HC Deb 09 July 1957 vol 573 cc297-304

A person in Army service enlisted for a term of twenty-two years of such service shall be entitled to claim his discharge at any time within six months after the date of his attestation, and if he makes such a claim he shall on payment of a sum not exceeding twenty pounds be discharged with all convenient speed:

Provided that if the claim is made at a time when soldiers are required by a proclamation under section ten of this Act to continue in Army service, he shall not be entitled to be discharged so long as they are required to continue in Army service.—[Mr. Wigg.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Under Section 14 of the Army Act a recruit has the right to claim his discharge within three months of the date of attestation, upon the payment of £20. This sum of £20 was fixed a long time ago when the value of money was very different from its present value, but the principle is important because the Army does not want soldiers who are discontented; they are like bad apples, they infect the rest. Section 14 was all right for a man undertaking a very long engagement when he had the right, on giving due notice to his commanding officer, to seek permission to leave the Army at the end of three years and of successive periods of three years, but when he has committed himself to twenty-two years without those breaks, it seems only right in the Army's interest, and bearing in mind the vital necessity to keep the trend right, that we should give the man the right to opt out after six months.

I am not wedded to the sum of £20. I think that that sum ought to be looked at again, even for Section 14 purposes. I thought so particularly when I asked the Minister of Defence a Question recently about the revised rights for the purchase of discharge. When we are charging a man £250 to purchase his discharge in the first year of service, it seems to me that the figure of £20 ought to be altered.

I am concerned here, however, to establish the principle, and I hope that the Secretary of State will accept it. I can understand the arguments against it, probably on the ground that £20 is too little. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept the new Clause, I hope that he will have another look at the matter and insert the principle in another place. In my opinion, he will be making a grave mistake if he does not give an escape clause at about the six months' period.

I suggest a six months' period because at that point the soldier will have been dismissed his basic training and his recruit drill and will just be beginning to settled down to find out what regimental life is like. At that point he will know whether he will make a go of it or not. If he is not likely to make a go of it, he is a Queen's bad bargain; the Army would be better off without him. With the length of engagement of this kind, I certainly advocate an escape Clause, although it need not be irresponsibly exercised. That is why I say that £20 may be too low. I should not worry if the Secretary of State said it ought to be £50, because it should not be made easy and people should not be encouraged to undertake engagements of this kind lightly.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will accept that the Army does not want discontented soldiers. Nothing could be worse for the Army than that somebody should be belly-aching about all sorts of grievances under the sun. He would be better in civilian life and the Army would be better off without him.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) in principle, but I disagree with him about the term of six months. I think that this matter can be considered again with very great benefit to the Army, but in my view six months is too short and is the time when soldiers are about as browned-off as they possibly can be. They have got over the original excitement of getting into uniform, they have only just finished their recruit's training, which is the worst time of all for them, and they have not settled into regimental life. In my opinion, a year or eighteen months would be nearer the mark. In principle, however, I agree with the hon. Member.

Mr. Shinwell

It is seldom that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), but on this occasion I must raise an objection to the new Clause. Moreover, I am shocked at the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer). My hon. Friend's proposal was bad enough, but the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing, despite his long experience of Army life, made a proposal which was immeasurably worse.

My hon. Friend's new Clause would provide that on the payment of £20 discharge money the soldier could leave the Service after six months, but the hon. and gallant Member for Worthing suggests that it should be eighteen months. In other words, the Army is to be put to the expense of training a man for eighteen months, which involves considerable expense, and then, scarcely without a by-your-leave, he is to go out of the Army.

There is a great danger in all this. It is all very well if one man wants to leave after six months, but suppose scores of them want to leave after six months? If we make a statutory provision, the man can take advantage of it. On the other hand, I think that discretion given to the Army Council, used wisely according to the circumstances of each case—and provided that the amount of discharge money is not excessive—is a much more satisfactory arrangement. As to the discharge money, I would not go beyond £20, because if in the opinion of the Army Council it is desirable that a man should be permitted to leave, either because he will not make a good soldier or, perhaps, on compassionate grounds, a financial obligation of an excessive character—frequently borne, not by the man himself, but by his family, who may be in conditions of near poverty—is not desirable. I have had to deal with many cases involving such families.

It is not so much the question of money but of discretion. Although the Army Council occasionally makes mistakes and does not exercise its discretion with the generosity that one would desire, on the whole I prefer to leave it to the Council, on the recommendation, of course, of the commanding officer concerned. I am surprised at my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley making this proposal. We know from his record in the House in debates of this kind that he is more anxious than, perhaps, any other hon. Member to help to build up a Regular voluntary force. If that is his desire, as I believe it is, I must say that I believe that this would rather militate against the success of the scheme.

On the whole, it would be far better to leave this to the discretion of the Army Council, on the assumption that it will act fairly, wisely and generously in appropriate cases. Quite frankly, if my hon. Friend sought to force this proposal to a Division then, even at the risk of being expelled from my association with him, which I should deplore, I could not go into the same Lobby.

Mr. Wigg

I should never want to expel anybody, least of all my right hon. Friend. Rather would I, as I so often do, wrestle with him, and eventually bring him back to the paths of righteousness. He wanders for two reasons; partly impetuosity, and partly because, like the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, he does not acquaint himself with what is on the Order Paoer. It is an old habit.

I would ask my right hon. Friend just to think for a moment of the young man who is contemplating joining the Army. Even when he is young, twenty-two years is a heck of a long time for him to commit himself. He is a hit hesitant about it. He discusses it with his family, looks at all the prospects, says, "Twenty-two years", and decides against it. If, however, there is in the Army Act a statutory bolt-hole, not there at the discretion of the commanding officer or of the Army Council, nor even at the discretion of Ministers as benign and wise as my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Shinwell

My hon. Friend asks for a bolt-hole, but suppose they all want to bolt?

Mr. Wigg

Of course, here we can be guided only by past experience. This particular statutory provision is not something novel. It was there in my right hon. Friend's day. Even worse, it was there when he was Financial Secretary to the War Office. It was there when I was a young soldier. He did nothing to remove it. When I looked at his work as Financial Secretary and saw that he did not remove it, that commended him to me. When he was Secretary of State for War, again he did nothing to remove it, so I knew that it must be good.

I think that it is wise to leave in this provision. Nowadays, £20 is less than a month's pay, yet how many recruits take advantage of the provision? It is a very discontented soldier—and there must be acute family reasons—who seeks to take advantage of it.

I want to encourage young men to undertake long-service engagements. The long-service N.C.O.s and warrant officers are the backbone of the Army. The Army cannot do without them. That is why I complain that the short-term engagement introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head) filleted the Army—took its ribs away. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) spoke of N.C.O.s and warrant officers, but who would respect a warrant officer Class I who had only three years' service? That is what the Army is coming to.

I have stipulated six months. I think that eighteen months is too long, and that, in suggesting it the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Worthing (Brigadier Prior-Palmer) has missed the fact that the Minister of Defence has revised the rates.

Mr. Shinwell

Make it nine months.

Mr. Wigg

No, I will not make it nine months—unless the Secretary of State for War will accept that.

What the hon. and gallant Member has missed is the provision of the present rates for discharge. They are as high as £250—and quite rightly. Young men are going into the Air Force and there learning trades and skills with which they can earn very large sums of money in civilian life. It is wrong that the Services should provide such training, and that a man should then be able, without a word, to pay a sum of money and go outside to earn a living. That is wrong. Equally, unless we have some provision such as this, we will not get the men.

It may be that three months is enough, and that the existing Article 14, which gives a man a statutory right to go out after three months is sufficient. If it is, I will amend my new Clause, but I do not want young men to be put off from joining by the absence of this provision. I think that three months is too short, and I certainly think that £20 is too little. If my words tonight only provoke a little thinking in the War Office it may well be that the kind of safeguard that is sought will come about, and even if the right hon. Gentleman will not give me the concession I seek, it may increase the £20.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I must apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for not being present during the early stages of the debate on the new Clause, but judging by the criticism that my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) has made of my hon. Friend, I understand that my hon. Friend has produced very powerful arguments which seem to partake somewhat of the flavour of the rather less persuasive arguments I earlier produced.

8.30 p.m.

Certainly, the right hon. Member for Easington put a very pertinent question. Supposing they all wanted to bolt? If we are in favour of freedom, then they are all entitled to bolt. I would say, for example, that if the British soldiers had been given an opportunity to say whether they wanted to go to Suez or to bolt, an overwhelming number of them would have decided to bolt, and I do not think that that would have been bad for the country. I know that it undermines conventional ideas of military discipline, but this point will appeal to you, Sir William. In one of the most successful and decisive military battles in the whole of history, the commanding officer said to the soldiers, "If you want to bolt, you can bolt, "and you will know, Sir William, that that was the advice which Robert the Bruce tendered to the Scottish soldiers at Bannockburn, which resulted in the English being defeated.

I suggest that this is a reasonable proposal that the soldier should be allowed, by giving six months' notice and on paying £20, to resume his duties as an ordinary citizen. I have frequently been in the position on the bench of having to decide whether a man should be fined or be discharged, and I submit that when the soldier has done his six months' imprisonment and offers to pay his £20 fine as well the generosity is on the part of the soldier.

The whole of the weakness of the War Office in persisting in refusing this very reasonable proposal put forward by the hon. Member for Dudley is that the War Office really has no military background to fall upon. It could argue against me, of course, that I was producing ideological arguments, that I am a wash-out and a liability to the Army, in any case, and that I have been for a considerable number of years. But they cannot say that about the record of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley. During the time of the Labour Government, when I was regarded as a liability to the right hon. Member for Easington, he was the right hon. Gentleman's faithful ally, but the hon. Member for Dudley is steadily, slowly and from the military point of view coming to the same ideological conclusion which I have always embraced.

So I think it my moral duty, although I would say six weeks instead of six months and reduce the £20 to 20s., to support the hon. Member for Dudley, and I hope he will carry this matter to a Division.

Mr. J. Amery

The discussion on the new Clause submitted by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has revealed a refreshing variety of opinions on this subject of the time after which discharge should take place and the sum which should be paid for it.

It is quite clear that these are controversial issues. There is a difference of opinion about the time and the sum, and I am not even sure if the arguments with which the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) supported the new Clause are exactly on all fours with the ones which he has at heart himself.

There is another trouble with the proposed new Clause. It would give the right to the 22-year man to be discharged after six months, while the 12-year man would still be liable to the three months' provision only. I think it is certainly arguable, and will commend itself to the hon. Member for Dudley, on reflection, that the issue which he has raised here is wider than the scope of this Bill. For my own part, I rather lean to the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), but if there was to be consideration of the kind of change which the hon. Member proposes, I believe it would come better when we come to the amendment of the Army Act, as we shall in a few years' time, in any case, rather than in this Bill. I hope that, if only to preserve his axis with the right hon. Member for Easington and to divide his axis with the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, the hon. Member for Dudley will agree not to press the new Clause.

Mr. Wigg

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed.