HC Deb 16 April 1874 vol 218 cc700-5

(Mr. Raikes, Mr. Secretary Hardy, The Judge Advocate.)

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


said, he was a Member of a Commission appointed in 1868 to inquire into the state of the law relating to military offences. That Commission reported that the law was in a complicated state and required alteration. Since then there had been several changes in the office of Judge Advocate, and no step had been taken in compliance with the recommendations of the Commission. He was desirous to know what course Her Majesty's Government proposed to take on the subject?


said, there was no doubt such a measure as had been sketched out by the right hon. and learned Gentleman was much desired in the Army. At the same time, he must state that the opinion was not unanimous in the Service as to the advantage which would result from the codification of the law, for there were many officers of high rank who thought it would be better to preserve the Mutiny Bill in the form it now existed, subject to such amendments as might be made in it from year to year. His attention had been called to the subject, and he hoped to be able to do something in this matter, if not this, at all events, next year.

Clause 2 (Persons subject to this Act).

MR. STEPHEN CAVE moved, in page 3, line 34, after "training and exercise," insert— and to all men enrolled in the Reserve Force when called out for training or exercise, or when kept on duty having volunteered their services, or when called out in aid of the civil power, or when called out on permanent service under Her Majesty's Proclamation. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Campbell-Bannerman) explained that the words were intended to render the Militia Staff liable to be tried by Court-martials consisting of other officers besides those of their own regiment. He wished to add a few words to his reply to his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxfordshire (Colonel North) the other night on trials for desertion and absence without leave. The object had been not to multiply unnecessarily trials for desertion, which, as he had said, caused the risk of making soldiers view the offence too lightly. Simmons on Courts Martial the text-book on such matters defined desertion, as "absence without leave with the intention of not returning." And one evidence of such intention in a soldier was his exchanging his regimentals for plain clothes. But the converse was not necessarily true—namely, that a man who had not made this exchange was therefore not a deserter. That would be absurd. The case mentioned by the gallant officer was not referred to the Judge Advocate, therefore he (Mr. S. Cave) inferred that the man was tried by regimental Court-martial which could not deprive him of his good conduct pay for past services, but if he had been tried by district Court-martial, even for absence without leave, the Court might have inflicted a very severe punishment, and have awarded also forfeiture of good service pay.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause agreed to.

Clauses 3 to 106, inclusive, agreed to.

Clause 107 (Liability of soldier to maintain wife and children).

MR. P. A. TAYLOR moved to substitute "shall" for "may" in page 64, line 10, so as to remove all discretion from a soldier's commanding officer in allowing the law to be put in force against him for the desertion of his family and leaving them chargeable to a union. The broad question he desired to raise was, whether a soldier was to be exempted from the responsibilities which attached to other citizens in the same particulars. In 1837 a clause was introduced into the Mutiny Act providing that no soldier should be liable to be arrested for neglecting to obey an order of a magistrate for the maintenance of his wife or children or illegitimate children, and according to Hansard that enactment was passed without discussion or remark. He thought that more opportunity should be given for the consideration of such a provision than could be afforded during the rapid passing of the Mutiny Bill through Committee. In the present instance, no information respecting the Bill was to be had until it had been read a second time, and there were several of its details which ought not to be treated as matters of form in that way. The country generally seemed to be unaware of the nature of those exemptions until 1872, and in the month of July in that year Mr. Cardwell pledged himself to the expunging of the 40th section. In the following year Mr. Card well again referred to the subject, and when the Bill was brought in it was found that the section had been expunged, but that the prosecution of our soldiers was still made so difficult by other provisions that the subject remained in the same state. It seemed absurd that the execution of the ordinary decisions of the law should be left to the discretion of a commanding officer or of a Secretary of State; and it was virtually a denial of justice to a poor woman to make her lodge a sum of £2 to enable her husband to attend the hearing of the case, which she could only get back afterwards in instalments of 1s. 9d. a week. Such provisions rendered the law unworkable and a dead letter, whether that was intended or not. He trusted the Government would see their way to carry out the unfulfilled promise of their predecessors, and not only omit the obnoxious section so much complained of, but also remove the obstructions which rendered the law unworkable.

Amendment proposed, in page 64, line 10, to leave out the word "may," and insert the word "shall."—(Mr. P.A. Taylor.)


said, the clause which was introduced by the late Government took away the entire impunity which a soldier formerly enjoyed who deserted his wife and children. This was a great alteration in the previous law, but it appeared to be a wise and humane provision, and as it only became law last year it was somewhat early to amend the section without further proof of its working. There was good reason for intrusting discretion to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman was aware that stoppages were made from the pay of the soldiers for various reasons, and if discretion were not left with the Secretary of State it might occur that the soldier would absolutely be left without food or clothes. If, too, a large amount was stopped out of his pay, the soldier was almost sure to desert. He quite admitted the diffi- culties of the subject, and his sympathies were very much with the hon. Gentleman; but, looking at a standing Army as a necessary evil, he did not think the House would be justified at present in carrying the law further in the direction suggested.


pointed out what he considered to be an anomaly in the existing law, illustrating it by a case which had actually occurred in his own battalion. A corporal was ordered by a magistrate to pay 2s. 6d. a week for the support of his illegitimate child, and the Secretary of State for War was empowered to withhold 3d. a day, or 1s. 9d. a week, from the man's pay. The corporal became a sergeant, and the payment of the 1s. 9d. still continued. On the other hand, a full sergeant might be summoned under similar circumstances and might be ordered to pay 2s. 6d. a week; but in his case the Secretary of State for War might stop any sum not exceeding 6d. a day, so that there might be in the same battalion two sergeants, the one paying 6d. and the other only 3d. a day. Another anomaly was that while a sum not exceeding 3d. a day might be stopped from a soldier's pay for the support of a wife or children whom he might have deserted, the commanding officer, who was very much hampered in invoking the aid of the Secretary of State for War by being obliged to supply information with respect to the antecedents of the woman, could not take action on his own responsibility, but was obliged to apply to the Secretary of State for War to authorize him to place the soldier under stoppage. He did not see why the commanding officer should not himself be intrusted with the necessary authority, subject, of course, to appeal to the Secretary of State for War.


said, that we ourselves had made for the soldier an artificial condition of life, and we were bound to do all we could to protect him from its consequences. He was continually liable to be removed from one end of the country to the other in the discharge of his duties, and was thus peculiarly open to false and vexatious charges of this kind. Such charges might also be got up in collusion with the soldier in order that he might escape some irksome duty. To prevent these possible evils the re- striction had been introduced by the late Secretary of State for War, and he hoped that until we had a little more experience in the matter there would be no alteration. The arrangement might not be perfect; but it was, at all events, too early to interfere with a well-intentioned arrangement which had, so far as he knew, hitherto generally worked in an unexceptionable manner. As to the case of the two sergeants just mentioned, he had no doubt it would be set right if the attention of the Secretary of State for War were duly called to it.

Question put, "That the word 'may' stand part of the Bill."

The Committee divided:—Ayes 240; Noes 103: Majority 137.

MR. P. A. TAYLOR moved, in page 64, line 15, after "degree," leave out to end of clause.


said, he could not assent to the Amendment. It must be remembered that the first duty of military authorities was to keep the Army in the state of efficiency and readiness for which a standing Army was maintained. There were two sides to the question, and there might be cases in which women proceeded against the soldier because they knew where he was, and that he had money which might be relied upon; whereas another man might have absconded, or might have nothing to pay. Then, again, there might be collusion between a woman and a soldier for the purpose of getting him away from his regiment, and enabling him to desert. The money was an evidence of bona fides, and might be recoverable as costs. As to the last paragraph of the clause, he could hardly imagine that the hon. Gentleman was serious in wishing to strike it out. It might have the result of causing uncertainty in the numbers of men available for some most important operation; because in addition to the chance of collusion, which he (Mr. S. Cave) admitted to be small—for the British soldier did not shrink back on such occasions—summonses might be issued from motives of revenge, or even those of an opposite character, and, whether well founded or not, might seriously diminish the strength of the force. He was, however, not responsible for the clause which might be capable of amendment. He based his opposition to the Amendment of the hon. Member on the shortness of the time during which it had been in operation.


said, it was doubtful if the clause fairly met all cases of affiliations, and he hoped the Secretary of State for War would undertake to consider the subject.


said, the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor) had not brought forward a single instance in which the clause had debarred a woman from proceeding against a soldier. Suppose a soldier were transferred from Manchester to Portsmouth, and a summons were served upon him to answer a charge of affiliation in Manchester, any one knew that he was not likely to be in possession of money to enable him to proceed to Manchester, and that was the ground on which Lord Cardwell agreed to this clause. It had been in operation a year, and no complaint had been made against its operation. In the absence of such a clause there might be cases of collusion in which women wished to get their paramours returned from the places to which they had been transferred.

Amendment negatived.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered To-morrow.