HL Deb 24 March 1955 vol 192 cc157-9

3.42 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the purpose of this Bill is to prolong the upper age limit for National Service in the case of those who have tried to avoid their obligations by staying abroad during the last year of their liability. Your Lordships will remember that the National Service Act of 1947 and the Consolidating Act of 1948 provided that young men may be called up between the ages of 18 and 26, although in certain cases of postponement on the grounds of personal hardship this limit may be extended. In the case of doctors and dentists there was an upper age limit of 30. The whole of these National Service Acts were built upon the principle of the universality of service and only a very few classes of person were given statutory exemption. The remainder have been liable for service and have carried out their obligations cheerfully and patriotically.

The principle of universal liability for National Service, together with a flexible system of deferment, in proper cases, has worked extremely well. On January 1, 1955, the first age group which registered under the 1948 Act—that is to say those who were born in 1929—began to pass out of the liability as they reached the age of 26. So it is possible at this stage to consider how the system has worked over a full cycle of years. Of the 300,000 men in the 1929 age group, all but 1,000 who have gone abroad have been satisfactorily accounted for. Some of this thousand may well be coming back to this country during the course of the year. In some cases there are strong grounds for believing that certain of them propose to remain out of Great Britain until after their 26th birthday has passed, so that under the existing Act they would then be able to return to the country later this year having successfully avoided the obligations which their contemporaries have cheerfully shouldered. The number of such men is very small. My right honourable friend, the Minister of Labour, when asked to estimate the number in the 1929 age group, replied that he thought it was about 300. But although relatively few in number, they give rise to very proper and long-standing grievances among men who themselves have done their service, and also among their relations. There has been considerable public concern, and we felt it right to amend the original Act so as to prevent this mean evasion. The Bill before your Lordships will achieve this. It is short and its essentials are contained in two clauses.

Clause 1 brings within the scope of the Bill men who reached the present upper age limit on or after January 1 this year and who have been subject to registration under the main Act. Subsection 1 (b) of Clause 1 is designed to prevent an escape from liability under the principal Act by a man who, although living here ordinarily some time after attaining 17 years and 8 months (which is the earliest age at which men can be required to register) has ceased subsequently to be resident. Those who are brought within the scope of the Bill are those who are absent from Great Britain for a period or periods aggregating not less than 28 days during their last year of liability. The Bill is directed solely towards men who go abroad as a means of evading National Service. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 defines those men to whom the Bill shall not apply. There has been concern in another place about the position of men in the Merchant Navy, but specific assurances have been given that bona fide seamen will not be called up by reason of the Bill. I am glad to confirm these assurances.

Clause 2 makes it clear that the powers in the Bill are permissive, and action will be taken only when the Minister, after the fullest investigation, causes individuals to be summoned to attend for medical examination under Section 8 of the main Act. Thus, only when there is prima facie evidence of intention to evade National Service will the machinery of this Bill be set in motion. I think your Lordships will agree that this Bill is necessary. I think, too, it is a model of brevity. I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Carrington.)


My Lords, noble Lords on this side of the House certainly have no quarrel with this Bill which, as the noble Lord has explained, is designed to stop a leak—a small leak it is true, but nevertheless a leak—in the operation and universality of the National Service scheme. The noble Lord mentioned that the right honourable gentleman the Minister, in another place, had given a figure of 300 as an estimate of those who might possibly have had the intention to avoid National Service. Even for that number, I think it will generally be agreed, a Bill of this sort is worth while having, because nothing touches public opinion on the raw so much as the idea that someone may be getting an unfair advantage over his neighbour. Therefore, we wholeheartedly support this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.