HC Deb 02 November 1966 vol 735 cc487-93

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I want to comment on this Clause for two reasons. First, I want to give an example of the sort of case I am talking about—and I have already informed the Minister of a particular case. Secondly, I want to discuss the principle involved in allowing young men below the age of 17½, with the consent of their parents or guardians, and so on, to enter the Armed Forces and to be bound to serve therein for 11 or more years.

We are living in a society in which, judging by our debates on education, and the like, both sides of the Committee feel strongly that decisions about the future of a young person should be delayed for as long as possible. Throughout our schools we do not encourage people to commit themselves to a particular avenue of activity until they are pretty sure that they know what they are doing.

It is perfectly acceptable that when young people wish to go into the Armed Forces before they are of the statutory age, they should be allowed to do so. But I feel strongly about two aspects of this matter, and I should be glad to hear the Minister's comments on them. First, within the first three months of service a person can apply for discharge if he finds himself unhappy or if the way of life is unacceptable to him, but decisions taken at the age of 16 may be very different from the decisions which would be taken at the age of 18. Within three months of beginning his service, a young man, only 16, may still feel that he has taken the right decision, but 18 months or so later, by the time that he is 18, he may realise that he has made a grave mistake, and yet he will find it exceedingly difficult in those circumstances to get out of the Armed Forces.

It seems to me in the circumstances unfair that the time served before the statutory age should not be counted among the years of service which he is entitled to reckon after he has reached the required age. If a young man or young woman decides to stay in the Forces after the age of 18, having served 18 months or so before that age, then I feel that this service should count towards the total service. If not, we are in a situation in which a person may make a decision at the age of 16 and be bound for eleven years or more by that decision.

I can think of no avenue of activity in civilian life in which we encourage people to make this sort of contract, and it seems to me that, with all that is known about the emotional and psychological development of young people, those responsible for recruiting youngsters into the Armed Forces should bear in mind the fact that between the ages of 15 and 18 a tremendous change can take place in outlook and interest. It is not easy for a person by other means to obtain his discharge if, by the time that the three months have passed, he has not applied for discharge.

Without going into very great detail, I should like to refer again, as I have referred in Questions—and the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) has also raised this matter—to the case of Leading Mechanical Engineer Mayhew, who is a typical example of a person whose whole life is being disrupted because he is bound to a contract which he made at the age of 16, with the consent of his parents, but when, in my view and in his view, he did not realise the full implications of what he was doing, and when he did not appreciate that within a period of time he would develop and change into a person who not only found himself unhappy in the Forces but who had proved himself capable of making a far greater contribution to society if he were allowed to contract out of the Forces and to pursue the activities which he now wishes to pursue.

This is an example of a principle, and I think that it is in order. Leading Mechanical Engineer Mayhew entered the Forces at the age of 16, in 1957. Two years later, at the age of 18, he applied for his discharge and was told that he had another nine years to serve. I would emphasise that whereas at the age of 16 a career in the Armed Forces may be attractive and acceptable, by the age of 18 it may occur to a young man that he has made a mistake in joining the Forces.

After that, unfortunately, this young man deserted. I will not quote the long correspondence which I and others have had with the Department about this man, but the fact that he deserted, under what I consider to be emotional stress, has been noted against him, we have been told in his further applications for discharge. My view is that if a young person is driven to the lengths of deserting because he is so unhappy in a situation, this should help his plea for discharge in some way rather than militate against it.

However, he gave himself up and went back, and after detention he went abroad. He then studied, under certain difficult conditions, and obtained A-levels in pure and applied mathematics. Since then he has received two offers of places at a university. His recommendation for discharge was made by his commanding officer, but the Forces have consistently refused to release him.

Without going into all the history, it seems to me that when a young person has shown himself to find life in the Armed Forces to be unacceptable, his case should be given careful consideration. The period of three months did not apply in the Navy when he made his contract; it is only now in the Bill. In any event, he did not apply for his discharge within that period. But great consideration should be given to the factors which have operated in a particular case. It seems to me that it would be helpful for us to be given some clarification of the situation as it applies to young people, as distinct from people of mature years, who no doubt make these contracts well knowing what they are doing.

It appears from the case of Leading Mechanical Engineer Mayhew that there may have been misunderstanding by my right hon. Friend and by those who have asked Questions, but the fact remains that in answer to a Question I was told that he would not miss his place at the university, and yet I was subsequently told that this did not mean this year's university; it meant next year's university place, if he applied and if he were granted a place. The whole correspondence and discussion of the case has become somewhat confused and has not helped the attitude of people towards the Armed Forces when the Forces are dealing with young people who join under the required age and later feel that they have made a mistake. From the number of people who have approached me on this matter and from hon. Members to whom I have spoken, I do not think that we have a situation in which hundreds of people in the Armed Fores are desperate to get out of the Armed Forces, but we ought to bear in mind that if we encourage—as we do encourage—young men, in particular, to join the Armed Forces at an age when I consider that they are not capable of making a decision, and if that binds them for 11 years or more, then equally we ought to be able to include a little humanity in our departmental deliberations when we are faced with applications from the same people to contract out of an agreement which they made, in my view and in that of most educationists, at an age when they were not totally responsible for what they were doing.

5.0 p.m.

The Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

I fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) that all cases such as that which she has described at some length should be looked at with humanity in the Ministry of Defence—and they are. They are looked at with the very greatest care. But one of the elements of humanity is to be fair not only to a particular man, but to all sorts of people who may find themselves in the position in which Leading Mechanical Engineer Mayhew finds himself.

My hon. Friend is trying to make me allow this rating to jump the queue, and I will not do it. There are similar people with whose cases I have dealt who have precisely the same claim on my sympathies and the sympathies of my hon. Friend, and the only way of being fair to all of them in the present circumstances is to make sure that the rules are strictly and fairly applied, equally to everybody who is affected by them.

My hon. Friend dealt with more general principles than this case—and I shall come back to the case in a moment. She was, in part, questioning the whole idea of boys' service in any of the three Services and saying that modern thought tended to suggest that we should not have people making up their minds at a very early age. I am not sure that this is, in fact, modern thought. It certainly is not modern practice. In outside industry managements are most anxious to get hold of youngsters when they come from school and train them from the word "go". They find this is much more effective from the point of view of the firm, and it is also true of the services.

We find—this is not an overpowering argument, but it is a fact—that if boys do come to us straight from school, they fit into service life more easily than do those who come in as adults. I have had a check made and I find that those who come in in boys time, far from being upset and psychologically disturbed, settle down so well that they tend to reach higher rank and have a better career altogether than do those who come in in adult time.

My hon. Friend also spoke, and spoke feelingly, about the length of the contract. I think she rather wishes that the Services could be similar to civilian life, that one can walk out in a matter of a week or so if one does not like the boss. We have to recognise that there are distinctions between civilian and Service life and that Service life necessitates a considerable length of contract. Boys and adults come into the Services and we give them a fairly long training. Sometimes it might be as long as four years, costing a great deal of money and providing them with tremendous skills. I think that we have the right, after such length of training, to expect a period of service at any rate in return for their training.

There is a far more important factor about the Services, which is that one has to be able to plan ahead. One has to be able to know that one can move troops, or move a squadron, or move a ship at a certain time to a certain place, and unless there is a man to do a job we are likely to suffer from very severe operational penalties. We might find at a particular moment that because somebody dislikes something which has been done by the Government, the whole lot might want to walk out and ships could not be sent where they were needed. If one thinks about it, one will see that there really must be some difference in one's approach to Service life compared with what happens in civilian life.

I am quite prepared to concede that this does sometimes involve people in the Services in considerable hardship and we do whatever we can to mitigate that hardship. If a boy is so obviously and persistently homesick that he is never likely to settle down in the Service, the commanding officer of his training establishment has the discretion to say, "Back you go home without penalty". That is done in cases of severe homesickness.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are now proposing to introduce by Regulation under the Bill a further relaxation affecting the Navy in that after a three-month period a boy will be allowed to buy himself out of the service for a sum of about £20. This is a good thing which my predecessor was most insistent on, and the credit for this change should certainly go to him. It gives a boy a chance to come into the Service for a "look-see," to see what it is like, and to get some idea of what it is like. To that extent it is a big improvement on the existing procedure where he signs on without really having any idea of what it is like.

If he does not take advantage of this break and goes on, he has, if it is necessary, if it really becomes essential to him, other possible ways in which he can get out of his contract. One is compassionate discharge, which has to be administered fairly strictly. It has to be shown that it is essential, that for the health and the welfare of his immediate dependants he should be at home. If he can show that, and after very strict inquiries quite a number come out under this heading every year, he can break his contract.

Finally, there is discharge by purchase—not compassionate discharge—under which Mayhew's release will be approved next July. Here again, we have to stick closely to some fairly strict rules. There are plenty of people who, at one time or another—nothing like a majority, but a sizeable number—want to get out by this means. If we let everybody out without let or hindrance, a sort of free gangway, it would impose not only operational penalties by not being able to put ships at sea, but it would also put an excessive strain on those in the shortage category branch who have to carry on doing the work of those who have gone out on discharge by purchase. In a disciplined Service we have to have somewhat different rules from those in civilian life, and those rules, as far as we possibly can, giving the manning position, are administered as humanely and as fairly as possible.

There was one thing which my hon. Friend said, which, oddly enough, had occurred to me. I had not been able to understand why boys time does not count as full service. I have thought about this and can find no satisfactory answer. I am, therefore, asking my Department to look at this and to consider whether we can bring in a Regulation. I cannot pretend that I have satisfied my hon. Friend, but I hope that as a result of what I have said she will understand more of the difficulties of the Service, and I hope, above all, that she will believe me when I say that inside the limits of what we are able to do we do look at these cases with the utmost concern.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10–14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.