give us any figures of how many boys, during any particular period, actually put in requests to leave the Navy, and how many have been granted?

Mr. Dugdale

Yes, Sir. I have figures here—not for those entered as boys, but for those who wished to leave at various ages. In the first six months of 1947, of 22 applicants, 9 received a discharge by purchase and 8 received a free discharge. Five cases were refused. That is during that particular period. I do realise that there may be still some cases of hardship, and while I would not wish in any way to commit myself tonight, I will say this. I will undertake that we will examine the possibility of arranging that any man who has entered as a seaman boy or as an artificer may, at the age of 18, opt for seven years with the Colours and five with the Reserve. I do not say that I will give a definite promise that we can carry out this suggestion, but that we will give it very careful consideration. We will examine it from the point of view of the boy who may be suffering hardship today, though I do not think, quite frankly, there are many, if any. We will examine it also, as we must, from the point of view of the Royal Navy and the country as a whole, which has expended such a large sum of money in the training of these boys.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Can Regular sailors at the present time, in certain circumstances, purchase their discharge?

Mr. Dugdale

Yes, Sir—but only on compassionate grounds, or if their particular branch is overstaffed.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)

I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary has confined himself sufficiently to the main purpose of the Debate on the Motion for the Adjournment, that is, should boys have to make up their minds on then-future career at 15½? That was the whole purpose of raising this matter. What else can they do? They must get their training in the training ship as boys. At 18 they have got to go to sea as boys at sea, and I think the Parliamentary Secretary is not acting in the boys' own interest if he allows them to opt for 7 years with the Colours plus 5 years in the Reserve. That would destroy, at the age of 18, any possibility of continuing in the service and getting a pension. I cannot understand hon. Members opposite, who say they move with the times, wanting to stop every tried and proven method of training for the Royal Navy, whether it is officers or men. We have evidence on the other side -of the House on the Front Bench, on the second row, and on the third row. The Navy is a mighty fine Service, and its methods have been tried and proven over long years, and yet hon. Members opposite are messing about with them.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter past Eleven o'Clock.