HC Deb 27 March 1893 vol 10 cc1285-94

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a third time."

SIR J. FERGUSSON (Manchester, N. E.)

I think it is only right that an energetic disclaimer should be entered on the part of the Opposition as to the grave charges which have been made against us as a Party by Her Majesty's Government. [Cries of "Question!"]

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

Mr. Speaker, I rise to Order. I wish to ask you whether the right hon. Gentleman is in Order in pursuing this matter?


I do not know what the right hon. Baronet is going to say, but I imagine it is in the interests of peace and conciliation.


I can assure you, Sir, that I am not going to revive past controversies nor raise new ones; but since the Committee closed on Friday night the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has accused the Opposition, as a Party, of silly, shameless, purposeless obstruction. I can only say that I was here on Friday night, and so were my right hon. Friend the late Secretary of State for War and other Members of the late Administration, with the intention of supporting Her Majesty's Government in carrying the Army Annual Act. It was with very great regret that we heard a speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer very early in the evening that caused great acrimony, and that led to very lengthened and heated Debates. I can only say for myself that I voted repeatedly with the Government upon several clauses of the Bill, and I would ask the House to consider that this Bill is now before the House for only the third time, and on each occasion it has been brought forward after 12 o'clock. Had a Tory Government brought forward a Bill that proposed such wide changes after 12 o'clock, I venture to think we should have been denounced in the strongest terms. This Bill proposes to give, for the first time, a commanding officer of a regiment power, of his own authority, to sentence a man to 21 days' imprisonment; it proposes apparently to abolish battalion Courts Martial, to reduce the number of members of District Courts Martial from five to three, and of Field General Courts Martial to two only, who may sentence a man to death, and the senior officer if in command may see the punishment carried out. I do not say that these provisions, are wrong, but I say they are very grave measures, and it is not too much for hon. Members interested in the Army to ask that they should be fairly discussed at a proper hour. All I can say is that had they been proposed by a Tory Government, and had we tried to press them through after 12 o'clock at night, we should have had words considerably more severe applied to us than those which the Chancellor of the Duchy has applied. I believe the Secretary of State for War would propose no measure which he did not believe was in the interest of the soldier or to the benefit of the Army, and I do not think he would be one to charge us with a desire to throw obstacles in the way of his carrying a good measure for the Army; but I appeal to the House whether this measure has not been rushed through? It does not, therefore, lie in the month of those who have done so to charge those who demanded that it should be properly discussed with shameless obstruction, and I hope the Chancellor of the Duchy will feel that he went somewhat beyond the justice of the ease. I hope that now the Debates on this subject may be considered to have been continued long enough. I am sure I should be very sorry to prolong them. I can only repudiate in the strongest manner, on the part of the Conservative Party, anything like designed, shameless obstruction, and claim that in the interests of the Army and of free discussion we have a right to expect this Bill should be debated at a more reasonable time.


said, that as one of those who voted in every Division that took place the other night, he must deny that they had the slightest idea of obstruction. Their intention was that the Bill should be thoroughly discussed. They were very much disappointed that it came on at the hour it did, and they were similarly disappointed now. In this Bill there were several clauses to put penalties practically upon the soldier, and they considered that those clauses ought to have the careful attention of the House of Commons, which they had not had. He hoped that the necessary amendments would be made with the sanction of the Government in another place. There was another important thing, that the evidence should be taken on oath. Civilians were not under so severe a Code; they had the evidence taken on oath by the order of the Court, and he asked that the same might be done with the soldier. Another point was that they were not able to get a complete copy of the Army Annual Act as it existed at present, and this was one of the things that the Secretary of State for War ought to give his attention to.

MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

said that, as he had secured two Motions of Closure on the historic occasion which had been alluded to, he did not think he could be accused of having done anything to encourage the obstruction which then prevailed. But he had incurred the reproaches of some of his own Party for the action which he took on that occasion. The only two substantial Amendments then brought forward were the Amendments which had been alluded to by the hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith. One Amendment moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith was with reference to the powers given to the commanding officer to condemn a man to 21 days' imprisonment. He (Mr. Conybeare) was not present during the discussion on this Amendment, but he understood the Secretary for War admitted that that was excessive, and that instructions would be given to the commanding officers not to inflict more punishment than 14 days. The other Amendment to which he wished particularly to refer was an Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Preston, in favour of which he (Mr. Conybeare) spoke and voted, and which was that in these Courts Martial the soldier should be protected by having the evidence on which he was convicted taken on oath. He considered his proposal of the hon. Member was simply an act of justice, because the same rule applied to all civilians who were charged with offences, and he therefore hoped, in view of the strong feeling expressed by those competent to teal with the matter, that the Secretary for War would take a prudent and just course in the interests of the soldier, and take care to have this point put right when the Bill went to another place. The only plea that the right hon. Gentleman put forward against accepting the Amendment on Friday night was that it would conflict with some other clauses in he Bill under which the soldier, if he bought fit to do so, could demand that he evidence given against him should be upon oath. It was, however, asserted by the hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith and by the hon. and gallant Member for Galway, both of whom had had years of experience in the Army—and who certainly had not shown any desire to affront or obstruct in their very temperate speeches—that they had never known of an instance in which a soldier had availed himself of his right in this respect. This fact showed that either the soldier was ignorant of his right, or else was afraid to assert it for fear of giving offence to his commanding officer and becoming a marked man. He contended that the burden of claiming that right should not be thrown upon the soldier, but that the Court Martial or the commanding officer should be bound to provide sworn evidence. This was a simple matter of justice to the soldier, and it was because he so considered it that he felt it to be his duty, in spite of the remonstrances of his friends around him—and some of his leaders—to vote for the Amendment. He was aware it would be idle to attempt to take an adverse vote upon the point, but he would earnestly press upon the Secretary for War the advisability of having this point put right in another place. He had been told that the Government were unable to consent to any alteration being made in the Bill on Friday might, because, had they done so, it would have been impossible to have taken the Report stage that night; but, in his opinion, it was not right to refuse to do an act of justice to the soldier merely for the purpose of getting a Bill through a certain stage on a particular evening. He asked the Secretary for War to meet the point that had been raised by getting some Amendment inserted in the Bill.


I do not think anybody will say that the hon. Member who has last addressed the House is likely to fail in his duty even at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. I learn with satisfaction that the hon. Member sees the advantage of having a Second Chamber, in which the follies and shortcomings of the First Chamber may be corrected. The Government, perhaps, by this time have discovered that the Bill which they succeeded in forcing through after 12 o'clock was one which contained a great deal of matter well deserving, and indeed demanding, the attention and consideration of men who profess themselves to be the guardians of the liberty of the subject. They refused to listen to debate, and the result is, no doubt, that the House of Lords will have to look after those duties which the House of Commons has neglected. I would, however, submit to the House that it is no reason that because we have failed to carry out our duties successfully we should unnecessarily prolong the Debate upon the Third Reading of this Bill when we cannot amend it, especially as it will pass from us to another place, where it will receive a fair and area reasonable discussion. My right hon. Friend has referred to the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy. I have read that speech since my right hon. Friend alluded to it, and I do not think that it calls for much remark, because it was an extremely silly and rather offensive speech. It was undoubtedly silly and undoubtedly offensive, but we must not waste our time in this House by discussing all the silly and offensive speeches made at Home Rule meetings, and I would say, under these circumstances, that the most businesslike course is to allow the Third Reading of this Bill to pass and go quietly to bed, and leave to the House of Lords the duty which unfortunately, for reasons too familiar to us, this House has failed to perform.

MR. HANBURY (Preston)

said, as the Chancellor of the Duchy did not find it convenient to repeat in that House the charges which he did not hesitate to make in the less critical atmosphere of a Home Rule meeting, he thought they could afford to ignore altogether what the Leader of the Opposition had called essentially silly criticisms. He wanted to make one practical suggestion to the Secretary for War. However they might differ about the alterations contained in the Bill, at any rate the right hon. Gentleman would agree with him that the Amendments in the Bill which the right hon. Gentleman had introduced the other day were very difficult to understand, and that they depended upon references to clauses in the Act of 1881 which nowhere existed in a complete form. Since 1881 there had been amendment upon amendment of the Act, but it had never been printed in its revised form, and was not even to be found in the Manual. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman, in justice to the soldier, without further delay, to have the Act of 1881 printed up to date in a short and cheap form, so that every soldier serving in the Army desiring to know the exact law under which he was serving would be able to do so at very little cost to himself.


The right hon. Baronet the Member for Manchester began by saying that be did not wish to revive old controversies. I cannot commend him on the particular manner he chose for this purpose. He has been followed by his Leader, who launched a very severe diatribe against my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, because the Chancellor of the Duchy has, as I understand, said that certain Members opposite—not the whole Party, but a considerable section of that Party—had been guilty of flagrant obstruction.["No, no!"] If they were not conscious of having been guilty of obstruction, why did half a dozen of them fly to the newspapers, and with great pains and at great length endeavour to prove that something was to be said for them? I am going to follow the good precept laid down by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and I shall not revive old controversies. ["Oh, oh!"] If hon. Members wish them revived I am quite willing to meet them. But, as my object is to get on with Business, I will proceed to deal with the points raised by hon. Members who know something of the matter with which we are dealing. The hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith and the hon. Member who has just sat down are both anxious that there should be an edition of the Army Annual Act brought down to date. Well, as I understand it, what has been the practice hitherto has been this: Each year such Amendments as are passed by Parliament in the Annual Bill are issued in Orders and sent down to the different regiments and localities, and thereupon these Amendments, such as they are, are included in the copies of the Act which are in use in the different regiments and localities. While the Amendments remain small in bulk and few in number that process is probably the most convenient, and I am told that to multiply the copies of the Bill annually would lead to confusion. I am of opinion, however, that as six years have passed since the last issue, and as considerable alterations have been made this year in the Bill, the time has come for a new issue of the Bill in one form or another to take the place of the old one. But when it is claimed by hon. Members opposite that this is an obvious course, which in the interest of the soldier and in order to protect him from the misconduct of his officers should be taken, I can only say that I had already determined, on the first opportunity, to take the course I am now about to take. It must be remembered that I have not been responsible for this matter for the last six years. If, therefore, wrath is to be expended upon it, it should fall upon shoulders other than mine. The hon. Member for Camborne makes two complaints of the Bill as it stands. Let me repeat what I said the other night—that these great changes, because they are considerable changes, are changes distinctly in the interests of the soldier. The extension of the powers of imprisonment of the commanding officer, which I informed the Committee, before any pressure was brought to bear upon me, would be for the present limited in practice to 14 days, will enable him sometimes to deal with rather serious offences by way of summary decision, and, there- fore, he will save a man from being sent to trial by Court Martial. You save the man from having it recorded against him that he has been court-martialed, and you thereby distinctly benefit him in the prospect he has for promotion, reward, and good-conduct pay and pension. That provision which has been quoted, therefore, if it is properly used, is distinctly to the benefit of the soldier. But let it be remembered that there is a power in the soldier to elect if he chooses to go to a District Court Martial instead of being tried by his commanding officer. The hon. Member for the Camborne Division has raised the point of evidence not being taken on oath. On the general merits of the question, I agree with the hon. Member. I think it is very much better in most cases that evidence should be taken on oath; but it is pointed out to me by the officers who advise me, and who have an authority, after all, quite equal to that of the hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith or the hon. and gallant Member for Galway—officers who are acquainted with this matter from beginning to end, and who are quite as willing to protect the interests of the soldier— that it would be exceedingly cumbrous and inconvenient to be obliged in every case to have it enforced upon them by law that the evidence must be taken on oath. Sometimes, in a simple, trivial case it is better to deal with the offence in a summary way. The soldier is often saved from detention in the cells, and thus considerable inconvenience and hardship are saved to him, which would not be the case if evidence on oath was in every case enforced. I am willing to say, however, that I will ask my military advisers again whether they still adhere in the same degree as hitherto to that opinion, and if I find they are of opinion that the present rule should in any way be relaxed I will bear it in mind for another occasion. By using the words "another occasion" I point rather to another year, because if we were to give effect to the suggestion of the hon. Member and use another place for this purpose it would have the effect of bringing the Bill back to this House. Once I have parted with the measure in this House I am not anxious to see it back here again. I regret the somewhat acrimonious tone which has been brought into the discussion by certain hon. Gentlemen opposite. I regret the language which has been used to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Certainly, as far as I read his speech, the language of my right hon. Friend conveyed no more than the impression left on every Member on this side of the House—an impression which will be intensified by the recollection of the fact that many hon. Members, including the hon. and gallant Member for Hammersmith, in Committee actually divided against Clause 2 of the Bill, which is the essential, fundamental, and capital part of the measure, so far as the existence of the Army is concerned. I hope I have explained the points that needed explanation, and that the House will now read the Bill a third time.

MR. BRODRICK (Surrey, Guildford)

said that, if the explanation which the right hon. Gentleman had now given had been vouchsafed on the Second Reading of the Bill, there would have been no difficulty, and there would have been nothing but the fairest possible criticism made. As the right hon. Gentleman had acceded to the wish generally expressed that this measure, which was to the interest of the private soldier, should be published so as to be understood by him, he asked whether the right hon. Gentleman would not re-consider his determination that the Bill should pass the House of Lords without being reprinted and re-issued? There was no difficulty whatever in the Bill being printed and circulated during the Easter holidays, and if it was passed on April 30 every provision of the law would have been carried out. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would terminate this somewhat unfortunate controversy by making this concession.


rose, when—

Mr. Rees Davies (Pembrokeshire)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put."


I do not think there is any disposition to prolong the discussion.


declared that the whole of the action of hon. Members on that side of the House throughout this question had been to get the measure fairly considered. The Chancellor of the Duchy said that their conduct was silly. Of course, it was silly in the estimation of hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House to take any trouble on behalf of 150,000 men who had no votes.


said he must ask the hon. Gentleman to confine himself to general discussion on the Bill.


had no desire to say anything contrary to the Speaker's ruling. But he contended that he and his friends had amply demonstrated that they were right. He condemned as ridiculous and absurd the provision in the billeting of soldiers, which provided that a publican should only get l½d. for a soldier's breakfast—a sum to which a criminal or pauper's meal would not be restricted. He hoped this was a question which would be considered in the House of Lords. If the Secretary for War had given them the information he had now given them on Saturday morning, the whole trouble of that morning would not have occurred.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.