HC Deb 29 March 1878 vol 239 cc207-11

Order for Third Reading read.


I do not rise for the purpose of offering any opposition to the third reading of the Bill; but, as one of those Members who have acted in accordance with the wishes of the Government by refraining from taking part in the discussion or from proposing Amendments in Committee, I wish to be allowed to say that I think it is not creditable to the Government or to the House that we are called upon to pass a measure which is admitted on all hands to be full of imperfections. I have seen it stated that— It bears about it on almost every page the marks of the rude, and, in all matters of discipline and punishment, the semi-savage age in which it first saw the light. [Mr. GATHORNE HARDY dissented.] I see the right hon. Gentleman considers this description of the Bill too sweeping; but, at all events, it is based upon a considerable substratum of truth. During the last 100 years, or longer, this Bill has been passed from year to year in almost the exact form, and without any attempt to amend its provisions. It is confessedly a bad Bill, and nine years ago the entire subject of military punishment was referred to the consideration of a Royal Commission composed of distinguished Members of this House, and other gentlemen of great authority. That Royal Commission presented a Report, recommending important changes in the Mutiny Bill and Articles of War, to which no attention has been paid. The Secretary for War said, in the discussion of certain clauses of the Bill in Committee, that "these clauses might be very badly drawn, but they were very well understood by the Courts which had to deal with them." If such was the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman respecting the clauses generally, I can only say that that opinion is entirely at variance with the evidence given before the Royal Commission. The illustrious Duke at the head of the Army attributed errors into which courts martial fell, mainly to the difficulty experienced by them in ascertaining the meaning of the wording of the Mutiny Act and Articles of War. A right hon. Gentleman formerly well-known in this House—Mr. Headlam—who had filled the office of Judge Advocate General, described the code as very confused, unduly long, and containing provisions that were unsuitable, unnecessary, and obsolete. Another ex-Judge Advocate General, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxford University (Mr. Mowbray), was of opinion that military law was in a very confused, uncertain, and conflicting state—"perplexing to lawyers, and, he feared, unintelligible to soldiers." These views were confirmed by other witnesses, and accepted by the Royal Commissioners, who were of opinion that the simplification of the Military Code ought to have the immediate attention of the Government. That was nine years ago, and yet nothing effectually has been done to carry out the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners; and it was only last year, when the discussions upon the Bill were raised by hon. Members from Ireland, that the attention of the Government and the House was aroused to the importance of the subject. I may claim, on behalf of many English Members near me, that we are quite as anxious to see Amendments made in the Bill as the Irish Members can be. I think it a serious circumstance that, under the Mutiny Act, the Crown is enabled to make a criminal code of its own under the name of Articles of War—or, in other words, that it rested with the Prerogative of the Crown to determine what in the eye of the law shall be a crime if the offender be a soldier, and to determine, in most cases, what punishment shall be awarded for the offence. This power of making laws and fixing punishment without the sanction and control, or even the notice, of the Legislature belongs to a past age, and it is quite time that some change should be made in the system. There is an impression abroad that a soldier sometimes suffered for a mere thoughtless act, or possibly some intemperate expression, an amount of punishment which, in civilian life, would be applied only to parties guilty of brutal or dishonest crimes. It is a serious matter if the Articles of War are so drawn as to enable commanding officers to inflict severe punishment for comparatively trifling offences. In Returns laid before Parliament, I find there is a great disparity in the number of soldiers punished in different regiments; and it is worth the consideration of the Secretary for War whether some check should not be put upon the undue infliction of punishment by commanding officers. The country has the greatest interest in making the soldier satisfied with his condition. We have to enlist our recruits in the open market, and it is of great importance that men should feel confident of a just treatment and of a proper recognition of their personal rights when they joined the Army. The remedy for the present state of things is that the Articles of War should be sanctioned by Parliament, and that the offences and punishments of soldiers should be strictly laid down by the Legislature. I feel indebted to the Secretary for War for having promised to submit the provisions of the Mutiny Bill to the careful scrutiny of a Select Committee of this House. There has been some question as to the propriety of entrusting the subject to a Select Committee, but I entirely approve the course taken by the Government. We have had too many cases lately in which important matters have been referred to Departmental Committees, and have in that manner been taken out of the view of Parliament; which is, I think, open to serious objection. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gathorne Hardy) told the House that he should submit to the Select Committee the draft of an efficient and practical measure thoroughly sifted by the legal and military authorities. That will, no doubt, be a great assistance, and will render it unnecessary for the Committee to be composed mainly of military and naval men; and I trust that there will be a considerable proportion of civilian Members placed upon it. I hope the result of the labours of the Committee will be to remove what must be admitted a scandal—namely, the introduction of a Bill year after year in the form in which it had been drawn 100 years ago, and the provisions of which had become obsolete.


hoped the Report of the Select Committee on the Mutiny Acts would, together with next year's Bill, be brought before the House for consideration at the very commencement of next Session. The Articles of War should also be brought before the House in the form of a Bill. The desire to improve the Mutiny Acts was not confined to hon. Members on the Liberal side of the House.


concurred in the observations of his hon. Friend the Member for Burnley. They had abstained from taking part in the discussion which had been held out of consideration for the position in which the right hon. Gentleman opposite was placed. Seeing that the opinions entertained by his hon. Friends on that side of the House were shared in by some hon. Gentlemen opposite, he trusted that the Government would seriously consider the matter with a view to the removal of the anomalies and obsolete enactments which, were at present embodied in the Bill, and that the subject would not be burked by being sent to a Select Committee.


observed, that taking part in a debate on the third reading of a Bill was like flogging a dead horse. He wished, therefore, that the hon. Member for Burnley had devoted his energy to an endeavour to have the Bill amended in Committee. Notwithstanding the strictures which had been passed on the conduct of the Irish Members for criticizing the provisions of the Mutiny Bill, and endeavouring to modify their severity, he believed that considerable benefit would ultimately result from their action.


said, he had nothing to complain of as to the observations just made by hon. Members. He was perfectly sincere in saying at the beginning that he intended the provisions of the Bill to be fully and fairly considered. As he had no desire to go again through the experience of the last few nights, he hoped the Bill would come before the House from the Select Committee in the shape in which it would receive general approval. He would not quarrel with hon. Members opposite for the credit they had taken to themselves in this matter; but would simply express a hope that when they again ventured to furnish here and there a grain of wheat, they would not encumber the contribution with so many bushels of chaff.

Bill read the third time, and passed.