HC Deb 01 April 1903 vol 120 cc847-55


SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

said there were certain questions he should like to put to the Secretary of State for War which concerned the changes made by him in this Bill two years ago in reference to Courts of Inquiry. Upon that occasion he was in the unusual position of supporting the War Office against the lawyers, who tried to tie up all Courts of Inquiry so as to be of the same kind. Fresh statutory provisions were put in with regard to certain classes, but some of them maintained that they did not and could not apply to all Courts of Inquiry. There must be prerogative Courts of Inquiry outside the Statute altogether, being in the nature of inquiries merely to satisfy the general commanding the forces in the field as to whether it was necessary to take certain disciplinary action or not. Occasions of this kind had arisen, and must arise, in time of war. Recently certain answers had been made which had rather confused his mind upon the subject, and he should like to ask the Secretary of State for War if he would clear up the difficulty which had arisen. An Order was issued as to surrenders during the war, which appeared to state that everybody having anything to do with surrenders would in future be tried by Court-martial under Section 40 of the Army Act.

Recently a statement had been published in the newspapers on behalf of one of the officers whose conduct was a subject of an inquiry or a Court-martial. A statement had been published on behalf of that officer that he had been restored to his position, and they had had in consequence a Question put in the House as to whether this Order which was published as to Courts-martial had been acted upon. He understood the Secretary of State for War to say that it had been acted upon, and that Courts-martial had been held in every case. He believed the answer given was that a Court-martial was held in this particular case. He should like to ask whether they misunderstood the Secretary of State for War on that occasion, and whether Courts-martial had been held in all these cases. It was not possible under all the circumstances to hold either a Court-martial or a statutory Court of Inquiry in the first instance, and there must be many cases where those concerned were prisoners at the time the first enquiry-took place, and where it might be necessary to take temporary disciplinary action in their absence, and therefore without the securities which were required by the Army Act and effected by the Amendments which were introduced two years ago.

As a great deal of confusion existed in the public mind on that subject, he asked the Secretary of State for War to inform them what was the present War Office policy on this subject. This involved a question discussed in the House on two occasions this session, on the suggestion of his hon. and gallant friend the Member for Aberdeen, as to whether an officer must be heard in his own defence. It was obviously impossible in all cases to hear an officer in his own defence in the preliminary or informal Courts. He should like to know whether the rewas not some mistake in regard to cases of surrender; whether the informal Court of Inquiry was held under the provisions of an Army Order made last year, and on the Amendment introduced two years ago; and whether the right hon. Gentleman thought the present system as regarded Courts-martial, and both formal and informal Courts of Inquiry, was satisfactory.


said he had very little to add with regard to Courts of Inquiry except to ask the Secretary of State for War first of all why that General Order was delayed for a whole year after the debate in this House, because at that time the war in South Africa was going on, and that seemed the very time when those new rules were required. He would be glad to know whether any specific cases had come under those rules, either during the war, or after the conclusion of peace. He should like the right hon. Gentleman to state what effect that order had had, and whether it had in any way met the difficulties which he had in mind when he himself proposed alterations. He wished to know whether the new rules had overcome those difficulties and whether it had made it easier for the officers who were involved in surrenders to feel that justice was being done to them.

This Army Bill had only just been printed, and many hon. Members had been hoping that the difficulties which were put before the House on the 11th of March were going to be dealt with. He thought that some clause would have been proposed in the present Bill which would enable the War Office, under most conditions, to give an officer the power of referring to a Court-martial when it was alleged that he had committed an offence contrary to the Army Act. Unfortunately there was no change whatever in this respect in the Bill, and he was afraid that what took place on 11th March showed that these Courts of Inquiry had not prevented this House being made a Court of Appeal from the Royal prerogative of judgment. On that occasion the atmosphere was very heated, and he thought the right hon. Gentleman was drawn away from the main question at issue and went too much into detail. He hoped that in the cooler atmosphere of the present occasion the right hon. Gentleman would give an answer to those arguments and entreaties he put before them. He reminded the House that the purport of his argument was that an appeal should be given to military officers when a charge could be framed. He knew it was a mistake to say that naval officers had the right of appeal, because they had not; but that in almost every case where it seemed to be just to give the officer an appeal he was given it, not as a right but as a privilege. He asked the right hon. Gentleman whether under the new system which was being instituted there could not be something either understood, or by Army Order, by which this appeal should be allowed to military officers on most occasions.

He proposed at a later stage to put before the House amendments on this Bill dealing more fully with this subject. His argument briefly was that by giving an appeal to a Court-martial they gave the officer the right of appeal to a Court in which he had the utmost confidence when he appealed against the prerogative of Royal judgment. The prerogative of mercy would still remain with the Crown either to confirm or to mitigate the sentence or to remit it entirely. He asked for this change because under present conditions this House was made the Court of Appeal. Their debates were read in mess-rooms and canteens, and such scenes as occurred in the House on March 11th were infinitely more hurtful to the discipline of the Army than the retention of a number of incompetent officers in the service. He hoped his right hon. friend would take his suggestion into serious consideration, if it was only with the object of getting rid of the practice of this House being made a Court of Appeal in these matters. He asked this also because the conditions of the Army were necessarily changing. In future the defence of the Empire would not be entirely with the professional soldier, the regular troops could never again be sufficient; they must be the nucleus around which other forces would gather; and what the House had to do therefore was to legislate not only for the regular and professional officer, but also for the great citizen army which would be called to service if danger threatened the Empire. He entreated the right hon. Gentleman to look at this question in the larger and broader light of modern necessity.


said he regretted that some delay had occurred in the issuing of the Order to which reference had been made. As far as he was concerned the matter was taken in hand at once, but there was some delay in carrying out the necessary formalities. He was very sorry that this should have been so, because personally he attached great importance to these Courts of Inquiry being held on oath. They were now in working, and he was informed that in all cases of surrender either a Court of Inquiry on oath or a Court-martial was held. He thought no actual Court-martial was held in the case of Lord Methuen; but, during his illness, a general Court of Inquiry was held which entirely absolved him from all responsibility for the disaster and showed that he had done all that a man could do. In these cases experience showed that the more formal a Court of Inquiry could be made the better. At the same time he fully recognised, with the right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean, that there were cases of surrendering in which it was often many months before a formal Court could be held, and where they had to content themselves very often with a much less detailed and useful inquiry.

With regard to the point raised by his hon. and gallant friend the Member for Taunton, he would say again what he had often said in that House, that he had a prejudice in favour of a Court of Inquiry where a definite charge was made or could be properly made. But occasions very frequently arose in which no inquiry could have been held. Where the military opinion was that a man, to whom they entrusted the lives of, it might be, hundreds of men, was not efficient for the discharge of his duties, or that his sense of discipline was not such as to enable his superior officer to feel confidence in him, if they were to put the immense power which was put into the hands of a commanding officer to exercise discipline over every man, there was nothing for it but that there should be power for the superior officer to recommend the Commander-in-Chief to authorise that man's discharge. Much as he was in favour of inquiry by Courts-martial, or by small Courts of Inquiry on active service, into those questions which gave them so much trouble, he could honestly say that those were not the only cases in which serious doubt arose afterwards, or in which the relatives or friends of the officer found cause to dissent from the decision. He had just as much trouble with cases that had been decided by Courts-martial, and in which every attempt had been made afterwards to reopen the decision and every effort made to bring forward palliating and extenuating circumstances in order to prevent that finality of sentence it was desired to obtain. He thought that nothing had been brought forward to show that for a moment there had been any want of consideration or of justice in the way in which the summary power of dispensing with a man's services had been exercised.

MR. BROMLEY DAVENPORT (Cheshire, Macclesfield)

said that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War had not given very much satisfaction to the House by his reply on questions that had been raised. He thought that what the House felt was that an opportunity ought to be given to every officer for stating his case and his defence when a charge was brought against him. The right hon. Gentleman, on a previous occasion, had given two examples to show that it was impossible to grant a Court-martial in all cases. The illustration which he gave to-day was of an officer who had lost his nerve. He did not know what the right hon. Gentleman meant by an officer losing his nerve, unless he had displayed some cowardice in front of the enemy.


Of course, a man may show want of nerve by vacillation of purpose.


said that in whatever way the officer lost his nerve, it was not suggested that in every case he should be proceeded against by Court-martial; but if an officer insisted on a Court-martial, and on being shown up as an officer who had lost his nerve, the responsibility was with him. He must have done something that was capable of proof, or if he had not done so what right had they to say that he had lost his nerve? The other case mentioned was that the officer had shown a general want of capacity. But it must be remembered that an officer did not get the command of his regiment by a process of seniority. He was selected by the Commander-in-Chief, who had before him the whole military history of the officer, and had had confidential reports for years past, and it ought to be practically impossible for the Commander-in-Chief to make a mistake. But if he did make a mistake so glaring and hideous as to appoint an officer who a very few years after being selected proved himself absolutely incompetent, he thought some portion of the blame ought to fall on the Commander-in-Chief, and he ought not to be able to cover up his mistake by simply removing the officer.

The right hon. Gentleman might say that confidential reports were not sufficiently to be relied on. If so, he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman. There was no one who detested confidential reports more than he did. They were unfair and un-English, and there was nothing to be said in favour of them. But the right hon. Gentleman had pinned his faith to them, and was seeking to make them more objectionable still by the regulation that the reporter need not himself read over his report to the officer reported on. That opened the door to every sort of iniquity, and to what had been said on a previous occasion—whispering away of the character of an officer without making any specific charge against him. It came to this, that if an officer was passed over in an appointment for which he had thought himself fitted, he would at once assume, very likely unfairly, that he had been secretly adversely reported upon by his commanding officer.

The hon. Member for Taunton had suggested the possibility of inserting a new clause in this Bill, which would meet the views of himself and his friends, but it was a question whether that would have any effect. This was the most extraordinary Act the House had to pass. Acts of Parliament, with the solitary exception of this one, were capable of enforcement in the Courts of Justice, but this Act was not. A soldier or a non-commissioned officer had the right to demand a Court-martial if he felt himself aggrieved, and therefore he was comparatively safe; but the commissioned officer alone of all the subjects of His Majesty had no redress, and no remedy, if he were treated with injustice by his superiors. The Courts of Law were not open to him and he could not demand a Court-martial. This House might insert any clauses it pleased, and pass any number of Acts of Parliament, but the military authorities could, if they chose, set them at defiance. He was quite sure the time had come when this iniquity should be removed. It was a fact at present, that although the military authority existed by the will and pleasure of this House, as expressed in this Army Act, the military authority was greater than Parliament and the law, because it could, with absolute impunity, set both at defiance. It was as well to understand what was the meaning of the Act

The hon. Baronet the Member for Forest of Dean had reminded the right hon. Gentleman that he had made certain Amendments to the Rules of Procedure in 1901 in deference to the strongly expressed views of the House, and he asked him for an explanation of what had been done. He had waited anxiously for that explanation, and it was not forthcoming, and he had waited more anxiously because he had asked the right hon. Gentleman whether the Rules of Procedure provided that no statement made by an officer before a Committee of Inquiry should be used against him, and for that reason the clause providing that the whole of the proceedings of the Committee of Inquiry should be forwarded to the officer had been struck out.


Order, order! The observations and questions of the hon. Member appear to me to be matters which ought to be postponed to the Committee Stage.


said that he might suggest, with all deference, that the Rules of Procedure would not come before the Committee. They were not included in the Act, and it was the Act which would give them the force of law. He asked the right hon. Gentleman whether the Rule of Procedure 124, Sub-section (L) did not provide that— The proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, or any confession, statement, or answer to a question made or given at a Court of Inquiry, shall not be admissible in evidence against an officer or soldier. And whether Sub-section (K) of the same Rule did not read— The whole of the proceedings of a Court of Inquiry will be forwarded by the President to the officer who assembled the Court. And until that rule was amended by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, it contained these words— And that commanding officer will, on his own responsibility, form such opinion as he thinks just. What he asked the right hon. Gentleman was, why he struck out these words? He would defer any further observations until the Committee Stage.


I think these are questions which ought to be postponed until the Committee Stage. They are not in order at this time.