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New Clause—(Commissions)

Volume 437: debated on Friday 9 May 1947

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The service authorities shall by regulations make provision whereby any person to whom Section one of this Act applies may, if selected for the purpose, receive a commission either during, or immediately upon completion of, his term of whole-time service.—[Mr. Pickthorn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I hope the Committee will not think I am pompous, or have entirely lost my sense of proportion, if I say that this seems to me the most important new Clause we have to deal with today. I have no right to complain of the paucity of the audience, but I am sorry that we have not been able to fill the Committee. I do not blame those who are not present, although I may blame the Government for the way the proceedings have been discussed, so that we come to this point on a Friday morning. The reason I am sorry that more people are not present here is that I believe that if I can explain the point properly—and I should not dare to be over confident—I should have the complete agreement of every Member on the other side of the Committee, as well as most Members on this side. I am sorry that there are not more persons present whom it might be possible to convert.

I think that never before has there been a conscription system set up in any country on a more or less permanent basis. I think that has never before been done, without public and Parliamentary discussion of the relations between conscripts' service and the officering of the Reserve, especially the officering of the Reserve by the promotion of conscripts to the Reserve. I think it is a remarkable thing, and it is the only matter which I should make a matter of reproach against the Minister of Labour, although I understand that he was in the hands of advisers from the Service Department, that although something was said on this subject on the Second Reading, we did not hear a word about it from him on that occasion. We do now deserve a very candid and open-minded consideration of the point.

Young men are called up in the immediate present for two years; in the immediate past for an indefinite period, and some such young men are still with the Colours. Under the Bill, they are to be called up for a period of 12 months. They will include all young men fit to be officers who have not already chosen to set out on other machinery, the path for becoming Regular officers.

It is therefore most important that those who are most fit to become officers should be earmarked as, so to speak, officer material, at the earliest possible stage, and that they should be trained to become officers. It needs little argument to show that that is equally important for all civilian occupations. If, therefore, the sort of young boy of 18 or 19 who is most likely to become a good officer in His Majesty's Armed Forces is also the sort of boy most likely to have initiative, those boys should get into their civilian careers as early as the inferior boys who are not to be officers. I hope that the whole Committee is with me in the argument as far as that point.

It happens at present that these young men find that if 'they set themselves out to become officers, whether upon their own initiative or upon the suggestion of commanding officers or adjutants, they run very serious risks that the whole-time interruption of their civilian careers will be longer than it would be if they were not prepared to be considered for promotion to commissioned rank. That is a bad result, from the point of view of the Services, as well as of getting our ordinary normal civilian economy back at least to where it was 10 years ago and ultimately to much further on than that. That is the first stage of the argument. I hope I have made it quite clear.

How much the present arrangement may tend to lengthen· the whole-time service can be estimated by an indication of what happens in some regiments. It varies from service to service. I can see the temptation which exists for senior officers. It costs more money to make a man into an officer, even the lower sort of officer, than simply to train him as an efficient private. If we spend more of the King's money upon these young men there is a temptation to get some of the money back by keeping the men in the services longer than they would remain as privates or lance-corporals.

Is it impossible to gain a commission immediately upon the completion of the whole time service, after one year. I cannot conceive from this discussion whether—

On a point of Order. I suggest, Major Milner, that it is impossible to discuss the proposed new Clause unless we are allowed to mention that point. It is because the present system exists and because we want to prevent it from being the system in the future that I put forward the proposed new Clause.

I need hardly remind you, Major Milner, but perhaps I may venture to remind the Committee, of Heydon's case, a leading case in this connection, in which was laid down what I believe has been the law and the practice ever since, that the first point to be considered in legislating is what the existing position is, and the gap necessary to be filled, or evil removed.

The hon. Gentleman has already, if he will forgive my saying so, given the Committee a lecture on legislating. I must ask him to keep to the matter of the new Clause.

12.45 p.m.

I am very sorry if I am apt to go too wide. No doubt I can be forgiven if I do not understand the exact distinction between a lecture and a speech. Perhaps the Attorney-General wishes to explain it to the Committee. All that I am trying to show is that the proposed new Clause cannot be understood without some understanding of the present arrangement. That is all I am asking you to allow me to do. I do not think that most people fully understand the present arrangement. I hope that the Secretary of State for War may explain to us the Army Council instruction on this matter.

A very great deal of latitude is left to commanding officers in some regiments. Young men are told in some cases that they have no hope of a commission unless they stay for two years' continual service. In other areas they are told that they have little hope of a commission unless they stay for five years. My submission is that if those arrangements are allowed to go on, either in the Army or in the other Services, many young men who obviously ought to become officers of the Reserve will be unwilling to do so. If, unfortunately, we should have another major conflict in a short period, our Reserve would then start with fewer good officers than it ought to have. I am sure that hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree with me that the people who matter most when we are expanding our Services are the officers of the Reserve, and further that they should be the right sort of people. The more previous experience those officers have had of the military kind the better they will be, as I am sure all of us will agree from our regimental experience.

My first point therefore is that unless the Bill has a Clause of that sort—I should prefer a slightly more mandatory form of my own Clause—there will be that bad result. There will also be on the whole a socially bad result. The young men to whom it is most important because of want of capital or want of connections that they should get on quickly with their professional or their commercial careers, will be those most unwilling to accept commissions. They will fear that acceptance of a commission will mean two, three or even five years' interruption, instead of only one. I do not think that contention can be denied.

The next, part of the argument is that it would have a very bad effect upon what I may call the officering of the civilian population. That is specially true in connection with the universities. If young men should find that when they go into the Forces that they are likely to get a commission but do not know whether they will be held for two years or four years longer than otherwise would have been the case, it makes the business of registrars and tutors in academic institutions in making up their entries impossibly difficult. Again, it has the bad effect that it makes it even more difficult than it already is for the business of justly administering the proportion between the entry direct from school and the ex-service entry. For all these reasons, it seems to be quite beyond debate that it ought to be the normal thing in anything like a permanent conscript system—and it was the normal thing in all the prewar conscript systems of the continent—that a young conscript can become an officer of reserve without the whole-time interruption of his career being longer than it would have been if he were too inferior to become an officer or had chosen not to wish to become an officer. That is the main thesis.

If I may say a further word about the technique of the matter, I was assured there was difficulty, both constitutional and administrative, in framing a new Clause with this purpose, since the granting of commissions is a matter of His Majesty's Prerogative. As at present advised, I should be the last to wish to alter that arrangement. I believe it is a maxim of law—I would not venture to explain the law, as there are others better qualified to do so—that when Parliament takes some matter into the statutory field, it thereby excludes the Prerogative from that field for the future. Therefore, it is a matter of extreme delicacy for us to legislate on this question, but I hope that both the new Clauses put down have avoided that difficulty without making themselves wholly ineffective. I am confirmed in that hope by the fact that both the new Clauses are in order. That one of them has been selected confirms me in the first part of the hope, and that there should be any doubt at all about Ministerial acceptance of our suggestion confirms me in the second half of the hope. I hope I have made the points plain. I could adduce many illustrious examples, but if I have made the main points plain, I do not wish to hold the Committee with examples, and I should be the last to wish to repeat myself.

I have sympathy with the object of the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) in the new Clause, but I think the greatest objection to accepting the Clause in this form is that administrative management of the Services, if all the details of that administrative management had to be put in the form of regulations which would have to be laid before the House, and which could be prayed against even in a negative way, would become practically impossible. What we ought to do, surely, is to make certain that there will be these opportunities, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, but it should be for the Services to give those opportunities, although not in the way described in the new Clause. To take the Army alone, there are hundreds of Army Council Instructions dealing with matters of this sort issued every year. If those Army Council Instructions—I suggest that this would be the best method of dealing with this, and it would always be' open to hon. Members to obtain a copy of Army Council Instructions—had to be laid before the House and possibly debated at some late hour, that would not help towards the smooth administration of the Service Departments.

Ministers do not help us to save time if they make this sort of misunderstanding. Nobody is asking that all Army Council Instructions should be laid before the House, or even all the details about granting commissions. What we ask for is a statutory guarantee that the normal method of attaining a commission on the reserve for a conscript shall not mean longer full-time interruption of his normal career. That is what we are asking. We ought to have some argument against it, or should be given something like it.

The Committee can now see the difficulties we are getting into. I say quite frankly that in certain arms of the Service it will not be possible for national service men within 12 months' whole-time training to get the necessary qualifications and standard which are desirable in commissioned officers in that arm or branch of the Service. I think the best way that I can deal with the Clause is to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, if that is possible, that we shall give every facility and opportunity to all the national service men within the period of their whole-time training, which is included in the new Clause, or if not within that whole-time training period, immediately after it, when they go on to the reserve, or later on, the opportunity of getting a commission. It must be evident to the Committee that we cannot hope to carry the national service intakes, which will be considerable, with only Regular officers to officer them. We must look for a certain number of National Service men to provide the officers for the National Service Army; otherwise, we simply shall not have the numbers.

To take the Regular Army alone, we need every Regular officer we can get, or every officer we can get, to look after the Regular Army. That is the reason the Military College at Sandhurst is now engaged in working on an 18 months course, and an intensive one at that, to provide officers for the Regular Army. It is true that some of those officers will have to deal with the National Service element in the Regular Army, but we shall want more than the Regular content in the commissioned ranks for the national service Army. It follows, therefore, that during that whole-time period of training we shall have to look to many of those young men to help to fill the commissioned ranks of the Army and, of course, the other two Services. Let me explain briefly the different categories. There is the Regular commission, the temporary commission and the Auxiliary Forces commission required in the different branches of the Services, the officer for the Regular Army, the officer for the national service Army, and the officer for the Auxiliary Army. In the case of the Regular commissions, it will not be possible.

On a point of Order, Major Milner. What have Regular commissions to do with this Bill or this Clause?

I will endeavour to explain it. It was one of the most substantial points of the hon. Gentleman's argument that a national service man could not get a commission unless he signed on for five years. The hon. Member raised that point, and I will reply to it briefly. In the case of a Regular commission, it would not be possible for him to get it unless he undertook a regular engagement which would be five years, because he would have to go to the military g training school and serve at least 18 months before he could be on the way to a Regular commission.

1.0 p.m.

The next point concerns temporary commissions which cover individuals called up under this Bill. A certain proportion of National Service men within the whole-time period will be able to get commissions, and, obviously, it will have to be left to the different Services to lay down the standards and qualifications before they can get their commissions. The man who might be able to get such a commission within the whole-time period would then follow into his reserve service with his commission.

Straight into the Reserve with his commission. We shall endeavour to get as many as we can within that whole-time period, because they will then get an opportunity of understanding the working of the Army before they go out into the auxiliary Reserve as officers. I will not deal with short-service commissions, because I think they are beside the point, but I hope that in the remarks I have made I have explained what we have in mind—and this will need very careful planning—to provide the officers for the three services, as regards both regular and national service men. In effect, it will be possible for the national service men to get what the hon. Gentleman is asking for—their commissions either during their whole-time service or immediately on relegation to the Reserve—but it would be impossible for me to lay down precisely how many will get their commissions within the whole-time period or immediately afterwards. It would be impossible for me at this stage—indeed, I would be taking up the time of the Committee unnecessarily—to specify the branches of the Services. In the technical branches they would not get commissions in 12 months, whether in the Navy, Air Force or Army. However, I hope the Committee will be satisfied that we are going to make provision for that point. We cannot put it in statutory form. Otherwise, it would clutter up the Bill as well as Parliament.

I rise in an effort to save time and, if the right hon. Gentleman will permit me, to say that the answer he has given is wholly unsatisfactory. He has given no indication that he means to meet the problem that we have in mind, or that he sees what the problem is. We have heard a great deal of talk about Regular commissions and the 40,000 Army Council Instructions. We have had no reference to the short, simple point which we wanted to bring before the Committee and which we regard as important, if not more important, for the future of the Forces under this Bill, as anything else we have discussed. With great respect to the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), it is just as important to discuss matters with a view to ensuring the efficiency of the Services in the future as it is to dis- cuss matters, which I agree are of equal importance, concerning the conditions under which the men serve.

I do not think I said anything which would cause the right hon. Gentleman to think I disagree with that statement.

We regard this as tremendously important. Unless the system which exists at the moment is changed, no boy who is unable to surrender to military service more than the one year which is forced upon him by this Measure, will ever be able to get a commission in any branch of the Service.

The right hon. Gentleman should not mislead the Committee. That is entirely wrong. I thought I had made it clear that it will be possible for national service men in the ranks, to get commissions during their whole-time service.

If that is so, why does not the right hon. Gentleman accept this new Clause and let us have the regulations which show how it is done? He has spent the greater part of his speech proving how impossible it was to do it. We on this side attach the greatest importance to making sure that there are provisions which enable the bright young man to get his commission either during the year or shortly afterwards, and to move on to his part-time service as an officer, thereby providing some of the officers for the Territorials. I do not believe the Territorials will get their junior officers by any other way. I am told that in re-forming the Territorials, while it is comparatively easy to get volunteers in the higher commissioned ranks, it is not easy to get the junior subalterns, and they will have to be provided from the people who receive either all or the greater part of their training as officers during the year.

We do not want to do anything in this Clause which sets a precedent for having to lay before Parliament a mass of regulations or Orders in which Parliament is not interested and with which we do not want to deal, but we regard this matter as something which does not set a precedent. We are not prepared to part with this Bill unless we have in it something which provides for what we believe to be absolutely vital for the future of the Territorial Army. We have had no such assurance yet. I drew no confidence or satisfaction from the speech of the Secretary of State, and, although we will not stand rigidly on the exact form—we are quite prepared at a subsequent stage for any verbal Amendments to be made which will make it easier from the technical point of view—we on this side insist that statutory provision alone can meet our fears and doubts in this matter.

I am very anxious that we should make progress and, at the same time, that we should meet legitimate criticism. I think the Committee will appreciate that the acceptance of a new Clause of this kind would create a great precedent in Service administration. Therefore, it has to be given very careful consideration. Moreover, the point covered by the new Clause is intended to be strictly limited. However, I am bound to say that I am impressed from this point of view, that the Bill introduces for a longish period in peacetime the principle of compulsory national service, and, therefore, perhaps, the general conditions of men called up for national service should be considered from the point of view of their prospects of promotion to commissioned rank.

It would be very difficult for us at the moment to accept the form of words suggested in the new Clause, to provide for the laying before Parliament of regulations in that wider sense, but I would like to consider the point between now and the Report stage and do my best to meet the position. I will have the matter examined. I consider, speaking for myself—I should like to examine it—that if the principle in the new Clause, of laying regulations for this purpose, is acceptable on the basis I have put, for the special purpose of men called up under this Bill, it should not be regarded as a precedent for a general demand afterwards for the laying of whole ranges of Service instructions before the Committee. If the right hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance upon that basis—I could not possibly confine myself to the words in the new Clause, because they are exceedingly limiting in that respect—I will have it examined, and on Report stage I will introduce a form of words to deal with the principle at issue.

I am sure all hon. Members on this side of the Committee are extremely grateful to the Minister of Defence. We are prepared to accept his assurance. I think he is fully seized of the principle, in which hon. Members in all parts of the Committee are interested. It is the principle which matters. If he now, as I understand, gives us a pledge that at a subsequent stage he will ensure that there is included in the Bill provisions for regulations which establish this principle, then we are quite prepared to leave the actual wording of the new provisions to him. That being the understanding, I should certainly advise my hon. Friend the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) to withdraw the Amendment.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not pledging myself to include, in anything we might bring forward at the Report stage, words which would specifically mention the principle which has been put forward by the senior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) in his speech. What I hope to secure, in view of the anxiety expressed by hon. Members with regard to the conditions for granting commissions in general to candidates called up under the National Service Bill, is that it will be under regulations to be laid before Parliament, so that there will be the right to raise the matter. I think that is the real concession which hon. Members opposite want.

in view of the assurance—and perhaps I may be permitted to repeat my understanding of it as shortly as I can—that it is intended to make an honest attempt to put it in the power of this Committee to ensure that it shall be normally possible for a conscript to go to the reserve as a commissioned officer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

I now propose to call the new Clause in the names of the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Ayles)—(Exemption for persons engaged in production of coalmining machinery). I propose to call that new Clause with a view to having a general discussion on the question of exemptions so that all those hon. Members who have put down new Clauses may if they wish take part in this general discussion. I refer to the new Clauses dealing with distributive workers, agricultural workers and students, cotton trade workers, miners, and sea fishermen.

I should certainly advise my hon. Friends to adopt that course without prejudice to the right of having separate Divisions, if desired.

I must of course retain my discretion as to Amendments I call for the purpose of Divisions. Some are perhaps more important than others. It is my intention that, if necessary, there should be an opportunity of dividing on the more important Amendments on the Order Paper.

You will remember, Major Milner, the parallel I have in mind. On the first day of the Committee stage we devoted practically the whole of the time to dealing with territorial Amendments. The principle of all these new Clauses is of exemption by industry. All I am asking for is the same latitude to be given today as was given on that occasion, although on this occasion we shall be more co-operative than were those who moved the Amendments on the previous occasion

On a point of Order. May I ask whether we can divide on the new Clause standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends—(Exemption for only son of widow in certain circumstances.).

I hope I shall not be pressed unduly on this matter of selection. I must see how things go. I will bear that matter in mind sympathetically, but I do not think I can be tied down in this matter.

I have made a suggestion, and I hope hon. Members will not press me further.

All we want to be clear about is that the new Clause to which my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) has referred is not included in the Ruling you have given. That Amendment is not an exemption by industry at all.

In principle it is the same, and I hope the hon. Member will discuss that Clause at the same time as the other Clauses. It is true that the great majority of the new Clauses deal with industries, but the principle is one of exemption.

I should like to make it quite clear that I could not agree to discussing the new Clause to which my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton has just referred in a general discussion on exemption by industry. It seems to me to have nothing to do with it, and I shall not agree to it.