HC Deb 18 December 1962 vol 669 cc1086-93
The Secretary of State For the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about the problem of members of the Armed Forces seeking to obtain a discharge from the Services upon the ground that they wish to stand for Parliament.

At any moment there are bound to be a number of Service men who have openings in civil life offered to them and would prefer not to have to wait for their period of service to expire, and, in the case of other ranks, not to have to find the cash necessary to buy their discharge. For these, the convention by which would-be parliamentary candidates are given an immediate free discharge provides a unique means of release, even though, when the time comes, the applicant need not even pay his deposit or offer himself for election.

Knowledge that this is the situation resulted at recent by-elections in a number of Service men obtaining their release and some actually standing as candidates, and has now resulted in many applications for nomination forms at Rotherham and Colne Valley. There is clearly a real danger of bringing our system of parliamentary elections into disrepute, and of an undesirable abuse growing in the Services.

It is because there is no solution to this problem that is completely satisfactory that the Government have not been able to take action sooner. Parliament might, of course, be invited to legislate so that the Services might release members of the Armed Forces on leave to fight by-elections, and then have the right to recall them. This was broadly the arrangement which existed during and just after the last war; but the situation then was very different.

I do not say that to reintroduce this system would be definitely wrong, but the House will probably agree that we should think carefully before we commit ourselves to the view that men in a public service can leave that public service to fight elections, and then return to it when the election is over.

An alternative approach is to say that applications by members of the Armed Forces to leave the Service in order to contest parliamentary elections would be treated in exactly the same way as applications to leave on any other non-compassionate ground. This would mean that a stated intention to contest an election would no longer be accepted as a reason for discharge in a case where an application for discharge on other grounds would have been refused; nor would such an application be regarded as a ground for free discharge if discharge by purchase would otherwise have been appropriate.

There are drawbacks and difficulties in all the possible courses, and all of them seem to the Government to touch upon important issues affecting the interests of Parliament and the rights of public servants.

In the circumstances, the Government propose that we deal with this difficult problem as follows. For the immediate future we would adopt what I might call the administrative approach which I have outlined above. At the same time, we propose that a Select Committee of the House of Commons be appointed to study the whole problem and to report to the House whether or not members of the Armed Forces should continue to be treated as they are today, and whether, if any alterations are proposed, these would have repercussions in any other categories of the public service.

We would be happy to discuss through the usual channels the precise terms of reference of the Select Committee, and then to table the requisite Motion forthwith.

Mr. G. Brown

We on this side are quite willing to accept the proposal to set up a Select Committee and, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, to discuss the terms of reference and help as far as we can, but there are certain questions, in connection with what he calls the administrative approach in the meantime, which should be answered.

Will the Home Secretary make perfectly plain that his words, which were, I thought, a little ambiguous, will not be used in such a way that any geniune candidate will have it made more difficult for him than it now is to stand for Parliament? Further, will he assure us that there will be absolute equality of opportunity in this matter between other ranks and commissioned officers?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman find an opportunity to consider the fact that so many people want to get out of the Services while, as far as I can see, none of them wants to stand in support of the Government?

Mr. Brooke

It is the desire of all of us that no genuine would-be candidate shall be prevented from standing. At the same time, I am sure that the House will recognise that it is virtually impossible for a Service Department as such to distinguish between the genuine and the not so genuine candidate because it has no test of the bona fides of an applicant which it can apply. I think that this is an aspect of the matter to which the Select Committee might give immediate attention with a view, perhaps, to presenting an interim report to the House.

There will be absolute equality of opportunity as between officers and other ranks in the sense that each of them will have to fulfil the rules ordinarily applicable to their circumstances.

Mr. Brown

I realise that, once the Select Committee gets to work, we can allocate priorities and, perhaps, have an interim report, but we have two by-elections pending which may come up before we reach that stage. It is important, therefore, to have the position clear in the meantime. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about a Service Department not being able to distinguish, but should not we have a rule-of-thumb method for the time being which means that, if a man fulfils the ordinary requirements for nomination—that is, that he has his form completed in accordance with the requirements of the law and puts down his deposit—he ought to be assumed to be a genuine candidate.

Mr. Brooke

With respect, I do not think that that really solves the problem, because one would then have to allow anybody to stand for Parliament. I do not think that any Service Department or I or anybody else could seek to discriminate between the genuineness of the motives of one would-be candidate and another.

It is intended, if possible, to set up the Select Committee before the Recess, and the Select Committee could, if it wished, sit during the Recess.

Mr. Grimond

The Home Secretary has left the House in some difficulty. Is it intended that this procedure shall apply to those who have already put in their names for candidature in the by-elections which are pending? Is it to apply to them?

Mr. Brooke

indicated assent.

Mr. Grimond

If so, I am at a loss to know what the right hon. Gentleman means by the procedure to which he referred. He says that Service Departments cannot distinguish between the genuine and the bogus candidate. If he rejects the test of putting down the deposit, what is the test to be? The Select Committee may not report for three or four weeks. These people will be left in doubt for, perhaps, as much as a month or two as to whether they are candidates or not. Further, if it does come to decision by the military, will the decision be made by the commanding officer, and, if so, is there to be any appeal?

Mr. Brooke

As regards the immediate by-elections, a number of applications have been received but release has not been authorised in any case, and what we have to consider is how we are to hold the position until there has been opportunity for the Select Committee, on behalf of the House, to examine what is the least difficult solution. As far as I can see, it is quite impossible to distinguish between the genuineness of one applicant and another, nor do we really solve the problem by requiring people to put down £150 because, even so, that would make it easier for them to get out of the Services by the back door than it would otherwise be.

Mr. Grimond

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the last part of my question?

Mr. Speaker

I think that we had better have an hon. Member from the other side of the House first.

Mr. Berkeley

Since my right hon. Friend says that it is virtually impossible for Service Departments to distinguish between the genuineness or otherwise of an application, will he explain exactly what is meant by the "administrative approach" which will be applied in the interim period? I am bound to say that I am completely puzzled by this. Is my right hon. Friend also aware that many of us feel that it is infinitely more desirable to place no restriction on the right of anybody to stand for Parliament and to return to the system which appeared to work perfectly satisfactorily during and after the war whereby people were quite free to stand, and returned to their units if they were not elected.

Mr. Brooke

There is a difference between war-time and peace-time. The House must contemplate the possibility of somebody coming out of the Services to fight an election, expressing strong and perhaps bitter views about the Service in which he has been, and then returning to it afterwards. That was a situation which did not arise during the war, partly because there was a Coalition Government and party politics were suspended.

In answer to the question of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) as to the level at which these decisions would be taken, in the Navy it would be, for officers, the Civil Lord and, for ratings, the Second Sea Lord; in the Royal Air Force, for officers it would be the Air Secretary and for airmen the Air Officer Commanding, R.A.F. Records; and there would be a somewhat similar arrangement in the Army.

Mr. Speaker

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). My concentration had momentarily broken down, otherwise I should have allowed him to ask a supplementary question on that part of his question which had not been answered.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) and myself are the only two Members of the House today who were Regular soldiers and who came out on extended release to fight the 1945 election on the understanding that if we failed in that election we would go back in the Army? Is he further aware that to set up a Select Committee on this matter is taking a bulldozer to crack a nut? Will he consider the possibility of reintroducing only that part of the war-time legislation which permitted serving soldiers or any other member of the Armed Forces to stand for election on extended release and to return to the Services if they were unsuccessful in the election?

Mr. Brooke

The Government have given a great deal of thought to this, and we see a number of disadvantages in the course which my hon. Friend has just suggested. In any event, such a course would require legislation and there is clearly no possibility of passing immediate legislation, which would inevitably be of a controversial character because of its difficulties, in advance of the next two by-elections. We must, therefore, face the immediate situation and have some holding-over arrangement until it is possible, with the help of the Select Committee, we hope, to work out a long-term solution.

Mr. Wigg

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is a very complex subject, not capable of easy solution? He has gone 90 per cent. of the way towards putting this matter right—that is, he is referring to a Select Committee the long-term difficulties which will take into account the facts as they are likely to develop. The problem surely is what he will do in the short run. Is it not a fact that he has failed to grasp the nettle?

By taking administrative action to meet the administrative difficulties of the Government, which are of their own creation, the right hon. Gentleman is breaching a very important principle, which is that a Regular soldier is always a citizen. He is doing that in the long-term interests of the Armed Forces and of Parliament. Why does not he say so and then say that by administrative action he is going to impose on all serving soldiers, irrespective of rank, the same limitation which the Secretary of State for War imposed in the Army Reserve Act, namely, that he will not recognise any change of occupation except in extreme compassionate circumstances under a period of six months? That would be a straightforward thing to do and would get the House out of difficulty while the Select Committee grappled with this problem.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) put his finger on the point when he said that we are in grave danger of drawing a distinction between officers and other ranks. Other ranks can apply and have to put down a fair sum, but officers do not.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have no power to allow speeches. This is the time for asking questions arising from the Home Secretary's statement.

Mr. Wigg

This is a very involved question, Mr. Speaker. If it turns out to be a long series of questions, I cannot help it.

May I ask the Home Secretary whether he is aware that it was not a member of the other ranks who took the first step, but an officer of the 16th Lancers? The right hon. Gentleman must be most careful not to draw this distinction between officers and other ranks. If the right hon. Gentleman will go a little further, the steps which he has proposed will have my backing. Will he make sure that the terms of reference of the Select Committee enable it to take into account how these circumstances arose and that it does not become a whitewashing operation to meet the convenience of the Government?

Mr. Brooke

I have already said that we should wish to discuss the terms of reference of the Select Committee through the usual channels in order to obtain a generally acceptable form of words. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in speaking of the great complexities of this problem. He suggests that there might be an absolute bar for a period on anybody being let out of the Services to fight an election. The reason why the Government thought that that would not be a proper course was that we should then be putting potential candidates at elections in a worse position than other Service men who seek discharge because they would not be up against a similar barrier. That was why we did not adopt the course suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. G. Brown

It seems to me that the problem before the House is the interim period. We can agree on what happens after. We do not want to do anything in the interim period which is unfair. If we make the putting down of the deposit and the filling up of the nomination form in the appropriate way the test, a number will still get through the net—for example, some might withdraw after that—but it would reduce the problem to smaller proportions. On the other hand, by making this the test we would be standing on the existing law until we have the Select Committee's recommendations to encourage us to change it. Would it not be better to settle for that, thereby reducing the problem to reasonable proportions, and avoid some of the other complications involved in the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion?

Mr. Brooke

I am not absolutely sure that it would reduce it to reasonable proportions. Thirteen men have been released from the Services to fight by-elections and 10 of them have stood as candidates. I am not criticising that, but pointing it out. The paying of the deposit is not a bar to people using this method of coming out of the Services.

The difficulty that I see in the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is that until the man is out of the Service he cannot sign the form of consent to be nominated because the law prevents him from doing that. We should have to alter the law if we were to seek a solution on those lines. That might be one of the things that the Select Committee should consider, but we must find a short-term solution for the problem which does not involve altering the law.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There really is a problem here and no Question before us.