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National Service (Period)

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 11 May 1954

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asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that the Belgian Government are proposing to reduce the period of conscription to 18 months and that the United States Government are considering a reduction to six months; and, as both these governments are associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, whether he will now consider an early reduction in the length of National Service.

I am aware of the proposals of the Belgian Government to effect a reduction in their period of whole-time national service from 21 to 18 months. The right hon. Gentleman is mistaken in suggesting that the United States Government are considering a reduction to six months' whole-time service. I would refer him to the answer given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on 4th May on this point. Our own period of National Service must be determined by our own requirements, but, as was said in this year's statement on Defence, the Government are keeping the question under review.

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's regard for standardisation in military matters, how does he continue to justify this variation among the N.A.T.O. countries? In view of the decision of the Belgian Government, which arises out of a general election, why does he delay putting into operation the change in the conditions of National Service which, he must know very well, are inevitable?

The reason for the delay is that we did not think that it was desirable at the present time and we did not think that we could conduct the many varied overseas commitments which have fallen upon us for one cause and another with a shorter period of service and the consequent increased difficulty in making the reliefs.

Is the Prime Minister aware that it is reported that the Belgian Minister of Defence stated that the reduction of the period to 18 months would not prejudice the strength and effectiveness of the Belgian Armed Forces? In those circumstances, will he instruct his Minister of Defence to find out something about the Belgian proposals and submit them to us so that we can see whether the British Armed Forces can be so reduced?

I can give an answer to that at once. It would certainly cause us the very greatest inconvenience and difficulty in the maintenance of our existing responsibilities and would do great injury to the quality and character of our Armed Forces.

Would the Prime Minister please take note of one of the leaders in "The Times" yesterday which indicated a change of opinion on the part of that very reputable newspaper? Why is he so sticky about this matter? Why does he not reconsider the whole position, or hold an inquiry into it?

I hardly think it would be possible to do anything more unwise or ill-judged than to reduce the period of service at the present moment. It is not a case of all countries being standardised. All countries are not standardised in their commitments. In fact, there are as many different commitments per country as individuals have different qualities.