HC Deb 09 February 1955 vol 536 cc1921-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I wish to oppose the Clause. We should have an explanation from the War Office of the final paragraph in page 2, which says: In this Part of this Act the expression 'minimum age for man's service' means the age of seventeen years and six months, except that in such classes of case as may be prescribed it means the age of seventeen years. It is a mystery to me how the War Office arrives at the minimum age for man's service as 17 years and 6 months. Is it the view of the Minister that a young person then reaches the age of discretion and manhood? If so, how does he explain that a young person can be called up to be a soldier at the age of 17½ and yet not have the right to vote until he is 21? Young people can be called upon to become soldiers before they are allowed to have any say in the policy of the country, and they may even be despatched to some remote part of the world. Indeed, they may be called upon to sacrifice their lives before they reach the age at which they can vote.

This age limit is too low. At the time of the Korean war many hon. Members protested that boys were being called up after only a few months' training—in some cases they had not had more than eight weeks' Army training in this country—and despatched to some remote part of the world to fight in a war about which they had had no say. They had become conscripts, they had not had sufficient military training, and some lost their lives. If the age of 21 is to be regarded by the law as that at which a young person is able to exercise the franchise and become a citizen, he should not be called upon at the age of 17½ to perform service which might mean his death in a war of which he does not approve. I submit that the Government should take the Clause back and put it more into line with the general principle that is accepted in law.

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

This matter was considered most carefully both by the Service Departments and by the Select Committee. If the hon. Gentleman pursued his argument to its logical conclusion, he would say that until a youth was of a sufficient age to vote and have some influence on the policy of the country, he should not be called up. The hon. Gentleman nods. Frankly, that would mean that nobody could be called up for National Service, nor, indeed, join the Army, until he was 21, which would be an innovation which would be unwelcome to the vast majority of young men. It would make nonsense of the Act, because it would mean that any young man who wished to make the Army his career would have to wait until he was 21.

The matter has been most carefully considered, and I believe that, in its present form, the Clause is adequate to ensure that no man does anything rash without his parents' consent. As it stands, the Clause is completely satisfactory.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), if I may continue to call him my hon. Friend. He asked for an explanation of the meaning of the last paragraph of the Clause. Though I am probably years out of date, I thought the minimum normal age for enlistment was 18. I am now told that it is 17½ years, but subsection (5) of the Clause provides that in certain cases it may be 17 years. The Clause does not specify what these cases are, nor, as far as I am aware, are they specified anywhere else in the Bill. Surely, the Committee is entitled to be informed about that, and is entitled to know what these cases are.

Everyone realises the dilemma in which the Secretary of State is placed in framing a Clause like this. Everyone realises that it is very undesirable that we should have to call up lads under 21 and ask them to exercise their decision and determination for life. As I understand the Clause—and with very great respect for what the right hon. Gentleman says about lads not doing this without the advice of their parents—it seems to me that it means precisely the opposite. The provision about the consent of the parents applies only to lads under 17, and not to those who have attained the age of 17½.

Indeed, as I have read the Clause—and I may be wrong, as I very frequently am—the right hon. Gentleman need not get the consent of the parents where the lad is 17½, or, in special circumstances, 17. At least, that is a matter on which the Committee, before it passes the Clause, should have more information, and I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to give it. It is not proper for me to refer to the next Clause, but it is quite obvious that these two Clauses are to be read together. When considering the next Clause, we shall have to refer to enlistment for general or special service of lads of 18 who have enlisted when they were 17.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give the Committee a little more information than he gave on the last occasion.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

There is a special case where young lads from orphanages and similar institutions enlist in the Armed Forces for a long period, and obtain the permission of the responsible authorities which are their guardians, whereas such permission may not have been given by parents. Those young men who later develop conscientious objections to military service, or get into difficulty, will be placed in a much worse position if they enlist under the terms of this Clause. I therefore hope that the Minister will bear in mind what my hon. Friends have said on this point.

Mr. Head

I think the question of conscientious objectors is a matter for a new Clause which we are to take later on. That point will arise then.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) asked about 17½ being the minimum age for enlistment, and why any exception should be made at the age of 17. Those exceptions are made to cover the categories of enlistment which include overseas enlistment and in the case of certain foreign units. An instance is that of the Gurkhas, and, again, the Royal Marines, where the minimum age for enlistment is 17 years. This provision is inserted in the Bill to cover these exceptions and these particular categories.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.