HC Deb 07 December 1949 vol 470 cc1875-9
48. Major Legge-Bourke

asked the Minister of Defence to what extent, in view of the coming election, it is contemplated that new regulations defining the position of serving officers and men in regard to Parliamentary candidature, are to be issued by any of the three Services.

50. Mr. Janner

asked the Minister of Defence if he will make a statement on the position of Regular members of the Services so far as Parliamentary candidature is concerned.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

As the answer is rather long, I will, with permission, make a statement in reply to these Questions after Questions.


Mr. Alexander

The Government have had under consideration the existing arrangements for members of the Forces who wish to become candidates for Parliament. Under these arrangements serving members of the Forces are allowed, if they wish, to stand for Parliament and to remain on full pay until nomination day when they are released from the Services for the period of the Election. If they are not elected they return to the Services. If they are elected they have at present the choice between remaining in a state of release or continuing to serve as whole-time members of the Forces.

These temporary wartime arrangements are based on the House of Commons (Service in His Majesty's Forces) Act, 1939, which provides that a member of the Forces may sit in the House of Commons notwithstanding the fact that, by reason of being in the Forces, he holds an "office of profit." This 1939 Act was primarily intended to allow Members of Parliament to join the Services during the war without vacating their seats and it was expressly intended to operate for the period of the emergency only.

The Government consider that these wartime arrangements ought to be brought to an end. The House will, I think, agree that party political activities are incompatible, in peacetime, with service in the Forces not only from the point of view of Service discipline and administration but also because of the need to safeguard the political impartiality of the Forces. However, in view of the fact that some few members of the Forces have already committed themselves as prospective Parliamentary candidates, it is felt that no change in the existing arrangements should be made until after the General Election.

As soon as possible thereafter, however, it is intended to revert to the position which obtained for many years before the war under which officers and men serving whole-time in the Forces might not announce themselves as candidates for Parliament until they had retired, resigned or been discharged. At the same time His Majesty will be advised that the Act of 1939, to which I have referred, should be allowed to expire. The effect of this will be that whole-time members of the Forces may contest the General Election and, if they are not elected, they will be eligible for re-employment in the Forces. If they are elected, however, they will not be given the option of returning to the Forces but will have to retire, resign or be discharged if they wish to serve in Parliament. Any member of the Forces who wishes to become a candidate after the General Election will have to leave the Forces before his candidature is announced.

These new regulations will apply only to whole-time members of the Forces and will not apply to members of the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces or to war-time officers and men who have been released under the release scheme with a liability to recall.

Mr. Stanley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House wholeheartedly agree with the proposal to return to the pre-war practice as we think it is undesirable that party political polemics should be brought into the Services? Also we think that the Government have treated with complete fairness the transitional period in which there are still some persons in the Forces who have entered into commitments under the existing procedure?

Mr. Alexander

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman.

Major Legge-Bourke

I would first support what my right hon. Friend has said and then ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can give an absolute assurance that the instructions which were given to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish) and myself last week by the Under-Secretary of State for War are now no longer applicable?

Mr. Alexander

Certainly. The statement I have just made is the last and final statement on this matter.

Mr. Chetwynd

What is the position of National Service men who happen to be over 21 years of age?

Mr. Alexander

They will be discharged for the period required from nomination day onwards, and if they are elected they will be able to sit in the House and will not then be called back to the Forces but the liability to serve thereafter, if they fail to remain Members of the House, will not have passed away. Of course, if they fail to secure election they will immediately return to their duties in the Forces.

Mr. Chetwynd

Will they have adequate facilities to take part in political activities before nomination day?

Mr. Alexander

They will be treated in the same way as all the other people to whom I have referred.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

While not dissenting in any way from the principle enunciated by the right hon. Gentleman, would it not be fair to say that it is against a principle of the British Constitution for any Government to try to bind its successors?

Mr. Alexander

There seems to be no need to think of successors when all parties in the House are agreed.

Sir Ian Fraser

Does the right hon. Gentleman's answer mean that the National Service man, whose period in the Forces is so short, will after the Election be banned in the same way as Regular officers and men on long engagements?

Mr. Alexander

Yes, Sir. We are adopting a rule which will after the Election secure the principle of the impartiality in politics of the Armed Forces. I think, therefore, that we must apply that provision to the National Service man as well as to any other members of the Forces.

Professor Savory

Will these Service men be allowed to wear uniform during the election campaign or not?

Mr. Alexander

No, Sir.

Major Legge-Bourke

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the special concessions made for war-time were made at the beginning of an emergency which has not yet been terminated? Can the right hon. Gentleman give some indication that this decision means that that emergency will be ended fairly soon?

Mr. Alexander

I cannot enter into the wider question of the emergency but for this purpose the period of the emergency has now ended.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Are we to understand that the right hon. Gentleman will issue regulations covering the position after the Election which will be debateable in Parliament before the Dissolution?

Mr. Alexander

Regulations will be issued and any regulations which are laid on the Table of the House are debateable.

Mr. Swingler

Will not my right hon. Friend reconsider future policy in regard to National Service men? Is it not a fact that we now have a new position in respect of National Service in peace-time, and while it is generally agreed that Regular membership of the Forces is incompatible with party politics, is it not wrong that those who are compelled to be in the Armed Forces for a period should be deprived of their rights?

Mr. Alexander

I do not think that they will be deprived of their rights any more than any other citizens.

Mr. William Wells

Can my right hon. Friend say whether pending the Dissolution, members of the Forces in plain clothes will be able to take a normal part in political activities?

Mr. Alexander

That raises a wider question, and I should like to see it on the Order Paper.