HL Deb 06 July 1961 vol 232 cc1469-81

3.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Army and Air Force Bill be read a second time. This is a Bill of 39 clauses and 3 Schedules, running to 34 pages, but I do not think that in substance it is anything like so formidable as it sounds and looks. It arises, as Your Lordships will remember, from a decision resulting from a Select Committee which was appointed to review the Army and Air Force Acts. This Committee, after an inquiry which lasted two and a half years, produced draft legislation which led to the passing of the 1955 Acts. One of the main changes made in those Acts was the abolition of the old procedure of an annual Army and Air Force Bill. They provided for annual renewal by Order in Council, subject to the Affirmative Resolution procedure, for a maximum period of five years from the date that the Acts came into operation. As in fact the Acts came into force in January, 1957, they expire at the end of this year, and the Bill now before your Lordships is the fresh legislation required. I think on the whole that your Lordships will agree that this was a sensible change and that it has worked well in practice, at the same time giving Parliament the right to preserve its annual, control over the discipline of the Army and Air Force.

Apart from continuing the existing legislation, this Bill seeks to amend some of the provisions of the 1955 Acts. This is the first opportunity for doing so and the amendments are in fact mostly of a rather minor character. I should perhaps mention at this stage that the Bill has been considered by a Select Com- mittee in accordance with the undertaking given by the Government in 1955. My Lords, with your permission, I do not intend to go through the Bill clause by clause because, as I have said, most of the amendments are comparatively minor, but I should like to say a few words about the more important changes.

At the present time, anyone who wants to join the Air Force as a career can sign on for 22 years only after he has completed four years of his first engagement. It is proposed in Clause 8 that this limitation should be removed and that enlistment for 22 years—that is to say, a pensionable engagement—can take place as soon as the man joins up. The change is designed as a help to recruiting, because there is some evidence from schools and parents that boys would be more willing to join the Services as a career if they knew that they could sign on for a pensionable engagement without the possibility of being forced to leave the Service after twelve years with only a gratuity and no pension. There is at the same time a provision which gives them the right to take their discharge after a period which will not be more than twelve years after reaching the age of eighteen.

This amendment also provides an opportunity to correct a minor anomaly which also applies in the Army. If a man enlists between the age of 17½ and 18, he does not qualify for a pension until he has served 22 years from the time he is eighteen, and, as a result, some men have to extend their service for a few months after their 22 years' service to qualify for their pension. This is not only inconvenient, but it leaves some people with a sense of grievance because 22 years is generally regarded as the pensionable engagement. The change means that anybody who joins up from now onwards at the age of 17½ will in future be able to do so on a fully pensionable engagement.

Both in the Army enlistment clauses, which are Clauses 2 to 7, and in the Air Force enlistment clauses, Clauses 8 to 15, provision is made for those who enlist under the age of eighteen to do so for a term of service up to the age of eighteen and thereafterwards for 22 years.

Although the changes in the term of Army enlistment are few, the Bill contains a comprehensive new code which will apply to all those who enlist after the end of 1961.

My Lords, I come now to the question of punishment. Far some time past it has been widely held that there has been a gap in the present scales of punishment. For officers, warrant officers and non-commissioned officers, the gap is between the forfeiture of seniority and the punishment of severe reprimand; and far soldiers and airmen, between detention and restriction of privileges. In some cases the higher punishment is too harsh, possibly affecting the whole career of the officer concerned, and the lower punishment altogether too lenient. Forfeiture of some pay in Clause 19 has been introduced to bridge the gap.

It is not really a new departure. Forfeiture of pay can already be ordered for other ranks on active service; and forfeiture of seniority of officers, warrant officers and non-commissioned officers of course, very often involves them in financial loss, so the principle is already there. Clause 19 provides a financial penalty that is more precise and at the same time less severe than forfeiture of seniority. In the case of other ranks, it will be possible to dock the man's pay without depriving us of his service—and that can be important. Punishment may be awarded summarily or by court-martial and will apply to all ranks whether on active service or not. Punishment will be awarded by commanding officers and appropriate superior authorities, subject to the accused's right to elect trial by court-martial, and the maximum forfeiture allowed will be fourteen days' pay.

Lastly, I should like to say a few words about Clause 17, which deals with the conditions governing the statutory right of a recruit to buy his way out of the Army or Air Force within the first three months after he enlists. This right has existed since 1881, the only change in the conditions since then being an increase in the cost of purchase from a sum not exceeding £10 to the present sum, not exceeding £20. It has been generally agreed that it is right that recruits to the Army and Air Force, most of them young men in their teens or early twenties should, if they find they are not suited to life in the Services, have this opportunity to escape from a commitment which otherwise would bind them for a number of years. But recently there has been a disturbingly large increase in the number of Army recruits making use of this escape route.

As a result of this heavy wastage, the Army Council ordered a study by the Army Operational Research Group to find out why soldiers purchase their discharge or fail to re-enlist after their initial engagement. They also decided to take a number of other measures, which have been announced in another place, to make the Army more attractive to the recruit; for example, by eliminating unnecessary fatigues, altering training schedules to make them more interesting and to make sure the recruit gets a reasonable amount of time off. They considered whether the opportunity of this Bill should be taken to make it more difficult for recruits to purchase their discharge by raising the cost, but decided that it would be wrong to do so and against the interests of recruiting. The Army wants willing recruits not reluctant heroes.

The Select Committee also considered this problem and endorsed the Army Council's view that the cost should not be increased. However, they also concluded, on advice from the War Office, that many of the men who now buy their discharge would stay on and become good and contented soldiers if they persevered long enough to get over the first unsettled weeks and to give the Army a fair trial. In order, therefore, to ensure so far as possible that recruits do not leave the Army on impulse during the first few weeks, the Select Committee inserted Clause 17 in the Bill and it has been accepted by Her Majesty's Government.

That clause gives the Army and Air Councils power to ban purchase of discharge for a period up to two month., from the date the recruit enlists. The three-months period during which he can make up his mind whether to stay on or to leave remains unchanged. But the right to leave is limited to the last of the three months or any longer period up to the limit of three months which the Army and Air Councils may decide upon. It is hoped by this means to provide an effective and equitable way of making sure that recruits give the Army a fair trial and do not make a hasty decision to leave. The clause is drafted in permissive terms so as to give the necessary degree of flexibility to the power to make regulations imposing a ban. For example, the Air Force does not have the same problem of increased wastage that the Army has, and the Air Council may therefore decide not to impose a ban, or not to impose it for as long a period as the Army Council may think necessary. In both cases it will almost certainly be necessary to have different rules for men, women and boys, all of whom are covered by the word recruit "where it appears in the Acts.

Lastly, no one can tell with certainty how the ban will work in practice and it is therefore desirable to have power to alter the period of a ban in the light of experience without having to wait for five years for the next opportunity to do so by legislation. These are the main provisions of the Bill, and I do not think it is necessary for me to go into any greater detail this afternoon. I shall, however, be happy to try to answer any questions which your Lordships may have on the Bill although I think possibly that some of the rather more detailed ones might appropriately be left to the Committee stage. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

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

3.27 p.m.


My Lords I believe everyone will agree that the system introduced in 1955 is a good one; and will be glad that the old formality of passing the Army Act every year by a certain date has been superseded by the present system. Perhaps it shows that the British public as a whole are slowly losing their suspicions of standing Armies and are content to leave it to the resources of Parliament to authorise the maintenance of the Army for the ensuing twelve months. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has given us a brief outline of some of the more important amendments to the Army Act embodied in the present Bill, and I think we should be grateful for those. I should like to follow one or two of them.

It is a good thing that the anomaly that the first six months of a young man's service before the age of eighteen should not count for pension has been removed, but I wonder if the noble Lord could say whether there remains any remnant of a similar regulation in the terms of service of officers. I seem to remember that when I came to retire I was told I could not count any service below the age of 21 for pension. There was certainly something of that kind involved in the calculation of officers' retired pay, and I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell us if anything of that kind remains.

The introduction of the new punishment, which is rather quaintly termed "forfeiture of a sum from pay" instead of, as one would think, forfeiture of pay, is something we can welcome. The Army Council apparently think it fills a gap and it seems to be more in line with present-day practice. Fines play a large part in the penal system for civilians, and this seems to be a step in the right direction. The new Clause 17. giving power to limit to the third month of his service the soldier's right to buy his discharge, instead of that limit applying to the first, second or third months, also seems to be something with which there can be no quarrel and I believe it was wise not to raise the sum required for purchase of discharge.

I should like to ask one question on Clause 23. This seems to permit a higher authority to refer a charge back for dismissal notwithstanding the fact that the accused soldier has elected to be tried by court-martial. I did not understand, from the explanation given in another place, what was the reason for this. I, like, I 'believe, everybody else, have always assumed that 'the right to elect trial by court-martial was a protection to the soldier, and this provision appears to remove that protection. I wonder if the noble Lord could say anything in explanation of that.

I should also like to ask him something on the two clauses dealing with colonial forces, Clauses 35 and 36. The former clause provides for the application of the Army Act to a colonial soldier wherever he may he serving outside his own Colony, instead of, as before, only when he was serving in the United Kingdom. Why has that only now arisen, because it is surely many years since colonial forces have served in parts of the world other than the United Kingdom, and it seems curious that that has only now come to light. On the second of those two clauses there is the question of the appointment of a British-protected person to a warrant or non-commissioned or commissioned rank. It is a difficult point, and I think the noble Lord might perhaps elucidate it. If the Act of Settlement restricts people other than British subjects from holding any place or office of trust under the Crown, is that limited to officers? Does it not apply to enlistment in the forces? Does it apply only to warrant or non-commissioned or commissioned rank?

Then Clause 37 creates a new rank of lance-corporal in substitution for the former system by which the lance rank was an appointment and not a rank. It was said in another place that this will give added status to the young N.C.O. on the first rung of the ladder, and so will assist him in making good as a noncommissioned officer. How is that so? I read that commanding officers will still have the power to reduce a man from the rank of lance-corporal to the ranks, just as formerly they had the power to remove the man from the appointment. I see no advantage to the soldier in that and I think we should hear some more reasons why this is found necessary. That raises also the question of the appointment of lance-sergeant. There is no mention of that. Is that similarly to be made a new rank? Do the same reasons apply to the first step into sergeant's rank?

While on that subject, I think the Government might well turn their attention to some measures that would remove what I think has been an abuse in the Army, and possibly also the other Services, for a long time; and that is the use and abuse of unpaid acting rank. It is a means of getting N.C.O.s on the cheap, and it means that the ambitious young N.C.O., or the one who is not so ambitious but is persuaded to take stripes, is forced, unpaid, to take greater responsibilities, sometimes much greater responsibilities and sometimes for a long time. T think there is a field where there could be much greater reform, much more advantage; as a career there would be more attraction for the soldier to take the responsibility and to go for higher rank if there were not this period of unpaid additional responsibility.

Finally, I feel that we must at this time give some thought to the troops now in the Persian Gulf. I think we can all be glad that the operation seems to have been carried out smoothly and successfully. We can all hope that the duration of the operation will be a very short one, and that the circumstances that caused it will disappear. We must, however, bear in mind the living conditions of the troops at the moment. Not so many years ago (some of your Lordships will remember it), troops sent to climates like that had as equipment a helmet and a spinepad without which they were never allowed to move out-of-doors. They had nothing of modern comforts. Now, with ships lying off Kuwait, there is the possibility of air-conditioning and ice, and many of the comforts that will mitigate the appalling climate there. I would ask the noble Lord if he can assure us that the force there is thoroughly well equipped and has all the clothing and comforts and other amenities suitable for that climate.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to say a great deal on this Bill, because I think that its proposals are sound and there is no great criticism, or indeed any criticism, that I have to make. However, there are one or two points to which I should like to call attention upon it. The first is this proposal, under Clause 17, for a period after attestation during which the recruit may not exercise his right to purchase his discharge. I made some inquiries in Wales as to the experience there with recruits, and I find that so far as we are concerned there have been very few difficulties—though this is not the case elsewhere, in some other parts of the United Kingdom. But so far as Wales is concerned, there have been very few difficulties indeed in this respect.

I am told by those who are concerned with this matter that where recruits have gone during the first three months, generally speaking they were recruits who were better gone; that they were unlikely to make good soldiers anyway. I do think, however, that there is a case for the Government's proposal. There is a certain type of man—because, after all, these men are very young—who possibly goes into the Service and gets homesick, though if he could have a couple of months in which to settle down he would make a good soldier and remain on.

I know that in my own case, when I was a small boy and first went away to school, if I could have bought my discharge in the first week I would have paid a considerable sum of money to do so—money which I had not at that time, or now. But after a bit one gets used to it, and I am sure that the conditions under which recruits in the Army serve are nothing like so hard as those in which I served when I first went away to school. As most of us know, the conditions in schools in those days were fairly tough. However, I have some sympathy with the young recruit, and I feel that this proposal may help him a good deal.

The second point I should like to make concerns Clause 36 (1). I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, that this is a puzzling clause. It talks about the Act of Settlement. I turned to the Explanatory Memorandum and received no enlightenment at all; all the Explanatory Memorandum does is to turn the clause round the other way and put down what is already there. 1, for one, do not know what the Act of Settlement has to do with some British-protected person who wants to serve in the forces of a mandated territory, or a Colony or whatever it may be. I notice that the United Kingdom forces are not mentioned in this particular clause. Perhaps the noble Lord the First Lord will tell us, when he comes to reply, to what extent the Act of Settlement does not apply to this country, and why it is that this country should be left out.

I think it would be highly improper for us to-day, when the Army and the Air Farce are deployed in Kuwait, not to say anything about them, and I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, did so. Of course, it is quite in order on this Bill, because the Bill continues the Army Act and the Air Force Act, and this is really the only occasion upon which the Government bring the Army forward, as it were, for our consideration. The other time when we consider the Army is on a Motion by a noble Lord on the Opposition Benches. This is the first time the Government have done so.

I think we ought just to say a word about the conditions for the troops in Kuwait. First of all, I should like to congratulate the Government on the success of the deployment. It is a fine example, in my opinion, of joint planning and inter-Service co-operation, and it shows the value which noble Lords on these Benches—-and for that matter opposite—have often pointed out, of highly mobile forces, both airborne and carrier-borne, and what can be achieved even in landing in such a place as Kuwait. It also, of course, points to the value of conventional forces—another issue which we on the Opposition side of the House have often commented strongly about. We have pressed the Government for years past not to neglect the conventional forces. In the famous, or perhaps I should say infamous, Defence White Paper of 1957, it looked as if the conventional forces were going to be dropped altogether and we were to rely on the atomic weapon. We can see what the situation would be like in Kuwait to-day had that happened, and how important it is to have highly mobile forces. How glad we are that we have still got them!

The conditions in Kuwait are highly uncomfortable. Several times I have been, not to Kuwait but to neighbouring territories, and I can well imagine what the circumstances must be like at this moment. Indeed, in quite pungent terms, the Commander, Brigadier Hors-ford has described them, as your Lordships will see in The Times to-day. He said: It's cruel—burning, hot stinging sand. They"— that is the troops— are living, working, and digging in the red hot wind. In a temperature of 115 degrees it drains all one's energies. The morale is terrific—the British soldier can take almost anything; but there is a limit. Chaps are passing out quite a lot from heat exhaustion. We get them back to an air-conditioned place and they are able to return the same day. The Times then says: Much thought, said the Brigadier, was being given to this. There would have to he rest camps where men could bathe and have a glass of beer. Now that the men had established themselves, the emphasis would have to be switched to looking after their health. Of course one cannot expect everything. They have been there only a few days, and I quite appreciate that, naturally, the first object of those responsible was to get the troops ashore with their fighting equipment. But now, as the Brigadier says, the time has come to think of their health. In 115 degrees, with that terrific, scorching wind, it must be quite a task for them, and our thoughts go out to them.

Last night on the television I saw, as no doubt many other noble Lords did, in the News, pictures of our troops dug-in in a kind of foxholes in the desert, and wearing berets; and in face of the wind to which the Brigadier refers they had handkerchiefs over their faces. I rather disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, in this respect, in that when I first went out to the East as an amateur soldier we wore the high tunic, buttoned to the neck, and topee.. Though I do not regret the passing of the high tunic, there is a good deal to be said for the topee. If you are in that sort of climate with the sun burning down, I must say that the beret seems to me a singularly inadequate headgear. As I for years wore a topee myself—they used to call them helmets; they are made of cork and are light enough—I am not at all sure that it is a good exchange in those conditions to have a beret.

I also saw on the Television News, I think on the previous night, the men saying that they were buying ice cream from an Arab vendor. What an Arab vendor is doing in the front line, it is difficult to imagine. I know it is difficult to keep Arab vendors out from anywhere, but it seems to me that we should make rather better and more complete arrangements for our troops in the front line than to have them supplied by Arab vendors, selling ice cream at what I gather was a rather high price. How much was ice cream and how much was water by the time it got to the troops, I do not know.

However, I do not want to labour this point because I fully realise the difficulties. I would only suggest that perhaps we might hear from the First Lord, when he comes to reply, what they are proposing to do there in regard to such amenities as can be provided, such as cool drinks, and also, of course, some protection for their eyes, nose and mouth. The hot wind from the desert can sting the nostrils and burn the lips, and I wonder whether it might be possible to have some sort of protective face covering rather than one's own handkerchief which, in any case, one presumably wants to use for other purposes.

This movement of the Army to Kuwait has of course denuded our forces at home and in Kenya, and the Kenya garrison has had to be in-de up from forces from this country. Every day we see pictures in the papers of various centres—Colchester and the like—from which men are being flown out. This shows what a very slender margin we are operating on so far as the Army is concerned. I hope—I say this with the utmost conviction—that the Government have not it in mind to reduce the Army any further. I think it has got down to the irreducible minimum, and we as a country must take the necessary steps, whatever they may be; and from time to time here both the Labour and the Liberal Opposition have suggested what those steps should be. But as I say, we are down to the irreducible minimum. We as a country cannot expect the Army to fulfil the tasks imposed upon it if there are not enough men to do so. In the last year or so, seventeen infantry battalions have either been liquidated or combined with others, and in my view not a single infantry battalion should be further reduced or amalgamated. We should retain what we have. The same applies to the artillery. We cannot carry on with less: we must make up our minds on that score. I am quite sure that efficiency and morale will be reduced, and heavily reduced, if there is any further reduction in the Armed Forces.

My Lords, the other point I wanted to make was as to the Army's bases. It is rather curious that there should be a statement on Tanganyika at this particular moment, because, as the First Lord knows, I intended to say a word on this subject. If you have got an Army you must have somewhere for them to go, for them to be based. I will just read to your Lordships an account of an interview with Mr. Nyerere, the Prime Minister of Tanganyika and the main force behind the new East African States. He is a man for whom we all have the highest respect, I may say, and in whom we have a great deal of confidence. This statement that he made is therefore all the more powerful and thought-worthy. This is what he said in an interview given to a Mr. Tom Stacey, who I think is a journalist employed by the Sunday Times. A report of this interview appeared in the Sunday Times on June 4 of this year. It says: Mr. Julius Nyerere, Prime Minister of Tanganyika and driving force behind a federation of East Africa States, told me in a private interview that if ever he were to head such a federation, he could on no account allow a British military base on its soil. Then, a little later, it goes on: He indicated that the emotional background of African politics would make it impossible for the head of such a federation to tolerate British troops stationed in the territory. A federal leader would be subject to internal outcry against it (however many jobs it might provide): and it would gravely weaken his authority among fellow ex-colonial States There was no possibility, Mr. Nyerere said, of these factors changing during this political generation. That is, for all of us, a very serious statement. Mr. Mboya and others have already said this, but for Mr. Nyerere to say it makes it, I think, a statement of the utmost significance.

If we are not able to operate with a secure base at Kahawa in Kenya after independence, which may well come in the next year or two, then we must think pretty fast as to what the alternative should be. I mention this now because I was very much perturbed when I read this. I thought that perhaps Mr. Nyerere may 'have been able, as it were, to advise his colleagues in Kenya on this point, and draw their attention to the great importance of this base and the contribution it makes to Commonwealth defence and to the defence of the Free World. But if this is not so—and, very probably his views of the African political scene are founded on a great deal of fact; he ought to know what the facts are if anybody does—then, indeed, that does pose a very sharp and urgent problem for us all, because we have not much time in which to move.

That is all I want to say, my Lords. I welcome the Bill. I am quite sure that all of us here would like to extend our very warm greetings and best wishes to our forces in Kuwait. Our thoughts are with them, and our sympathies, as always, are on their side.

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