HC Deb 09 February 1955 vol 536 cc1929-42

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I beg to move, in page 4, line 13, at the end, to insert: (c) to terminate his service at the end of a period of three years by giving three months notice in writing. I submit that the Minister must give a more convincing answer to this Amendment than to the other, because now we know the "patter"—that a Select Committee and the Service Departments have carefully considered this, that the House of Commons need not worry and that it can be rushed through without an adequate explanation from the Minister. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was out for a fair deal for the soldier. Here is an opportunity to give a fair deal to the soldier.

When we consider that we must offer a career to the soldier, we must also consider allowing the soldier to ask that he should not be in an unfair position compared with people in careers in other spheres of our national life—in other nationalised industries such as the Coal Board or any other honourable nationalised industry. The Army is not the only honourable nationalised industry, although it may have been the first.

If the Minister desires to make the Army really popular—which it certainly is not at present—he should give to the soldier who has had three years of it, and gained some experience, the opportunity to offer his resignation, after giving three months' notice. I know that this will upset the War Office because it is a new idea. There is nothing more disturbing to a Government Department than a new idea, and the impact sometimes has a very curious result.

Here we are arguing things out. We are not just receiving orders from a superior officer which, naturally, have to be obeyed by hon. Members on this side of the Committee because, for the time being, there happens to be this extraordinary coalition between the Minister and the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). That may be a very formidable coalition, but it certainly is not infallible. Perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch will adduce some new reason, and not merely say that this is slightly better than the previous Army Act. It would be a curious monstrosity were it not.

I invite the hon. and learned Member once again to be gallant and chivalrous, and come to the rescue of the Minister, who showed in the early stages of this Bill that he was completely unable to give a logical answer to a question from a civilian.

Dr. H. Morgan (Warrington)

He will have to do some more praying.

Mr. Hughes

That may be so.

I have in mind, not the conscientious objector, who is an entirely different person, but a soldier who enlists, believing that the Army will afford a career, and then, at the end of three years, finds himself disillusioned. Sometimes it does not take three years to disillusion a soldier. I have known soldiers who were disillusioned after three days or even three hours. If we propose to talk about rights, about British democracy and freedom, and all the high-sounding words which cover some of the very sinister and ugly realities of this Bill, that all sounds very well, but we must try to probe underneath.

There is no doubt that a soldier who has been three years in the Army and who is an intelligent person, will read the newspapers and other literature. He will listen to the wireless. He may even read HANSARD and the speeches made in this House. He may well come to this conclusion: "I have got into the wrong career because this is not a career, it is a cul-de-sac." Even if he only reads the "Daily Mirror" he will have seen so many shattering questions about the Army as a means of defending this country that he may become quite disillusioned and arrive at the conclusion, "This Army is obsolete; the Secretary of State for War is obsolete." He may even think that those Labour Members of Parliament who support the Secretary of State for War and come to his rescue are obsolete.

That is not only my opinion. I am reinforced these days by very powerful recruits to a cause which, with little support, I have advocated in this House for some time. For example, I never expected that I should open the "Manchester Guardian" and find a remarkable speech by General MacArthur. I remembered the time when we in this House regarded General MacArthur as Enemy No. 1. I may have said some slightly impolite things about him myself. I certainly think that the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch would not want it to be said that he is less progressive than General MacArthur. But General MacArthur has become a pacifist, which is an extraordinary development. Now I even have hopes of the hon. and gallant Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan).

It may well be that some ordinary soldier, who has served three years in the Army and who would not read any speech of mine, would read the speech of this American general who has become a pacifist. The soldier might say, "I must read this," because a private soldier is entitled to read with great respect what the generals say, in order to find out how their ideas are progressing. Even I was surprised to read the speech of General MacArthur—especially some of the things he had to say. Had I not been a pacifist, he might have converted me.

We can imagine an ordinary soldier in the world today, thinking in terms of the atom bomb and what service he can best render in a hydrogen-bomb war, and reading the discussions on modern defence, and then saying, "Look here, I have come definitely to the conclusion that this is a phoney occupation for me." If he follows that up and reads, for example, Lord Russell or Liddell Hart, he may well come to the same conclusion.

So I submit that there are people—who do not approach the question of service in the Army from the point of view of the conscientious objector—who may come to the conclusion, on perfectly realistic and rational grounds, that they would be serving the country more usefully in another occupation. Such a person might well say, "I should like to opt out of this career, because I do not wish to continue in it and merely be obsolete."

He would go to his commanding officer, who would say, "It does not matter to us what General MacArthur has said: you are bound for a number of years." Then the soldier might say, "Well, I have seen the recruiting poster on the Underground, 'You are somebody in the Army of today,' but I wish to resign." Whereupon the Army authorities would say, "Oh no, you cannot do that."

I submit that we shall have a progressively large number of people who enlisted in the Army, but who have come to the conclusion that as citizens they can perform their National Service in a different way from that of being in uniform and being ordered about by what one of the brigadiers on the opposite benches once described as "tin-pot Hitlers." I submit that it is not treason or disloyalty. It may be merely common sense and logic which drives an ordinary soldier to the conclusion that it is reasonable that he should terminate his appointment in the Army by giving three months' notice.

Mr. Head

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has given us a wide-ranging speech about many aspects of the Amendment, which I am sure he has moved with all conviction, but frankly it is both illogical and inequitable. It hardly makes sense to call up for National Service a man who has a two-year full-time liability and a 3½ years' Reserve liability, and to abolish the Reserve liability of a man who volunteers. I call that inequitable as between the two men.

Secondly I think it is illogical and inequitable because, as the hon. Gentleman proposes, a man who joins on a 22-year engagement shall, by the three months' notice, escape his Reserve liability, but a man who joins on a three-year engagement shall still have that liability. I call that most illogical and inequitable as between the two men, and for those two reasons I cannot accept the Amendment.

Mr. Wigg

The one thing I have in common with my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) is a desire to get rid of National Service at the earliest opportunity. Like him, I believe that National Service will be with us for many years to come. It may well be right to have National Service in some form or other for another 50 years, whatever the state of world tension.

I have always argued that the Government should turn their thoughts in the direction of seeking, by every means possible, to build up the strength of the Regular Army. I do not think that my hon. Friend has done himself justice in putting down this Amendment without thinking out clearly its implications because, if it were adopted, it would be cutting at the root of some of the reforms which the Government have; introduced.

I am not a believer in the three years' engagement. I have said on many occasions in the past that it was one of the most disastrous steps taken by any Secretary of State for War. Equally I have said that I do not see the way out. Indeed, I do not believe that there is any simple way out of this dilemma which draws the point of departure from the Regular Army at three years, because all the evidence points in the direction that the longer a man serves, the more likely he is to stay in the Army.

I believe the figures are that at three years' service the rate of prolongation is about 15 per cent., but for men with 12 years' service the rate of re-engagement is about 70 per cent. The Secretary of State is on record as having said that the Government hoped that they would get 33⅓ per cent.—

Mr. Head

For the fourth, and I hope the last time, may I point out that the hon. Gentleman has persistently misquoted me as having said "hoped"? I have said clearly three times that, from the point of view of the manpower structure of the Army, ideally to retain the correct proportions of the Regular Army re-engagement would be at the rate of 33⅓ per cent. The hon. Gentleman has stuffed the word "hoped" into my mouth so often—

Mr. Wigg

I am sorry, but as the right hon. Gentleman says that this is the fourth time, perhaps we shall now get it right.

I assume that when the Government introduce a reform that they hope it will be successful. Is the right hon. Gentleman now saying that he has come to the House of Commons to ask the authority of the House to amend these Sections in order to introduce something which will not work? Surely he is not as irresponsible as that? I have never charged the right hon. Gentleman with irresponsibility—no, I have argued that he is muddleheaded and rather stupid. He saw what was happening in the Air Force and, without stopping to think, assumed that what was good enough for the Air Force was good enough for the Army.

5.15 p.m.

I gave the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt. I thought I was being generous in saying that he hoped it would be a success. I always knew it was nonsense. I have said that 13 times if not 33 times, on any occasion on which I have been in order. So I say that this is the biggest piece of nonsense that any Secretary of State for War has ever suggested. It will do the greatest damage ever done to a Regular Army. If I said that the right hon. Gentleman "hoped", it was only because I was being generous, but I will use any word he likes, although it is on record in the 1953 debate that both he and his hon. Friends said "hoped"—no, Sir Rhys, I am quite in order—

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

So long as the hon. Member does not widen the debate too far.

Mr. Wigg

Perhaps I may say that I hope I am in order, but I think I am, because I am dealing with the point about the three years' engagement.

I can use any word the right hon. Gentleman likes. It is the fact that Government policy is based on a 33⅓ per cent. prolongation, which they think will give the Army all the internal recruiting that is required, but in fact they will not get 10 per cent. Indeed, I am being generous in saying 10 per cent. By every device I know I have tried to get the figures of the prolongations we are getting. I have put Questions on the Order Paper to the Minister of Defence, I have put Questions this way and that way to the Secretary of State for War—

Mr. Hale

May I interrupt my hon. Friend, because I find myself in the position of the Life Brigade—cannon to the right and cannon to the left volleying and thundering—and I am getting nervous of what it is all about. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) put down an Amendment with which I told him that I did not agree. Strangely enough, I still disagree with him after the right hon. Gentleman sat down. The Amendment seems to me to give a man the right to give three months' notice at the end of three years' service on a Regular engagement. I am not sure what the point about the normal termination has to do with this Amendment.

Mr. Wigg

If my hon. Friend will look at Clause 5 he will see that a soldier already has the right to go out on completion of 22 years' service.

I am using the Amendment to make my position clear in regard to the three years' engagement and the 22 years' engagement. The reform to give everybody in the Army eventually the right to leave at successive periods of two years is a desirable long-term reform, but it could have disastrous results. I support my colleagues on the Select Committee, but once again I must point out to the Secretary of State and to the country the disastrous nature of this reform, because eventually it will fail.

The Secretary of State has already cut into the number of men coming into the Army. At one time one could not get into the sergeants' messes of the Regular Army before completing six or seven years' service, but before long they will be filled with two groups: youngsters with three years' service and a large number of men at the end of their service.

I do not see an easy way out, and that is why I have pleaded before, and I plead again, with the Secretary of State for War. I hope he will listen. He has not listened in the past, and I know no way of applying pressure to make him do so, but I hope there are still some responsible minds on the Government Front Bench who will recognise the serious position which is being created for the Regular Army, and will do something about it.

Whether one has served in the Regular Army or not, we all have an interest in the solution of this problem, because tied up with it is the length of National Service and of its becoming a permanent part of our national life. The remedy lies not in the extent of our commitments but in the quality of the Regular Army and the number of Regular recruits we can get from outside and the prolongations we can get from inside. Once again, therefore, I have made my position clear and have put into its correct place the word "hoped."

Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Scotstoun)

May I briefly reply to the speech of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), which, I think, was based on a misconception? I listened carefully to what he said, and I think the same sort of theme ran through the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale)—

Mr. Hale

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hutchison

—it was apparent in his interjection, at all events—that the soldier was dissatisfied with the Army as a career and wanted to get out and take up some other career. If that is the burden of the hon. Gentleman's complaint, the Clause allows the soldier to do so. The only difference between us is the difference between three months and six months, because under the Clause he has to give six months' notice before being transferred to the Reserve, when he can then take up any career that he likes. I think that the hon. Gentleman confused service with service with the Colours.

Mr. Hale

When I made an interjection in the speech of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), I said that I did not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), Why I should be dragged into these things by the hon. Member for Scotstoun (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison) I do not know. I apologise to my hon. Friend. He was technically wrong and I, as usual, was technically right. I thought he was speaking about the Amendment, but he indicated that he was speaking to the Question "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," on which he was making excellent and appropriate observations. I always listen to my hon. Friend with great interest, for he is one Member of the Opposition with whom I often find myself in agreement on military matters. When I referred to "cannon to the left of me and cannon to the right of me," I was speaking in the geographical and not the political sense.

Amendment negatived.

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

Mr. Frederick Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

I should like some elucidation on subsection (6), which deals with the right of the soldier to determine his service. In lines 10 and 11 are these words: or of the conferring on him of such other benefit or advantage as may be prescribed. … It seems to me that enormous latitude is given to the authorities there, and I should like some explanation of what kind of benefit or advantage is contemplated which renders possible deprivation of the right to determine service. It might be possible to deprive a soldier of this right for some mere triviality. I do not suggest that the administration deliberately does that, but I feel that we need some explanation of why those very wide words are used.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

There is one point of interpretation to which I should like to draw the attention of the Minister. Subsection (1, b) says that a person may determine his service at the end of a period of nine years. Then, as I read the Clause, thereafter it may be done at the end of any succeeding period of three years. I want to know why the subsequent period of three years is included. It seems reasonable to me that if a soldier may ask for his service to be determined after the expiration of nine years, between then and the expiration of 22 years he should be enabled to ask for determination of his service at any time.

I cannot see why this statutory period of three years should be included, as it may prevent a man from determining his service in circumstances in which it may be proper for him to do so. I cannot see why a man should be subjected to an arbitrary, inflexible period of three years throughout the whole of the intermediate period between the end of the nine years and the expiration of the 22 years. There can be no sense or logic in that.

Of course, there may be a good reason for this provision and I may not have apprehended it, but unless there is some reason which makes this arrangement essential, it surely cannot be justified. I would like the Minister to consider this arbitrary, inflexible rule of periods of three years and either justify it to the Committee or see whether it can be approximated to a more common sense arrangement.

Mr. Head

The question of the period of service for which a man is engaged was carefully considered and debated at considerable length when we brought in the 22-year engagement provision. This provision was introduced to enable a man to break his service at periods of three years throughout his 22 years' service. The arguments for and against that proposal were considered at great length. I can assure the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) of one thing—and even the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) will agree with this—and that is that we cannot run an Army if a soldier can leave after a month's notice. The Army would be in very bad shape. If men got tired of the Army in Korea and could leave after a month's notice, where should we be?

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Accepting that, can the Minister tell me whether there is any machinery in any of the Acts or in the Army administration whereby a man could terminate his service if the circumstances were sufficiently important?

Mr. Head

Yes, on compassionate grounds a man can get his release; and he can also purchase his discharge.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Does not the Minister see that there may be very compelling grounds of the greatest hardship which may not have arisen at the end of nine years but may arise at the end of 10 years? Such circumstances might make it quite improper that a man should be forced to remain in the Army. He could have determined his service at the end of nine years; why should he not be allowed to do so at the end of 10 years when circumstances arise which justified him in doing so?

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. and learned Gentleman is now developing his interjection into an argument.

Mr. Head

The hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that it is unfair if somebody should have afterthoughts and says, "I wish I had done something different a year ago if I had only known." That is something from which I suppose every hon. Member suffers from time to time. The point which the hon. and learned Gentleman raises is covered, because it is possible for a man to be released on compassionate grounds.

Failing that, the man can purchase his discharge. The hon. and learned Member thinks that is inadequate, apparently, but this period of three years throughout the 22-year engagement has immensely shortened the whole period involved in the system of engagements in the Army. To press us at this stage to go beyond that, when the House has already considered and decided on the 22-year engagement, is illogical.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Hale

The Minister has said—and I am sure that, as he has said it, it must be true—that the man can obtain a compassionate release, but I am clear in my recollection that two years ago I was told that the system of compassionate release had been abolished.

Mr. Head

The hon. Member is muddled. Compassionate postings have been abolished but compassionate release still exists. Compassionate postings were abolished five or six years ago when such a high proportion of the Army was overseas—80 per cent, of the fighting units—that it was impossible to give compassionate postings. But the system of compassionate release still stands. The hon. Member is confused. I hope I may now be allowed to answer the second point which was made.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

The Minister must not think that I am objecting to the three-year period. I am not objecting to that. The point I am raising is that if, during the three years, some strong ground arises on which the man ought to be permitted to leave the Forces, as far as I can see there are no means whereby he is able to terminate his service.

Mr. Head

That is equally true in the first three years, the second three years, the third three years and every other three years, and why the hon. and learned Member has suddenly seized on this third period of three years I do not know. It is inescapable and inevitable. We cannot have an Army which a man can leave suddenly because of an unforeseen situation.

The other question raised was that of the benefits conferred on a man and the prescribed list. What happens is that these are listed in the recruiting regulations and every man who goes on a course which involves an undertaking that he will not leave the Army is informed of that fact before he goes on the course, and asked whether he wants to go on it. If we send a man on a long radar course or something of that kind, apart from the expense of teaching him we have to remember that he becomes very much more attractive to industry as a consequence. To protect ourselves to a certain extent, we have to impose a stopper. In these cases, before he goes on the course he is asked whether he wishes to go and whether he realises that if he goes he will have an obligation to stay in the Army for whatever the period may be.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

I understand the force of that, but it seems to me that the contingency is covered by the earlier words of the subsection, Where a person, in consideration of his being permitted to undergo a prescribed course of instruction or a course of instruction of a prescribed class … has undertaken … The circumstances to which the Secretary of State referred seem to be covered by those words, and, although I do not think it is a matter of great importance, I do not know why it is necessary to add the very wide words or of the conferring on him of such other benefit or advantage … In view of the fact that the whole essence of the subsection involves a volunteering on the soldier's part, my anxiety about it is perhaps not very great, from the point of view of the rights of soldiers. Nevertheless, any superfluous words in any legislation only create difficulty, and I should have thought that the Secretary of State's explanation did not justify the retention of those wide words.

Mr. Hale

The right hon. Gentleman says that I am muddled, and very frequently I am. I should not be in the least surprised if I were wrong on this occasion, for he is much more likely to know all the facts than I am. Nevertheless, on every application for compassionate release with which I have been concerned in the last four years—and I think all my hon. Friends are likely to agree that this is correct—I have been told that it is no longer granted, although an application can be made on financial grounds. I gather that the Secretary of State does not agree with me, but I can show him the correspondence. Furthermore, I had a case of compassionate posting last month.

Mr. Head

It is not much good my arguing with the hon. Gentleman, but I can assure him that we have granted a great many releases on compassionate grounds. I am sure hon. Members will agree. I do not know how the hon. Member got his compassionate posting, but I should think that what happened was that it was not a compassionate posting at all. In certain instances, for example, if a boy's mother is ill and he is in a place near his home, we delay the posting away from his home, but it is not a compassionate posting in the sense that we post a man to a particular place for those reasons. All I can say is that if the hon. Member has got his compassionate posting he would be better advised to keep quiet about it, because, in fact, they are not granted.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6 to 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.