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First Schedule—(Length Of Whole-Time Service)

Volume 437: debated on Friday 9 May 1947

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I beg to move, in page 14, line 5, after "practicable," to insert:

"but in no case later than twenty-eight days."
The first four lines of this Schedule give the power of extension of the term of whole-time service, which may be very great indeed, because the Committee will see that the term of whole-time service can be extended by as long as the particular Service authority may consider practicable. It provides:
"The term of a person's whole-time service shall … be completed on, or as soon as is practicable after, the expiration"
of the period. We have been told by the Minister that the reduction of the period from 18 to 12 months will mean that the national service men will not be sent far afield. At the same time, one appreciates there may be difficulty in bringing back those who have gone abroad, so as to release them on the anniversary of their entry into the Services. We appreciate the difficulty about that. There is a strong argument for allowing a certain measure of latitude with regard to the date of expiry of the period of whole-time service. A person doing whole-time service may, at the precise moment, be in hospital. Therefore, it is wise to make some provision for the extension of the period of whole-time service in exceptional circumstances. But the words, "as soon as practicable," without any limitation upon them, are far too wide.

I suggest that there ought to be a limitation upon them, and that we ought to say, in effect, to the Service authorities that the national service man shall complete his period of whole-time service on the anniversary of his day of entry; but if it is quite impossible to achieve that, there shall be an extra margin of a month during which he can be brought back for release. I do not like giving this complete discretion to the Service authorities, because the words "as soon as is practicable" can cover a multitude of sins. In the interests of the young people concerned, it is important that they should be able to make their plans in advance, and that they should be able to say to themselves: "I have been called up on 1st January. I must make my plans for resuming my civil life, or going back to my work, on 1st January next year." It may not make much difference if that return is postponed a week, a fortnight or even 28 days, as our Amendment would permit; but it would make a great deal of difference if he were suddenly told that his discharge from whole-time service was to be delayed three, four, live or even six months because, in the opinion of the Service authorities, it was not practicable to discharge him before that time. I have put the point as shortly as I can, I hope I have made it clear and that it will be met.

The purpose of these words "as soon as is practicable" is really to protect the ex-Serviceman whom, for some reason—for example, sickness—it may not be possible to bring home on the exact date 12 months after he joined in order to get his discharge. We feel it would be very unfair in such cases—and I imagine these cases would be very rare indeed; the man would only be in Germany, as I think has already been said—for an ex-Serviceman who cannot get home after exactly 12 months to be taken off the Service pay roll prematurely. In effect, what we want to do is to ensure that, in those circumstances, the Serviceman should be maintained on the pay roll and draw his Army pay. Otherwise, he would be discharged from the Army sick, and would then be thrown on some civil authority. For that reason, I regret that we cannot accept the Amendment.

The answer of the right hon. Gentleman has completely missed the point of the Amendment. We are not seeking to leave out the words "as soon as is practicable." We are seeking to insert words to limit the meaning of the word "practicable." If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said—or maybe, through trying to put it shortly, I failed to make the point clear—he would realise that I said we recognised the desirability of there being some elasticity about the date of release to cover the very case which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, namely, where a man is in hospital and cannot be discharged on the due date without being put m great difficulties. I referred to that, but I suggested—and this is the point with which the right hon. Gentleman has not even endeavoured to deal—that there must be some limitation on the period of practicability, otherwise, unless there is some fixed date like 28 days, or unless the Schedule is redrafted in a slightly different form—maybe the Amendment is not in quite correct form—there may be an interpretation of the words "as soon as is practicable" covering a further extension of whole-time service lasting for months. That was the point I was putting to the right hon. Gentleman.

But that would be a question of fact. Surely, if the Service Departments attempted to evade what is in this Bill by methods like that they would soon be called to order? What I do say to the hon. and learned Gentleman is, that he has admitted the substance of the point I have put, that it would be unfair to discharge a man when he is sick, throw him off the payroll, as we should have to do, and move him from a military hospital to some civilian hospital—a man with, perhaps, tuberculosis. So we say that while he is under our care—and that is all we want him for—we are prepared to look after him and to pay him. I should have thought the hon. and learned Gentleman would have accepted that as a very good intention.

I think what the Secretary of State intends to do is satisfactory, but that does not make the words in the Clause as it stands satisfactory, in my submission. The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he wishes to retain a man beyond the fixed period only if, in the interests of the man himself, it is not practicable immediately to release him. But the words "as soon as is practicable" could be construed as meaning practicable in the interests of the Army authorities, and not only in the interests of the man. I think that if the right hon. Gentleman would undertake to insert a form of words making it clear that the extension, where it is required, is an extension in the interests of the man, he could both meet the point that he has in mind, and also satisfy this side of the Committee.

I did not mention all the cases I could, because I did not want to take up too much time. I could have given other illustrations. Consider a ship or a train bringing a man back for his release on a certain date. It might break down. Anything could happen that we could not control. In those circumstances it would be very unfair to put the man off the pay roll.

I quite agree. What I am trying to put to the Secretary of State, and what, I think, the whole of the Committee wishes, is that we should exclude the possibility of these words being used to retain men beyond the twelve months merely because that would be for the convenience of the Army. I think that the ingenuity of the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers would easily enable him to draft the requisite words if he desired to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman's last words have aroused all the apprehension his first remarks almost allayed. He has brought out what I thought was behind this Schedule—that the Service authorities are concerned with transport difficulties, and, therefore, want to have an unlimited power of detaining a man, due to their own transport and administrative breakdown. The point of the 28 days is that a man should be brought home on the day, or before the day, that his 12 months' service concludes. The 28 days' margin does seem adequate for those transport and administrative difficulties to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The right hon. Gentleman himself said a man would be no further abroad than Germany. Can the right hon. Gentleman really contemplate an administrative transport breakdown so serious that it would take 28 days to bring a man from Germany? He could walk it in the time—or walk and swim it. The right hon. Gentleman's first answer has a great deal to it. No one wants to remove a man off the pay roll. But as the First Schedule stands, the man can be held for the purposes of the Bill for whole-time service for an unlimited period, for so long as the Service authorities think it is not practicable to terminate his service. If there is even the possibility in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman—as there appears to be—that his Department, for its own purposes, can keep a man for more than 28 days after the time that his services should terminate, that is the strongest possible argument for inserting this time-limit in this Schedule.

I think there is no disagreement between the Government and both sides of the Committee with regard to the intention. But whatever words may be desirable to carry out that intention it certainly seems that the words in the Schedule are the wrong words, and certainly not calculated to carry out the intention of the Schedule. I think we ought to have an assurance from the Secretary of State that he will put down fresh words on the Report stage, because it must be obvious that these words are not the right words, and it must also be possible for the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers to find words which will more accurately carry out his intention. Surely, we can have an undertaking that he will, on the Report stage, introduce words which will give effect to his intention, with which we all agree?

3.15 p.m.

I hope the Secretary of State will say that he will look at this matter again. We, on this side of the Committee, have not been taking up very much time today, and we do not want to take time in pursuing this matter further, but there is a really serious point of substance here, on which I think some hon. Members opposite would support our point of view. The right hon. Gentleman really misconceived the point in his first reply.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will allow me, I am quite prepared to have another look at this matter between now and the Report stage if the Amendment is withdrawn, but I do not want to be misunderstood as to implementing that. As the hon. and learned Gentleman, who knows a good deal about this, will realise, it is a very common form and is very often put in for the very protection of the citizen, and of the kind to which he referred and, in fact, any action by a Government Department against this intention would, I understand, lay them open to the process of law. I will look at it again to see if I can find another form of words before the Report stage.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and, in the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 14, line 6, leave out "eighteen," and insert "twelve".—[ Mr. Alexander.]

I beg to move, in page 14, line 17, to leave out from "in," to "no," and to insert:

"determining when the term of a person's whole-time service is completed."
This is a drafting Amendment relating to the proviso in paragraph 1,(b) of the First Schedule, and the purpose is to set a period, in cases of desertion, which will not be taken into account in deciding when the man's whole time service is completed. It is a slight change of phraseology in using words to express this precise purpose.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move, in page 14, line 21, after "absent," to insert "without leave or."

I think it might be for the convenience of the Committee, and might perhaps save time, if we could discuss, with this Amendment, the four following Amendments on the Order Paper—in page 14, line 22, leave out subhead (iii); in line 24, leave out from "any," to end of line and insert "day"; in line 32, leave out from "undone," to end of line 36; and in page 15, line 1, leave out paragraph 3. assume that it would be for the convenience of the Committee to do that, and, therefore, I will address my observations to all five Amendments.

The first Amendment raises a point which I consider to be of some substance. The Committee will see that, in reckoning a period of 12 months, no account shall be taken of any day on which a person is absent as a deserter, or of any continuous period exceeding 28 days during which he was absent without leave. I contend that, from the point of view of whole-time service, no difference should be drawn between absence without leave and absence for desertion, because what is, in substance, the difference between these two offences is merely a matter of intention.

If a man goes absent with the intention of not returning to military duty, then he is guilty of desertion. If he goes absent without leave and his intention is not desertion, he cannot properly be found guilty of desertion. I think it will be conceded that the proof of intention in those circumstances is often a matter of considerable difficulty. What will happen if this difference continues to be drawn is that there will be a considerable divergency between the results of courts-martial of men charged with desertion and with absence without leave. There will be many cases where the court will find a person guilty of desertion, on evidence almost similar to that, in many other cases, where the court has not found the intent to desert proved, but merely found the alternative, that the man has been guilty of absence without leave. The consequence of that disparity of finding by a court-martial will be extremely serious, as far as the individual is concerned, with regard to whole-time service. I submit that there is really no logical ground for drawing a distinction in the Bill between the offence of desertion and that of absence without leave. The penalties used to differ much more under military law then they do now. There can be no logical reason for extending a man's whole-time service by each day on which he is absent without leave or guilty of desertion, and saying that the first 28 days of absence without leave shall not extend his period of whole-time service. The first point of this Clause is to bring the treatment of deserters and of those absent without leave into line under this Measure. I hope that I have made the first point clear.

We have said in these Amendments that any day on which a man is absent without leave, or absent as a deserter, shall not count as a day of whole-time service. I appreciate that there is one difficulty about that, and I am not rigidly stressing that every day of absence should count, because there is the difficulty of adding up and keeping a record of a particular day's absence, arid it may be that the right provision would he to say that 28 days of absence without leave or desertion should not count for the purposing of adding the period to the whole-time service. On the other hand, it may be that there should be a shorter period. My point is that there should not be this very illogical and technical distinction drawn between the offences of desertion and absence without leave.

I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about paragraph 1(c) because paragraph 1 (b) is mandatory, as we have already heard. Paragraph 1 (c) seems to hold a certain threat over the head of a national service man on whole-time service. I should like to hear a word or two said about that, and also about paragraph 3 which states that the Service Authority shall define what is a day for the purposes of paragraph 1 (c). There may be very great variations of definition between the respective Services, but I am intrigued to wonder why power should be taken in a Statute to give a Service Authority power to define what is a day. I suggest that we ought to be told what the Service Authorities regard as a day for the purposes of proviso (b), and that the proper place to put that definition is in this Bill.

There are three points to which I have to address myself. The first one deals with paragraph (b) which has effect on absence without leave or desertion. Our intention, in this case, is not to consider or take into account absence for what I would call a short period. That is partly in our own interests—the Service interests—and partly in the interests of the man. As to the Service interests, it will create a lot of administrative difficulties if we have to be watching the one to five days absence, and, we do not want to do that in the case of the national service men under this Bill. I imagine that in the vast majority of cases we shall not be troubled with the effect of this provision. The effect of the hon. Gentleman's Amendment would be to make the penalty against the national service man going absent for a short period much more rigorous and much more onerous than what would happen under the Bill in its present form.

I was not pressing for the imposition of a more onerous penalty for absence. The gist of my argument was that, whatever period is excluded, the penalty on those guilty of either offence should be precisely the same.

We think that we ought to draw a distinction between the long-service Regular soldier who goes absent or deserts and the national service man. [HON. MEMBERS; "Why?"] The reason is that the long-service man has undertaken of his own free will a much more onerous contract. He has enlisted for five years at least, and, therefore, his is a much more serious case. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] We think so. It is a much more serious case for this reason. In the case of the national service man, what we want is 12 months' full period of service, and we have provisions to deal with the hardened offender, being one who is absent for more than 28 days. The way we shall deal with it is to impose the sanction provided in respect of the case of over 28 days, and reckoning it against the man's liability for 12 months' full-time service. With regard to the second point, concerning paragraph (c), in that case we put this in for the Servicemen who at the end of their service may be entitled to some terminal leave. The Services have not made up their minds as to the short leave, if any, which they are going to grant. At the present moment, as hon. Members will know, all those serving under the present National Service Act are entitled to terminal leave and during that period are considered to be soldiers and are paid as such, although they go out of the Navy, Army or Air Force into civil life and draw their pay. It is for that purpose that we have included this so that if we do decide, as may be possible to give that leave, we shall do so at the expiration of 12 months and not include it until the finish of the 12 months.

As to what constitutes a day, there is provision in Section 140 of the Army Act for purposes of stoppage of pay which defines a day as being six hours or more. We feel that for certain other things that may arise it may be necessary to make regulations to define what a day is. For example, if a man is due to return at four o'clock and does not turn up till five o'clock, most people say that that should not count as a day. It must always be decided in view of the circumstances of the delay and the hours lost and we want to reserve to ourselves the right to say whether that man should lose a full day's service. I hope that with this explanation hon. Gentlemen will be satisfied.

3.30 p.m.

I am not satisfied with the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about absence without leave. Surely, we want to remember the object of this Bill. It is to train men, and where a man is absent without leave or where he is guilty of desertion he is by those periods of absence defeating the object of this Bill. Therefore, in reckoning the end of the period of his full-time service account should not be taken of the days on which he is absent. The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the hardened offender. The hardened offender, as I understand it, is not a man who goes 28 days or so without leave, but a man who goes on absence for whole periods which might mean 28 days or over. The right hon. Gentleman does not begin to deal with that matter. Those two points are very relevant to the argument here.

Like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Blackpool (Brigadier Low), I was disquieted by the Secretary of State's reply. He does not seem to have apprehended the full force of this argument. In the first place, why is there a distinction in the second paragraph between absence without leave and desertion? The Secretary of State may or may not know that in many cases there is an extremely fine and narrow distinction between a case in which a man being physically absent is guilty of absence without leave or of desertion. Yet despite that there is here an enormous difference in the treatment of these two. There is a more important matter than that. The Government, or, rather, the hon. Member for East Coventry (Mr. Crossman), have made the period of service 12 months. Surely, it is the intention that those 12 months should be fully used and that there should be nothing less than 12 actual months of service to satisfy the provisions of this Bill. It is quite wrong where somebody wrongfully ceases to serve by reason of an offence for which he is given a period of detention, that that is counted as part of the 12 months. And it amounts to this that a man, who, through his own fault, gets a sentence of imprisonment or detention and is not available, is favoured as against the better type of man who does not commit these offences. I am not at all satisfied that any period during which a man is in military detention or imprisonment should count as part of his 12 months' training. I hope that that is not a vindictive attitude.

When a man is absent he cannot be instructed in the military art and that is a day of actual military training lost. When the Minister of Defence summed up a Debate on a previous Amendment the, other night he made the point that under the new dispensation the training would have to be crammed into a 12 months' period. The men who will not be there, due to an offence, cannot have the training crammed into them, and, therefore, I ask the Secretary of State how he can justify the periods spent in prison or the periods of absence without leave being counted as part of the training period.

Then again there is a very large loophole. The hardened offender is not so much the man who goes absent for a long period, but the man who frequently goes absent. The Committee will notice the position of such a man under this provision. Taking it to its logical conclusion, if a man goes absent for 27 days during the first month of his service, returns to duty and is placed under arrest and, being a man of agility, escapes the following day for a further 27 days before returning, and continues that process, he can have 12 periods of 27 days' absence with only a day's break between each, and none of those days will count as a period of absence for the purpose of this Schedule. That makes nonsense of any scheme of compulsory military service.

I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the effect of that sort of situation on the man's better comrades, who see such a man going off home, or wherever he may go, for 27-day periods, knowing that they are counting as part of his 12 months' service, while they are sweating it out on the barrack square. It will not do. If the Secretary of State wants this system to work he must work out something better. I also refer to the provision dealing with the position if a man is sent to prison. That part of the Schedule provides that only periods of more than 20 days' imprisonment shall be deducted from the 12 months' period. Why is that? Why, if a man goes to prison for 14 days, a not uncommon sentence in a police court, should he at least be able to reflect, in his cell, that his period of military service is, at any rate, passing? Why should a man who, by his own wrong, does not do the period of training which Parliament decides in this Bill he shall do, escape a period of training simply by the expedient of committing a criminal offence? The only other matter in this very unsatisfactory Schedule is paragraph 3. Here again the Service authorities are given the power to determine what is a day. May I make the suggestion to the Secretary of State that in making these regulations he should consult with his colleague the Minister of Defence, who is such an expert on "calling it a day"

Having listened to the Debate very carefully, I feel that there are points of substance which have been raised by hon. Members opposite. I cannot say that I agree with every one of them, but I am quite certain that in one of the cases mentioned we ought to have another look at the matter. For example, there was one case mentioned by the hon. Member for. Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I think paragraph 3 of the Schedule might well be reconsidered—

If the Amendment is withdrawn, and we are given a chance to get on, I will look at these points with a view to Amendments in the direction of what has been said. I am not anxious for it to be understood that in all the sort of cases that have been mentioned we shall be anxious to increase the penalty. I do not want to be committed on that today.

We on this side of the Committee are not asking that in all these cases the penalty should be increased. I endeavoured to indicate in moving this new Clause, perhaps too briefly for the full point to be appreciated, that the distinctions here are really of great importance. I should be much more ready to accede to the right hon. Gentleman's request, but for the reply of the Secretary of State for War which, in my view, was most unsatisfactory. I should like to press the right hon. Gentleman. He said that he concedes the point with regard to the Service authorities saying what shall be called a day, but he has given no indication of what is in his mind—I am not asking for a form of words—about the alterations that he proposes to make to paragraph (d). The point which I put, and to which we on this side attach importance, is that from the point of view of extending whole-time service there should be no disproportionate treatment between the absentee without leave and the deserter.

The Secretary of State for War sought to introduce an entirely new principle that there should be this compulsory punishment of a man found guilty of desertion by court martial in adding on the period of his desertion to his full time service. That is entirely and utterly wrong. If a man is guilty of desertion the proper court to fix his punishment is a court martial imposing a sentence. The case should not be dealt with arbitrarily by a provision in the Bill in this manner. It is quite wrong that a man who is serving a sentence of imprisonment of, say, 14 days, for a criminal offence or undergoing detention should be in a better position than a man who is found guilty of desertion for a week. I would impress upon the right hon. Gentleman the importance of the point that there is bound to be disparity on the question of proof of intention between very similar cases. Where a conviction for desertion is reported there may possibly be much the same penalty as for absence without leave. Perhaps I moved this Amendment too briefly, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to say which way his mind is working on this. It is a serious question for the individual concerned, and I would ask the Minister to say what method he has in mind for working this thing out when he redrafts paragraph (b), as I believe he must.

I apologise for detaining the Committee, but I think that this is a matter of considerable substance. It seems to me that we are concerned with achieving in some way a deterrent against the man who goes absent without leave. It appears to me obvious that the Minister of Defence has not realised the difficulty which would confront the authorities in this respect. In this very condensed period of 12 months there will be very little time for leave and the thing that most encourages absence without leave is absence of leave. Therefore it seems to me that we shall tend to have an increase of this form of offence. There will be a reluctance on the part of the authorities of the three Services to inflict upon such men a form of punishment which would take them off training. In these circumstances the situation that may well obtain if we do not include this provision is that men will go absent without leave any weekend they choose, and it will be almost impossible to punish them severely because it would interfere with training.

I make no apology for detaining the Committee. [Interruption.] This is not a matter for a few desultory words across the Table. We cannot say, "We have sat late, so let us get the whole thing put away by four o'clock." That is the kind of attitude that has been adopted by hon. Members opposite. This is an important matter, but the right hon. Gentleman gets up in the most calm and casual fashion and says, "Yes, there is something in this, and I will look into it between now and the Report stage." But that is not the way to deal with a matter which goes to the whole fundamentals of conscript service. As one who has always sup- ported the Secretary of State for War, so far as party differences would allow, in his general attitude towards national service, I want to protest in a most emphatic manner at his observation. It was of a calamitous character. He said that the "old sweat" should be subject to penalties to which the conscript should not be subject. What becomes of the appeals of those of us who have said we would do everything possible to get people to join the Army? The Secretary of State says that the Regular soldier is "for it," but that the conscript must be petted and nursed, that nothing must be done to upset him—

3.45 P.m.

I apologise if because of the depth, height, and width of my indignation I have gone outside the bounds of Order. I dissent from the idea that there should be discrimination against the Regular soldier. There has been no attempt by the Minister of Defence to explain what he proposes to do in the case of the man who wants to dodge the column. I hope the majority of these men will not do that, but if a man wants to dodge the column he can, under the provisions of this Bill, make a nuisance of himself, and do real mischief to the true interests of the Army. Before we part with this matter we should have a proper assurance from the Government. The 28 days, or whatever period it is, is a ridiculous provision; I see no reason for that arbitrary distinction. The whole spirit of this Subsection is pregnant with what I believe to be a completely wrong approach to this question. There is a certain duty being imposed upon the civilian population. The man who has to perform that duty should be in the same position as the splendid men who have joined the Regular Army, Navy or Air Force. I strongly object to discrimination against the Regular soldier.

On a point of Order. Is it not usual, on the Committee stage, for a Minister, when he has been impressed by arguments which have been put to him, to say that he will give the matter reconsideration before the Report stage? Is it necessary that the Minister should now be forced to say what line he will take?

Whether it is usual or not, I understood the Minister of Defence to say that he would give the matter further consideration.

There are two methods by which Ministers meet points. Sometimes they say that they will consider the arguments put to them, and will see whether something can be done, and sometimes they pledge themselves to accept a principle. I understood that the Minister of Defence did not pledge himself in this case and, that being so, surely it is in Order for other Members, who feel strongly, to add arguments which they may think will be of value to the Minister in reconsidering the matter.

I believe that part of the failure of the Minister of Defence to satisfy the Committee was caused by the repetition of an error which has crept into some of the speeches. That error assumes that this Schedule has something to do with the punishment of military offences. It has nothing to do with that at all. The punishment for desertion or absence without leave may or may not be right, but the Schedule deals only with how one is to reckon the 12 months of compulsory service. The reservation which prevented the Minister from giving us the undertaking, which would have completely satisfied us, was the idea that he might be pledging himself to increasing the penalties. For the reasons which have been given already, the effect of leaving the words as they are would have precisely that effect. If absence without leave for shorter periods than 28 days did not extend the 12 months, the only way of dealing with the matter would be by a much more severe penalty than would otherwise be necessary. The words in paragraph (b, iii) of the proviso to paragraph 1 are indefensible as they stand. In this case, as in others relating to this Schedule to which I have drawn attention, the Government's proposals show every sign of hasty draftmanship. It is clear that the paragraph must be amended. If the right hon. Gentleman will add to what he has said already that he will correct that paragraph, I think we can proceed.

I thought I had given the Committee all that was reasonably required by way of assurance. The Debate has been prolonged since, and the object of my intervening, which was to save time then, has already been lost. I do not withdraw my offer to look at the matter again between now and the Report stage, but I certainly am not going to commit myself any further.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman will not go any further to meet the point that I raised. I would ask him to look at this matter seriously. In the circumstances, because we do want to get on with the business, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Where exactly do we stand on this matter? Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that he does not in any way take back the pledge which he gave? It would be a most insufficient reason for taking back the pledge that a number of us on this side had asked questions and had wished to know the nature of the pledge. I want to obtain from the right hon. Gentleman an understanding that his second speech in no way militates against the effect of the first, and that he is prepared to give the fullest consideration to the point.

If hon. Gentlemen opposite go on in that way they will further delay the proceedings. As there is a question about the propriety of withdrawing, perhaps I might be allowed to ask a short question which I have tried to ask. I feel sure that the Attorney-General would wish to offer his assistance in the matter, particularly because of something which I thought I understood from the Secretary of State. If I have misunderstood him I apologise. Does the Minister of Defence wish to say something?

If I misunderstood, I apologise. If I did not misunderstand I still think that the point needs explaining. I understood the Secretary of State for War to say that absence was a less serious matter when it was a day's absence from a duty of 365 days, than when it was a day's absence from a duty of five or more years. That seems. arith- metically, an untenable proposition, and as a legal or equitable proposition, I should have thought that it was a highly dubitable proposition. But that was the proposition on which the Secretary of State's thesis rested. That being so, I think that the legal Gentlemen who are here to assist us should either confirm or correct the impression which the Committee must have got from the Secretary of State. There was a second part of a dual principle which the Secretary of State enunciated, that absence was more serious when it was in breach of a contract than when the absence was in contravention of a general Statute. That seems a more debatable principle, but if the principle is debatable I think it ought not to be accepted by this Committee except after Debate. It ought to be made plain by the legal experts whether it is considered that absence is less serious when it is in breach of the contract, than when it is in breach of a penal Statute. Will not the Attorney-General tell us? If he will not, I shall take much longer in the end.

We are dealing with a very serious point here, and from the speeches we have heard from the Government Front Bench it seems they are not paying sufficient attention to the position of the men whom they will try to get to join the Forces as volunteers. If we are to get men to join as volunteers, and take a longer contract, it is wrong that the scale of punishment should be made heavier for them than those who have to serve for only a short time. I feel sure that the Minister of Defence left an impression on the Committee which he would not wish to leave when he said, first, he would look into the matter with care, and, then, that he would not give the same amount of care to it if Members continued to press him. I hope he will say that he will do as he has always done by the Services, give full attention to this matter and try to find a remedy. If he will promise me that, I shall be satisfied.

When this Schedule is being reconsidered, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that Clause 3—

Perhaps I should have said paragraph 3 of the Schedule. When this is being considered, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that what is a day for this purpose is already defined in Section 140 of the Army Act? Will he ensure that the same definition of a day applies to those who are called up under the National Service Act as to the Regular Forces?

It being Four o'Clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.