HL Deb 06 July 1961 vol 232 cc1483-92

Debate resumed.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might say a few words from the Back Benches on this side of the House on the Army and Air Force Bill. My main impression of this Bill is that it shows that the arrangements which were begun in 1955, whereby the Army Act was to be renewed every five years instead of being renewed annually, have worked well; and, furthermore, that the work done by the Select Committee in another place prior to that Act, and before that by Committees such as the Lewis Committee on Courts Martial, has also been worth while. Because, if you come to examine the detailed provisions of this Bill—and I confess that I have not examined them nearly so closely as the noble Earl, Lord Lucan; nor do I intend to on Second Reading—one can see that nearly all the Amendments which are proposed in the Bill make no fundamental change. They disclose that nothing has really gone wrong in the administration of the Army and the Air Force.

On the other hand—and this is equally important—they do show a willingness on the part of the Service Departments to promote legislation to put those matters right which have been shown to work not so well as they might and therefore to impede the administration of the Army and the Air Force. So, my Lords, I think that on the Second Reading of this Bill one can say quite shortly that those clauses which I have referred to represent a state of affairs that one could describe as. "so far, so good".

There are perhaps one or two points that one might mention, and I should first of all like to take up again a remark that was made by my noble friend Lord Carrington: that the provisions for an extension of service for soldiers and airmen point the way to a career. I am delighted that they have done so, because I feel perfectly certain that in these days, if you want to recruit the right sort of young men to the Army and Air Force, and if you want them to stay the course, then you must offer a career. When we had the debate on the Army White Paper, I suggested that it might be possible to give every recruit who signed On for 22 years a guaranteed career in Her Majesty's Service up to the same retiring age you have in the Civil Service. That proposal was not greeted with the enthusiasm I had hoped; but, none the less, here in this Bill we see that official thinking is going on those lines; and the more nowadays we can provide a career for the intending recruit, the better the quantity and the quality I think our recruiting will be.

The counterpart of that is Clause 17 and the provisions restricting the purchase of discharge. It is not quite the same matter, because both the Army and the Air Force—I think to a greater extent the Army—are affected by the conditions of full employment in which we are now living. That has the effect of making the intending recruit a bit saucy (if I may put it that way) about what job he takes. That is the way he behaves not only when recruiting for the Services, but also when thinking of taking a job in civil life. There is also another aspect of it. There are a certain number of young men—and if one has anything to do with magistrates' courts and quarter sessions, one sees them there—who at a certain point in their own particular variety of "Rake's Progress" decide to enlist, if possible to escape something worse which they think may befall them; and so, with the best will in the world, there always will he a floating population of that sort, particularly in the Army.

There is no reason why one should arrange the affairs of the Army particularly for the convenience of those people; why, in other words, one should stand for waste of money and waste of effort by allowing young men to be able to buy themselves out before they can fairly be said to have had the chance of making up their minds. We were not told by my noble friend in front of me whether either the War Office or the Air Ministry were, in fact, going to take advantage of the latitude which they will get if this Bill is passed. It was hinted to us that the Air Ministry were not quite so keen as the War Office, but perhaps it is too early to say. So I will say merely that I shall be extremely disappointed if the War Office, at least, do not take advantage of the opportunity which I think, in a short time, Parliament will have given them.

Another feature about this clause, which I think is a good one, is that it shows the willingness of the Government, and indeed of the Parliamentary draftsman, to draw legislation in such a way that the Department does not have to wait five years if it wants to put a matter right. Five years, I think, is far too long to wait to put a matter of this sort right, and therefore I would entirely agree with those who said that a regulation which can be implemented or not, or may be varied by the Service Department, is very much better in a case of this sort than a provision written blindly into the Act.

Another main point made by my noble friend Lord Carrington was on the matter of fines. This again, I think, is all to the good, because all the time life in the Army—indeed, in the Services generally—is getting more and more like civil life, except at the moments when the forces are on active service. Quite how one would administer justice in, say, a magistrates' court without being able to impose lines at the correct moment, I, for one, do not know. I feel absolutely certain that the power to impose fines, or whatever one should call them, in a Bill like this—namely, deductions from pay—will prove a very useful and realistic power in the hands of a commanding officer or court-martial, as the case may be, and will help to do what one should always want to do, which is to make the punishment fit the crime. There are many things which go wrong in the Army, just as they do in civil life, which cannot be properly dealt with by confinement of the offender to barracks, still less by loss of seniority. So I welcome that provision, and I am sure, like noble Lords opposite, that we shall all be very interested to see what use the forces make of it.

How far matters like amendment to the rules for discharge by purchase work or do not work in the Services depends, I think, on one other thing which one ought to mention on these occasions; that is, the handling of the various situations by non-commissioned officers. I do not think one always realises, unless one has been a Regular in the Army or the Air Force, that, whatever the regulations say, a great deal of what actually happens depends on the approach to the matter by non-commissioned officers. Therefore, good as these regulations are, they will work for the better or worse according to the approach to them not only of the officers but of warrant and non-commissioned officers who have to deal with such matters within the unit.

That, my Lords, is all I think I need say about the Bill itself, except once again to welcome it and to say that I hope it will soon pass into law. I confess that it had not occurred to me that this was the moment when one should say anything about matters like Kuwait. When we had our debate on the Army White Paper, Kuwait had not happened, of course, and as noble Lords have referred to the matter, perhaps I might be allowed just one or two words.

The situation in Kuwait is obviously changing from hour to hour. I should be the last person to wish to make any comments which were embarrassing or out of place, but my first impression is that certain lessons, which obviously were there to be learnt after Suez, have been learnt. I should not like to use this debate to go into them deeply, but if one is to believe what one reads in the papers, then it looks as if the operation was not only properly planned beforehand, but was executed as planned. If that is so, then the planners and those who were concerned with the dispatch of the forces had quite clearly learnt a certain number of the Suez lessons to their good. In talking of Suez lessons, I am referring to the military lessons and not to the wider scene, which I would rather not touch on here.

I happen to be one of your Lordships who has not only been in Kuwait, but has actually driven over the route which, presumably, the Iraqis would use if, unfortunately, they were to attack the place. So I can agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, how important it is that the health of the troops should be attended to. I am quite certain that all the things that are necessary—air-conditioned places to rest, dark glasses, and all the rest of it—are being provided. But if in this House we wish to give a balanced picture, let me also say that I hope—indeed, I am certain—that with all the welfare amenities which are necessary, they have also gone out with their full war outfit of weapons and those other things which will help them to perform their task, if that task arises, much though we hope that the action so promptly taken by Her Majesty's Government will have had the effect which we always wish British military movements should have—namely, the forestalling of actual operations of war.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself most fully with what has been said by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman in tribute to the troops in Kuwait and also to the success of the planning and the way the plans were carried out. I want to put only one point to my noble friend, knowing a little of the difficulties of this country. I hope that the commanders on the spot will be allowed very wide discretion in providing and buying whatever they think is desirable for the troops. Those who know the tropical situation know how often the standard rules that are laid down are quite unsuitable (I found it all over West Africa) and great economy, as well as much greater efficiency, can be obtained by the wise use of local resources.

The First Lord will remember that we were able to help the Royal Navy there a great deal by cancelling almost every Admiralty instruction that had been issued, and the same applied to War Office instructions. Fortunately, I had been given power to act as Minister of Defence and was able to do that. But I suggest that it might well be possible for the commanders on the spot to do an enormous amount for amenities, if only in providing soft drinks or ices at the proper places, so long as they are given discretion and are not tied down to that £5 to a commanding officer and £10 to a brigadier or whatever is the rule. I am a great friend of economy, but I believe that in a case like this, economy is best served by giving a wise commander—and we seem to have most admirable commanders on the spot—a wide discretion.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may be excused for intervening, as I was the person who presided over the Select Committee for 2½ years in another place and produced the Army Act. It is an enormous satisfaction to me, and I am quite sure to all my colleagues in another place and, if I may say so, to the people who helped us in the various Departments, that this five-year plan that we suggested has appeared to work extremely well.

However, I am disappointed in one thing. I have re-read our Report and paragraphs 111 and 112 indicate that when the 5 years were up, the existing Army and Air Force Acts would be completely repealed and that a new Army and Air Force Act, up to date and including any amendments which occurred in other Acts of Parliament during the five-year period and any further amendments, would be produced. The reasons why we had that in mind were these. The Army Act is quite different from other Acts of Parliament. It is the document on which the Forces are administered all over the world wherever they are stationed. All of us who were staff officers in the old days at the beginning of the First World War will remember the ghastly book that was put into our hands, with all sorts of bits of tissue paper attached here and scratchings out there. And when one was, as it was my fate to be, adjutant and staff officer in Iraq and India, we were of course never up-to-date there with what had been done at home.

Therefore, the members of the Committee had very much in their minds that every five years an absolutely complete document should be provided for the Forces. My only disappointment is the form that this Bill takes—namely, to prolong the existing Army Act and amend it in 101 different ways. That means that the unfortunate A.G. officers out in Kuwait at the present time—no: mercifully it does not come into force straight away, but it will apply in Kenya and other stations overseas when the year comes—will have to bring the document up-to-date or the War Office will have to publish a complete volume of the up-to-date Army Act. I think it is quite impossible for Service personnel to do it.

Some months ago I noticed, when we passed through your Lordships' House the Scottish Mental Health Act, that two sections of the Army Act were amended by that Act. What officer overseas is ever going to learn that he will find something affecting, the Army Act in the Scottish Mental Health Act? He would be an extremely far-seeing person if he did. I am bound to admit that we did not say in so many words at the end of our Report that there should he a completely new Act submitted to the Select Committee, but the War Office and Air Ministry have decided to do it the other way. I think that for the good administration of the Army it is essential to get every five years a completely new Army Adt, with all the amendments written in, so that everybody can use it. The whole object of the five-year period, and of not allowing annual amendments, was to try to keep the document, on which administration and discipline in all the Services depend, up-to-date, available and simple in the eyes of the Service. With that one regret, I am delighted to welcome the Bill and extremely satisfied that apparently the scheme we invented has worked tolerably well.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which your Lordships have received this Bill and, in particular, for the contribution which we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Spens. I feel that perhaps it would have been more to the point if he had introduced this Bill, rather than myself, because he knows much more about it than I do. On the point that he has raised he has mode a very strong case.

I must confess that I do not know the answer, but I will find out what the position is and write to him and let him know. I was also very interested in the speech made by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman, which seemed to be a very thoughtful contribution, and I will draw the attention of the Secretary of State for War to what he said. I can reassure him on one point. The War Office do intend to use the provisions of Clause 17, but the Air Ministry at the present time are waiting to see how things turn out.

I have been asked a number of questions, which I will try to answer. The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, is quite right in thinking that the reckonable service for pension for an officer begins at the age of 21, although service before that age does count for a gratuity. This has been the position for a long time. The position of reckonable age for other ranks is left unaltered by the provisions of this Bill and still remains at eighteen. The noble Earl also asked about corporals and lance-corporals. He gave the correct reason, although he rather discounted it. The idea is that these young men, who have just come into the Army and are one the first rung of the ladder of Army promotion, should be given the benefit of substantive rank and not just an appointment. It is hoped that this will make the rank more important and give them a greater sense of responsibility.

Then the noble Earl asked about lance-sergeants. If I may say so, he is going back to his own experience, because in point of fact there is no such rank as lance-sergeant in the Army, except for the practice in his old regiment, and my old regiment. It occurs in no other. In the Brigade of Guards there is the local rank of sergeant. It has been the custom to call such men lance-sergeants because the Guards have so many public duties in London that there had to be enough sergeants to go round.

Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, asked me about the question of the Act of Settlement in Clause 36. This is a technical amendment. Queen's Commissions in the United Kingdom land forces have been given to British-protected persons and they have been seconded for service in colonial forces because the Act of Settlement does not Hermit places or offices of trust under the Crown to be occupied by persons who are not British subjects. This action is permissible, as Section 21 of the Army Act allows a limited number of aliens to be employed in the United Kingdom land forces. In present-day circumstances, it is undesirable to perpetuate this practice. Protectorates and colonial territories are rapidly advancing towards independence, and it seems sensible that officers in the forces of these territories should be commissioned in these forces and not in the forces of the United Kingdom. That is the sole object of this Amendment.

The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, asked me about a soldier's right to a trial by court-martial. I think he was under the impression that Clause 23 affected that right. But it does not. What it does is to make it unnecessary to hold a court-martial when higher authority in the Army decides that the charge should be dismissed. In other words, the clause operates only when a man is not brought to trial because it is judged that he should be acquitted.


My Lords, what if the soldier still wishes to be tried by court-martial?


My Lords, this is when he is acquitted. I hardly think if somebody is acquitted he would elect to be tried by court-martial. That seems almost impossible.

Many of your Lordships have spoken about Kuwait and the build-up of British forces there at the request of the Ruler; and I am glad that your Lordships have spoken as you did. I think everybody is agreed that the three Services, each in its own way, have carried out this operation efficiently and effectively. Both the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, and my noble friend Lord Swinton talked about welfare and amenities; and, of course, it must be very disagreeable at this moment in Kuwait, with the heat, sand, wind and flies. This is very much in the mind of the Minister of Defence and my two other Service colleagues, and I can give your Lordships an undertaking that we shall look carefully into the conditions under which our troops remain in Kuwait. I have no doubt that local commanders on the spot will be allowed the widest discretion, and I cannot but think that the rules will be interpreted with the greatest possible generosity.

It is sometimes said by those who are not well-disposed towards the Armed Services, and also by those who are perhaps not quite so far-seeing as they might be, that in the nuclear age a career in the Forces is not worth while; that what are wanted are white-coated scientists and men who press buttons in underground shelters. But surely this Kuwait operation has shown that this is not so, and that in the national interest it is vital that we should have Armed Forces flexible, mobile and capable of intervention at the shortest possible notice. I cannot help feeling that every one of those men who are now in Kuwait, or in the ships lying off Kuwait, however disagreeable the conditions there may be, will still feel that he personally has done a worthwhile job for his country and that the career he has chosen in the Armed Forces is a worthwhile one.

The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, also asked me about bases overseas and what we shall do when they are not available. This is, of course, a hypothetical question and the noble Lord will not expect an answer from me to-day. However, I should hope that, by agreement with the Governments after independence, we ourselves should find it possible to retain facilities there. In any case, this is a question for the future, and in the intervening time a good many things may have changed. But I assure the noble Lord and the rest of your Lordships who are interested that this question of overseas bases is a matter very much in the mind of the Government at the present time. I think I have answered all the questions which have been asked of me.

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