HC Deb 30 June 1955 vol 543 cc650-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Barber.]

10.43 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

On Tuesday I addressed to the Secretary of State for War three exploratory Questions concerning the well-being of girls recruited to the Women's Royal Army Corps. The Minister's reply was at once unusual, unexpected and upsetting.

The first Question dealt with the number of girls recruited to that service whilst they were still under the age of 21 years, and the Minister replied that of 472 girls recruited under the age of 20 years in the last four months of 1953 no fewer than 62 had to be or were discharged before completing their service. That is a very high figure; it is 13 per cent. of the personnel recruited. The figure for 1954 was little short of alarming. Out of 1,564 recruited that year under the age of 20 no fewer than 395 were discharged before completing their service. That was 25 per cent. of the total intake of girls under 20 years of age. Those are figures which the Minister will want to explain.

As the Minister will know, I have not sought the facility of an Adjournment debate before having had an answer to those Questions; but when the Questions were answered it became of imperative interest to the Minister and the Department to examine just what those figures mean; for, presumably, when young girls are enlisted to the Army precautions are taken to ensure that they are recruits who are likely to stay the course.

On any ground we care to choose, it is clear that there is a social problem here. Let us, for example, take the mundane ground of arithmetic; the cost of the training and upkeep of these 395 girls could not have been less than £100,000, so that on the mere basis of arithmetic the Minister has something for which to answer. But I am not interested in the arithmetician's point of view; I am interested with human considerations. I am concerned with the rights of parents when their daughters are persuaded to join the Army.

The Minister's reply to me on Tuesday reads in HANSARD in an even worse light than when I heard him give it. His answer, when I asked if he did not think that he is taking a lot upon himself by denying a mother the right to know where her daughter is when she is under the age of 21? was that it was not quite as simple as that. The Minister went on: The hon. Member must appreciate that there are girls who join up to get away from a bad home. If we make a statutory undertaking that in all cases we must put the parents in touch with the girl we may be acting against the interests of the individual concerned. What we do is to use our common sense. He added: Where we find that there are good parents and their influence is good, and here I might say that it sounds as though that is unusual— we do not stand in the way of the girls getting in touch with them. I should think not. Why, we should be in a police State if it was accepted that we tried to stop children from getting in touch with their parents! The Minister then said: If she says she has a bad home and joined the W.R.A.C. because she does not want to see her parents, we do not step in and put her in touch with her parents."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1955; Vol. 543, c. 185.] Sir, the girl might well have left a good home, and yet be the very girl who needs the love and care and discretion of her mother. Yet the Minister says that such a girl would be "protected" from her parents by his Department.

I am quite confident that the War Office would not claim that any but a small minority of the girls in the W.R.A.C. are there because they are fleeing from a bad home. It would be a very tiny minority who would never want to see their parents again; indeed, we are a decadent nation if a majority of girls are there to flee from parents. The parent who is anxious to know where her daughter is and how she is faring is not the bad parent, but the good parent; and it is the good parent who is refused when inquiring about the girl's well-being.

In my submission, mothers and fathers do not lose their rights over their daughters who are under the age of 21 because those daughters have joined the Army. We are not a civilised community if we think the Government have the right to refuse to a mother or father knowledge about their children if they have gone wrong or landed into trouble.

Unfortunately, a girl of 18 does not need the sanction of her parents to join the Army. The common law, I understand, does apply to girls in this case. If they are under 18 they require the sanction of their parents. Our children do not leave school until they are 15. A girl may join the Army only three years after she has left school and when she is entering a new and critical phase of her life. Joining the Army, she is drawn from the influence and restraints of her home and her chapel and of the little community from which she may have sprung, and is drawn into the exciting world of uniforms and the Army.

It is when she is only 18, that the War Office says, an adult's permission is not necessary. "We will take her over," says the War Office. If girls leave home in a fit of pique or temper they can go to the Army, and the Army will then refuse to tell their parents where they are—unless, indeed, these young people themselves give permission for their parents to be told.

The trouble is that the War Office regards these young girls of 18 as adult soldiers. The policy of the War Office is that although a girl is under 21 she is, once she joins the W.R.A.C., a member of an adult organisation or an adult corps, and that all soldiers, except members of boys' units, are old enough to be responsible for the handling of their own personal affairs. It follows from that, from the War Office point of view, that it must allow these girls under 21 to tell their relatives in their own way if they are in any sort of trouble. It also believes that it would be an unwarrantable interference with the liberty of the individual if, without the girl's permission, it gave news of that sort, even to parents.

The Under-Secretary of State will know —we all know—that, being human, some of these girls will get into difficulties. It would be remarkable if these youngsters were the only youngsters in Britain not to get into trouble of some sort. That is the very time when a girl needs her mother on her father or both parents and the advantage of their influence. I say that rescue work becomes necessary if the State denies to parents the right they ought to have—to know as of right where their young people are.

It might be all right were the War Office to regard these girls of 18 as having the maturity of older people if, indeed, they were mature, but it applies to these young girls under 20 the same policy it applies to "old sweats," the people who have been in the Army for years. Let the hon. Gentleman talk to parents and he will soon hear what they feel about this question.

The military machine always finds it hard to adapt itself to human considerations. Its rules are made, and then everyone who comes within the control of the Army is rigidly bound by them. We cannot apply that attitude to our young girls in this fashion. The stability of our national life rests on the strength of our family ties, and not even the juggernaut of the War Office can crush out the respect for the family tie which is inherent in this nation. The responsibility of the parents cannot be removed by the State. For the girls aged under 20 in the Army there must be rules entirely different from those applied to grown men.

It would be better if the Army had no girls serving in it at all. I do not know what it wants to recruit them for. What are the girls doing that men cannot do? Why cannot the age of recruitment be 21? It would be much wiser for the Army not to recruit girls until they are 21, for when it takes these girls it takes on a tremendous responsibility at the same time. When I asked the Secretary of State what was done for the welfare of the girls he replied that they had television and games to play to fill up their time. [An HON. MEMBER: "Music while you work.") If it were not such an important question—and it is an important social question and problem—that would have been laughable.

I want to know what welfare services the Minister has. How does he keep in regular contact with the parents? If these girls were in college or secondary school, as many girls over the age of 18 are, regular touch would be maintained with their parents. There is parents' day, when they can visit the school, if they can afford the fare. The Ministry should keep in close touch with the parents, advising them of the developments in the girl's general work, in her personality, and in her relationships with other people.

Whatever happens in the rest of the military machine, we must have confidence that the War Office is not seeking to deal with these girls as it would deal with the older, Regular members of the Forces. I have tried not to damage anyone or the Corps itself, but I believe that the House owes it to itself and to the country to give serious consideration to this problem.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

I should like to add one or two words to what has been said by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). I heard the Answer to his Question earlier in the week. Since then, one of my constituents, when visiting the House, raised this very matter and expressed misgivings about it.

I recognise that the ruling given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and the view of the War Office are inspired by the very best of intentions, but it may be that the Department is assuming a delicate task in this matter, particularly when trying to assess whether a girl who says that her parents are bad parents is possibly misleading. While I recognise the validity of part of the Answer given earlier this week, I feel that there is a case for re-examining this matter.

10.59 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), who raised this question, for giving me notice in advance of the points that he was going to raise, and I will do my best to answer them as fully as possible in the time that remains to me.

Before starting to do so, I should like to say that I do think the hon. Member is taking an unnecessarily poor view of the military machine. I know he has some doubts about the advisability of having a military machine at all, but he is taking an unjustifiably poor view of its alleged inhumanity, and he is quite wrong in suggesting that it is a juggernaut which rides rough-shod over all human considerations.

The point which he raises concerns the rights of parents. That is something which we recognise, and which is recognised by the Women's Royal Army Corps, as something of paramount importance. There is no question whatever of our trying to prevent girls from keeping in touch with their families. On the contrary, we make every effort to induce them to do so. We make every effort to induce parents to take an interest in their children, as we do in the case of the men's units. We have parents' days, when parents are able to see for themselves what their girls are doing and how they are getting on.

We also make every effort to encourage girls to write home regularly and to encourage parents to answer their letters. Having said that about the rights of parents, I think I must point out that girls, in common with all men and women serving in the Armed Forces, have rights of their own. The hon. Member spoke of girls being persuaded to enlist in the army. As he will be aware, the Women's Royal Army Corps is a voluntary corps, and all the girls in it have volunteered of their own accord and on their own responsibility, although girls between 17½ and 18 years of age can enlist only with the consent of their parents. These girls are performing highly responsible jobs in many cases, and it would be an insult to assume that they possess no sense of responsibility. They are members of an adult Corps, and we treat them as such.

I realise that this is not entirely an easy question. It is one to which we have given very careful consideration indeed, particularly as to whether we should discriminate between men and women, and whether we should differentiate between girls under 21 and over 21 years of age. We have come to the conclusion, after careful thought, that, assuming they are members of an adult Corps, performing highly responsible jobs, it would be an infringement of the rights of the individual for us to report their movements, shortcomings, misfortunes, their progress or lack of progress, to anyone against their will.

We feel that there is a definite question of principle involved, and because of that we have adopted our present policy, and we shall adhere to it. We fully recognise the rights of the parent, just as the hon. Member does, and we do everything we can to induce girls to keep in touch with them. When a parent writes to a girl, or writes to us to ask to be put in touch with a girl, we arrange for the letters to be forwarded to the girl, as we do in the case of a soldier. If we see that the girl is reluctant to answer a letter she is sent for, interviewed, and urged to get in touch with her parents. What we do not feel able to do, when she has refused to do that, is to put her in touch with her parents against her will.

It is not a question of our putting any difficulties in the way; on the contrary, we do everything in our power to smooth away any difficulties which may exist. One has to remember that it is not simply a question of girls and their parents, but of older men and women and other relations whom they may or may not want to be put into touch with suddenly and unexpectedly. If once we were to break this principle we would be opening the floodgates to what undoubtedly would be a lot of infringements of the rights of the individual.

The hon. Member mentioned the possibility of raising the recruiting age to 21, and from the point of view of the girls being older and more responsible when they are 21 than they are when they are 18, I suppose there might be something to be said for it. But the fact remains that the age of 21 is really too late to start a career. The girl will do much better in a Service like this if she starts fairly young, within two or three years of leaving school. All our experience shows that by the time she is 21 she should be really settled in her career.

After all, as the hon. Member knows, men are called up at 18, and with the present attitude towards discrimination between the sexes we feel that it is right that girls should, where possible, begin at 18 but we are prepared to take volunteers up to the age of 33—any age between 17½ and 33. To limit our recruits to those over 21 would inevitably have an adverse effect on recruiting. It means that we should miss a lot of very good girls, and it would also have an unfortunate effect on manpower.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham. Lady-wood)

I wonder what proportion of these girls who are discharged before they complete their service are, in fact, taken too young.

Mr. Maclean

I will deal with that in its proper place.

The hon. Member mentioned the possibility of a sort of outside, superimposed moral welfare service, and suggested we should strengthen that aspect. The primary duty of the officers and N.C.O.s in the Women's Royal Army Corps is to look after the welfare and well-being of the women serving under their command, and all our experience shows that they do it extremely well, that they make it their business to know the girls they command and to be individually accessible and available for help and advice whenever it is needed.

Then the hon. Member suggested that we recruited a lot of girls of bad character ——

Mr. G. Thomas


Mr. Maclean

—who exercised influences that might not be good.

Mr. Thomas

No; that they came from bad homes.

Mr. Maclean

I should like to say this in case it is suggested there is a low moral stand in the Women's Royal Army Corps that that is certainly not the fact. Obviously, there are a few black sheep in any organisation of this size, but we make every effort to ensure that the girls recruited are of a high character, and we ask for references, which we verify with great care.

Mr. Thomas

The Minister must not misrepresent me, and I am sure he would not wish to. I did not for one moment suggest that bad characters were going into the Army. I suggested that the girls were recruited with a view to seeing they would be women who would reach the full course.

Mr. Maclean

We certainly do. I am coming to the question of premature discharges in one moment.

In addition to the care which officers, N.C.O.s, chaplains, and in some cases chaplains' assistants, take, there are wide educational and recreational facilities which are first-class. I should like the hon. Member to take the opportunity of inspecting them. Every effort is made to provide interesting and useful occupations for the girls' spare time. We do not, however, feel that we can impose undue restrictions upon all girls because of a possible minority who may abuse their spare time.

When we get girls who look like going wrong, we take certain restrictive measures against them. In general, we let them feel that their spare time is their own, and that it is up to them to make good use of it. We do everything we can to help them to make good use of it.

Regarding premature discharges, it would be useful, and would give a fairer picture, if I were to give the number of all the girls, of all ages, prematurely discharged during the first six months of this year. The number is 872. At first sight it seems a large number; but well over half of them, 464, were discharged on account of what is the greatest cause of wastage in the Women's Royal Army Corps, namely, marriage. I do not think it will do any harm to recruiting when I say that.

Then, 20 were released for compassionate reasons; and 67 because their services were no longer required, which means, roughly speaking, that they were misfits for one reason or another. There were 83 discharged by purchase, which again might be for compassionate family reasons. The rest were discharged on grounds of health. I think that these figures show that the total was not such an alarming figure.

The recruiting figures for the Women's Royal Army Corps are on the whole satisfactory. The cases where girls go wrong—and I know that the hon. Member has a specific case in mind—are, I am glad to say, a great exception. To show what a minority they are, since 1953——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.