HC Deb 29 March 1956 vol 550 cc2440-8

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising today the question of boy soldiers and National Service men being posted overseas. There is much resentment both outside and inside the House at the fact that boy soldiers under the age of 18 are being posted overseas, especially to areas where violence is occurring. I regard the policy and practice of posting these soldiers to those areas as unjust, immoral, wasteful and a dangerous misuse of the young generation. There are over 300 boys abroad, of whom fifteen are in Cyprus.

A number of the parents deplore the refusal of the Minister to allow their sons, mere children of the age of 16, to receive their musical and other training in this country. They deplore the fact that these young people are thrust into areas of violence. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) has himself represented these parents and has rendered a great service to humanity in calling the attention of this House to the matter. I hope, Sir, that he will be able to catch your eye and so be able to pursue this point about the boys.

I ask the Minister this afternoon what moral justification there is for refusing to accede to the request of the parents. The Under-Secretary of State himself stated in this House recently: … if any case is brought to my attention of a boy who genuinely wants to get out, and his parents want him to do so, I will always look into it and if necessary give him a free discharge."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st March, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 1646.] Why, then, does the Minister disregard the wishes of the parents when they ask, not that the boys should be discharged, but merely that they should be removed from these areas of violence, in particular, Cyprus?

Secondly, I protest against the policy of sending National Service men, especially those who have only had three months' training, at the age of 18 years 3 months to scenes of colonial warfare. Whatever may be said in favour of conscription in the defence of one's country—if defence is possible when the hydrogen bomb is within the reach of all the great Powers—I think it is immoral that young men should be conscripted to kill and be killed in Colonial Territories.

My information is that in Belgium, France and the Netherlands conscripts are exempt from colonial service unless they volunteer. It is totally unworthy of our country that we should show less human regard for our young conscripts than the older conscript countries. Today in Cyprus the flower of British youth is witnessing before its eyes scenes of violence and repression. Our young men see Cypriots of their own age, or perhaps younger, fighting for freedom and self-determination, which are the proud boast of Britain, and among its proudest possessions.

There are 20,000 National Service men abroad at twenty-eight stations, including Germany, Gibraltar, Malaya, Kenya, British Guiana, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea. The Minister has informed us that there are 7,800 National Service men in Cyprus at a cost of £200,000 a week. So every five weeks £1 million vanishes before our eyes, which I think is inflation gone mad.

The spiritual damage is incalculable. If the younger generation is nurtured in the art of killing and violence, no one can estimate the spiritual damage which occurs during the most impressionable years of their lives. We recently read of the court-martial case in Cyprus in which four soldiers were sentenced to imprisonment. Among them was a National Service man, James Macaulay Ferguson, serving with a Scottish regiment, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. At that court-martial, the defending counsel, Mr. Richard Lomer, uttered these grave words: Boredom and drink can make the most incredible situation arise, and can make fine fighting material do very dangerous and foolish things. Instruction in the art of violence, boredom and drink can have very dangerous consequences in the formative years of their lives.

Many parents throughout the country are distressed. I have here a letter which I received yesterday from a parent residing in Leeds, who says: I have a lad out there 18 years old. He was sent there after four months' training. I think it is murder on England's part. Then, he goes on to say— My wife is a complete wreck with her nerves over our boy out there. That is one example of the distress. I ask the Minister if he will reconsider the question which I am raising today.

The country is in economic danger. We need skilled manpower, we need technical training, and, while other countries are turning out more technologists and scientists, when we are being priced out of the markets of the world, we are engaged in this colossal enterprise of tieing up our young men—our national assets—and mailing them to all parts of the world. I think the time has come for the House and the country seriously to consider whether the continuation of this policy is not alien to the traditions of our country. If we refuse to alter our present disastrous course, we shall, in my judgment, contribute to our own economic downfall as materially and effectively as if we dropped an atom bomb on our own island.

Therefore, I urge the Minister to reconsider the question which my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham put in regard to the boys of 16, and consider whether we should continue to send boys of that age with only a short training to all these areas overseas. Should he not reconsider this policy, and consider how best we can utilise our youth and our manpower in order that our country may reach to a higher level and overcome the very great economic difficulties with which it is faced today?

4.39 p.m.

Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) for the opportunity of saying a few words in this debate. My hon. Friend has dealt with the matter under discussion in his usual sincere and forceful way, and, in the short time at my disposal, I want to speak about the 16-year-old boy soldiers now serving in Cyprus, their official description being band boys.

I became interested in this question because three parents, all my constituents, asked me to intervene with the Secretary of State for War and request him to remove their boys from Cyprus because they were alarmed about their safety in that unfortunate island.

I have met about ten parents of boy soldiers in Cyprus. They have all protested most bitterly about their boys being sent to an active service station. They complain on three points which I will ask the Under-Secretary to consider: first, that they were never consulted before their boys were sent to Cyprus; secondly, the headlines in the Press about shooting and bomb-throwing are a constant worry to them; and, thirdly, that the boys, being in uniform, are a target for gunmen and terrorists.

There is also a moral side to the matter. Is it good for boys of 16, hardly more than children, to be in that island of tragedy in an atmosphere of hate, terror and despair? What will be the future effects on their minds? The boys are hardly out of their school days. I would ask the Secretary of State to consider this moral point very seriously.

The boys join the Army for a musical career. Let them be given their musical training in this country. It is a stupid policy to send boys to Cyprus, even though they may be attached to a regiment, for musical instruction, because sending them to Cyprus exposes them to danger and gives rise to worry and depression on the part of their parents.

I like bands, and I am sure that every hon. Member in the House likes to hear bands playing. We like them in Whitehall, at Buckingham Palace, in Hyde Park, in other Royal Parks and municipal parks and on village greens. However, I suggest that we do not want bands playing in Cyprus, because if a band went out marching there it would be a target for any terrorist or gunman who might be lurking in a house, cafe or sidestreet.

Also, I do not think there is another country in the world which sends boys of 16—boy soldiers or band boys; band boys is probably the official term—to active service stations like Cyprus.

I would impress upon the Secretary of State that the boys are only 16. I have had many letters from parents in my constituency who are alarmed. My plea to the Secretary of State is that he should reconsider the whole matter and act with some humanity by removing the boys from Cyprus as soon as possible.

4.43 p.m.

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

The subject raised by the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates) is scarcely a new one. He and his hon. Friends have raised it on a number of occasions at Question Time. It was clear that the hon. Member has by that means amassed an amount of information about it. Indeed, he knows almost as much as I do about the number of boys who are at different stations overseas, and so on.

However, I think the hon. Member is still entertaining a certain number of misapprehensions on the subject, and that has led to the matter getting a little out of perspective. I should like to try to put it back into perspective so that the House and the public at large can judge the reasons which underlie our policy.

First of all—and this cannot be emphasised enough—I should like to point out that the bandboys who are serving in Cyprus and elsewhere overseas are volunteers for service world-wide. Hon. Members opposite suggest that the boys' parents resent and protest against the fact that the boys have been sent to Cyprus and presumably they would extend that to other active Service stations. However, in every case, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter), the parents or guardians of the boys have signed a form, Army Form B 5110. It is entitled: Form of parents' consent". The terms of the undertaking which the parents give are these: Do you understand that

  1. (a) enlistment will be into the Regular Army?
  2. (b) the terms of service will be to serve with the colours until he is 18 years of age and thereafter for"—
a further period.

It specifically says: Band and drummer boys … may be liable to serve overseas at any time after they have reached the age of 16 years. Finally, it says: Have you explained to your son/ward, his obligations as set out above? Do you consent to his enlistment into Her Majesty's Army on the terms set out above? For every boy we have a form completed affirmatively by the parent or guardian and signed by the parent or guardian stating that he realises that the boy has enlisted into the Regular Army for service world-wide after the age of 16 and stating explicitly that he has explained the conditions to the boy and agrees to them. It may be said that some of the younger boys enlisted when the situation which at present exists in Cyprus did not exist and that there were different conditions, but that does not apply to Kenya and Malaya where there are also bandboys. Therefore, when the parents signed the form, they knew perfectly well that the boys would be serving overseas, if necessary in active service stations, and agreed to that.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Does anything in the form indicate that a boy might be sent to an overseas station in which there is actual fighting. Do the parents understand that?

Mr. Maclean

The form says that they might be sent at any time. There may, of course, be disorders or active service in any station at any time, which is basically why we have soldiers in different parts of the world. It must be quite clear to parents that that is liable to happen. I remind hon. Members again that the duties of the boys are with the band. They are employed only with the band and there is no question in any case of their being employed on operational duties.

Mr. V. Yates

One of the boys has actually been wounded. Are not the boys therefore in considerable danger?

Mr. Maclean

Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to come to that point in due course.

We do not consider that the situation in Cyprus at present makes it necessary for us to bring home the married families—although, as I have said, we are prepared to do so if they apply. The number of applications which we have had from married families with small children has been negligible. Nor do we consider at present that the situation makes it necessary to bring home the bands or the boys serving with them. I will come to that in a little more detail in a moment.

We consider that service with a band for a boy who is interested in music and likes Army life, and who is prepared to join the Army on those terms, offers a very good career, an agreeable life, good prospects of promotion and a chance to see the world. It is presumably because of that that these boys volunteer for service as bandboys. If they thought that they would not like it, they would not volunteer.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

If the boys find out that they do not like it, and the parents think that the boys do not like it, will they have the right to come home?

Mr. Maclean

I dealt with that point the other day.

Our object in making this arrangement and in providing for bandboys' service in the Regular Army is because we want to attract boys who are well-suited to become Regular soldiers. If, after a time, boys find that they are not so suited—that they do not like it—and if we find that they are unsuited, in every case we will certainly give sympathetic consideration to a reasonable application for discharge, if we consider that the circumstances justify it.

One hon. Member put forward a case for compassionate discharge on, I think, grounds of health. In that case, we did not consider that the circumstances justified it, any more than we do in a certain number of other cases.

Mr. Hunter

His mother was ill and I asked for his release on compassionate grounds.

Mr. Maclean

We did not consider that in that case the circumstances justified it. As I have said, we will go into each case on its merits. It is not in our interest to keep boys in the Army who are not suited to Army life, who do not like it and who want to get out, and we will certainly give any genuine case very sympathetic consideration.

On the question of service overseas, the principle in the Army is—and I am glad that the hon. Member for Feltham said he approved of bands in principle, liked hearing them play, and so on—that the band goes with the regiment and that the bandboys go with the band and with the regiment. One of the reasons they go with the regiment is because we think that a boy who is to be a Regular soldier should get to know the regiment in which he is to serve as soon as reasonably possible.

We only send these boys abroad provided that certain conditions are fulfilled, that there are the necessary educational facilities, that the climatic and working conditions are not likely to injure the health of the boys, that there is adequate living accommodation and facilities for welfare and supervision, and that the boys have reached a sufficient standard of general and musical education to fit them to be active members of the band from the time they get there. I repeat that we send them abroad only when there are facilities for general and musical education and essential normal military training. So long as they remain boys they are employed only with the band, and never upon operational duties.

We consider that these conditions are at present fulfilled in Cyprus. We also consider that the present situation there does not make it necessary for us to bring home married families. I emphasise that there are many married families with small children in Cyprus practically none of whom have considered it necessary to ask to come home. There again, we should sympathetically consider any such application in that or any other active service station. Very few have been made in Cyprus, and all that these boys are being asked to do is to share the risks of women and small children in that station.

Mr. Hunter

They are in uniform.

Mr. Maclean

Yes, but they are not employed upon operational duties. That should be clearly stated again and again.

The hon. Member referred to National Service men serving there. The Government's view is that the Army should be an integrated force, and that Regular soldiers and the National Service men should be treated on roughly the same basis. Certain conditions are laid down which have to be satisfied before young National Service men are sent abroad. They have been stated before, but I may as well state them again. No National Service man is sent overseas until he has reached the age of 18 years, has done at least 10 weeks' training, and has had at least 12 weeks' service. Long experience shows, in our opinion, that those safeguards are sufficient. It also shows that young National Service men are well qualified to fulfil the often arduous duties which are required of them, and that they not only fulfil them very well but, in a great many cases, take pride in doing so.

I should like to conclude by mentioning something which is occasionally lost sight of in these discussions. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would join me in paying a tribute to our troops in Cyprus and other active service stations overseas. They have to fulfil hard, dangerous and often disagreeable tasks, and they do so with wonderful spirit, great courage and a restraint which is worthy of the finest traditions of the British Army.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock, till Tuesday, 10th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.