HC Deb 05 February 1968 vol 758 cc43-50

3.50 p.m.

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

I am now able to announce the outcome of my examination of the Latey Committee's three recommendations on boy entrants to the Forces.

I am prepared to accept the first recommendation, namely: That all boy entrants should be entitled to be released as of right on application within six months (instead of three months) from the date of their entry. This recommendation will be brought into force by Regulation under Section 2 of the Armed Forces Act, 1966. The details of the arrangements for applying this policy will differ in each Service in accordance with established practice.

I am also prepared to accept the third of these recommendations, namely: That parental consent to enlistment under the age of 18 should be required. At present such consent is required up to the age of 17½. If and when the age of majority is reduced to 18 years, this recommendation will be brought into force by administrative action.

I regret, however, that at present I cannot accept the second recommendation, namely, that all boy entrants should be entitled to be released as of right within three months after their 18th birthday. I have considered this matter very carefully. The Forces are unique and cannot be compared with civil industry which is able to bear the easy circulation of labour. It takes a longer time to make an efficient Serviceman, and, with the limited number of suitable men available, it is most likely that, if this recommendation were accepted either in the form proposed by the Latey Committee, or in any substantially similar form, the Forces would be unable to replace their losses, and the ability of the Government to carry out their responsibilities for defence would be seriously impaired. On the other hand, there are the considerations set out in the Latey Committee's Report and advanced by hon. Members of all parties. These considerations are based on the natural desire, which I share, not to bind young men too tightly to long engagements undertaken in their immaturity

In view of the conflict of these apparently irreconcilable considerations, Her Majesty's Government decided to continue studies by all the Departments concerned to see whether a satisfactory solution can be found to meet both the future defence needs of the country and the principles underlying the Latey Committee's recommendation.

I would like to take this opportunity of informing the House of new procedures for dealing with Servicemen who seek to end their service on conscientious grounds. The existing arrangements have for some time been regarded as unsatisfactory, and I am replacing them as soon as possible.

Under the new arrangements applications from Servicemen for discharge on grounds of conscientious objection will be allowed and will be dealt with in general under a system similar to that used in compassionate cases. Commanding officers will be required to establish the merits of cases which will then be referred to higher authority in the appropriate Service for decision. There will also be provision for applicants whose cases are rejected by the Service authorities to appeal to the Appellate Tribunal, and a successful appeal will be accepted as decisive on the question of conscience.

Once conscientious objection has been accepted as genuine, either by the Service or the Tribunal, discharge will be conditional upon payment of the standard purchase price. The Services will, however, have discretion to reduce or waive the purchase price where financial hardship can be proved.

The advantages of these arrangements are that they provide a fair and reasonable means of judging whether cases are genuine but do not include the penal provisions which, in some cases, are involved in the present procedure. It is hoped that these arrangements will go a long way towards solving what is an admittedly difficult problem.

Mr. Powell

On the Minister's decision on the first recommendation, may I ask whether he is aware that it appears to us to be a reasonable and useful extension of the initial period from three to six months? As regards the second recommendation, will he accept that it is better to take more time to consider rather than to arrive at decisions which might prejudice the manning of the Forces, already dangerously endangered by the disastrous change in the Government's defence policy? On the third recommendation, may I ask whether his decision means that it will not be implemented unless and until the age of majority is reduced to 18?

Mr. Reynolds

On the second recommendation, which I am unable to accept, I would have liked more time in which to examine it, but I have been under pressure to make a statement. The Government as a whole, and all the Departments concerned, will be looking at this matter. We want to get a lot of information together, and this might take time, but we want to try to find a solution to it.

As regards the third recommendation, the right hon. Gentleman, is right. I intend to introduce this change by Order. if and when the Latey Committee's recommendations are accepted. There is no magic about 17½ or 18. In the Services we are satisfied with 17½, but obviously if the House and the Government decide that 18 should be the age for most other things, we will immediately come into line.

Miss Lestor

My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that we welcome his announcement about the two concessions to boy entrants, but when he is considering further representations on this, will he bear in mind that the main recommendation of the Latey Committee dealing with release within three months of a boy's eighteenth birthday was to bring these recruits into line with the legal protection applying to and contained within the Infants Relief Act, 1874? However unique my right hon. Friend may say the Forces are in this respect, these young people are still at a grave disadvantage in law in respect of release from the Forces.

Mr. Reynolds

I would not disagree basically with that, but I must draw attention to the fact that the terms of service of boy entrants were outside the writ of the Latey Committee. It made recommendations without having any evidence of the effect, on manning grounds, which these would have on the Services.

Mr. James Davidson

While welcoming the minor concessions made in the Minister's statement, may I suggest that it might well take more than six months for a young man to assess his own suitability for a Service career, and that an unwilling Serviceman is perhaps worse than no Serviceman at all? Will the Minister do whatever he can to discourage misleading advertising for recruitment into Service careers?

Mr. Reynolds

I do not accept the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, and I do not disagree with the earlier part of it, but we must not over-exaggerate this problem. There was at one time something in excess of 125,000 men in the Armed Forces who joined as boy entrants of one kind or another. Over the last 12 months the National Council for Civil Liberties has been gathering examples of hardship and up to October 1967, covering a p[...]d of 10 years, it discovered 100 cases. This is a small minority, and over the last three years I believe that we have found ourselves able to meet the vast majority of cases. I assure the House that a large proportion of these cases goes to Ministers.

Mr. Maclennan

My right hon. Friend made a surprising assertion that evidence about manning was not before the Latey Committee when it made its recommendations. If he consults the Report, he will see that this is not so, and that some of the evidence which his Ministry put before the Committee was cited.

My right hon. Friend's acceptance of two of the recommendations is very welcome, but will he say whether, in giving this interim judgment on the second recommendation, full account has been taken of the alterations in manning requirements following the cuts announced in January?

Mr. Reynolds

No, Sir, because we have not had time to work these requirements through. Whilst in the past two years it has been necessary to obtain 40,000 recruits a year to maintain the level of forces, the cuts announced last June and July, and speeded, up by the announcement of my right hon. Friend on 16th January, will still mean that we shall need more than 30,000 men per year as recruits into the Forces during the early and mid-seventies. I have no reason to change my statement about the evidence before the Latey Committee. It had no evidence on manning from the Ministry of Defence. A witness was offered, but he was not required.

Mr. Fisher

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that before enlistment boy entrants and their parents are fully aware that they are not entitled to purchase their discharge after the first six months' of service? There is often misunderstanding about this.

Mr. Reynolds

There is often misunderstanding, but I am certain, from investigation and experience, that every attempt is made by service authorities, up to the time when the boy arrives at the establishment to which he is posted, to make clear to him what signing on means, and 'one establishment almost goes to the length of offering him a railway warrant ba[...]me if he wants to change his mind at that point.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

If a soldier becomes a conscientious objector as a result of his re-examination of the position, for example if he sees a film on Vietnam, is it any use trying to make a useful soldier of him? Ought not he to be discharged to civilian life, where he can perform useful work in industry? Why does the Minister think that a commanding officer is able to judge conscience? Surely these officers are the wrong people to do that?

Mr. Reynolds

What I have announced is that the application for someone to be released on conscientious grounds will be considered by the military authorities in the first instance. If the application is turned down, without any need for an offence to be committed, which is the rule at the moment in many cases the individual will have the right of appeal to the appellate tribunal set up by the Minister of Labour under the National Service Acts. This is nothing to do with the Services. It has wide representation on it, and we in the Forces will accept its advice as conclusive on whether the chap has a genuine conscientious objection.

Mr. Wall

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who join the Services voluntarily form the backbone of the Forces—especially the Royal Navy? Will he, therefore, stand out against pressure coming from the anti-Service section of the community about allowing a right of discharge at the age of 18?

Mr. Reynolds

About 70 per cent. of the entry into the Royal Navy is technically boys. I shall not stand out against pressure for the sake of standing out against it. I wish that we could find an answer to this problem. Other countries have found answers which are probably even more intolerable to my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite, and to the country. If we can find a genuine solution which is safe from the point of view of defence I shall be only too pleased to take action.

Mr. J. T. Price

Will my hen. Friend accept my assurance that, although I am in no way anti-Service, I am still extremely puzzled by the fact that although there were all these considerations by the Latey Committee and others I have not yet seen any valid reason why a young Serviceman who enters the Services while still a minor is not given the protection available to the rest of the community, in respect of which the law undoubtedly is that a contract made by a minor before he is 21 can be set aside if it is not to his personal advantage. That is as I understand it. I should like to know what information my right hon. Friend has which causes him to say that this should not apply to people who, perhaps indiscreetly or imprudently, enter the Services when they are still children.

Mr. Reynolds

The short answer is that this is not, in legal terms, a contract, and the method by which it is done was approved by the House less than 18 months ago, when only one hon. Member —my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor)—objected. We have to face the fact that if we are to run disciplined Forces, where a unit or a ship has to be prepared to move anywhere in the world at literally a moment's notice, it is not possible to have the normal system whereby any chap can give a week's notice or a month's notice. We must have a stronger form of discipline and of contract, and the form in which we operate at the moment has been approved and confirmed by this House on successive occasions over the last five years.

Mr. Lipton

Why is no basic change contemplated in the regulations governing discharge by purchase? Am I right in interpreting what my hon. Friend has just said to mean that he will judge each case on a kind ofad hocbasis, on its merits, and that nobody quite knows what the position is when discharge by purchase is applied for?

Mr. Reynolds

My statement dealt only with applications by boy entrants for discharge, who had expressed changed feelings. I made no announcement about a change in the system of purchasing discharges. That is the same as it was. When a man has done three years' service in the Army he is eligible to apply to purchase his discharge. The same applies to the Air Force, and it is about six years in the Navy. The only consideration then is that the manning position in the branch or trade is such that the man can be allowed to go without prejudice to the Service.