HC Deb 13 March 1967 vol 743 cc179-90

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

10.15 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I want to express my appreciation to my hon. Friend who will be replying to the Adjournment debate for allowing the few extra moments that I need to deal with the matter in hand. The object of raising it is to draw the attention of the House to the way in which young men are recruited into the Armed Forces, the means whereby they are kept there, and the difficulties that are placed in the way of obtaining their release when they want it. I am not trying to say that the overwhelming majority of young men who enter the Armed Forces at an early age are necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied, but I want to draw attention to the difficulties of the large number who, after a few months or a year or more, find that they have made a mistake and wish to obtain their release.

Any of us who have been involved in this matter in the last few months are indebted to the National Council for Civil Liberties for the document which it produced. I know that my hon. Friend has a copy and no doubt will be referring to it in his reply. I have no time to deal with the individual cases raised in the document nor to refer to those which have come to the notice of hon. Members, but it is clear that, although it did not become apparent until the last few months, we are retaining in the Armed Forces some young men who entered at the early age of 15½ or a little later and are now bound to contracts of 9, 10 or 12 years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu), when Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy, told me last August, when I raised the problem of boys' service not counting against men's service and the misunderstanding of these young men when they entered the Forces, that he could see no reason why boys' service should not be taken against men's service and that he would be looking into it. Although his place in the Ministry has now been taken by another of my hon. Friends, I hope that this point will be borne in mind when we get the inquiry which we have been promised into the recruitment of young men into the Services.

Referring to answers given to the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher), my hon. Friend said that he did not consider that an inquiry into the present machinery for discharge was necessary. On the other hand, in reply to another question about young men under 18, he said that the Ministry would be looking at this matter. With great respect, the one cannot be separated from the other. In several of the cases with which we are concerned, the people may be men already past the statutory age of recruitment, but they entered boys' service at 15½, 16 or 17 and it is only because of their difficulties in obtaining release that they are now above the age at which, presumably, an inquiry will be directed.

Therefore, any inquiry must include reference to general discharge from the Services, or it would not be worth while. Since it has been said that this is a matter of minor importance, I looked up the figures, and found that for one year, 1965–66, 4,500 juniors and 481 apprentices entered the Royal Navy and 222 juniors entered the Royal Marines. There are similar figures for both the Army and the R.A.F.

As my right hon. Friend and, no doubt, many other hon. Members know, the National Council for Civil Liberties has, since last August, received details of about 60 cases of young men entering the Forces below the statutory age who encountered great difficulty obtaining their release. Hon. Members also know of cases where this has arisen. We are dealing with quite a problem, numerically.

It was comparatively recently that the Royal Navy introduced the three months' option whereby a young person could obtain release within three months. This brought the Navy into line with the other Services. This means, presumably, that there are young men now in the Navy who would have elected to come out during their first three months had this facility been open to them. I trust, therefore, that any inquiry into this matter will take that into account, because there would appear to have been in the Navy very little, if any, machinery through which these young men could register their discontent.

I submit that three months as a period in which a young boy aged, perhaps, 15½ can decide whether or not he wishes to dedicate the next 11 or 12 years of his life to serve in the Armed Forces is not nearly long enough. This has been recognised by the Royal Navy, because that Service states in a document: It is stressed this is dealing with the discharge of juniors from the Navy that cases for discharge by purchase are exceptional and most unusual, and discharge will only be granted when it is clear after several months that the boy will never be able to happily settle in the Royal Navy". It states later: It is most important for parents or guardians to accept the fact that boys are sometimes homesick and take time to settle down when they first join the Navy. Consequently, any boy who writes home to say that he is not happy, should be allowed at least three months to settle down to the life before his work is upset by the knowledge that an endeavour is being made to secure his discharge". Other documents applying to discharge for juniors in other sections of the Armed Forces have been issued and one finds similar statements being made to parents when signing their boys on for service. The document from which I was quoting goes on: When a junior joins the Royal Navy he signs a contract to serve for a set number of years. This contract cannot be broken lightly and only in very exceptional circumstances will the Admiralty Board allow a junior to purchase his discharge". I could go on to demonstrate that, far from it being easy for a junior or a young person below the statutory age to obtain his release, it is very difficult indeed. This being the position, I ask my hon. Friend to consider making the period at least six months rather than three months and that when a young person reaches the statutory age he should be allowed to. reconsider his decision before he elects to go on for a further nine years of service.

Furthermore, we must review the whole machinery by which young people are encouraged to enter into these long-term agreements. As far as I can discover from other military attachés, we are one of the few countries which per- mit young people to enter into these commitments at such an early age. It is surely an indictment of our Service life that we do this to boys aged 15½ and that we deny to them the same right to change their minds—to get out of the profession or job they have chosen—as we make available to civilians of the same age.

It is enormously important to bear this factor in mind because we are talking about raising the school leaving age to encourage youngsters to widen their scope and vision and to delay making commitments that will bind them for the rest of their lives. It is wrong that in the Armed Forces we should actually discourage young people from making the very human statement, "I made a mistake. I have changed my mind."

Has the Ministry considered the circumstances in which a young person may join the Armed Forces? Some of them do it for the right reasons and enjoy their Service lives. But that does not apply to all of them. Adolescence is a difficult time, when youngsters look around and make all sorts of decisions which they later regret, perhaps from motives which are not the same two or three years later. We do not consider this factor nearly enough.

The person may be from a broken home. He may be someone—and this, again, gives me great concern—who has been in the care of a local authority, and to whom the continued protection of the sort of life the Service offers is particularly attractive. It may be, too, that parents who have themselves enjoyed Service life feel that it is something their son should also enjoy and put certain pressures and encouragements on him to go in with their consent, but in a few months' or a few years' time the person may realise that it is not his vocation, and that he can make his contribution to society quite differently.

Again, he may have been seduced by the sort of advertisement that appears currently—or did appear—in a children's comic. The advertisement reads: As this Royal Navy destroyer slips away at dawn Action and Adventure Lie Ahead. Read about life on board—and the great career you'll have. Where is she going? Sorry, that's secret. Perhaps to the Far East, the Mediterranean or the South Atlantic. But one thing is certain. The men on board are in for an adventurous time. At sea anything can happen. Ships may signal for help. Hostile coastlines have to be patrolled. Smugglers intercepted. Battle exercises carried out. What's she like? She's a guided missile destroyer. She can explode aircraft out of the sky. Seek out and destroy submarines. The advertisement goes on: There are spacious mess decks with bunks and television. Even a T.V. studio that can send its own programme round the ship! What about your future in the Royal Navy? It's a great time to join—with new ships and new weapons on the way. You'll also live a varied, active life at sea and ashore; at home and overseas. And you'll enjoy world travel, sport in plenty, fine company and an average of 6 weeks' paid holiday a year. Post the coupon for full details today. You can join at 15. To include that sort of advertisement in a child's comic and call it fair recruitment, or presenting a fair picture to an impressionable person of 15, brings discredit to the whole method of recruitment into the Armed Forces.

I am further concerned at the difficulties that I and, I think, several other hon. Members have encountered in regard to young Servicemen who have wished to contact people in authority to try to present their case to get some sort of release. By Order No. 991, Queen's Regulations actively discourage or inhibit anybody in the Armed Forces—but, presumably, particularly young people, since they would find it very difficult to interpret the Regulations—from contacting people in authority. This may not be their object but it certainly has that result, because apprehension has been expressed to more than one of us by young people who have approached us in order to get release.

Surely, we do not want to continue a situation in which a young person is inhibited from contacting Members of Parliament or someone else who could assist him. The National Council for Civil Liberties has gone so far as to suggest that an Ombudsman, or someone particularly responsible for people in this situation, should be appointed. That is, maybe, a far-reaching recommendation, but the whole method of making one's complaints and feelings known should be reviewed by the Department.

I am also interested in the legal position appertaining to young people and to what are called infants generally. The Infants Relief Act, 1874, makes it clear that people under the statutory age are protected in certain ways in breaking contracts because, according to Halsbury's Laws of England An infant is of immature intelligence and discretion. Yet it would appear that these young people who go into the Forces are not protected by this.

These young people are encouraged or allowed to make contracts which may bind them for 12 years while, in our own definition, they are still of immature intelligence and discretion. So much concern has been expressed in relation to the age involved that Mr. Justice Latey's Committee, set up to investigate teen-age contracts generally, has agreed to consider evidence now collated by the N.C.C.L. and to review it when it brings out its report in spring.

When one goes into some of the cases presented—for example, the one I have raised before of a young man who twice has been accepted for university but has twice had to turn his chance down because he could not obtain his release and others who have experienced similar difficulties, although they have shown themselves to be qualified to pursue a different form of endeavour—one can only conclude that the whole machinery needs overhauling.

My hon. Friend, in reply to the hon. Member for Surbiton, recently spoke of the difficulties involved in considering ending long-term contracts, although he said he would look at this again, and of what he called "manning difficulties". This should not be the consideration on which judgment should be made on an issue like this. Manning difficulties should not determine whether or not we make it easier for young people to leave the Forces and perhaps more difficult in the first place to commit themselves for these long periods.

Surely the main consideration should be the fact that young people in the Forces are denied that freedom that is permitted to those outside—to change their minds. We should make it easier for them to say that they have made a mistake and want to embark on another career. It reflects badly on the Forces if they place greater priority on manning than on the rights of a young person of 15, 16 or 17 to say that he wishes to do something else.

I hope that, when this subject is examined by the Ministry, it will take into consideration the points I have made and those which other hon. Members have made from time to time in the last few months and will change its attitude and look upon this matter as much more of a human problem than one of manning the Forces.

10.33 p.m.

The Minister of Defence (Administration) (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)

This is a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) has spoken before. I remind the House that, in answer to the hon. Member for Surbiton (Mr. Fisher) a few days ago, I said that I was looking at this problem, which involves difficult and important manning requirements. I shall announce the outcome of my investigations when they are completed; but I cannot now say how long they will take, for they involve long-term considerations.

I must re-emphasise what I said to the hon. Gentleman—although my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough did not seem to like it—that, as far as the Forces are concerned, manning requirements must be one of the major factors to be taken into account.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)


Mr. Reynolds

If we did not take them into account, we should find ourselves spending many millions more on defence than we do at the moment; because we should have to have a large number of extra people in order to allow for the possibility of members of the Forces leaving suddenly. We should need many more people to man the ships and the equipment the House has provided if members of the Forces were able to get out much more easily than now. We should need, as it were, a "cushion" against such a situation. If we were to give young people an option to leave at, say, 21, we should have to have many more apprentices in the apprentice schools at any one time. This would mean more schools and more instructors and would cost a great deal of money. We have to bear this in mind. I am as anxious as my hon. Friends are to try to keep expenditure on military matters as low as possible. Having said that, I should like to say at once that I am well aware of the importance of the other points which my hon. Friend made, and they will be fully considered when I look into this whole matter.

My hon. Friend mentioned the case of leading engineer mechanic Mayhew trying to get into a university for the last two years. I wish that she had referred to the fact that she was informed in a letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State yesterday that leading engineer mechanic Mayhew will be released from the Navy in time to take up his university place in October.

Miss Lestor

That letter has not reached me.

Mr. Reynolds

I am sorry. The letter was posted on 10th March telling my hon. Friend that he will be released in time to take up his place at university this year.

I should like to give some details of the number of people involved in this matter. In 1966, the Royal Navy took on 4,925 boys of the age to which we are referring, the Army took on 5,838 and the Royal Air Force 1,244, so that it is about 12,000 boys a year who are going into the Services in this way, about one-quarter of the total intake.

Those who left before completing their training—and these figures will put the matter into perspective—represented 7.7 per cent, of the intake into the Royal Navy, 15.5 per cent, for the Army and about 10 per cent, for the Royal Air Force. About 1 per cent, left the Navy by purchase and 1.05 per cent, for medical reasons; about 7.8 per cent, left the Army by purchase and 2.5 per cent, for medical reasons; about 7 per cent, left the Royal Air Force by purchase and between 1 and 3 per cent, left for medical reasons. Why the figures are different for the three Services is one of the questions which I want to consider in the inquiry which I am now making.

It is also significant that of the cases submitted by the National Council for Civil Liberties, 22 came from the Navy and 6 from the Army, where the numbers taken each year are approximately the same for each Service, whereas there were 10 cases from the Royal Air Force where the numbers of the intakes are considerably smaller. That, too, is a matter which must be seriously considered in my inquiries.

I cannot accept the claim that people are not aware when committing themselves to an apprenticeship that the period of service for which they are signing commences only at the age of 18. Everything is done to make sure that the individual youngster and the parent or guardian concerned are aware of the provisions. They appear on all the various forms which have to be signed; and if people are not aware of the conditions, no blame can be attached to the Army, Air Force or Navy officials for keeping this information from them. The opposite is true. This information is drawn to their attention, they are told that service starts only at the age of 18, and they sign seeing what the conditions are. It may be that 12 months later they have forgotten all about it, but at the time of signing both the young man and the parent or guardian are aware of the conditions, which are clearly stated on the parental consent form which they have to sign, I cannot accept that it is not known at the time, although it may be regretted later.

My hon. Friend also said—I have not been able to check this, but I take her word for it—that few other countries have a system of this nature. It is very difficult to compare our system of running military forces with those of other countries, particularly other European countries, almost all of whom have some form of conscription. With conscription one can pick up apprentices from outside the forces and bring them into the forces and use them for two or three years. We have a voluntary system, and we therefore have to train our own apprentices. It is possible—I am not saying, definitely—that other systems will work as well, but one has to consider the whole system and not just this part of it. I am certain that because other countries can conscript trained people they do not need to train their own, whereas we train our own apprentices in each of the Services.

My hon. Friend made two points which to some extent were contradictory. On the one hand, she drew attention to the fact that in the Navy now, as with the Army and the Air Force, there is provision for the individual to buy himself out in the last fortnight of the first three months of his service. This has just been introduced for the Navy, but it has been available to the other two Services for some time. My hon. Friend felt that for some reasons it could be argued that the period was too long and for other reasons that it was too short a period in which an individual could be expected to make up his mind about whether the life suited him. I am absolutely certain that for the vast majority of apprentices and young Service men who come into the Forces this period is sufficient, but one must admit that there are a number of people who change their minds for a whole range of reasons after this short period of service. One has also to bear in mind that a number of parents may persuade the boys to change their minds.

While I do not by any means accept all the complaints made about this, I accept that there are genuine cases of hardship; if there are compassionate reasons we can sometimes deal with them. There are genuine cases of people who find they cannot stand the particular way of life. There are also genuine cases of conscientious objection. The difficulty, of course, is how to sort all these out; because we always want to give sympathetic attention to genuine cases and to help sympathetically.

But there are also cases where industrial firms are making deliberate attempts to gain apprentices because they are not training enough themselves, and they try to bribe boys to go out of the Service, and, in certain circumstances, put up the money to enable them to purchase themselves out, in order that they may go to work for them. We must face the fact that there are cases like this as well. I would say also that in allowing these discharges one is often putting a large additional burden on those who remain in the Service. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says they enjoy it. We must make it clear that the vast majority of young soldiers and apprentices do in fact enjoy it. In this debate we are talking about only a minority—

Mr. Driberg


Mr. Reynolds

We do not know exactly, unfortunately, how big or small the minority is, but it is a minority we are talking about, and the young men we are taking in as apprentices and young soldiers are, in most cases, the recruits who do the whole of their service, and provide us with a very large proportion of our n.c.o.s and warrant officers and skilled tradesmen required by the three Services. It is also the case that it is the recruits who come in at the older ages—17½ and upwards—amongst whom the wastage rate is higher. I know one can argue that young men of 17, 18 or 19 are better able to make a decision, but the fact is that a bigger proportion of them seem to make a mistake, and we find that among the young men of 15 the wastage rate is lower. They also reach higher rank than people who come in at a later age, because of the very intensive and good training they are given, and also a larger proportion of them serve for 22 years, and become entitled to pension.

Another point my hon. Friend raised was about misleading propaganda and publicity, which, she said, was put out by the Services to entice young men into apprentice centres and other training establishments of the three Services. She read a long advertisement which, she said, was in a recent comic magazine. That advertisement probably did over-glamorise; but that applies to all advertisements, and I do not think it can be alleged that there was any actual misrepresentation of the facts. Indeed, it finished by encouraging people to write and ask for full details, which would then be sent to them. So, while my hon. Friend may think it was misleading, I do not on the whole accept that it was misleading. It was an advertisement to encourage parents and boys to write in for full information, and most of them would then want to ask questions about the Service before coming to a final decision—

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 a quarter to Eleven o'clock.