HC Deb 09 February 1955 vol 536 cc1924-9

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

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Hale

I want to say a few words on a point which arises on the Clause, which says: (1) Recruits may, in pursuance of regulations of the Army Council under this Part of this Act, be enlisted for service in particular corps, but save as may be provided by such regulations recruits shall be enlisted for general service. Subsection (2) provides that The competent military authority shall as soon as practicable appoint a recruit, if enlisted for service in a corps, to that corps, and if enlisted for general service, to such corps as the competent military authority may think fit: Provided that a recruit enlisted for general service before attaining the age of eighteen years need not be appointed to a corps until he attains that age. If I understood what the right hon. Gentleman said in his last answer—and I am by no means clear about what he did say—this provision means that a lad who joins at 17 can be posted to a corps for general service at the age of 18, and can be sent abroad to take part in a war at the age of 18. It is important that we should know whether this is true. There may be people who disagree with me about this, but the House of Commons has always been disposed to take the view that, although in time of war in which this country may be engaged, lads have been sent abroad at 18—and a great many of my friends were sent abroad and were killed before they were 18 in the war of 1914–18—when we are conscripting soldiers they ought not to be sent abroad at 18 to take part in a war. It is within my recollection that engagements were given saying that, in that case, they would not normally be sent abroad until they were 19 and had been fully trained.

We are dealing here primarily with voluntary enlistment in the Regular Army, although a great many of the Clauses of the Bill will apply to compulsory enlistment of soldiers as well. It seems to me, in these circumstances, that the Clause is ambiguous. The right hon. Gentleman, in his explanation—and I am grateful to him for rising again, because he is always courteous and tries to be helpful—said that the matter had been carefully considered. He knows that this is a Bill which we welcome in the sense that we welcome the changes which it makes in the present law. Frankly, I do not welcome any Army Bill, but I am sure that this will be welcomed for the improvements made through the co-operative efforts of both sides of the House.

I do not want to indulge in factious criticism, but it is no explanation for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he has put in the age of 17 in the case of the Gurkhas and the Royal Marines. Why should the Gurkhas and the Royal Marines join at 17? Why should we want men to join the Royal Marines at the age of 17 before becoming soldiers when we are told that the Royal Marines are only half soldiers anyway? How does it come about? I remember that once in "Punch" a distinguished marine was referred to as— … a sort of giddy hermaphrodite, soldier and sailor, too. Why should a hermaphrodite be treated differently from either a Hermes or an Aphrodite? Why is there this special provision? This is not an explanation. I think it is reasonable that the country should be told, and I therefore ask the Secretary of State to take us into his confidence. I am sure that we shall make more rapid progress if he does that.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

There is another sentence in the Clause which deserves the attention of the Committee. Subsection (3) says that (3) A soldier of the regular forces may at any time be transferred by order of the competent military authority from one corps to another: I believe that the Bill should be examined meticulously by the Committee, because, since this is the only opportunity we are likely to have to discussing an Army Bill for one or two generations, and as it implies that we are to have conscription for another 50 years at least, we owe it to our constituents that we should examine very carefully every detail that is likely to affect them.

I have seen a good many recruiting posters in my time, which, if the Clause becomes law, will result in great injustice to the people who enlist. We find posters and literature telling young people that if they join the Army they will learn a trade, become engineers, and so on. The prospect is held out to young, potential recruits that they may learn to drive motor cars, and that they will be trained to pursue some useful occupation in time of peace.

That is used as a justification for driving them into the Army. They are not told that once they are in the Army, the authorities can transfer them to some other part of the Army.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Will my hon. Friend be good enough to read the rest of the Clause, and perhaps save himself a lot of time?

Mr. Hughes

I have read the rest of the Clause, and I know the point which my hon. Friend wants to make. Does he suggest that my argument is entirely without foundation?

Mr. Wigg

No, not entirely, but almost without. The Select Committee very carefully put in an important safeguard that, except in time of war, a soldier subject to military law cannot be transferred, except with the authority of the Army Council.

Mr. Hughes

That does not deal with my point.

Mr. Wigg

If a man enlists in a corps to learn a trade, he cannot be moved willy-nilly, except in time of war or except with the authority of the Army Council. We put in that important safeguard. If my hon. Friend wants to criticise the Clause he must find a better form of words than the ones that we have used.

Mr. Hughes

I did think of a better form of words, but it is one thing to think of them and another to get them on the Order Paper.

I was not entirely led into an ambush by my hon. Friend, because I know the point that he is making. When he said "almost" he gave the case away. If the word "almost" were put on the recruiting posters, then the position would be rather different. Even if what my hon. Friend says is absolutely correct, I think that the Secretary of State for War ought to be prosecuted for false pretences for putting these posters on the hoardings.

I suggest that the youth of this country is being led up the garden path by being drawn into an occupation on grounds which are not clear to them. The Clause makes it absolutely clear that once they are in the Army, the Army can break these promises, and the soldier will soon be disillusioned as a result.

I was not on the Select Committee. I know that throughout the discussion on this Bill, because the Minister cannot think of any logical answers to the questions that I put, he will fall back on the regular formula—that this was carefully considered by the Select Committee, which was set up and largely dominated by people of the point of view of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). I suggest that we should have some amplification of the brief. The civilian, and not just the soldier, is concerned about this, and we are entitled to protect the young people.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)

May I say, in the hope that the Committee will pass this Clause, that it is a great improvement on Sections 84 and 85 of the Army Act? It is true that there is a great advantage, perhaps not so much for British troops, as for colonial troops. It used to be said in the Colonial Territories that there was competition between tailors to put up the sign, "Trained in Her Majesty's Forces," though that was not thought to be as good a qualification as saying, "Trained in Her Majesty's Prison"—the period of service there often being longer.

The Clause does, at any rate, safeguard to a very large extent the right of the soldier to continue in the corps of his own choice, and this is a very important principle. The Select Committee considered whether it would be possible to make it an absolute right, and we came to the conclusion, after hearing the evidence, that it was not possible so to do. I may be one of those unfortunate Members under the influence of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), whose influence so pervaded the Committee, but, nevertheless, I hope that the Committee will accept the Clause as drafted, which is a great improvement, I think, on the old Army Act.

Mr. G. Thomas

We have reached a sorry pass when my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) takes it upon himself to be the spokesman of the Government, and when my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) turns his artillery on my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes).

The Minister ought not to think of this as a point of no substance. He ought not to keep his feet on the table and look at us as much as to say, "Talk for as long as you like." This question of youngsters under the age of 18 is one which disturbs the public mind very much. I want to know if a youngster is able to go into the corps of his own choice, and if it is guaranteed under the Clause that he can stay once he is there.

Mr. Wigg

My hon. Friend should read subsection (2).

Mr. Thomas

Secondly, I should like to know whether young men under the age of 18 can, under the Clause, be sent abroad. It is very important for us all to know that. I remember that this point was raised at the time of the Korean trouble, when public opinion was horrified at youngsters of 19 being sent out to Korea. There were Questions asked in the House, and there was, I believe, a debate on this subject. I should like to know, if the Clause is accepted, whether we are allowing young people under the age of 18 to be sent abroad whenever the military authorities so require.

Mr. Head

I should like to correct the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). There was nothing in my intention or posture to suggest that I welcome everybody talking for as long as they like.

Mr. M. Turner-Samuels (Gloucester)

Including the Minister?

Mr. Head

I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I think that one part of this question has been ably answered for me by the hon. and learned Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing). That is a welcome and unprecedented situation with which I am very pleased. Another point, which is welcomed with complete agreement on my side, was made by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). That is perhaps even more remarkable, and welcome it just as much.

I would say to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), who has contributed at all hours to our debates on defence, that this is a Bill which has been considered by a Select Committee, by the Service Departments, and by a great many people, who have given it a lot of thought, not merely from the point of view of the Service, but from the point of view of common sense and a fair deal for the soldier. The hon. Gentleman does not agree with the principle that it entails, but I suggest to him quite frankly that, if he likes nothing of it and if he wishes to give us his views, which I am certain will be excellent throughout, he can ask for a lot of explanation—but I would say that this has been considered from the point of view of a fair deal for the soldier.

So far as the transfer from corps to corps is concerned, I think that the hon. Gentleman must admit that the soldier has a very good safeguard indeed in the Clause. There was a witty speech which reminded me of the one about the Isle of Man Parliament and the Home Guard Bill. I do not know how seriously the hon. Member wishes me to take that one or this one, but I would, however, take him seriously and say that to take exception to the age of 17, which is put in for the benefit of one of the finest corps there is—the Corps of Gurkhas—would be a great mistake. Young men mature early in the Far East, and they wish to join at 17. They have done so for a long time, and this arrangement has been perfectly satisfactory. I hope that the hon. Member will not quibble over something which is a provision for a corps which has done great service to the British Army, and which is in a very thriving condition.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.