Defence (Donaldson Report)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th November 1970.

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Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford 12:00 am, 25th November 1970

I would like to make a statement about the report of Lord Donaldson's Committee on Boy Entrants and Young Servicemen. The report has now been published as Command 4509 and copies are available in the Vote Office. The Government are most grateful to Lord Donaldson and his colleagues for their very valuable review of a complex and difficult subject.

The Committee accepts that the need for adequate defence forces demands a system of binding engagements. It also acknowledges the opportunities to leave that already exist for those who for various reasons change their mind about a Service career. At present about 12,000 boys and adults are allowed to leave prematurely each year. Nevertheless, the Committee concludes that all who join the Services before age 17½, whether on boys' or adult engagements, should be allowed to change the terms of their engagements when they reach the age of majority.

It recommends that most boy entrants should have the right at the age of 18 to confirm their original engagements or to reduce them to three years. But it recognises that this would not give the Services a far return from apprentices who need two or more years' training. It therefore recommends that these longterm apprentices should have three options at the age of 18—to confirm their original engagements, or to complete their training and then give five years' productive service, or to leave forthwith in mid-training.

We have had to consider these recommendations against the background of the extremely serious manpower situation which we found when we took office, and we have had to weigh carefully the consequences of any relaxation of the present engagement structure for the maintenance of the strength and efficiency of the Forces. We have concluded that, on balance, it would be right to accept Lord Donaldson's main recommendations, with one modification.

While we appreciate the motives of the Committee in differentiating between apprentices undergoing long training and the majority, on balance we have concluded that in fairness we ought to treat boys in both groups alike. In some cases they live, work and train side by side. They would find it hard to understand why, when they reached 18, some could leave at once and the others only in three years' time.

In order to put the two groups on a much more equal footing, we have decided to introduce a scheme under which everyone who joins before 17½ will have the opportunity at 18 of confirming his original engagement or choosing to leave three years after his 18th birthday or completion of training, whichever is the later. There will be no option to leave at 18 for the small group of apprentices who undergo long training, but equally they will not be required to serve for as long as five years after completing their training.

Although the Committee's recommendations were framed in relation to the raising of the school-leaving age, which will occur in 1972–73, the Government have decided to introduce the new arrangement on 1st April, 1971. It will apply not only to those who join thereafter but also to those already serving who are still under 18.

The Government have accepted all the other recommendations of the Committee except that which recommended that the size of the defence budget should be adjusted to take account of the social and economic value to the nation of the training of boys. We regard this particular recommendation as impractical.

The Committee recognised that implementation might have to be phased. Because of the Navy's manpower shortages, this will be necessary in the case of Recommendation 3, that the period of service required before adult naval ratings and Royal Marine other ranks can apply for discharge by purchase should be brought into line with the other Services. However, we intend to make steady progress year by year, so that by 1977 at the latest the Royal Navy will be in line with the two other Services.

I am very conscious of the risks in our decision for the manning of the Services. I believe, however, that we have struck a reasonable balance between the need, which we accept, for some liberalisation of the present arrangements, and the need to provide adequate defence forces. I should like to draw attention to the tribute which Lord Donaldson has paid to many aspects of Service life and training. In his own words, the Services provide a form of education and training available equally to the less privileged, which is not provided elsewhere and which is of the highest value to the individuals and the country. I am confident that with this relaxation of the engagement rules, and with the new impetus of the present Government's defence policy, increasing numbers of boys will avail themselves of these opportunities.

Photo of Mr George Thomson Mr George Thomson , Dundee East

We on this side of the House join the noble Lord in his thanks to the Donaldson Committee, which had to deal with the difficult conflict between the liberty of the subject and the needs of national security. Is the Minister aware that hon. Members on both sides will naturally want time to study the White Paper which has just been published? Indeed, there may be a demand to debate the issues it raises. Is the hon. Gentleman also aware that, as a preliminary view, we regard the decision as a step in the right direction, since it reduces the liability to service of young entrants by rather more than half, but that three years' notice of ending a contract is still a long time? We hope that further progress can be made along the lines of the very principle that the Donaldson Committee lays down, that a voluntary system must be voluntary. We regard the proposal on adult purchase of discharge from the Navy as being far too slow. The period up to 1977 is a very long transitional period, and we hope that the Government will be able to speed things up a good deal.

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his preliminary remarks. This is a complicated subject, which we are, of course, perfectly willing to debate. I accept that the concept of a voluntary service is that it should be truly voluntary. The House must accept that the decision is a major advance in the liberalisation of the engagement structure. This liberalisation, combined with the improved pay arrangements, makes a career in the Services one of the finest in the country.

Photo of Mr James Ramsden Mr James Ramsden , Harrogate

My hon. Friend's statement sounds quite all right, but this is a very complicated matter and will require study by those of us who have not seen a copy of the report. Is it not rather a pity that the Government had to reject the recommendation that the defence budget should be relieved of a cost which more properly belongs to education, for the educational value of the military training given to the boys?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's point. From the Defence Minister's point of view it is tempting to exclude all the educational work which we undertake in the defence field and place it on another budget, but it is impracticable to exclude one section of our work and place it on another Department's budget.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

Since the noble Lord said that he was very willing to debate this matter—which is complicated—will he at once discuss it with the Leader of the House, so that a debate can be arranged? Second, while I of course agree that this is a considerable advance on the previous situation, the waiting period of three years after exercising the option seems unconscionably long. If a young man finds that he has made a mistake in his choice of career and wants to get out of the Services, to be told that he must wait for another three years is almost an incentive to go absent.

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

The question of a debate is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The hon. Gentleman points out that a continued engagement of three years is a long period. But it is a considerable improvement on a period of nine years. The Committee specifically points out that a binding engagement in the Services is a necessary feature of Service life.

Photo of Mr Patrick Wall Mr Patrick Wall , Haltemprice

I accept the compromise which my hon. Friend has announced, but can he say what effect it is likely to have on the Royal Navy, which depends overwhelmingly on boy service? Will he give immediate consideration to ending the break period after three months' training?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

Two-thirds of the recruits into the Royal Navy are boys, but it has been prepared to face the risk involved. Although there is a risk in this liberalisation measure, I believe that its effect on the image of the Services will result in a greater willingness of parents, youth leaders and teachers to encourage young men to join the Services. The break period is under examination.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris , Aberavon

Ministers in the last Government believed that the existing system actively impaired recruitment and that liberalisation was necessary; hence the Committee and the Report. We welcome the decision as a major step forward. But does it mean that those over 18 on 1st April, 1971, will not benefit from the proposals? The decision will have the greatest practical significance for the Royal Navy. Will it have to wait until the late 1970s at the earliest for reform? Cannot there be a speedier rationalisation for the Navy?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's first remarks, which I understood to be a welcome for the Report. We cannot make the change retrospective to cover all adult Servicemen who joined as boys—that would be impossible—but I have already announced to the House that I am examining the adult engagement structure.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

Will my hon. Friend emphasise to the country Lord Donaldson's statement that: The Services should be seen as a fine career which a boy is lucky to get into, not as a second best to industry."? Will my hon. Friend recognise that the individual needs of the three Services are to some extent different in detail, and will remain so, and will he make sure that these very necessary differences are not subordinated to uniformity for uniformity's sake?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. As I have said, I believe that a combination of a good salary in the Services and this major advance in the liberalisation of the engagement structure makes the Services one of the finest careers in the country. There will be no intention to achieve uniformity for uniformity's sake, but where rationalisation of the engagement structures can be achieved without harming the individual Services, that is desirable.

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eton and Slough

I welcome the Minister's announcement as liberalising the situation. Will he make a specific statement now or later about the position of many young men who applied to be released from the Services, were turned down, and are now adults, some of whom have absented themselves? Will there be any amnesty for them to make a new application? What exactly will their position be?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I do not think I can add to the answer I gave. If the hon. Lady puts down a specific Question about that matter, I shall try to answer it.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Surbiton

No one seems adequately to have thanked my hon. Friend for his much more liberal and humane reaction to the report than we encountered among some members of the last Government.

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I am very appreciative of my hon. Friend's comments.

Photo of Mr Frank Allaun Mr Frank Allaun , Salford East

Will the hon. Gentleman at least reconsider the proposal made by my right hon. Friend that there should be a gradual reduction of the three years after 18, because three years to a young man is such a long time? Will he agree that this recommendation was unanimous? If he wants uniformity between apprentices and non-apprentices, why should he not reduce the 21 years rather than increase the 18 years for the apprentices?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I cannot undertake to re-examine the decision we have reached on this matter. It has been reached after great thought. Considerable risks are being taken at a time when the manning position in the Services is not good. We believe this to be an advance and to be in the interests of the Services.

Photo of Mr Raphael Tuck Mr Raphael Tuck , Watford

Since a man is deemed to be unable to make a contract until he is 18 or to get married without his parents' consent until he is 18, why make a difference in relation to entry into the Armed Services? Is it not holding a young man to an agreement which he really was not old enough to make? Does it not smack, therefore, of press-gang methods?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

The hon. Gentleman should read the report. The point is that at the age of 18 these youngsters will have the opportunity of confirming their long-term engagement or shortening it to a period of three years. This is a reasonable compromise in a very difficult problem which I hope is acceptable to the House.

Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie

I welcome this advance in the liberalisation of the engagement structure. Large numbers of young people at the moment are on desertion from the Services. Some of my constituents have, unfortunately, deserted from the Royal Navy. Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that these young people have obviously been misplaced, that their choice has been wrong, and that they have no intention of serving? Does he not also agree that they are therefore lost to both the Navy, to industry and to themselves and that if we could only reduce the three-year period they might be able to rehabilitate themselves in our society?

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I doubt whether the facts support the hon. Gentleman's statement that large numbers are involved. But there are arrangements for those boys who are unhappy or unsuitable to be released from the Services, and we will do all we can to ensure that those who are unhappy or unsuitable are released.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

In relation to page 40 of the report, has the hon. Gentleman been able to reflect on the suggestion of our former colleague, Alan Thompson, of Edinburgh University, who is a member of the Committee, on the issue of the ombudsman? Has he considered whether the ombudsman system can be reconciled with the needs of security and discipline in the Services? if so, would it be better to have the Swedish system of appointing a separate ombudsman for the Services or to extend our own system? What kind of Service complaints could be submitted to the ombudsman?

While I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Army, I would have liked the services of the ombudsman when looking at a recent difficult case, possibly a case of homosexuality, involving a West Lothian teenager. These homosexual cases are very difficult cases in which an ombudsman might help.

Photo of Lord  Balniel Lord Balniel , Hertford

I appreciate the point but the question of extending the investigating power of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to the public services as a whole, including the Armed Forces, is already under consideration by the Government.