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Clause 14—(Early Registration And Calling Up)

Volume 437: debated on Thursday 8 May 1947

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3.50 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 1O, line, 13, at the end, to add:

"(2) This section shall come into force on the passing of this Act."
This is a proposal that the Subsection which we were discussing when we finished this morning, shall apply at the passing of this Act, to allow people to come in at a younger age instead of waiting until the end of the year.

I should like to express our thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for accepting this Amendment. Of course, the Clause to which it refers will now be altered considerably, and I am very glad indeed that the intentions of the Clause will be carried out, as from the passing of the Act, as they were until quite recently.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

The discussion on this Clause which we had somewhat earlier in the day revived doubts which exist in the minds of some hon. Friends and myself on the whole question of the proper age at which a young soldier should enter the Service. We believe, with the Government, that the youngest age at which a soldier should start his military service is 18. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour did, in fact, confirm that view that 18 is the youngest age at which a soldier should start his military service. I believe, however, that there are other considerations so far as the young soldier is concerned, and, except in a military emergency, I would put that age somewhat higher than 18, because I believe that, as the school-leaving age and the extra education age rise, we get our young men conscripted into military service more and more nearly direct from school. I am convinced, after some eight years' service with the Army and the Royal Air Force, that the barrack room is not the moral atmosphere into which it is wholly desirable to pitchfork impressionable adolescent young men. In these respects, some of us disagree with the whole Bill. Some of us would like the age to be raised to 21. So we ask the Minister to look again at the whole of Clause 14, because we would strongly resist any attempt being made to reduce the age and so force these impressionable adolescents into an environment which might be deleterious to them morally, and into which it is wholly undesirable to introduce them at too early an age.

There are, however, other considerations which must be taken into account. We were told by the Parliamentary Secretary that the purpose in the mind of the Government was to make 18 the age of conscription, and, by agreement, it was considered a good thing that some latitude, to the extent of six months prior to the age of 18, would be granted by the Government. I believe that the Parliamentary Secretary said he would give consideration, between now and the Report stage, to a new form of words, because there was some fear that the interpretation of the words of the Amendment might not be acceptable. I ask him to consider whether drafting men into the Services at 17½ might not, in fact, be starting a vicious circle, and that, in future, the public might think of 17½ as the age at which men might be called up, and we might be allowing them to start military service at the age of 17. I ask the Minister of Labour to examine further the implications of this Clause because we feel that it is a dangerous principle, to make it permissive to anybody to start military service below the age of 18 years.

4.0 p.m

The Committee would do well to study this Clause very carefully before allowing it to stand pare of the Bill. It proposes first of all to allow a boy of 17 years two months to register for military service and to allow a boy of 17 years and six months to engage in a very intensive and exacting course of military training, some of it overseas. To say that the Clause is permissive is no answer. The country and its Government are judged as much by what they permit as by what they enforce. The Bill enforces the conscription of young men at 18, and, tragically to my mind, this Clause permits the conscription of juveniles at 17 years six months.

Registration for military service is a conscious act of contract. As one who has no objection to military service, I should say that everybody who registers for such service should have as profound and full a knowledge of the implications as possible. It is difficult even for a grown man fully to realise the implications of military registration. Very few young men of 18 can fully realise those implications, but extremely few boys of 17 years two months can say that they know what they are contracting for at that age. There are many undertakings which the law of this country refuses to allow a man to contract for until he is 21. This is a most exacting and solemn contract which it is suggested that a boy of 17 years two months shall be allowed to undertake.

The Clause also permits a boy no older than 17 years 6 months to engage in military training and service, part of which may be spent overseas, under conditions and in circumstances referred to this morning by the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Nally) and referred to in this House on numerous occasions. We have a responsibility that we do not by allowing the Clause to stand part of this Bill pave the way to placing some hundreds of thousands of adolescents in conditions and circumstances which they will find it hard to withstand from the physical and moral points of view. It is a bad thing to compel boys to engage in military service at so young an age as 18, but it is perfectly outrageous to permit them to engage in military service, particularly in today's conditions, at 17 years six months. Even the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) said that 19 was low enough in all conscience.

Having regard to the hazards these young people are likely to encounter through this Clause, one would expect the Ministers responsible to provide overwhelming reasons why the Clause and its provisions should stand. Up to now all we have had is a perfunctory sentence or two by the Minister in his speech on the Second Reading. He said:
"The age for calling up is 18 years, 'but there is provision to allow young men who apply to be called up earlier, but not earlier than the age of 17 years and six months. The provision is made quite deliberately …"
Here comes the reason for the concession:
"… so that young men going up through a university or to some other training course may choose to be called up a little earlier, enabling them to come out of the Forces a little earlier in time than if they had waited until they were 18 to be called up; and in time to start their university or other scholastic careet."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March, 1947; Vol. 435. c. 1680–1.]
Considering the enormity of the proposal in the Clause, the Minister's argument does not seem to be very impressive, but I grant that when the proposed fulltime service period was 18 months, as it was when he made that statement, when there was a prospect of a prospective student emerging from his full-time training at i9 and not being able to undertake his scholastic training until he was getting on for 20, there was some sort of case for conceding a recession in the ground call-up age of six months; but the position today is quite different. The period of full-time service has been reduced by six months and consequently there is no need to fix the lowest possible age of call-up at 17 years six months in order to enable certain boys to be able to emerge from training and proceed to the university at 19. If we stick to the ground call-up age of 18, the fact that we are not asking for more than 12 months' whole-time service will automatically bring those boys out of their full-time service in time for the university or other course at 19. That will meet the situation educationally and socially.

I hope the Minister will agree that the reduction of the full-time period of service has made this Clause redundant to his needs. I hope he will look at it and not force some of us to proceed into the Lobby on this matter. If he will not agree to withdraw the Clause today, will he undertake to examine the point between now and a later stage? The provisions of this Clause are not now vital to the Bill and if he would withdraw it it would certainly bring cheer and encouragement to many hearts in the country which are sickened by the "permissive" infamies of this Clause.

I am surprised at some of the observations that have been made about these matters. It seems to have been overlooked that many of these points were discussed at great length in the early part of the day and the Parliamentary Secretary gave a pledge that he would look into them to see if there was any need for further safeguards before we came to the Report stage. There will not be hundreds and thousands of these young men concerned. There are not hundreds and thousands to be called up altogether. These will be a very small proportion of the total to be called up in the ordinary way, though however small the proportion is, it is right that their interests should be safeguarded. We are safeguarding their interests by giving these lads the choice of being called up if they want to be There is no compulsion; it is their choice. So that there shall be further guidance for them, we look to the possibility of their parents' views being known in the matter.

The hon. Member for Caernarvonshire (Mr. G. Roberts) said that this Clause was redundant to our needs. We think the Clause is not redundant to the needs of some of these young men, who prefer to come up at the earlier age, get their training over and then have the chance to take their scholastic career earlier. I would remind the Committee that this is all to be done by regulation, and there is therefore no need for any further Amendment of the Bill itself. If the Clause is left out, we shall not have the power to make regulations, and we want to make the regulations. The regulations will come before the House. Everything possible is being done to safeguard the interests of these young men. This affects not only young fellows who are going to universities, but also those who find that an employer is not willing to take them on because they are likely to be called up in two or three months' time. Recently an hon. Member asked if I would see that his son was called up quickly as the lad was so "fed up" with looking for a job. I warmly appreciate the spirit which animated my hon. Friend in speaking on behalf of these young people, but we have done all we can.

The Minister said that there would not be hundreds and thousands of young people placed in this hazardous position. It may well be hundreds and thousands, if the Bill becomes permanent, and the years go by and young men in annual quotas are subjected to it. If the age of call-up is progressively lowered, as' my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Wing-Commander Millington) suggested, there may well be hundreds and thousands. In view of the undertaking the Minister has given us about reconsidering certain aspects of this Clause and in view of the fact that I shall be able to raise this matter at a later stage, I do not propose to exhort my hon. Friends to press this matter now.

We have had some experience to show that, if one says anything at all critical or even interrogative about any phrase that contains the word "education," one is open to the charge that -one is against education. I hope that if one is slightly dubious about some of the assumptions made in respect of the word "youth" one does not run the risk of being called an enemy of youth. I suppose. that in view of my professional circumstances, I should be as familiar as anybody is with a high proportion of boys, in the relevant circumstances, in the past and just now. I should like, if it is not fulsome, to say that I think the Government spokesmen on this Clause have been extremely reasonable, fair and frank with us. I hope that they will stick to the sort of considerations they have laid before the Committee today and again just now.

About the point of boys of 17 being in an unsuitable moral atmosphere in barrack rooms, two, considerations have been left out. One is that people dealing with boys would say that, in nine case out of ten, the atmosphere of the barrack room would not be the important thing and that it would not matter whether the boy went into the moral atmosphere of a barrack room, a factory or a solicitor's office. It depends in nine cases out of ten on the parents of the boy. That is one of the meanings of the phrase in the Bible about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. So long as we can be assured, as I am sure we can, that in the case of 19 families out of 20, the early calling up of a boy means taking the decision after full consultation with his parents—and we are assured there will be every opportunity for that under the regulations—it really is not true that this is subjecting boys to any moral risk which they will otherwise avoid. Then we were told that there is a great factor of convenience about this in a considerable number of cases.

4.15 p.m.

The hon. Member for Caernarvonshire (Mr. G. Roberts) said that if he were given the concessions which he asks for, the result would be that a boy would undergo his military service, and then at 19 go to the university and so on. There has been a tendency in the past for boys to go to the university at 19, but it is tending to get back a year from what it used to be in previous generations, and I think, on the whole, that is a good tendency. The hon. Gentleman's arguments would be fairly strong if all boys were born about the end of August—the Government, which is so good at publicity campaigns and exhortations, might be able to arrange for things to happen in that way—but we are not assuming that this Bill will last 20 years, and it has not happened that way recently. Boys have in fact been born on dates scattered all through the year, and that being so, there is a serious inconvenience both to the boys and to the educational organisations concerned, if large numbers of them finish their military service at such a stage that they have to come back very late in their 20th year which used to be fairly normal some 40 years ago, but has now become abnormal. I think it would be a reactionary result which I am sure none of us wants in this connection.

I wish I could agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot. My experience has been with lads a little younger than those of whom he has had experience. Probably most of the young men with whom he deals are from 18 to 21; mine have been up to the age of 17 and, furthermore, they have not been of quite the same type. The arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Caernarvonshire (Mr. G. Roberts) are very valid, now that we only want our young people for a year, in relation with what I am about to say now. It has been our anxiety—and especially the anxiety of those who have had charge of the education of working-class boys and girls—not to push the clock back, and I think the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn), will agree that the tendency to push the clock back to 17½ has only been the result of a wartime expedient. It is not a general tendency for young people to go to the university at 17½. It has been the war that has made that necessary, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not want to go back to the Middle Ages, when people went to the university at 12.

On the other hand, the general tendency in the State educational system has been to prolong childhood and adolescence and to build a bridge between the age when a boy or girl left school and the time when he or she went out into the world, whether to industry or to military conscription as is the case now. The new Education Act very deliberately sets out to do that. It gives boys and girls, when they leave full-time education, a chance to go to a county college from 16 to i8, and I say very deliberately that the possibility of taking up military service at 17½ will ruin the county colleges. It is no use for the Minister to tell us that they will have the right to go on with their county college work in the Army. It is a totally different thing. It means a break in the county college work, on which so many of us have built for their education during the time of their adolescence.

It has been suggested this afternoon that parents will be consulted about this. But there are parents and parents, and I very much fear that the boys from a family where parental influence is very poor, and very badly exercised—the very kind of boy to whom the hon. Gentleman was referring when he said that the sins of the fathers are very often visited on the children, and that we need not fear the moral atmosphere of the barrack room if a boy had been brought up in a good home with good parents—will be the ones who will fly into the Army without the parents being consulted at all. They are the boys we want to keep in the county colleges so as to exert influence over them—the boys from the bad homes. But they are the ones who will be likely to go, rather than those over whom the parents will exercise an influence to keep them behind.

Now that the period is 12 months instead of 18 months, I am sure that the vast majority of boys going to the university, or into professions, will be influenced against going into the Army, but there are many other parents—and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour must recognise this—who will not exercise any such influence upon their young sons at all. Those, as I say, are the very ones we want to take care of, the very ones we want to keep in our county colleges. Employers of labour will not take them, so they will not have a job and they will not have much education, and will go into the Army unprepared to meet those dangers, difficulties and temptations to which we cannot close our eyes. Especially if they are going on to the Continent, who would be so foolish and unwise as to close his eyes to the dangers those boys will meet, all unprepared? It is to them, and not to those who are going to the university at the age of i8, that I ask the Minister to give his very careful consideration.

I hesitate to speak, as I was not here when this Clause was discussed earlier, but I rise to ask a question which may have been answered at an earlier stage. What is the definition of "for sufficient cause"? What the hon. Gentleman said about the change from 18 months to 12 months is connected with that. There has also been some discussion about Clause 10 and education, and what is perfectly clear is that there will not be quite so much opportunity, whatever people may say, during the period of 12 months, for the kind of training and education some of us hoped would be incorporated in the 18 months' period. I agree, however, with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) that the university student must be allowed this opportunity, but if it is going to be universal it is a very serious thing. Imagine what is happening now. A boy has to stay on to the end of the year in which he reaches the age of 15. It is perfectly clear that in certain parts of East London—and North Kensington—at the present moment there are boys between 17 and 18, who are out of work. Employers will not take them for one reason or another—perhaps because they do not want to employ a person who will only be available for a few months—but it is an appalling thing that there should be any unemployment between the ages of 17 and 18. Therefore, could the right hon. Gentleman define the words "for sufficient cause," and assure us that only in a limited number of cases, will university students or similar boys be allowed to enter at 17½? Has that point been discussed before?

It was discussed before. We are using the words "for sufficient cause" so that there may be some elasticity. It may be because they are going up to a university or because they are going for training or something of that kind, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this has been done honestly in the interests of the boys.

I wish to support my hon. Friends on this side who are pleading with the Minister to reconsider this Clause. We were told a moment or two ago by the Minister that the interests of the boys would be safeguarded, and that it was only if they desired, and their parents were willing, that they would be allowed to enter the Forces at 17½. But surely, if we consider only whether they are willing or not, we might as well say about children that we safeguard their interests by giving them the right to put their hand in the fire and have it burnt or not. There is one important point with which I wish to deal. Listening to the discussions so far, I have learnt that in England, the usual age for entrants to a university is at present i8. It is not so in Scotland. In Scotland a boy or girl goes to a university usually at about 17 years of age. Before I came to this House I taught boys right up to the age of 17 years, and I want to make a particular plea to the Minister. Those boys are certainly not fit to go into the Forces. They have led a very sheltered life indeed as pupils in a secondary school. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] An hon. Member opposite dissents from that, but I know it only too well. They are very different indeed from boys who have gone out to work at 14, and have had three years among people or all kinds and of all sorts of opinions, and I think it would be a very gave danger indeed if we took these lads straight from school and sent them into the Forces. We ought to give them the chance of having at least one year, in the technical college or the university, which would have a broadening influence on their lives and be of great help to them when they go into the Forces.

I make a plea also for the boy who is not fortunate enough to go to a university or technical college. In April of this year, we raised the school-leaving age to 15, and I am glad that one hon. Member has mentioned the county colleges. If we take boys at 17½ we are taking them in the middle of the third year of their apprenticeship. I have spoken to ever so many tradesmen on this subject, and almost every one of them declared that in the first two years, a boy is merely finding his feet in the trade he is learning, and it is not until the third year that he is really doing something worth while. I feel that if a boy is given at least his three years as an apprentice, no matter what trade he is working at, he will come back after his year's training a much fitter person to continue his apprenticeship. I also feel that, if full use is to be made of the county colleges, we need at least three years for the boys. For those two reasons, to give the student the benefit of a broadening influence before he enters the Forces and to give the boy who is an apprentice time to begin to know his job, no boy should be allowed to enter the Forces until he is at least i8 years of age.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.