HC Deb 14 April 1983 vol 40 cc946-54 3.55 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the participation of the armed forces in the Government's youth training scheme.

I have been considering the role of the armed forces in the Government's programme to provide training and work experience for unemployed school leavers. The high quality of the training provided by our armed forces has convinced me that they should play a part. I therefore propose to make available some 5,200 places for the young unemployed volunteering for such opportunities which will be on the same basis as the youth training scheme. The precise number of places available in the first year will depend on the number of applications and the capacity of the services training organisation.

The young people will volunteer to join one of the services on a 12-month engagement, part of which will be spent in formal training and the remainder in work experience. All volunteers will receive the same basic training as regular service men and women, and some will go on to learn skills and trades. All applicants for the scheme will be volunteers, will have to satisfy existing entry standards and will be able to leave at any time on 14 days' notice.

They will be service men and service women and in all but a few respects will qualify for the same benefits as single regulars and under the same disciplines. They will receive, as will youngsters joining civilian employers in the scheme, an allowance of £25 per week. I have decided that a deduction from this will be made for food and accommodation of £10 per week.

The Ministry of Defence will receive the same subvention as civil employers. As the YTS volunteers will pay less than the normal service food and accommodation charge, my Department will contribute about £1 million to subsidise this lower deduction.

To give effect to these proposals I shall be laying before the House statutory instruments to amend the appropriate service regulations. I hope that the scheme will be in operation before September this year.

I am sure that the House will applaud the willingness of the armed services to devote some of their training skills for the benefit of young people. I recommend the scheme to the House.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

Does not the statement represent an abysmal and depressing epitaph to four years of Tory Government? Having put thousands of young people in the dole queues and on to street corners, all that the Government can now think of is to put a military uniform on some of them for 12 months. The scheme offers no hope of real training and does not provide young people with either the dignity of professional soldiering or the dignity of a civilian job. After 12 months of the Government's economic policies they will be put back again into the dole queues Has the Manpower Services Commission been consulted, and, if so, what was its reaction? Is it not the case that two years ago it turned down a not dissimilar scheme? Where will the money come from for the scheme? Will the money come from the existing budget of the MSC, or will it be given additional resources?

The scheme is an insult both to our professional armed forces and to young people. What the youth of Great Britain need is not such despairing schemes from a lame duck Government, but a change of Government to provide them with real training, real jobs and genuine hope for the future.

Mr. Heseltine

The scheme is as close as it is possible to devise to the youth training scheme. It is administered through the Ministry of Defence because it is a responsibility in connection with the armed services. In those circumstances, the consultation has been between myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. We have not routed the scheme through the MSC. It is coming straight through the Ministry of Defence.

I cannot accept for one moment the Opposition's general attitude. My sincerely held view is that the Opposition are so obsessed with running down our armed services that they cannot understand the respect and admiration in which they are held, which means that large numbers of people will volunteer for these opportunities.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, instead of the carping criticism of the Opposition, his statement will be welcomed widely by Conservative Members, both as a means of widening the training opportunities available to young people leaving school this year and as a constructive step in dealing with the inevitable problem of the shortage of jobs for young people at the moment?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He understands the need for such schemes. I am sure that it will be seen as a further manifestation of the Government's determination to help in every practical way.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

Will the Secretary of State distinguish between the Opposition parties? May I ask him, in the hope of wishing the scheme well, the following questions? Will the trainees be subject to military law? At the end of the training period, will the trainees have any special status? I ask that because I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that some of us are very concerned at the comments made this morning on the radio by General Farrar-Hockley about the possibility of a fresh but not properly constituted territorial youth force.

Mr. Heseltine

I think that the right hon. Lady will understand that the volunteers will, while they are with the armed services, be subject to military law in every respect. That is the only way in which the scheme would be workable. It is important for me to say in response to the right hon. Lady that in no way should this be seen as a new initiative and the setting up of a new force. It is merely an opportunity to help with special training requirements for young people in the existing Regular Army.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement will be welcomed by people of all shades of opinion, even if the Opposition Benches do not welcome it? Does he share my disconcertion at the response from the Opposition Front Bench? Will he confirm that these young men will serve partly in this country and partly abroad? What does he think will happen about their future recruitment?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I should have said in my previous reply that not just the Army but the whole of the armed services will have an intake. However, the bulk of these people will be offered opportunities with the Army. The opportunities for overseas service will be limited, as is normal for young recruits who go into the training procedures. One would expect that. It would not be proposed that these people should go to areas such as Northern Ireland. The RAF would not normally send its young recruits to Germany on their first tour. The Army would not normally expect people under 171/2 to go abroad. This is an unlikely contingency, but this is the sort of situation in which one cannot give a totally clear answer. If a ship were to be diverted while it was at sea and some of those volunteers were on board, perhaps they would travel in a way that was not anticipated at the time of the original posting.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that this is not the services' contribution to youth training, but the introduction of a new category of temporary service volunteer? Will the scheme apply equally to ladies and gentlemen? Will the intake be divided fairly equally between men and women, with perhaps 2,500 ladies joining Her Majesty's forces? Who will choose the recruits and on what basis will the selection be made?

Mr. Heseltine

The process for recruiting volunteers will be the same as that for recruitment to the armed services. The same entry tests will have to be applied, because the volunteers will train alongside regular recruits. There will be more opportunities by far for boys than for girls—

Mr. Spearing

Because more of them are unemployed.

Mr. Heseltine

There are not the opportunities in this context for more than a limited number of girls in the Navy and the RAF. I should not seek to give an additional definition to the scheme. It is an opportunity that the services can provide in view of the considerable experience and facilities that they have available.

Mr. Spearing

It could be done better in other ways.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

As the armed forces have such a superb record of training young men and women, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on managing to bypass the short-sighted opposition of the Manpower Services Commission to earlier projects of this sort, which managed to scupper them. As more young people want to join the armed forces than can presently be enrolled, will those who complete this training satisfactorily have priority in getting places in the armed forces?

Mr. Heseltine

I much appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. I totally endorse his description of the superb record of training in the armed services. There will be opportunities, in competition with others, for those who take advantage of the scheme to convert to the regular services once they have had their first opportunities. However, we cannot guarantee that there will be an automatic right to do so. That will depend upon the number of places available and the number of regular service men and women who stay on or who are recruited to the armed services in the overall defence budget. However, there is no doubt that there will be an opportunity for some of those people to make their career within the armed services.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the criticism of the Opposition is not against the armed services, but against the Government, who are at present in control of the armed services and who have stumbled into one unnecessary war in the past year? Will the Secretary of State assure us that this is not the first step to a form of conscription, moving from the voluntary to the compulsory?

Mr. Heseltine

It is not for me to try to interpret the nature and motivation of the criticism by parties on Opposition Benches. I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not in any way to be seen as an early attempt to introduce a form of conscription. I remind the House that when we had conscription about 200,000 people were conscripted every year. It is irresponsible to suggest that 5,200 volunteers can be compared with that.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that young people have benefited enormously from the pilot scheme at Fort George and will come out well equipped to take a job in civilian life? Undoubtedly the same will apply as a result of this scheme. If the services find that they are incapable of taking on more young people, will he consider the scheme as only a trial run that can be expanded in future?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend's views are far more in keeping with those of the people in this country than anything that we have heard from Opposition Members. There are constraints within the defence budget. I have the clearly recorded view of the chiefs of staff that they wish to operate from the basis of a professional armed service. They reckon that in the defence interests of this country it would not be right to blur that clear professional commitment. I was much influenced by them.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Will the Secretary of State warn all the recruits that if they are severely injured because of negligence they will have no right to sue for adequate compensation, although all other public servants, such as firemen and the police, have that right? Alternatively, will the right hon. Gentleman seek to amend section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 and give that right to all service men except when they are engaged in military conflict?

Mr. Heseltine

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. I should not want to encourage him to believe that we are making a change that will affect the armed services at large and in a wider context in what is essentially an announcement about youth training opportunities. I have personally examined this matter. Proper compensation arrangements are available should any of those volunteers suffer in any way as a result of their connection with the youth training scheme in the armed services. I assure the House that appropriate provision will be available.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Is it not inevitable that the armed forces should play their part when unemployment is so high? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the training techniques in the armed forces are in many ways ahead of those in industry and that the levels of man management are also extremely high? Will he regard this as a pilot scheme and have an open mind about expanding it in due course'?

Mr. Heseltine

I touched on that subject in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer). I shall review the working of the scheme and the results of the first year. I very much support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). I think that the whole world understands the high level of professional training in the British armed services.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the anger felt by some of us who represent people from the working class is caused by the fact that we had hoped for better alternatives for our children—I include my own in that—than the dole queue or the armed forces? It ill-becomes a former Secretary of State for Education and Science, the right hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle), whose child is safely through university, to welcome this scheme on behalf of large numbers of children who will not have the opportunity to go to university because of the education cuts that have been made. Is not the Minister saying that there are no long-term prospects for thousands of young people and therefore he is offering them the armed forces? [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."]

Mr. Heseltine

I should have thought that the idea that the Labour party represented the working classes was as out of date as the policies it advocates.

Miss Lestor

Answer the question.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that no unemployed school leaver will understand how the Labour party could oppose the provision of training and job opportunities? Will he say whether there are any opportunities on the civilian side of defence activities, because this is an area where not only substantial numbers of people and skills are employed, but where, possibly, after the year's training and job experience, there may be better possibilities of remaining in employment than on the service side?

Mr. Heseltine

I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has already referred to opportunities on the civil side of the defence commitment. I take leave to disagree with my hon. Friend about young people not understanding the opposition of other parties. I think they will understand that opposition, which they will see as just as irrelevant as all the other things that the Opposition parties say.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Is it seriously intended to give training in arms to 16-year-olds? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Is it not true that young people need training for living, not training in killing? Surely the Government, in view of the unprecedented unemployment, have no difficulty in obtaining recruits for the armed forces.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we will give training to the 16-year-olds in military experience—

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Heseltine

—very much in line with the training for 16-year-olds for which the Labour party happily voted during their periods in Government.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the volunteers will have the opportunity to learn a variety of trades which will be of great value to them later?

Mr. Heseltine

I certainly can assure my hon. Friend that a variety of training schemes will be available to those volunteering for these opportunities. It will depend very much on the aptitude, willingness and skills of the volunteers. I cannot make a generalisation, because each opportunity will have to be adjusted to suit the individual.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

How can the scheme be other than compulsory conscription when the Government have created a situation in which half the school leavers this year will not be able to get jobs and in which many of those who left school in the last two years have` still not got jobs? How can it be said that this is training when there already were facilities for genuine training in the armed forces under the youth opportunities programme and when that scheme could have been continued under the youth training scheme? The reason why the Manpower Services Commission rejected it is that this is not a scheme for training, but a scheme for taking people off the unemployment roll and enabling them to become part of the armed forces. In so doing, it is a disgrace.

Mr. Heseltine

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that we have offered to 16-year-olds the guarantee of work experience at that age. Therefore, there is no way in which they will be told that there is an opportunity only within the armed services. It will be their choice if, rather than take a civil opportunity, they opt for an armed service opportunity. The hon. Gentleman should understand that a large number of them would like to do just that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call four more hon. Members from either side and then the Front Bench to conclude.

Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this forward-looking measure. I do so on behalf of many of us who have long advocated such a voluntary scheme. We speak on behalf of millions who are behind such a scheme and tens of thousands of young people who will look forward to participating. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) and others have suggested that there should be an extension of the scheme, subject to its successful performance. Will my right hon. Friend consider this, in consultation with his colleagues outside the Cabinet if he is restricted by the defence budget, so that a real scheme, capable of employing a number of young people, can be implemented subsequently?

Mr. Heseltine

I think my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that I cannot add to what I have already said in this context. This is the beginning of a new scheme. It would be appropriate to have experience of it before we made judgments about its future. The lesson that the 5,200 volunteers who might take advantage of it will want to draw today is that they have precious little hope of continuing the experience under the Labour party.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

Is it not a fact that the failure of civilian employers to provide places under the youth training scheme has forced this scheme on an unwilling Government and, indeed, on unwilling professional armed forces? I want to pursue the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). As the Secretary of State knows well, a service man cannot sue the Crown. If he is maimed because of criminal negligence, or any other form of negligence, there is no way in which he can sue the Crown. The Secretary of State referred to these volunteers as service men. If they are service men they will have no opportunity to sue the Crown should they be injured during the 12 months. This point must be cleared up before the scheme starts.

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure the hon. Gentleman, who has served in Labour Governments, has had the opportunity to put this view to his colleagues, who obviously rejected it. It is for him to try to influence them to put forward similar views in the manifesto which they will undoubtedly try to devise. I think that the country will draw lessons from the fact that Front Bench Opposition spokesmen refer to armed services activities as though they were not real jobs. I should have thought there were few more real jobs in the country today than defending the freedom of the nation as a member of the armed services.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the most important aspects of the youth training scheme is that there should be some form of valid certificate of achievement at the end of the period. Does he envisage that there will be an equivalent certificate for those who complete the 12 months' training in the armed forces? Does he agree that this would be a good ticket for a job in the civilian sector as well as anywhere else?

Mr. Heseltine

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is an interesting suggestion. It is normal for people leaving the armed services to take with them a form of reference about their experience. I shall consider the proposal that my hon. Friend has put forward.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

Could the Secretary of State be more forthcoming about what will happen to the young people? Will they be recruited simply to be developed physically and to ensure that they can join the forces later? What kind of education will they get? When they come back into civilian life, will they have had more advanced education so that they can take advantage of opportunities in high technology and microelectronics, where there is a shortage?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask questions about the nature of the training. I assure him that we will look carefully at those who volunteer. As it is essentially a voluntary scheme, it is not possible for me to anticipate who will come forward. From my knowledge of the intention, I can say that a range of opportunities will be available, some of them in relatively high technology activities, particularly in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I emphasise the point made by my right hon. Friend? Surely the RAF and the Royal Navy have a particular expertise in technical training which will be invaluable as a grounding for a later career. If the trainees cannot get a place in the regular armed forces if they wish to do so, will my right hon. Friend examine the possibility of expanding the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to enable them, at least part time, to continue their training if they want to do so?

Mr. Heseltine

My hon. Friend has raised another interesting point. Again, it will be one of the matters that we shall consider as we get through the first year's experience of the scheme. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has put to me.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

Will there be any selection procedure for the recruits for the 5,200 places? Has any estimate been made of the cost of the scheme? Why is it that we can find money for a scheme such as this when we cannot provide sufficient funding for colleges of further education, where the potential recruits for the scheme could receive adequate education?

Mr. Heseltine

When the volunteers apply there will have to be a process by which they are considered on the grounds of their suitability, their training, their attitudes and their general willingness to serve in the armed services. That is the normal process of recruitment for those who serve in our regular forces. The cost of the scheme will be funded from the overall provision for the youth training scheme, which the Government have already announced.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

That is scandalous.

Mr. Heseltine

It is part of the Government's commitment to provide job experience and opportunities for those who are without work in this age group.

Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition appear to have made a major political misjudgment in response to this excellent scheme, which is supported by so many across the political spectrum in every constituency? Will individuals who apply to participate in the scheme be able to join individual units or particular arms of the service, or will they be put into one group in a particular arm?

Mr. Heseltine

The volunteers will have the opportunity to volunteer for one of the armed services, but it will be for the armed services to decide in which part of that individual part of our armed services they will serve. I should say that by its standards the Labour party has not made a major political miscalculation in this matter.

Mr. loan Evans (Aberdare)

Is the scheme being introduced because the Government have failed to get sufficient employers to provide proper youth training schemes? Is that not the real reason for the scheme? As the volunteers will have to conform to Queen's Regulations, will they be able to join political organisations and trade unions, and will they be able to march with the CND?

Mr. Heseltine

It is one of the curiosities that the CND is free to make its protests because we had armed services that marched. Those who volunteer for the scheme will in all ways be the equivalent of those who are recruited into the regular service, except in the specific cases that relate to the scheme.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull. Central)

I think that the whole House has been disturbed—[HON MEMBERS: "No."] It is easy to see how Conservative Members salve their consciences about the millions of unemployed. They seem to think that getting 5,200 young people into the armed services will somehow fool the rest of the British people, when the fact is that young people do not have proper and guaranteed jobs or proper training for the future.

Will the finance for the scheme come from moneys that will be siphoned off from the MSC, for a scheme that it does not support? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman give a precise reply to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) on liability for injury suffered through negligence while in the forces? Will young people be able to claim compensation as of right when that occurs?

Third, is it not a fact that the armed forces as a whole are reluctant to endorse the scheme because of the effect that it will have on their training procedures for their own professionals?

Fourth, does the Minister agree that by supplying 5,200 jobs he is disguising the fact that on the civilian side of his Department up to 20,000 jobs have been lost because of the cuts that he has made in conventional forces and the shipyards?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in my constituency a multinational firm on the frontiers of high technology has produced a scheme to employ 30 young people to make plastic garden gnomes? Surely the scheme is the Ministry of Defence's equivalent of doing just that.

Mr. Heseltine

I understand that the civil side of the youth training scheme is on target to achieve what the Goverment intended for it. As the original training concept was based on the assumption that we would give a significant number of young people work experience, it is only right that if they have that experience in the armed services there is no need to expend money—doubled up, so to speak—to provide them with opportunities which they will not need to take up on the civilian side.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (M. McNamara) suggested that the whole House was disturbed by the scheme. I do not believe that that is so. My right hon. and hon. Friends and one or two right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches have welcomed the scheme. It is true that the Labour party is disturbed, but the Labour party is permanently disturbed.