HC Deb 27 March 1952 vol 498 cc1051-62

Order for Second Reading read.

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

2.41 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

This is a very important Bill, and I was wondering whether anyone on behalf of the Government was going to move its Second Reading. I see the Secretary of State for War here, although I do not see any of the other sponsors of the Bill.

This is a Bill which concerns not only the Army and the Royal Marines—which is, I suppose, why the name of the First Lord is on the Bill—but also the Royal Air Force. I intended to congratulate the Government on the Bill they have introduced, but I must say that my congratulations are somewhat tempered by the fact that they have not even moved its Second Reading, or thought it even worth while to suggest to the House why it should be read a Second time.

One of the reasons why I believe that this is a good Bill, to take one typical example, is Clause 15, which repeals obsolete provisions of the Army and Air Force Acts. In previous Parliaments, for one reason or another, there was a great deal of legislation, and perhaps not enough attention was paid to the repeal of obsolete provisions. But in this Parliament, I understand, there is not the same pressure of legislation; it has therefore been possible for the Government to introduce a Bill to deal with these matters, and I think they are to be congratulated.

It is right that we should examine the Army and Air Force Acts carefully to see whether we should not follow the Government's example and, in Committee, seek to amend further obsolete provisions in these Acts to bring them up to date. For example, Section 104 of the Army Act is one which lays it down that a soldier shall not be billeted— On persons who keep taverns only, being vintners of the City of London admitted to their freedom of the said company in right of patrimony or apprenticeship. Again, they shall not be billeted— In the house of any distiller kept for distilling brandy and strong waters. That may or may not be justified in modern times. I do not know; but I think it is right that hon. Members in all parts of the House should consider whether, at a later stage, we should this year remove it from the Act.

Section 105 says that all officers and soldiers of the Regular Forces and all horses belonging to the officers of such Forces, for which forage is for the time being allowed by Her Majesty's regulations, shall be entitled to be billeted. Is that in keeping with modern conditions? I do not know. We have dozens of these Clauses, but I shall not detain the House long. These are only examples. Section 112 deals with the question of the impressment of carriages. It may be necessary in these days to provide for the impressment of carriages for regimental baggage and stores on the march. It does not go into the details. There is another one, Section 146, which, I think, should be examined because an officer of the Regular Forces cannot be elected to be the sheriff of any county. It does seem that requires examination under modern conditions.

I cite these only as examples of the things which should be examined by hon. Members on the Committee stage because we should follow the good example of the Government in going through the Army and Air Force Act and seeking to bring it up to date. We should not spoil a ship for a ha'p'orth of tar. I hope all hon. Members will follow the example of the Government, study the Act, and then bring forward suggestions at a later stage. We should not tonight reject the Bill, even if the Government does not think it worth while to move its Second Reading.

2.48 a.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I think it is a little curious that the Secretary of State for War should take the trouble to come along here at this time of the morning and yet not find it advisable to make any explanation of this Bill, thereby necessarily prolonging the proceedings. In view of the fact that the Secretary of State decided not to move the Second Reading himself or to offer any explanation of the complicated provisions contained in it, and because he has not thought it worth while to open the debate and explain the character of the Bill, it is obviously necessary, if we are to persuade him to speak, to address a large number of questions to him about it.

We have only a few days now before we reach the Committee stage of this very important Bill. During this period, if the Bill gets its Second Reading tonight, hon. Members will have the duty of drafting any Amendments they think are desirable to be inserted in it. In the first place, we have always been under the difficulty, in the discussion of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, that it is practically impossible to get a copy of the Army Act, to which this refers.

Some hon. Members may doubt that, but if any of them have been engaged in the last few days, as I have been, in trying to get an up-to-date copy of the Army Act, which is being amended by most of the Clauses produced in this Bill before us, they will find that it is almost impossible to do so. There is not one copy in the Library of the House, and it is not possible to get the volume of the parent Army Act in the Library of this House either. It is necessary to get down at least six volumes, starting with the Army Act, 1881.

Mr. Speaker

That does not arise on this Bill.

Mr. Swingler

If I understand the Bill correctly, Mr. Speaker—and I say this with all due respect to you—the pages after page 3 list Amendments to the Army Act and amendments to the Air Force Act, and refer to various Sections and subsections of the parent Measure. I take it that what we are being asked to approve or disapprove tonight is a variety of amendments, embodied in this Bill, to the parent Act, which has been amended on previous occasions. These amendments run from page 3 to page 23 of the Bill, with references to all the relevant Sections of the parent Act, which obviously hon. Members must look up if they are to understand all these amendments.

Mr. Speaker

The point about this Bill, which comes every year, is that a great number of things are not in order on Second Reading which are in order in Committee. I would refer the hon. Member to where this Bill is dealt with in the last edition of Erskine May—which, no doubt, the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) has ready by him.

I would also point out that on Second Reading of this particular Bill there are many things of a kind which would be in order on Second Reading of an ordinary Bill but which are out of order on Second Reading of this Bill; and, in general, the custom of the House in dealing with it has been not to allow on Second Reading matters which can be dealt with in Committee. I hope that the hon. Member will bear that point in mind when addressing the House on this matter.

Mr. Bing

On a point of order. I have not got Erskine May with me, Sir, but I have a Ruling by Mr. Speaker FitzRoy. Perhaps, it would be of help if I read one of the sentences of that. It dealt with the 1923 Bill, in which there were many things similar to those in this; and there was a great number, though perhaps not so many as there are in this Bill. Mr. Speaker FitzRoy was Deputy-Speaker at the time, and what he said was: In explaining the principles of the Bill, I ought to have added that the various Clauses deal with amendments to the existing military law which governs the discipline in the Army and Air Force. It would be in order though not customary on Second Reading to discuss the actual amendments with which the different Clauses in this Bill deal."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th April, 1923; Vol. 162, c. 1031–2.) As I understand, that is exactly what my hon. Friend is seeking to do.

Mr. Speaker

I do not recollect that Bill myself, but, perhaps, as the hon. and learned Gentleman does not happen to have Erskine May by him, he will, I hope, take it that what I said is in Erskine May, in a short paragraph on this matter on page 720. I would myself adopt the other paragraph as the basis of my Ruling. The paragraph says: On the second or third reading of an Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, debate on the general purposes of the army and air force is not permissible. The policy by which the army is administered, the enforcement of the existing army regulations and the conduct of troops in war, have been ruled out of order, and it has been held that the details of the conduct of proceedings before military courts of inquiry and the prices paid for the billeting of troops must be discussed in committee on the bill and not on its second reading. The rest of the paragraph is not relevant to our purpose.

The House will, therefore, see that, with respect to this annual Bill, the usage of the House has been practically to withhold from debate on Second Reading matters which can be dealt with in Committee. It is sensible if one thinks of it, because the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill covers a large number of very diverse matters referring back to the Army Act, and it is a matter for Committee discussion rather than Second Reading.

Mr. Swingler

On a point of order. Perhaps I may make the point I want to make as a submission to you, Sir. I do not wish to argue the merits or demerits of any parts of the Bill, which, as I understand from your Ruling, must be taken on the Committee stage. The point I want to make, which I believe would be in order at this stage, is whether this Bill is intelligible or not.

The question is whether we in the House are in a position to be able to discuss this Bill intelligently. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing) has said, this Bill is rather more complicated than the previous ones, which date back for a long period, and there are many complicated provisions and amendments in it. We cannot get hold of any volume in this House in which the provisions of this Act are referred to. I have tried to do it today and it is impossible.

Mr. Speaker

That might concern me in my duties of general supervision over the Library, but it is not relevant to our discussion on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Swingler

Perhaps I may put this point to you, Sir? This is the only point I wish to make. It seems to me that the time has come when we should consider whether this annual Bill, which must be produced for the purpose of continuing discipline in the Armed Forces, should not be made more intelligible and brought up to date so that we, the legislators of the nation, shall be in a position to see exactly, and in a single volume, what are the provisions governing discipline in the Armed Forces, instead of having to produce every year a document like the one in my hand with all its references and cross-references, making it necessary for any hon. Member who wishes to understand it to have recourse to a dozen volumes and innumerable pieces of paper.

It is made all the more difficult because this Bill runs from 30th April to 30th April and is always produced under considerable pressure, immediately after the Budget. It comes at a most unfortunate period of the Parliamentary year. In my view, it is difficult to get down to all the complicated matters in the Bill and to undertake all the research which is required to be undertaken.

It is probable that only a minority of hon. Members are at all interested in going into this, but there are some hon. Members who are interested in trying to understand the Army Act. Indeed, there are some hon. Members who have come under Section 40 of the Act and would like to understand what it is all about. But, when we came here tonight, the Secretary of State did not even get up to explain what it is all about. He has no intention of doing so, apparently. It is extremely difficult to find facilities in this House whereby we can understand it. They may have these in the War Office, but they are not provided for hon. Members of this House.

Therefore, we shall have some difficulties on the Committee stage, if we are to fulfil our duties properly and go thoroughly through the Army Act, if we are unable to understand the Amendments which, probably quite rightly and desirably, the Secretary of State has brought forward. Unless we understand them properly, it will probably be necessary to prolong the proceedings when the Committee stage comes along.

2.59 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I am not surprised, having endeavoured to study this Bill, that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War has not deemed it possible or politic to move the Second Reading and give us a few words of explanation. It is quite true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) has stated, that the legislation affecting the discipline in the Army is in a very complicated state.

My hon. Friend complained of the fact that he apparently could not get access to any compact edition of the Army Act as it applies today. It reminds me of those orderly rooms during the war where a very gallant attempt was made by an underpaid private or lance-corporal to keep the orderly room copy of the King's Regulations up to date. The book used to finish up in rather an inchoate condition, covered with gum and festooned with large numbers of slips of papers, which duly fluttered in the breeze whenever the door or the window of the orderly room opened. It was quite impossible to close the book anyhow because of the dozens of insertions made in it.

I do not want to take up the time of the House by dealing with the points which, as Mr. Speaker has rightly said, can best be dealt with on the Committee stage. This Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill is just a little different from other Army and Air Force (Annual) Bills which have been presented to the House in previous years. It introduces a comparatively large number of new Clauses, all of which merit the most careful scrutiny on the Committee stage.

There is this further point to be made. Whereas, in the old days, the contents of the Army and Air Force Bill affected only a comparatively small section of the population, when we had only a small Regular Army and no National Service or conscription, today it may well affect for good or ill the lives of millions of men and women. The bulk of the adult male population of military age and of reasonable physical fitness are now concerned by the legislation we are considering. That is why it will be necessary for hon. Members on the Committee stage to give this Bill rather more careful scrutiny than it received in years gone by.

No doubt in the course of our discussions at a later stage we shall be able to help the Secretary of State for War out of some of the difficulties in which he now finds himself, because he has not had the opportunity of studying the Bill. He does not know what it contains, and he naturally expected that he would not have to acquaint himself with the details, because, of course, of the Ruling that Mr. Speaker has given, the tradition being that the Secretary of State for War is not expected to know anything about this annual Bill, for which he is technically responsible.

I hope that he will apply himself to such Amendments as some of us may find it necessary to put down for the Committee stage, for they will enable him to clarify the position not only to his own advantage but to the advantage of the men serving in the Forces, whose daily lives will be affected by the contents of the Bill. In those circumstances, to allay the anxieties of the Secretary of State, I should like to assure him that, subject to the observations that he may have to make before the House proceeds to give a Second Reading to the Bill, I do not feel disposed at the moment to ask my hon. Friends to divide the House on the Motion before us.

I hope that, having held out the hand of peace and friendship, as it were, the Secretary of State may find it possible to give us the benefit of a few observations on the subject before we agree to the Second Reading.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

I am glad to have the opportunity of taking part in the debate, if for only one purpose—that of very sincerely congratulating the Secretary of State for War. This is a very valuable innovation. Normally when we come to the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, we come to Clauses 1 and 2, but the right hon. Gentleman has given us another 16 Clauses and, therefore, has on this occasion produced a Bill very different from that which we usually consider.

One of your predecessors in the Chair, Mr. Speaker, in the old days of the Irish Party, ruled that all that could be discussed on the first two Clauses of this Bill was not whether there should be an Army or not but, having decided that there should be an Army, whether it should be disciplined or not. Mr. Parnell said that in his view that was quite sufficient to enable hon. Members to carry on a debate for a considerable time.

But I am not directing myself to those two Clauses at all. The remarks I want to make very briefly are directed to the last 16 Clauses. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly set down one very long Clause which is the repeal, practically, of Part II and the re-drafting of Part II of the Army Act, and that is not only a wise but a very bold thing to do—bold because I am surprised that he has persuaded the Leader of the House to let him embark on anything like this degree of review of the Act.

If the right hon. Gentleman feels that we should take this course, I and my right hon. Friends will join with him in seeing what we can do to help him in the task. It is a long time—1923, I think—since we have had a Clause to this extent, and it would be wrong if the House, in Committee, were not to go thoroughly into the questions which the Clause raises.

Some of my hon. Friends have chided the right hon. Gentleman for not getting up to speak, but I think he was motivated by proper motives. He realises that it is late and that if he were to open the debate now he might detract from the Committee stage, because he would be dealing in general with the principle of these Clauses, and I agree that it is far better that we should devote ourselves to that on the Committee stage and when we are fresh and have an opportunity of going into these matters one by one.

I want to call attention to one or two points which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will look at again to see whether, between now and the Committee stage, he will not himself set down some Amendments. There is in the Bill what at first I thought was an attempt to redefine the horse in terms of the modern military approach, but I see now that it is not; it is to leave out an expression which tends to make the description of a horse rather complicated. If the right hon. Gentleman cares to look at one or two other things in the Act, he will find that a declaration is defined as "a declaration." That cannot be a reasonable way of proceeding, and I think he might see whether he can continue a good deal of the good work he is doing here by considering such matters as that.

I and some of my hon. Friends will put down Amendments to deal with other points in the Act—the references to the Dominions are askew, for instance—and when he sees our Amendments I hope the right hon. Gentleman will realise that they are all improvements and will approach the problem in the same spirit as ourselves, to see whether there are any points which we have overlooked. We can then have this full review of the Act to which he has opened the way by putting down these 16 Clauses.

I want to say a few words on behalf of my right hon. Friends on our Front Bench. Some of us have, perhaps, chided them for not taking this step earlier. The difficulty of the late Government was that until court-martial procedure was reformed it was not possible to go in for any wholesale revision of the Act. What we are now engaged in is the second stage. We have been engaged in reforming the part dealing with courts-martial. Now we can examine the various offences.

What is the point of reforming courts-martial if one does not reform the Statutes that administer them? There is no one who will not welcome the initiative and courage which the right hon. Gentleman has shown during a Session of crowded business in insisting that the House should consider these important issues of how best to reform the Army Act. I hope that the Bill will receive a speedy Second Reading and that we shall soon be able to get on to the Committee stage and there, more leisurely, examine points one by one.

3.12 a.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I wish I could have joined my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) in congratulating the Secretary of State in not saying a word about this Bill, but as it repeals the whole of Part 2 of the main Act and alters the terms of enlistment, and as the Secretary of State is on record as one who is keen on making the Army attractive, it would have helped the House if he had said a word about the new principles which form the new Part 2.

It would not be proper if I said anything critical about the Library service, but it is regrettable that there is no up-to-date copy of the Army Act available in the Library. It is even more regrettable that the copy which one obtains from the Vote Office is amended only up to the passing of the National Service Act, 1949.

I would not say much about it if this were only a Bill of two Clauses, but when the Secretary of State is going as far as he is, it is important that hon. Members should have a copy of the Act. If he says nothing about the provisions of the Bill now, the Committee stage will have to be rather lengthy, because we shall have to explore what he has in mind. I am not one of the right hon. Gentleman's admirers and I am not prepared to take on trust the things he offers.

A cursory examination shows clearly that what he and the Government are doing is giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The House is the custodian of the liberties of the individual, whether he wears civilian clothes or khaki. It is the duty of each Member to satisfy himself that the young men who are being conscripted should be able to see what the Minister is up to.

Taking the latest Act available, it is impossible to examine the Bill and to be completely sure that any amendment is up to date. We shall have lengthy proceedings on the Committee stage and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will see if he can make available to hon. Gentlemen who are interested a copy of the Act which is completely up-to-date.

3.14 a.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

I should like to assure the House that I intended no discourtesy by not making a speech when the Bill was introduced for Second Reading.

I find myself pleasantly in agreement with the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) that the Bill is a series of unconnected provisions, each of which is better discussed on the Committee stage. Every precedent suggests that that is the most satisfactory procedure. I think hon. Members will agree that to make a Second Reading speech on a series of disjointed matters would be no great asset before the Committee stage. Inherent in some of the remarks by hon. Members was the suggestion that, although they agree that at this stage they could be brief, on the Committee stage they would be somewhat less brief.

The Bill is, I assure the House, of importance to the Army. It changes the terms of enlistment, and I do not think that any hon. Member, on either side of the House, would wish to go against the general principle of the long-service engagement which the Bill makes possible. Hon. Members will not at this stage wish me to answer most of the points that were made. Indeed, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. de Freitas) was fortunate in that if I were now to try to answer some of the remarks he made before you, Sir, were in the Chair, I believe that I should be out of order.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

Have a try.

Mr. Head

The hon. Member will be able to raise his points about brandy, billeting and horses when we get to the Committee stage.

I have noted the point about the availability of the Army Act, and if the Librarian of the House has any difficulty I am sure that the War Office will do their best to help. I assure hon. Members that there is in the Bill provision for printing the Army Act in future, which, for succeeding generations, should obviate any difficulty in that direction.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Butcher.]

Committee upon Monday next.