HL Deb 21 November 1972 vol 336 cc917-30

Brought from the Commons yesterday and printed pursuant to Standing Order No. 48); read 1a.


2.49 p.m.

LORD CARRINGTON rose to move, That the Draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1972, laid before the House on October 31, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will have noted that for the first time the House is being invited to approve a single annual Order which provides for the continuation of all three Service Discipline Acts. Until the Armed Forces Act 1971 came into force this year, the Navy was governed by a permanent Statute, the Naval Discipline Act. By contrast, the Army and Air Force Acts have, since 1955, been quinquennial Acts which have to be renewed annually by Affirmative Resolution of both Houses. When the 1966 Armed Forces Bill was considered this arrangement led to some criticism on the score of inconsistency of treatment as between the three Services, and we decided to bring the Naval Discipline Act into line with the Acts for the other two Services. The necessary provision was made in the 1971 Armed Forces Act. The result is the single Order covering all three Acts which is now before the House. The tradition in your Lordships' House on these occasions is to spend a few moments on Service personnel matters, and perhaps I might say something very briefly about each of the Services in turn before going on to one or two more general issues.

When we think of the Army to-day it is inevitably its role in Northern Ireland that comes first to mind. We have had all too many occasions in recent years, in debates and Questions, to discuss this, but I do not think I ought to let pass this opportunity of assuring your Lordships that in spite of the problems of turbulence and family separation that arise from service in Northern Ireland, the Army's standards of discipline and morale remain impressively high. Your Lordships will, I am sure, be interested to know that the rate of disciplinary offences has dropped appreciably since the middle of last year. The conduct and morale of the troops is deserving of the highest praise. We are very conscious of the importance of the welfare of the troops in Northern Ireland, and the measures we have taken have gone a long way to make more tolerable what, all too often, is a distasteful job that the troops in the Province have to do.

My Lords, during our debate last week on the Atomic Energy Authority (Weapons Group) Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, spoke of the pressures on the Defence Budget and the problem of the competing claims on our financial resources of equipment on the one hand and manpower on the other. Perhaps your Lordships might be interested if I were to illustrate this in terms of the Royal Air Force. The Royal Air Force is unique in that its raison d'être is to be able, if necessary, to send into battle only a tiny proportion of its men. If we can increase that proportion by a number which would barely man an extra infantry company, we increase the hitting or defensive power of the R.A.F. by a really significant amount.

But we can do this in only two ways: by spending very much more money or by cutting very heavily the ratio of men on the ground to men in the air. We cannot do the former; but we arc having considerable success with The latter. Under a manpower economy programme launched last year we have disestablished, or planned to disestablish, at least 6,000 R.A.F. officer and airman posts. This represents 6 per cent. of the total trained strength of the Force, and is a remarkable achievement, calling for imagination, enthusiasm and goodwill from all concerned. I do not want to give the impression that fighting power can be increased overnight. The provision of extra aircraft and the training of men to fly them is a lengthy business.

But there is an even more important reason why this cannot be rushed. We are, in reducing the size of the Royal Air Force, dealing, not just with personnel statistics but with human beings who have rendered their country good service. This we must recognise in the way we go about the task. To the greatest possible extent we are bringing the numbers down by slowing the rate of recruitment and by more discrimination in allowing extensions of service. We cannot, however, eliminate redundancy altogether by these means without creating an unbalanced force in which some specialities would be so heavily overmanned that both morale and efficiency would suffer.

This problem arises particularly with officers, and we arc therefore instituting an officer redundancy programme, to take effect next year, under which we hope that about 500 will volunteer to leave before their normal retirement date. We must keep the power of compulsion in reserve, but if previous experience is any guide we should have to exercise it only in exceptional cases. And so it will be many months before we can make the major switch of resources which has been our object from the start. But I do not think that is necessarily a cause for disappointment. There has been much arbitrary disruption in the past. I do not mean to have change in the Services unless change means improvement; and we shall not, in improving the Services, forget our obligations to those who serve.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? Can he say whether those members of the Royal Air Force, officers and also other ranks, will have a reserve liability, so that in the event of an emergency trained men can be immediately called up?


My Lords, I think they will, but if I am wrong I will certainly let the noble Lord know.

As I explained at the outset, the Royal Navy now comes within the scope of this particular type of debate for the first time. Your Lordships will be aware that in some respects the Navy has its special problems, different—because it operates in a different element—from those of the other two Services. The welfare of the families is a case in point. This is something that we have not neglected; and we set up a Committee on Naval Welfare under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, to review welfare provision for Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel and their families, including, in the light of the problems created by Service conditions, ways of anticipating and preventing social difficulties. The Committee have had a full programme of visits and have taken evidence from many Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel and their families, as well as from a wide range of independent organisations and individuals. The existing Naval Family Welfare Organisation provides an excellent welfare service for naval personnel and their families, but I am confident that this review will result in further improvement.

I think that perhaps your Lordships will expect me at this juncture to say something about the recent catering fraud cases. As my honourable friend the Minister of State said in another place yesterday, we recognise—and share—the concern about these cases. From the time the frauds were first brought to our notice interim remedial measures have been taken. These measures have included the tightening-up of accounting controls to prevent the manipulation of stocks, and there has been a significant reduction in the amount of messing allowance which United Kingdom shore establishments and Her Majesty's ships in Home Waters can spend with local contractors. We are in the process of setting up an independent inquiry into the financial control of catering in all three Services, and I shall be making a further announcement as soon as I am in a position to do so. I hope your Lordships will understand that I cannot go into further details now, except to say that we intend this to be a thorough-going inquiry with experts in catering and accountancy sitting under an independent chairman.

My Lords, I should like now to turn to the question of recruiting. During the early part of this year recruiting continued at a very high level but, as foreseen in the Statement on the Defence Estimates, we are now beginning to see some signs of a decline, particularly in Army adult soldier recruiting.


My Lords, does the Secretary of State realise what he is saying? He is saying that when unemployment is decreasing recruitment is also decreasing; when unemployment is rising recruitment is rising.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will do me the honour of supposing that I know what I am saying; and I certainly was not saying that, because it is not true. In the nature of things, it was unlikely that the exceptional recruiting achievements of the past two years could be maintained, but the Services are, in general, still recruiting the manpower they need. However, next year the Services will be faced with the problem of the raising of the school-leaving age. There will be a sharp reduction of over 100,000 in the number of school leavers next spring and summer, and, in common with all other employers, we shall be competing for a much smaller pool of manpower.

Careers in the Services will continue to compare well with the opportunities available in civilian life. This fact is, I believe, recognised by those who must be the best judges of it; namely, the men and women in the Services themselves. The rates of other rank re-engagement in all three Services continue to be satisfactory and, indeed, in the Royal Navy and the Army have shown a substantial improvement. As for officer recruiting, the position is generally satisfactory, although the Army is not getting quite the number of entrants to Sandhurst that it would like and there are still imbalances in certain areas. We hope that the new pattern of young officer training in the Army will help to put this right.

The factors which influence both recruiting and re-engagement are complex, but one of the most important of them is what people think is the Government's attitude towards the Services; and so it is surely significant that satisfactory levels of recruiting and re-engagement have been achieved in the context of the stable Defence policy which we have pursued. And, my Lords, we must also continue to see that members of the Armed Services are properly paid. Your Lordships will be aware of the improvements that have been made this year, in both pay and pensions. I believe it is now generally acknowledged, by those in the Services as well as by those outside, that rates of Service pay are fair and reasonable. However, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is currently engaged in a number of studies relating to the structure of Service pay, and to food and accommodation charges, and there is no reason why, because of the standstill, these studies should not continue. In due course, the Government's long-term policy following the standstill will obviously have a bearing on these matters.

My Lords, the theme that has been running through my remarks this afternoon—the importance we attach to the well-being of the Serviceman—is something which we must never lose sight of, and I am glad to have had this opportunity of letting the House know what the Government have been seeking to do in this all-important area. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1972, laid before the House on October 31, be approved.—(Lord Carrington.)

3.3 p.m.


My Lords, I personally have found the Secretary of State's important discussion of the Armed Forces Act 1971 an extremely interesting if somewhat complex matter. But it is satisfactory to see how that Act is now working out with the much simplified placing of an Order to regulate discipline and other elements of the activities of the Armed Forces. I do not propose to make a major speech this afternoon. The Secretary of State was good enough to note one of my remarks during our debate last week, and I feel that the very important subject which must concern everyone in your Lordships' House—namely, the financing of Defence in an age of increasingly expensive technology and rising individual expectations—must be debated by this House. The Defence Estimates, which will be laid before us, and the White Paper will provide an excellent opportunity to have a close look at this subject. The time is right for it.

May I now follow the various points which the Secretary of State made? I can only congratulate him—although I hardly need to do so—on bringing to your Lordships' notice the exemplary discipline which is being shown by our Forces in Northern Ireland. Whatever may be said to the contrary by a group of interested persons, the tolerance and self-control shown by our Forces in that very difficult area of operations, which I and a number of other noble Lords have seen, is remarkable. It is to the credit of the Armed Forces that the rate of disciplinary offences has dropped during this difficult and critical period. Of course those of us who are experienced in the affairs of the Armed Forces would have expected this. The time when troops get into trouble is when they are kicking their heels in barracks and are not performing their very important social function. The Duke of Wellington said after the Battle of Vitoria, when the Household Cavalry omitted to capture the paywagons of the French Army but galloped on after the retreating foe, "It is conduct to be expected of the Household Brigade ". This is conduct to be expected from Her Majesty's Forces, and our expectations have not been disappointed.

The Secretary of State then turned to the Royal Air Force and gave us a most interesting clarification of the position. If one looks at the recruitment figures alone, the position of the Royal Air Force appears to be rather gloomy; but what the noble Lord said is correct. We have observed an important series of steps towards greater rationalisation. The merger of Support Command and Strike Command, bringing about substantial savings in manpower, is a case in point. I think everyone will realise that although the recruiting figures of the Royal Air Force seem to have dropped substantially, this is part of a planned process. I think we may assume that although the numbers have dropped the quality of recruit is rising; because I recollect from my days with the Royal Air Force that we always had abundant applications for positions and it was merely a question of sifting those individuals who we thought could serve most effectively. I think we may assume that we can see in the Royal Air Force a rising quality in the standard of citizens whom we recruit into that important arm of our Services.

One thing I think the Secretary of State did not say, regarding the premature retirement of 500 officers, was that their pension rights (I hope I am correct), if they opt to retire, are unaltered, so that although they may leave the service somewhat prematurely, they will not lose out on their pension rights as a result.

Turning to the Navy, one knows the great care which the Navy takes of its personnel because of the long periods of separation from families, and it is good to know that the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, is leading a Committee to see what further improvements can be achieved. The Secretary of State was right to tell the House of the Government's view about the very regrettable cases of fraud which have been uncovered. The most important point of all is that they have been uncovered and are not continuing. I am afraid that when I first heard of them my somewhat flippant mind went back to Mr. Pepys, who did not do so badly out of his appointment. But that is not to condone anything that has happened three centuries later.

May I turn for a moment to the question of recruitment? I should like to answer the noble Lord, Lord Balogh—who is not now in his place—somewhat more firmly than did the Secretary of State. If the noble Lord is to comment upon Defence matters, he really should understand the psychology of recruitment. There is abundant evidence to show that if an individual decides to join the Armed Forces and accept their challenges he must be in a high state of morale. Recruitment tends to rise when national morale is high, or when the demands on the individual who is willing to serve are great. It is much more probable that an individual will escape from life into the universities than into the Armed Forces.

May I now turn to the question of the impact of the school-leaving age on recruitment in the future? I touched upon this question when we debated the Defence White Paper last year, but I think it is worth while saying it again. Is it not possible, my Lords, that training in some of the excellent training establishments of the Armed Forces—such as, for instance. the apprentice school at Halton—should in fact count as continuing education? Last year, I seem to remember (I am speaking without consulting my notes) that the Secretary of State said that this presented difficulties. Nevertheless, the continued education that young men receive in these specialised training establishments for the Armed Forces should, I think, be allowed to count as a continuation of their education. The training at Halton, for instance, in the whole of the range of skills required for the Royal Air Force, is outstanding—and I am selecting only one such establishment of which I know something.

It is good to know, too, that there is a continuing study of the pay requirements of the Armed Forces under the new Armed Forces Pay Review Body. The comparability of service in the Armed Forces with civilian life does not remain constant. The balance of skills changes; and I think we can expect that periodical reviews, which I understand in any case take place biennially, will continue because things never stand still. The fact that pay is out of step with civilian life will show in the recruitment figures, but at the moment these figures seem reasonably satisfactory—in fact very satisfactory, all things considered. I have every confidence that the intelligent application of the findings of these various skilled bodies will enable the Armed Forces to keep the requirements of the Armed Services as a whole in balance with the requirements of society as a whole, thus enabling us to keep in being the whole professional Armed Forces which we possess to-day and which I think are absolutely necessary for operating successfully in a very difficult world, politically troubled as it is.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, nowadays, the submission of an Order relating to the Armed Forces seldom gives rise to an animated debate. It was otherwise a few years ago. I do not know what happened in your Lordships' House because I was not here, but in the other place there was more animation about an Order of this kind than there was about even the subjects of unemployment or slum conditions. But now we speak in muted tones about these matters. I have no complaint at all about the submissions which have been made by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. I do not know that it is necessary to congratulate him about anything. After all, what does that matter, anyhow—because he is up to-day and down tomor- row: that is what happens to Ministers of Defence. I know all about it. One can be very popular on some occasions and then be kicked in the pants the next day. It is all in a day's work, so to speak. So I am not going to congratulate him: I am going to offer a few suggestions. After all, in a debate of this kind (it is hardly a debate, but in a sort of desultory talk of this character) it might be useful to offer a few constructive suggestions.

First of all, I am very pleased indeed, having had some experience of these matters, that at last the noble Lord has included the Navy. For years and years we made every possible endeavour to put an end to their isolation. The Navy was a law unto itself. They would not come into anything. For example—it is just an illustration—in the matter of the women's Services we had the Wrens, and at a conference which I convened for some reason or other, but which was related to military matters, I discovered to my astonishment that the Wrens were unofficial. The ladies associated with the Army and the ladies associated with the R.A.F. were official, but the Wrens were not. I suggested on one occasion that we ought to make honest women of them and bring them in, and that was done eventually. But we never could persuade the Lords of the Admiralty to cease from adopting this isolated and superior attitude, and join with the Army and the R.A.F. in relation to matters of mutual concern. The noble Lord has succeeded where many of us failed.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me to interrupt him, may I say that I found during my forty years in the Navy that everything that was popular in the Navy, everything that was good, was altered, and it was nearly always done in order to put it in line with the Army. I always thought that that was a great mistake, and I am sure the noble Lord is making the same mistake now.


My Lords, I do not want to enter into an argument with the noble Viscount on this or any other matter. After all, this not not an occasion for controversy. In any event, I really did not hear what he said. But let me proceed. If I may use an old cliché, the thread of my discourse has been interrupted, but I was speaking about the Navy. Now I come to something which is rather more important, I think, and that is the situation of the officers and other ranks associated with the R.A.F. who are likely to become redundant. I am surprised at the numbers mentioned by the noble Lord. From the Press report this morning I learned that a matter of 500 or so were involved, but the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke in terms of thousands. I am not sure—


My Lords, perhaps I may clear that point up before the noble Lord moves on. It was 500 officers who were referred to in the papers this morning, for whom there is this particular scheme.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that information. But whatever the number is, it is a very grave matter indeed for men who have entered the R.A.F. and who have regarded it as a career—for it is a career—and who have been trained in matters mechanical, scientific and the like, then to find themselves, perhaps at an age between 40 and 50, so to speak thrown on the scrap heap. That was why I asked the question. I ventured to interject to ask whether there was a Reserve liability. The noble Lord said that he would look into the matter but he thought there was a Reserve liability. This is extremely important. If, for example, there was a decline in recruitment, whether in the Navy, the R.A.F. or in the Army; or if, for some reason or other—a matter of economy, or for some other reason—we had to reduce the numbers, then we should have to consider whether we were in a position of strength. I use that term in a relative sense, because in peace time we can never have the strength that is necessary to meet an emergency; but if the strength of the Services is in any way impaired it is a very serious matter indeed.

I come now to a point which I have ventured to raise in previous Defence debates—it is perhaps my King Charles's head—and that is the matter of reserves; and, of course, it has nothing to do with unemployment. This is an old argument: that when there is vast unemployment men flock into the Services. They do nothing of the sort. Indeed, we have found over the years that recruitment is intensified in periods of normality, when employment is at a fairly high level. The question is this: are we to maintain the strength of the Services in one form or another, if not Regular service then in Reserve service, so that in the event of an emergency we are in a position to co-ordinate our Forces to deal with whatever situation may arise?

I should like the noble Lord to consider the matter. I do not expect an answer to-day; but on a future debate, perhaps on the Defence debate, I ask him to be kind enough to develop this line of thought. Perhaps it is an idle prophecy and an ill-founded one, but I am inclined to think that as time passes fewer men will wish, for one reason or another, to join the Forces. We shall then have to rely on one of two expedients: a high level of Reserves, a large number of Reserves trained from time to time and available in case of emergency; or, alternatively—a very dread alternative, but it may be imposed upon us—conscription. This has been advocated; colleagues of mine in the past, in the War Office and in the Ministry of Defence, have advocated conscription as the only way out. The matter was mentioned in the course of Questions to-day but in only a very perfunctory fashion. It has been suggested that since every other NATO country has accepted the policy of conscription there is no reason why we should not accept it also. I am not sure that that is a valid argument; but conscription may be forced upon us if there is a decline in recruitment and unless—and I emphasise this—we have available Reserves.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, said that he was struck by how little animation there was nowadays, as compared with a few years ago, in the debates on this subject in your Lordships' House. Dare I suppose that it might be because the House generally and the country generally are satisfied with the Defence policy that Her Majesty's Government are pursuing? I was a little disappointed in the noble Lord when he said that because Ministers of Defence had their "ups and downs", there was therefore no need to congratulate them when things went right. I should have thought that this proved conclusively that there was a need to congratulate them when things went right—because they will be blamed soon enough when things go wrong. But the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, who probably knows as much as anybody in the House about the subject of personnel in the Services, and who, if I may say so, is certainly a good friend of the Services and interested in them, I thought welcomed what I had to say and was not unduly critical.

He asked two questions: first, whether the pension rights of those who accept redundancy and who leave the R.A.F. will be unaltered. They will be unaltered; the pensions will be smaller because of their shorter length of service; but they will get pensions. He suggested, possibly not, I imagine, only at Halton but at other Army, Navy and R.A.F. colleges and schools, that it might be possible to treat a year there as the last year at school. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I do not find that suggestion very attractive. I do. From the point of view of the Services, this has almost everything to be said for it, but I think there are real difficulties from other points of view—not least from that of the Secretary of State for Education: the organisation of the curriculum at schools and the precedent which it would create if one group of people were allowed to be treated differently from others. I should also expect there to be considerable administrative difficulties. Consequently, rather regretfully, I have had to abandon the idea; but I do not seek to disguise from the noble Lord that it was with very great regret that I had to do so.

Both Lord Winterbottom and Lord Shinwell turned even more savagely on the noble Lord, Lord Balogh, than I did on the connection between recruitment and unemployment. I think that it is exceedingly difficult to know what is the connection; there may be one but it is not the direct connection which Lord Balogh supposed it to be. If he had pursued the subject I had some figures which I could have quoted to him (and I will quote them to your Lordships instead) which showed that, curiously enough, in 1966 when there was quite a considerable rise in unemployment, a rise of some 200,000, there was a very dramatic decrease in recruitment. Although I could suggest why that was, I will not do so, because it is rather a Party political point and I do not wish to be Party political this afternoon. I have not been Party political so far; but I will be so willingly if noble Lords opposite encourage me. But the illustration proves that there is no connection, or very little connection, between unemployment and recruiting in the direct sense that the noble Lord, Lord Balogh, was seeking to prove.

I will look at what Lord Shinwell said about the reserves, and I am ready to debate this with him on another occasion when we can go into it more fully. One of the difficulties about the whole question of the size of the reserves and the size of the Territorial Army, apart from recruitment, is the amount of money that you can afford to put towards this particular object when you have a tight Defence budget and when, as Lord Winterbottom said the other day, so much more of that Defence budget is already going on personnel and less, in proportion, on re-equipment. One must think carefully about the balance of advantage as between spending on more reserves or spending on more re-equipping of the Regular Forces in the best way possible. But by all means let us debate that at a later date.

As for conscription, he and I are at one in being opposed to it. I do not believe that the Army was as efficient in the days when there was conscription as it is now. I think that far too much time was spent in training men who had a comparatively short period of service and that all the Regulars were doing that at the expense of the efficiency of the units in the front line. Therefore, I, like the noble Lord, would be opposed to this, and what I shall seek to do is to make certain that the conditions of service in the three Services are attractive enough to ensure that recruitment is kept up so that we may avoid any possibility in the future of a return to conscription.

On Question, Motion agreed to.