HL Deb 16 March 1967 vol 281 cc488-516

6.30 p.m.

LORD BROCKWAY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the nature of the commitment required for boy-service in the Armed Forces at the age of fifteen years and for those who accept man-service at the ages of seventeen and eighteen years. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I express some apology to the House for taking attention away from this quite historic occasion through which we have just passed, to ask leave to put the Question which is in my name on the Order Paper. Some years ago, I happened to be travelling in the same railway carriage as three boys who had been for several years at an orphanage, and who were then being transferred to the Navy. They were 15 years of age. I asked the officer who was accompanying them for how long they were to be committed to the Navy, and, to my astonishment, he said: "For 15 years". This meant that those boys of 15 would be 30 years of age before that commitment would be concluded. I was startled.

In another place on more than one occasion I have taken up individual cases; but I am a little ashamed that not until to-day have I taken up the bigger issue which is underlying this situation.

I want to be very accurate in my description of what I understand to be the present position, and therefore I am going to ask the House to excuse me if I follow my notes more closely than I usually do. I should like to ask the Minister who will be replying if the statement of the existing position which I am about to make is accurate. The minimum age of enlistment without the consent of a parent or guardian is 17 years and 6 months, though in certain cases it is 17 years. Under that age, a person may be enlisted with the written consent of the parents, or a parent, or the consent of any person, where the boy is not living with either parent, who has parental rights and powers in respect of him, or, if no such person exists, with the consent of any person in whose care, whether in law or in fact, the person enlisting may be.

In the case of a boy under the minimum age, the term for which he may be enlisted must not exceed 12 years, but this term will not begin to run until his 18th birthday. Except at times whereby a Proclamation of National Emergency has been declared, an enlisted person may within three months of enlistment claim his discharge on payment of a sum not exceeding £20. Thereafter there is no right to claim a discharge on payment of any sum, but discharge may be granted, within the discretion of the Army Council, on payment of a sum of money. This privilege is often refused, and such refusal appears, on the material before us, not to consider at all the best interests of the infant. It follows from what I have said that a boy of 15 may be enlisted and may be compelled to serve, subject to the right to terminate within the three months of enlistment that I have mentioned, until he is 27 or 30 years old.

I have been led to initiate this debate to-night on the advice of the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Continuing Committed of the Board for Conscientious Objectors. They have sent me cases of boys, teenagers, from the Army who for the last two years have sought to leave the Armed Forces and who have gone down in despair and frustration because they have not the opportunity to do so. There are 42 such cases, in great detail, in my hands at this moment. They have been forwarded to the Minister of Defence, and therefore I need not detail them. But I say this. I have rarely read such tragic human documents, showing deep unhappiness and utter frustration; leading, ultimately to some of these men becoming deformed characters as a result of what they have gone through.

There is one case here of a boy desiring to undertake a university career, refused even discharge by purchase. Even within the Navy he has continued his studies, passing his "A" level examinations, accepted by the Bristol University to go to that university, who has been turned down again and again, even when his parents were ready to purchase his discharge. I admit that sometimes ruses are adopted to get out: feigning sickness, deliberately failing examinations and deserting. These boys have been committed for 15 years to a life when they are 15 or 17 years old, too young to understand what it means; too young to have formed their lives; too young to have had a sense of what their future should be: and they become deteriorated. I say that these documents are epics of personal tragedy. Some of these men and boys have become conscientious objectors. There are instances which leave no doubt about their sincerity. The Peace Pledge Union have provided a number of cases.

I want, first, to make a suggestion to the Minister. It is that, in view of the circumstances in which these boys are committed to long terms in the Army, and their youthfulness, there should be a provision by which they can go to a tribunal when they claim to their commanding officer that they are conscientious objectors. At present, the procedure is this. First, they must refuse to obey orders; and if they have refused to obey orders, they are court-martialled. If at the court-martial they get a sentence of three months or over, then they are allowed to go to a tribunal. But these cases indicate that in many instances—and I have no doubt it is done quite deliberately—sentences of less than three months are given, for offences which otherwise would have required three months, simply in order that they may not have the opportunity to go to a tribunal.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? Would be tell me the basis for his view, of which he has no doubt, that sentences are deliberately pitched lower than three months so as to prevent these cases from going to a tribunal? The noble Lord is quite correct: I am very against the legal procedure, and I think he should substantiate it.


My Lords, I shall be glad to do so, and the noble Lord will find the substantiation in the cases which have been forwarded to the Ministry. There are cases of long desertion. There is a case of 14 months' desertion, and at the end of that period a sentence was passed which was just inadequate, from the point of view of military law, for the offence which had been committed.


My Lords, may I interrupt again, to ask the noble Lord on what basis he says that the sentence was inadequate? The noble Lord may be familiar with courts, but in their sentencing policy they take into account a large number of considerations, and he has made a most serious accusation against the administration of military law.


My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct, I am very familiar with these procedures. On several occasions I have been sentenced by courts-martial: so I know something about them. I have been the chairman of the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, and I have followed these matters in great detail. At the moment when my noble friend interrupts me I find it difficult to turn to the actual page in the document which I have, but that document is going to the Ministry of Defence, and I say that in these cases sentences have been given which are out of all proportion to the seriousness of the offence that has been committed. There seems to be little doubt that the purpose is to retain these men in the Army. Indeed, there is evidence of pressure to get them to apply for discharge on monetary payment, rather than as conscientious objectors. There has just been put into my hand the case of John Mayhew, with which my noble friend is probably familiar. This boy deserted for 14 months, he was sentenced to 42 days' detention and immediately flown out to the Far East. In all military experience that is a minor sentence for the offence of deserting for 14 months.

What I was seeking to do was to urge upon the Minister that these conscientious objectors should have the right to go immediately to a tribunal; and, secondly, that they should be provided with information about their own rights. Again, in these cases it is repeatedly said that they go to their commanding officers but are not given any information with regard to their rights. They do not even know that if they are sentenced to three months they have the right to go to an advisory tribunal. I am urging that at least they should be informed of these rights.

I do not want to raise this issue solely on the question of conscientious objectors. I suggest that it is wrong to impose long-term commitments on boys of 15, and even of 17 or 18. These are years in which decisions are being formed. I doubt whether any of your Lordships would disagree with me when I urge that 15 years is too young an age at which to allow a boy to pledge himself to a way of life until he is 30 years of age. As one reads these cases one often finds that the decision to join the Armed Forces at the age of 15 is due to temporary circumstances. It is often due to an unhappy home, to differences of opinions, or to divisions between parents. I often wonder how many Members of this House had mapped their future at 15 years of age, and would then have been prepared to decide what the pattern of their life should be until they were 30 years old.

I am approaching this subject with some optimism to-night, because there was a debate on this matter in another place before the General Election which brought a Labour Government to power. In that debate Mr. Michael Stewart urged strongly that there should be a reconsideration of the attitude towards these boys and that it was wrong even to ask that they should buy their discharges; wrong to keep them within the Armed Forces when they had joined at 15 years of age and had come to a different conclusion later on. I was impressed not only by Mr. Michael Stewart's speech, but also by the speech in which Sir Fitzroy Maclean, answering on behalf of a Conservative Government, said that it was not desired to keep any of these boys or young men in the Armed Forces against their will.

Even the possibility of getting out of the Armed Forces by monetary payment is becoming less. The Minister of Defence will see, when he receives details of these cases, that applications to leave the Army, even by purchase, are continually being rejected, even when the commanding officer of the regiment has recommended that they should be accepted. In addition, the period which these boys have to serve before they can get discharge by payment is increased. In 1959, four and a half years' service was required before discharge by purchase could be obtained. Now the period is seven years; and what strikes me as being particularly wrong is that when the period of four and a half or seven years is being considered the early part of that period, between the ages of 15 and 18, is not taken into account. In other words, if a boy joins at 15 years of age he has to serve a term of 10 years before he can even purchase his discharge from the Army.

The second point is that of cost, which varies from £150 to £200. Poor parents cannot afford that amount. It is a discrimination against those who are poor. What is the Ministry's defence of this? It is that this sum is to reimburse the costs which these boys have caused in the Armed Forces. Do we consider this in other matters? Do we apply it to other forms of training? Do we apply it when we give university grants? Do we say that the students must follow certain courses until they are 30 years of age? Can they not become doctors? Can they not become scientists? Cannot they go to America and be participants in the "brain drain"? Are we to say, here and now, in the military sphere, that if they have been trained as apprentices in the Army the cost of this training must all be reimbursed, or else they must follow that life until they are 27 or 30 years of age?

I want to follow that up by putting this consideration. I want to challenge the view of the moral legitimacy of these long-term commitments of minors. It is not accepted in civilian life. The trend of British law is moving away from the idea of restrictions of service, even for adults If my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor were here, I would remind him of the case with which he was closely associated where the rules of the Football Association and the regulations of the Football League as to the retention of players were held to be unreasonable and invalid, although they had been acted upon for many years. I am referring to the case of Eastham v.Newcastle United Football Club, in 1963. What I am saying to the Minister is that the same trend which is taking place in our civilian law ought to find some expression in these long-term commitments in the Armed Forces, particularly when they are for boys of 15 and teenagers.

I wonder whether the Minister would deny the fact that these commitments would not be legally acceptable to-day in the civilian sphere. I have taken the trouble to get counsel's opinion on this matter. This is what he writes: Both with regard to boy soldiers and also with regard to those who have attained the minimum age but are still under 21 I have no doubt that if this was a contract to which the Infants Relief Act, 1874, applied such a contract, by reason of the length of time that the infant binds himself to one master and by reason of the fact that the master can vary the terms of service at will, and also its general unilateral character, would be held to be unenforceable against the infant. Furthermore, the infant would have the opportunity of repudiating the contract within a reasonable time of attaining his majority. Both at common law and by the statutory provisions of the Infants Relief Act, 1874, the principle is well established ' that an infant is of immature intelligence and discretion '(Halsbury's Laws of England, Third Edition. Vol. 21, p. 138) and must be protected. Under all the terms by which infants as young as 15 are committed to serve in the Forces there is no vestige of protection for the infant. The terms of enlistment of infants as they stand at the moment are in complete contradiction with the long-standing principles concerned with the protection of infants.


My Lords, may I intervene to ask the noble Lord this? In all these cases he has been quoting, is the parent not present? Is he not available to give his infant advice as to the best career for him?


Yes, very many of these letters, very many indeed, are from parents describing their frustration in approaching the Ministry of Defence and getting the refusal of the Ministry of Defence of the discharges for which they have been asked.

My Lords, I want to conclude by making a series of constructive proposals.


My Lords, I am following the noble Lord with great interest. On the question of legality, is he saying that what is now being done is actually illegal, or is he merely saying it is repugnant in a legal sense?


My Lords, I would have hoped the noble Lord followed me. I am not saying it is illegal. The Army Act and the other Acts which cover it make what is happening now absolutely legal. What I am asking is that the same principles which now apply in civilian law shall be extended to military law; the same principles which say it is wrong that a boy of 15 should be committed for 15 years, that teenagers of 17 and 18 should be committed until they are 30 years of age. If they were civilian contracts there is not a court in this country which would be prepared to enforce them. I am asking that the same principles should be applied in the military sphere.

I conclude with some quite positive proposals. First—and this is what I have been saying—the principles of law relating to civilians should be applied in the military sphere. Second, boys of 15 should have the opportunity annually to obtain discharge, and without monetary payment. Third, they should not be committed to long-term service until they are at least 18 years of age. Fourth, they should have the opportunity to choose civilian life when they become adults at 21. Fifth, any Serviceman who claims conscientious objection should be able to go direct to a tribunal and at least should be informed of his rights. Sixth, the decision in individual cases should be with the commanding officer of the regiment, subject to appeal, rather than a decision by the Ministry. Seventh, the establishment of a military ombudsman to whom appeals could go, and unobstructed access of Members of Parliament to submit cases to him. Above all, I am asking for a full inquiry into the present discharge machinery, possibly by reference to the Committee on the Age of Majority, under Mr. Justice Latey, whose terms of reference include examination of teenage contracts.

My Lords, I have raised this matter because I believe it is a matter of freedom and of democracy. We pride ourselves on our record in this country as a free and democratic society. We are proud of it. But this freedom is refuted by this denial to the path of life by these boys even before they have taken their first unattended steps on it. Democracy will be denied unless the Government will reconsider a tradition in the military sphere which is outlived in the civilian sphere.

6.58 p.m.


My Lords, I was stirred to take part in this debate this afternoon by the same pamphlet issued by the National Council for Civil Liberties as I think stirred my noble friend to initiate the debate. My reaction to it was absolutely immediate. I wanted to do the same thing as he has done, to raise a Question in this House. I am bound to say if I had done so my Question would have been more aggressive than that which stands in the name of my noble friend on the Order Paper. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Shackleton, when he replies, not only will tell us what the conditions are, but, answering in the spirit of my noble friend's speech, will say whether he agrees that urgent consideration needs to be given to the reform of these conditions.

In making a protest against these conditions to-day, I do not speak out of any hostility or any desire to hit at the Armed Forces, for I am quite sure—indeed it is part of my case—that the Armed Forces provide a thoroughly satisfying career to the vast majority of young men who are recruited into them. In the same way, I do not claim, as has been claimed, that the conditions are withheld or concealed from young boys enlisting, or from their parents. I do not claim that there is misrepresentation in the advertisements issued by the Services because, like any other employer, they have the right to lure prospective employees. I speak because I think it is absolutely wrong for a young man to be bound until the age of 27 by a decision which he has made at 15.

It is quite easy to imagine hundreds of cases of young boys joining the Forces because they are attracted by the publicity, the adventure, the open air life and the security which the Services offer, or because may be they are dissatisfied with their home life and want to get away from it. I think it is equally obvious that hundreds of parents—and I mean hundreds—will consent most willingly and thankfully to their sons entering the Services. They may have been in the Services themselves. They may be worried about their son's future; they may just want to get rid of him because they are fed up with seeing him around the house. It is equally obvious, and is borne out in the cases which have come to light, that of those hundreds a few and only a few of the boys who join will want to change their minds, for perfectly good reasons.

The Services' life is a peculiarly communal, institutional one. After a few years some boys may find that they have had enough of it, that they do not like it. Like the conscientious objectors of whom my noble friend spoke, they may change their moral and political views. They may, quite simply, want to get out; they feel that they have made the wrong decision, and they want to go somewhere where their talents can be used and where opportunities are better. I myself worked for several years in jobs where I could travel. I got married, and I no longer wished to travel. So I changed completely and took a completely different job, one that I found much more congenial, and one which kept me in this country. Why should this freedom which I had, and which every other citizen of the country has, be denied to Servicemen in time of peace?

My noble friend has underlined the fact that these conditions are repugnant to principles of the Common Law. He has also underlined the fact that they are unique; that no other walk of life, no other career, imposes any remotely similar obligations. Kindred topics, such as the emigration of young scientists and young doctors in search of better opportunities, are quite relevant and topical at the moment. My noble friend Lord Shackleton will remember saying in the House on December 20 last, in the debate on the brain drain, that the last thing we want to consider is to put any form of restriction on movement, and that certainly the Government had no inten- tion of doing so. He said that it was even doubtful whether it is desirable to discourage this practice beyond a certain point. If this is the policy—and quite rightly it is the policy—of the Government with regard to trained young men who go abroad to work in other countries, how much more should it be the policy when we are concerned with young men most of whom will continue to work in this country, and who will give their training and talents to this country!

When I considered this situation, I thought that perhaps there was something unique in Service life around the world which in some way made these conditions acceptable. So I rang up a few military attaches around London. Without exception they found our conditions unacceptable. The United States enlists Servicemen at 18 years and not before, and for a maximum initial period of four years. The French allow a junior apprentice to opt out after two years' training, and, if he continues service, they require him to sign on for five years. The Canadians, who in a way come closest to us because they require a boy to sign on for five years from the age of 18, have one significant difference in their system, that is, that there is a constitutional right for any Serviceman to purchase his discharge at any time for a maximum of 250 dollars. Compare that sum even with the £175 or the £200 that is required from boys who have grounds for compassionate discharge, or even from boys or young men who have served the greater part of their term. I should point out that I do not agree with purchase, and I support what my noble friend has said about it. It bears no relation to the cost of training, and it penalises the poor. I find it almost as anachronistic and as absurd as the system of purchasing a commission.

As one might expect with a system which is repugnant to legal principles, and which no other profession and no other country has thought it right or necessary to adopt, I find the arguments in its favour have but little substance. It is said that the Forces are in grave need of recruits. I have no doubt that they are. But are the Services really saying that the career that they offer, and the life within their ranks, is so unpleasant that they have to compel the people that they have to stay in? I do not think so. Furthermore, I believe that if the terms are changed you will get more recruits. I know full well that I would not advise any friend or son of mine to enlist on such onerous terms.

Then it is said, as my noble friend has pointed out, that the Army has a right to expect a return on its investment. My noble friend has made the point that this is not expected by any other employer or prospective employer, who takes the risk of training a man and spending a lot of money on him. But the argument is full of many more holes than that. First of all, as I think my noble friend Lord Shackleton will agree, it is only a minority who are crying to get out. Probably the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, would agree that life in the Services is satisfying and will continue to attract people and continue to keep them. But what kind of soldiers are some of these frustrated young men going to make? Many of them are driven to depression, desertion and moral deterioration. The country needs to make full use of all the trained men it possesses, and if a man feels that his talents can be better employed elsewhere than in the Services, then let him go elsewhere. I find it a most parochial attitude on the part of the Services to say that they have spent so much money, and therefore they should have the benefit. If a man leaves the Royal Air Force and goes into B.O.A.C., or if he leaves the Army and goes into Marconi, his training is not wasted. What will be a loss to the Services will be a gain to some other employer, whether it is public industry or private industry. But the country is not the loser.

The obvious reply to the economic argument is that even if it would cost millions of pounds to change the regulations, then that price must be paid because it is the liberty of the individual which is at stake. Just as private industry, the Health Service, the police, and everybody else take the risk of losing their trainees, so the Services must do the same. Surely what has happened is that these conditions exist because they have always existed—they have existed ever since the day of Farquhar's play, The Recruiting Officer. Now, perhaps for the first time, the hard- ship which can be caused is becoming fully known and appreciated. When grievances such as this come to light, the Government—or perhaps not the Government, but the mandarins in the Ministry of Defence—drag up arguments why no change should be made.

I expect a positive answer from my noble friend to-day. My noble friend Lord Brockway has made his suggestions in regard to this matter. I consider that an initial period of two or three years, or may be four at the maximum, is what we want to aim at. As I say, I expect a positive answer, because why do we elect a reforming Government, and a new Government, if not to reform this kind of grievance when it comes to light? I am sure that my noble friend Lord Brockway will join me in saying that we will not allow this matter to rest, because even though there may not be many noble Lords in the House this evening, I feel that there will be many who will welcome a Private Member's Bill to amend the Armed Services Acts.

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, this occasion requires only a few words from me. Party differences are certainly not involved in any way, and I do not expect to find myself in any sort of conflict with the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, who is to reply. I think we are at one in considering that at all times, and especially now, whatever may be the future pattern of the Forces, recruiting requirements are of the greatest importance and that junior servicemen are a very valuable source of recruits. The ability to recruit healthy, intelligent boys attracted to the idea of Service life is one that is greatly valued by all three Armed Services. Indeed, it plays an essential part, particularly as technical service requires more and more technical training to-day, and this is bound to get more, rather than less, complicated in the future.

I agree that for a teenage boy to commit himself at the age of fifteen to fifteen years' service is not right. So far as I know, I think that this has applied to the Navy, and is being looked at, but that it has not occurred in the other two Services. I think that I am right in that. On the other hand, as a matter of principle, public interest must be taken into account when large sums have been expended on training young servicemen. I have had very considerable experience of training young soldiers in my 32 years' service. The Service establishments for the training of boys are of the very highest standard, and I am most recently familiar with one of the very big Army apprentice schools which was formed under my own command and which I saw for the first three years of its life. These establishments provide a quite remarkable technical education, as well as taking immense care in the welfare of the boys. The parents are frequently welcomed; they can inquire into all aspects of the boy's life, and they are given the same consideration by the Service officers as if they were paying for an expensive school education. Incidentally, the costs of these apprentice schools are considerably more than the most expensive public schools in England. Junior leaders' units produce young men who invariably obtain a grounding which enables them to achieve rapid promotion when they come on to man's service, and they often obtain commissions which their education before they joined would not otherwise have made possible.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? He said that he thought the extension to thirty years applied only to the Navy and not to the other two Services. I now have in my hands the official Army and Air Force documents. In the case of the Army, apprentices may choose between enlisting for a period of twelve years full-time Regular service up to the age of 30 and enlisting for nine years full-time Regular service up to 27, followed by a further three years' service in the Reserve. I beg your Lordships' pardon, my first remarks should have related to the Air Force, and I will now deal with the Army. In the case of the Army, all boys are required to enlist to serve until they are eighteen, and thereafter to serve for either nine years with the Colours and three years in the Regular Reserve or six years with the Colours and six years in the Regular Reserve. It applies not only to the Army, but to the Air Force.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that. I shall come on to this a little later, and I shall be as interested as the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, to hear the comments of the Minister on this matter when he comes to wind up.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Brockway helped the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, because I think he got his sentences transposed. I wonder if I might try to clarify the area of argument on this point. There are, in fact, no initial engagements in the Army to the age of 30—I think the noble Lord did correct that. Technician apprentices in the R.A.F. may choose engagements to ages 27 or 30, and the Navy has some apprentice entries to age 30. I interrupt only to establish the facts. I am sure the noble Lord appreciates that.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I mentioned the R.A.F. when I should have said the Army, and the Army when I should have said the R.A.F.


My Lords, that was a word or two about the apprentice schools and the junior leaders. There are also, of course, the junior soldiers' units, of which the Junior Guardsmen's battalion at Pirbright is an example. There are about 300 boys there, ranging from 15 to 17, and 80 per cent. of them continue to become Guardsmen. The remainder are those who, for reasons of health or temperament, show themselves or feel themselves unsuitable for one reason or another.

I think it is this minority of whom the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, is speaking to-day. I think it is a great pity that the noble Lord did not send to the Minister this large number of cases which he talked about, so that we could hear from the Minister the details of them, because I am very surprised that such a very large number of disgruntled servicemen should have approached the noble Lord. I should be extremely interested, when these cases are examined, to know what the Service Ministries have to say, because I have very strong suspicions from my long military experience that there is usually quite a lot behind these disgruntled applications, and all sorts of things come to light.


My Lords, may I again interrupt to say that these cases were sent to the Minister of Defence 10 days ago, and are in the hands of the Minister of Defence? They were not cases sent to me. They were cases sent to the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Continuing Committee of the Board for Conscientious Objectors.


My Lords, I shall be interested to know what the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has to say about that, although I do not suppose he will have had time to go into the details of cases. Ten days is not a very long time, and they have to be examined by a great many authorities.

When the Army is faced with the problem of a junior recruit who does not fit in, it is usually the Army—or, indeed, either of the other two Services—which takes the initiative in releasing him, and it is seldom that a boy recruit and his seniors will disagree as to his suitability or unsuitability. Before he is released, in virtually every case, the company commander will have been in touch with the parents, and the problem is worked out in a humane, kindly and convincing way. It is worth stressing that all the officers and N.C.O.s sent to service units which deal with the training of juniors are most carefully selected. I know that every confidential report form in the Army contains a paragraph saying, "Is this officer suitable for training boys?" If he is, then he can be considered. It is a very great honour to be selected to go to one of these units. These officers give up very many of their evenings to assist the boys in their hobbies, and in getting to know them.

I am not going to try to explain the special arrangements made for boys; we have the Minister to do that. But it seems to me quite reasonable that a young soldier may purchase his discharge at any time during his first three months' service for £20, after which the rates vary in accordance with the Pay Warrant. If there is a case for re-examining the Pay Warrant, that might be a very good thing. I know that there are compassionate cases where such restrictions as exist on purchasing discharge are waived; but where the grounds do not justify free discharge the General Officer Commanding can authorise a partial reduction of 50 per cent. of the purchase, or a still greater percentage if he gets the agreement of the Command Secretary. As a former General Officer Commanding, I myself have adopted both of these procedures in the past.

There are perfectly clear reasons why a free discharge cannot be given in all cases, and every case must be examined most carefully. A very great deal of public money is spent on the training of these young men, and they are given a remarkable education. Some firms are so well aware of this that they are not above trying to bribe boys to get out of the service, even offering to buy them out, because they have been so well trained. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, will agree that when the taxpayer has paid a great deal of money it is only fair to get value out of this training. I wonder whether some of these cases which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has talked about relate to disgruntled youths who have had a most valuable and expensive training, and who see a good way of getting a lot more money in civil life for what the Services have done for them. I know of cases in the Army where boys have tried to get out, and when they were investigated that was found to be the reason.

I shall be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I am sure that there should be reasonable and humane arrangements—and I believe there are—for misfits to get out of the Services. But I am sure that the Services must be protected when they have given these boys what is, in fact, a remarkably good start in life. In these days of so much juvenile crime and degeneracy and drug-taking, I must say that I wish there were more opportunities of such admirable training for our youth to-day.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, this is the second time this week that I have had to ask for your Lordships' indulgence, in intervening without having asked for my name to be placed on the list of speakers. I hope I may nevertheless have that indulgence, although I should perhaps say that it is not my intention to make this a regular practice. The subject under debate on the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, concerns the balance between the necessary enforcement of discipline in a Service to which a boy of 15½ or a young man of 18 has committed himself, and the terms under which he may be released if, subsequent to his enlistment, he should for some reason wish to be.

I wish to raise just one quite limited but important aspect of this matter, and I shall do so briefly—I understand that this matter is already under review so far as the Army is concerned—namely, what happens if during his service a recruit becomes, or alleges that he has become, a conscientious objector. At the beginning of the last war the treatment of conscientious objectors was extremely just and fair. Great care, great understanding, was shown by most tribunals for those who wished to register as conscientious objectors. I myself attended several tribunals as a witness in the early months of the war, and was immensely impressed by the way the tribunals were conducted. The attitude of respect and fairness shown by the judge to those who appeared before him in itself helped to discriminate between the hypocrite and the man of genuine conviction.

The circumstance of a man who has volunteered for Service discipline, and who thereafter wishes to register as a conscientious objector, is different in character from that of a man coming before a tribunal when he is liable for call-up in war time. But one must recognise that a change of conviction in such a matter can, and sometimes does, arise among young people. After all, 15½ is a pretty young age at which to have cleared your mind upon an issue of this character. The change of conviction may be genuine, whether we agree with it or whether we do not.

One must also recognise how very difficult it is to test whether it be genuine. The commitment already entered into cannot be lightly disregarded, either for the man's sake or for the sake of the Service of which he is a member. This would be treating the man's sense of obligation and integrity too lightly, and I think it is very wrong to treat a young man's sense of obligation and integrity lightly. After all, he has had much done for him during his period of Service training. I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, in this respect. But I understand that, as things are at present, the procedure in the Army is that the man must prove his conscientious objection by refusing to obey orders; a military charge follows, and only after serving some initial sentence can a tribunal be convened.

I find it very difficult to believe that this is really right. Clearly the tribunal's inquiry must be a searching one. I believe that the applicant may wish—indeed, may be expected—to provide some proof that he is ready in some way to make a form of recompense for an undertaking made voluntarily by him which he now feels bound to break. Not to require some such earnest of his sincerity would. I think, be doing less than justice to the young man's sense of responsible obligation. But I cannot think that the initial process of being treated as a criminal—for, in a sense, this is what it amounts to—is the right way to do it. I understand that this very matter is now under review at the War Office. Perhaps the Minister answering this debate will be able to confirm this. If this is the case, I would only ask: has the question of an option to transfer to some non-combatant form of service, at least for a period of time, been considered as at all events an initial resolution in some of the cases?

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, if I understand my noble friend's Question and complaint aright, it is not that he casts any reflection as such on military service and the training of these young apprentices—and I may say that I do not wish to involve myself or worry the noble Lord in regard to his personal conscience about military service—but that he is concerned about that minority of young people who, for one reason or another, have entered the Service and have subsequently changed their minds. I do not think, therefore, that there is any suggestion that these young soldiers, sailors and airmen get anything other than an admirable training, or that they are themselves—and this certainly has been my experience—other than very fine young men, the great majority of whom are in fact happy to continue in the Service. I should just like to make sure that we are agreed so far. I think my noble friend Lord Brockway agrees with me so far.


Yes, my Lords. That is not the issue I raised. The issue I raised was the long-term commitment, which would not be accepted in civil life.


That is not inconsistent with what I am saying. I am merely trying to establish the area in which there is agreement, not the area in which there may be either disagreement or difficulty.

I have listened very closely indeed to both what my noble friend Lord Brockway said and indeed to what my noble friend Lord Gifford said. Having listened to them, I am bound to say that there is a real area of difficulty here—and I will try to set out as clearly as I can the nature of the dilemma. In addition, there is the particular issue which he raised, as did the right reverend Prelate, in relation to conscientious objectors. I should like to deal with that very quickly, because I am not in a posito say very much about it. I have listened very carefully, and I have myself noted the procedure that is followed in these cases. I hope both the noble Lord and the right reverend Prelate will excuse me from commenting on that procedure, beyond saying that what they had to say will be taken very carefully into account. This was a subsidiary point, but certainly a very important one. I acknowledge that.

The only point in regard to conscientious objectors with which I really must disagree most strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway—and it may well be that he inadvertently fell into error in this—is in regard to his suggestion that in certain cases courts-martial were deliberately sentencing deserters to a penalty less than that which would bring them within the scope of the conscientious objection appeal procedure. Regardless of what may have happened in the past—and I fully acknowledge the noble Lord's personal experience and, indeed, the courage he has shown in upholding his views in the past—I simply cannot accept that courts-martial have to-day deliberately given men lower sentences than those which would bring them within the field of this particular procedure. Indeed, he quoted the case of Mayhew, who, he said, was given a very low sentence bearing in mind the severity of the offence of desertion which he had committed. But, of course, Mayhew—and this is why I think my noble friend must have fallen into error—never claimed to be a conscientious objector.


I admit the error at once. If my noble friend will remember, I had a look at some papers, and I then referred to the case of Mayhew when I ought to have referred to another case. I admit that mistake; but I can refer to other cases.


I fully accept that my noble friend did not intend to mislead the House. But it proves my point that the sentences which are imposed for desertion are not as severe as my noble friend clearly thinks they should be, though he has suggested that courts-martial have been avoiding what would seem to be the appropriate sentence simply in order to prevent an individual going before the court-martial appeal court. Although it is perhaps dangerous for me to comment on courts-martial and how they operate, perhaps I may be permitted to express a view. I should have thought that, if anything, if there was any bias, it would have been towards enabling the young man in question to take advantage of that procedure; and I hope that my noble friend, in the absence of any definite evidence to the contrary, will accept that. I may say that all the cases to which reference has been made have been examined, and nothing has been found to suggest that there is any foundation for such an accusation, which I know did not emanate from the noble Lord. After all, he has to rely on information which other people give him. The courts-martial cases which have been made known to us, and which have been examined in detail, provide no evidence to support this particular allegation.

Perhaps at this point I might say to the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, that I am not able to comment on these particular cases because we have so far been unable to trace the great majority of them. The Army can trace none of the cases quoted, because in only one case is a name given; and in that case the name only is given and no regiment or regimental number. Indeed, there is quite an aura of anonymity. There may be reasons why people who send up these cases wish to keep them anonymous, but it makes it rather difficult to meet the charges. Nearly all the R.A.F. cases are anonymous. The Navy has certainly been able to trace some cases, but there again most of those are anonymous. I do not make these points—although in a sense this could be argued—in order to make a tactical score. I grant that the noble Lord has presented a case which raises real difficulties and one which must give us all grounds to search our hearts and consciences. I will try to meet the noble Lord by setting out as fairly as I can the procedure followed in the circumstances and why hitherto, and certainly at present, this procedure is followed.

I should like first to explain how we have come to the present position and the present law governing enlistment in the Services, of which the enlistment of boys forms part. Originally, all persons entering the service of the Crown, in the Army and in a civilian capacity, entered that service for life. The Royal Navy was an exception in that seamen were engaged for the period of a ship's commission. Parliament, however, regulated the length of engagement of soldiers; and the Army Act 1881 contains provisions on the terms of enlistment of soldiers. The Air Force followed the Army's model. If your Lordships refer to Part I of each of the Army Act 1955 and the Air Force Act 1955 you will find the terms of enlistment then laid down. These again were modified in the Army and Air Force Act 1961. The Royal Navy was governed by the Naval Enlistment Acts 1835–1884.

In the Armed Forces Act 1966, which was recently passed by your Lordships, the terms of entry of ratings into the Royal Navy were brought into line with those governing the Army and the Air Force, and the Defence Council were given rather wider powers to regulate the terms of enlistment for all three Services by Statutory Instrument, subject to the Negative Resolution procedure and therefore subject to Parliamentary control. An area of flexibility, still with Parliamentary control, has been introduced. In the exercise of these powers, the Royal Navy has now given recruits the right to buy their discharge for £20 at the end of the first three months' service. Thus all recruits to all three Services may buy their discharge during part of the first three months of service. I realise that noble Lords who are criticial will maintain that this period is not enough, and that the problems may not even arise at that point; indeed, even if unhappy, they may possibly, for perfectly laudable reasons, be persuaded to go on trying.

My Lords, let me now deal with why the Services want to recruit boys—because this is partly responsible for our dilemma. The Services look to the junior and apprentice schemes as an important source of high quality recruits to provide future warrant officers, petty officers, N.C.O.s and skilled tradesmen. As the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said, some are commissioned. I must say straight away that I think they are a splendid lot of young men. I have from time to time given lifts to young soldiers. In my inspections at Halton, where I have talked freely to them, one cannot fail to be impressed with them. If I understood my noble friend Lord Gifford correctly, he would argue that this strengthens his case for allowing those who are dissatisfied to be allowed out, because the Services do produce a degree of enthusiasm and satisfaction probably greater among these young soldiers than even among the adult recruits. In the Navy these young sailors amount to over two-thirds of the total intake of recruits.

In industry and commerce, employers are increasingly trying to obtain their high-quality recruits direct from school and to train them in their particular field. Once a boy has received his training and has settled into a job generally—though not necessarily so; it will depend on certain types of management—he is unlikely to want to change. The Services must continue to follow the same practice if they are to get the leaders and the skilled men that they need. Experience shows on the whole that boys settle down more easily than adult recruits. Their wastage is less and they stay longer in the Service; that is to say, the proportion who extend their services or continue to pensionable engagements is higher than for adult recruits. Again, in general, because of their early start and the high-quality training they receive, they reach a higher rank than adult recruits. The Services think very highly of their boy entrants, and the boys think highly of their own Service. I think we can all agree on this.

My Lords, let me now face the point raised by my noble friend Lord Brockway. Boys between the ages of 15 and 17½ can join the Services, with the written consent of a parent or guardian, through an apprentice or junior training scheme. They undertake to serve to the age of 18 and for a specified period thereafter. This varies, according to the Service and the type of trade concerned, from six years for most Army boys to a maximum of 12 years for certain recruits to the Royal Navy and the R.A.F.


My Lords, may I interrupt to ask whether it is not true that the junior who joins for six years in the Army receives 38s. 6d. a week less for the whole of his service than if he joins for nine years?


My Lords, I was afraid that I should be asked that question. I have not my finger on the answer, but I may have it by the time I finish speaking. It is interesting, but it is not relevant to the main case, which is why they should be allowed to go. As I have said, they undertake to serve a certain period.

From the age of 17½ recruits may be entered for adult engagement without parental consent. Young men between 17 and 17½ may, however, enlist for adult service in the Army or the Royal Air Force, provided that they have their parent's or guardian's consent. The length of the initial engagement for adults is 9 or 12 years in the Royal Navy, the option of 6 or 9 years in the Army, and 5 or 9 years in the Royal Air Force; although a small number of 3-year engagements are available in the Army and Royal Air Force. All these engagements are for active service, and the rates of pay for certain of them depend on the length of these engagements. I have not yet got the answer to the point my noble friend raised. I was speaking in general terms, for I was not able to check the actual figures. All these engagements are for active service, and in some cases there is a liability for Reserve service.

In 1966 the Royal Navy took on 4,925 boys of the ages in question, the Army took on 5,838 and the Royal Air Force, 1,244. This makes a total of about 12,000 boys a year, amounting to about a quarter of the total intake. I have here a number of figures as to the number who left before completing their service, but in order to save time I will not give them now, because they were given in another place, unless the noble Lord wishes me to.

My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister of Defence for Administration said in another place that he was looking into the problem of terms of service for those who entered the Service as boys, and would announce the result in due course. But there are difficult and important manning considerations involved, and if there is one thing we ought not to do it is to dismiss these difficulties as ones which not only can we ignore but ought to ignore, in the light of the important principles which have been raised by my noble friends. A proposal to give all young entrants the right to go at age 21 would present the most tremendous difficulties for the Armed Services. It would almost certainly lead to a substantial (though how many one does not know) increase in the numbers which the Services would have to recruit; not necessarily because the number who would want to act out would be so very large, but because of the number who might join knowing that they could get out at that age without a commitment. That is quite apart from those cases which have come to the notice of your Lordships.

The right to leave might be exercised by other men who would otherwise be quite content to continue their service. Temporary difficulties or pressure from families may easily persuade a man to leave the Service and he may afterwards regret doing so. I have direct experience of this. I will not go into detail, but a group of airmen (and not all of them were very young) were, after their original application had been turned down, given the opportunity to purchase their discharge. This was two years after they had insisted that they wanted to leave. But by then they had changed their minds and wanted to stay. I think it is conceivable that my noble friend would accept some sort of barrier so that it was not possible for people to act too much on the spur of the moment.

The more men the Service recruit, the more they have to train. While the present training schools could no doubt deal with a modest increase, any substantial increase would involve the Services in setting up new training schools. There is no two-way traffic between the Services and industry—or at least very little—in respect of trained technicians. In practice, when a Service loses a trained technician, he is lost for good and the Service has to train a replacement, which may take as long as five or six years. There is very little chance of recruiting a technician already trained by industry.

The Services are in difficulties about making firm manning plans, and these difficulties would be seriously increased by giving men a right to go at 21. The Services would not, for instance, be able to calculate at all accurately the outflow at the age of 21, because they would have little or no practical experience to guide them. Moreover, giving a right to go a 21 is the kind of step which, once taken, can hardly be retracted. Nor would my noble friend want it to be retracted. If we were to introduce an experiment to let everybody go at 21 it would, I think, be impossible ever to return to the former position and impose restrictions to which the noble Lords have objected.

It is therefore natural, as I am sure will be accepted by noble Lords, that the Services should be very cautious, faced as they are with the need to keep the Forces manned and to carry out the very onerous responsibilities that the people and Government of this country put upon them. Furthermore, they have to keep their costs within the limit of the Defence Budget, and there are plenty of people, including my noble friend, who would like to see that Budget reduced. The wider the door is out of the Services at an early stage, the greater the intakes and the greater the training bill.

1/23/2007 Your Lordships may wonder why the Services should be able to hold young men when young men in industry can easily leave their jobs. I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord with regard to a comparison of the position of the Service man vis-à-vis his ordinary fellow citizen in relation to the operation of Common Law. But there is a certain similarity, even so, between the terms for indentured apprentices in civil life and boy or apprentice entrants into the Services. I have had experience of this. There is usually a probationary period of three to six months, during which either the employer or the apprentice can terminate the contract. After the probationary period, any dispute between employer and the boy has to be referred to the National Apprenticeship Council which decides, sometimes after calling for further information, whether or not the boy should be allowed to leave. Sometimes it recommends that he be transferred to another employer. The employer has the right to go to court, if the boy insists on breaking his apprenticeship, but in practice this rarely happens.

Despite the similarities, I recognise that in practice the Services do hold a man, whereas an employer normally does not. It is, however, worth making this point to show that this is not quite such a strange situation as all that.


My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise I am sure—no doubt the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will correct me if I am wrong—that an infant does have the right to avoid his apprenticeship contract at the age of 21.


Then he has completed it. I am being as scrupulously fair as I can to noble Lords. The power to hold a Serviceman derives from the Service Acts. Parliament has made it an offence to desert or be absent without leave and has laid down penalties in these Acts, but noble Lords must face this. We may not like having Armed Forces. We may abhor war. There are those who in fact carry their hatred of war to the point where they can conscientiously object. But many of us cannot conscientiously object and have to face the consequences of the fact that there are fighting Services with the unique task of defending the country, and Parliament has recognised that the Serviceman should not have the right to leave at short, or comparatively short notice, and has provided penalties if he leaves unlawfully.

Your Lordships may also wonder whether a large number of men would leave if we gave them the right to go at, say, 21. We do not really know the answer to that question. As I have said, we hope that the vast majority are content with life in the Services. We know, however, that some wives of Servicemen may not be. I would draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the average age at which a Serviceman marries is going down, and this is in line with the rest of the population.

The demands which the country imposes on Servicemen, such as readiness to go anywhere in the world at short notice, and if necessary to serve unaccompanied on tours overseas, are very much disliked by the wives of Servicemen. Moreover, the Services cannot guarantee accommodation for the families of those serving at home. The Services do their very best to minimise the separation of a Serviceman from his family, but some degree of separation is inevitable. Here again, the shortage of housing in this country affects far more than the Services but money is limited. Naturally, no wife likes separation, and it is at this point that so many of these young men, very often over the age of 18 when they get married, find that they would like to get out of the Service. There is a real problem here, for which there is no quick and easy answer. The natural desire to liberalise the terms of enrolment for boys conflicts to some extent with the tasks the country has laid on the Services.

My noble friend referred to the cases raised by the National Council for Civil Liberties. I will not discuss them further now. My noble friend can read Hansard of another place, and I have dealt with certain points. I must point out, however, that Mayhew is being allowed out before he has completed his nine-year engagement, and will be let out in time to go to university if he wishes to do so. This is a case which has been considered sympathetically, and I would make clear that these cases are examined sympathetically and if there is a compassionate element particular attention is given to it.

I had a large number of cases brought to me by Members of another place. But we are in a difficulty here. Young men in the Services are free to approach their Members of Parliament, and the suggestion in the N.C.C.L. paper that they are not free to do so is simply not true. I know the care that is taken to prevent victimisation. This is such a well-established right that, although naturally it is far better for a Serviceman initially to use Service channels, he has still the right to approach an M.P. I have dealt with the question of desertion.

My Lords, I do not believe for a moment that I have satisfied either of my two noble friends. I am sure that they will recognise the extent of the dilemma and the concern that the existence of a situation of this kind must cause to anybody with a liberal-minded approach to life. I can only say to my noble friends that I have listened carefully to what they have said. There will be a further examination of the problems to which my noble friend has called attention, but, having gone into the matter very fully, I cannot honestly see much prospect of an easy solution to them.