HC Deb 26 March 1906 vol 154 cc979-88

Order for Second Reading read.


said he had to move the Second Reading of this Bill and to explain briefly the nature of the alterations that had been made this year. First and foremost they had taken the opportunity, with the full consent of the Army Council and of the right hon. Gentleman the late Secretary of State for War, who had been always of this opinion, to abolish flogging, root and branch, in the British Army. It had remained a question as to whether it should be retained in the military prisons. The view taken by the Government was this. It was quite true that there might be brutal offences against warders committed by prisoners, and it was possible that physical force and physical punishment might be required, but they held that in those military prisons into which men were sent for offences which were not the offences of the ordinary civil law it was inexpedient that this power should exist. If a man committed a brutal assault on a warder, it was an assault under the common law: let him therefore be turned out of the Army and turned over to the Civil authority, who would deal with him. It was thought that this was much better for the Army than that this policy should be retained in the Military prisons. The view of the Government was that men who ought to be flogged should not be kept in the Army. Another new provision was that in the case of certain slight offences where imprisonment was to be awarded in military prisons, they had altered the title and had called it detention instead of imprisonment. It was really detention, and it looked better on the record of a soldier; if he must be slightly restrained, it was better that he should be restrained under the term of detention than of imprisonment. There were one or two minor alterations in the Bill; for instance, when a non-commissioned officer suffered a sentence under the old system by a court-martial he was reduced to the ranks. The tribunal was now given the opportunity of inflicting on him only the loss of seniority. There were several other matters of that kind which he thought were better reserved for the Committee stage, and with that explanation he presented the Bill to the House.

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


said he should like to add one word to what the right hon. Gentleman had said. Last year some hon. Members took a very strong view in favour of the abolition of corporal punishment in military prisons, and he undertook to make careful inquiry. He referred the matter to the governors of military gaols, and consulted Sir Evelyn Brise on the subject. The reports he was bound to say conflicted, and he was not able to accept those views as conclusive. He thought it could be in a certain sense justified that a man should not be punished by corporal punishment for an offence for which he would not have been punished had he not been a soldier. That being so he ventured to disregard the opinion he had received, and to decide that this punishment should cease. He was glad that his right hon. friend the Secretary of State for War had made this decision operative. His view was that the interest of the soldier more than ever demanded that every effort should be made for improving his social status, and increasing the consideration in which he was held. He was very glad that the right hon. Gentleman had decided now to carry out a reform of the law which he believed could have been carried out by regulation. He was also very glad that he had accepted the suggestion of altering the form of words describing the position of a soldier in a military prison. He would make a further improvement. He thought the time had come when every effort should be made to withdraw soldiers altogether from civil prisons. It was not good for the soldier.


said the speech of the Secretary of State for War illustrated the fact that improvements in the barbarism of the military code had always been obtained by very sharp action on the part of Members of this House. The Act which abolished flogging in the Army in its old form was the result of a fourteen days debate virtually on this Bill in Committee, and the change that had taken place this year, prompted no doubt by the humane instinct of the right hon. Gentleman him-self, was nevertheless forced upon the military authorities by the all-night sitting last session. This Bill brought into force the whole of the military code, which was one of extreme complexity, and most unintelligible. He was certain that the present Secretary of State could not give his mind to the consideration of this code without seeing that it was necessary to revise and very largely alter it. It was impossible to do that this year. It would be most unfair to press the Secretary of State to do it, but they had every right to call his attention to the barbarous character, and the extraordinarily complex character of the Bill. Although they were not disposed to press Amendment in Committee this year, they would at least ask for the undertaking of the right hon. Gentleman to alter the Act before next year. Members had been led to make proposals, which were somewhat opposite so far as they concerned the officers to those which they had made concerning the men. In regard to the officers they had pressed for the regular forms of the Statute in regard to inquiries, but in the case of the men they had taken the opposite line and had deprecated the enormous extension of courts-martial, especially in regard to mere boy recruits, who were almost forced into technical crime against their will and could hardly be found otherwise than guilty, with the result that they were sent to prison. The facts were described by the military authorities themselves in language which was positively startling. The Reports of the Directors of Military prisons were somewhat out of date, but according to the Report of 1904, 7,750 men were sent to prison as the result of courts-martial. That was an enormous increase. It was impossible for the right hon. Gentleman to leave matters where they were. The Report of the Director of Military Prisons for 1903, gave the Reports of the Directors for various prisons. Those Reports showed that men were discharged as worthless who would have made fine soldiers, but having committed some technical offence in the early days of their service they were driven into gaol and afterwards discharged without a character. That there should be a total of 22,000 men in the home stations driven into military prisons every year, that there should be 7,750 they men driven into gaol by courts-martial every year, that they should have officers themselves going almost beyond their duty to point out the detrimental effect which it was having upon recruiting, and that they were condemning these men for the whole of their lives beyond all redemption for committing some technical offence when mere boys, was surely a matter which if the right hon. Gentleman looked into he must see his way next year to alter. The Act was hoplessly out of date. As regarded the men, he hoped the rigidity of the courts-martial would be got rid of, but as regarded the officers, irregular inquiries in their case were to be deprecated. The Kinloch case proved the necessity for the demand that was made. He had only one other thing to say, and that was to repeat that the law was not intelligible. It required redrafting in many particulars. When the hon. Member for East Bristol said a year or two ago in a debate on this Bill that the soldier could not understand the Act, he was well within the mark. Last year the War Office pointed out that all a soldier needed to note was contained in the small hook. All he could say was it was not contained in the small book. No man enlisting in the Army, or his friends, could possibly understand the conditions of military law by reading the small book. It contained certain penalties, but there were an enormous number of things such as proceedings of courts martial which he ought to know, which were entirely outside the small book, and such was the complexity of the law, that the ordinary enlister would find himself entirely unable to grasp its meaning at all. The whole code was unintelligible, not only to the ordinary man, but even to a lawyer.


said he desired formally to move that the Bill be read this day six months. He did so because he did not think he could deal with the question otherwise. He recognised the beneficent alterations which were made in the Act this year. But this Bill, as they knew, was a coercion Bill for the Army, and suspended the constitution so far as the soldier was concerned, and his complaint was that this coercion law was not under the administration of this House. At one time there was an Attorney-General for the Army, who was responsible to this House. Although he was never a Cabinet Minister he was, ex-officio, a member of the Privy Council, and had the right absolutely to seek and obtain audience of the King in matters referring to the Army. In the year 1892 Sir Francis Jeune accepted, at the instance of the Government, the honorary post of Judge Advocate-General, and he continued in that post until his death. The office was subsequently filled by a barrister of a few years' standing, a gentleman named Boase. He thought it was a bad thing to have a coercion Act administered by a boy going about in a stuff gown seeking briefs. He was told repeatedly that fresh arrangements were to be submitted to Parliament by the late Government, but they were never submitted. Just before the prorogation of the late Government it was stated that Mr. Milvain, a member of this House, was to be appointed Judge Advocate-General under a different system. Mr. Milvain was appointed a few days after the prorogation, but he did not resign his seat until five weeks afterwards. That appointment had never been brought under Parliamentary sanction. It was not a civil, military, or legal appointment. It had emanated from the acute brain of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon. The position carried with it £2,000 a year, and at the age of seventy the gentlemen in question was to go out with a pension. There ought to be a Minister in the office directly responsible to the House. He asked the Secretary of State for War not to make himself the universal legatee of Arnold-Forsterism. The right hon. Gentleman was not bound by this contract. How was it possible for the late Secretary of War of his own sweet will to manipulate a post of so great importance? He hoped the Attorney-General would be grateful to him for having introduced this subject to-night, and he only hoped the hon. and learned Gentleman would repeat the speech he made on this subject in the last Parliament. In view of the immense importance of the duties of the office he would ask his right hon. friend if necessary to hand Mr. Milvain £20,000 down, and have a proper person to administer justice in the Army. If there was to be a drastic code let it be administered by a gentleman who was responsible to this House.

MR. PAUL (Northampton)

seconded the Amendment. He had not a word to say against the competence of Mr. Milvain. On the contrary, he believed him to be a perfectly competent man; but had the executive Government power to create a new salaried permanent office without the consent of Parliament? The office might be said to be represented in this House by the Secretary of State for War, but the Judge Advocate-General was not a mere subordinate. He had direct access to the Sovereign. He had personal responsibility for the findings of all courts-martial, which it was his duty to revise. They could hardly conceive a more important officer connected with the Army, and he ought to be responsible to this House. Therefore he hoped that as a result of the Amendment they would get an assurance from the Government that they would put an end to this anomalous state of things and place in the office which Mr. Milvain now occupied a responsible member of the Government.

Amendment proposed— To leave out the word 'now,' and at the end of the Question to add the words 'upon this day six months.' "—(Mr. MacNeill.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

MR. KEIR HARDIE (Merthyr Tydvil)

drew attention to the inadequacy of the rations of the private soldier. The allowance for a private soldier on the march was 4d. per night and a meal. An officer had 2s. For breakfast the private soldier got 1½d. In the last Parliament it was thought that the allowance was inadequate. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Croydon spoke of encouraging self-respect amongst our soldiers, but what self-respect could they expect from a man who was allowed 1½d. for breakfast? A tramp in the casual ward got a more generous allowance. He hoped, therefore, the Secretary of State would consider a revision of the scale, so as to give the soldier the feeling that he was not being treated as a menial of no account, but was receiving the respect due to a man and a soldier.


said it was quite true that the lodging allowance of an officer was 2s. a night, but the officer had to pay for his food, which the soldier had not. The allowance for meals was fixed some little time ago, and on the whole it had worked out well, and proved in practice to be sufficient. It did not look a great deal, but when a considerable number of men were dealt with at the same time meals were provided at a comparatively low charge. Had complaints been received, however, he would have inquired into them at once, but complaints had not been received. Regarding the question raised in the Amendment it had been from time to time thought that the office of Judge Advocate-General had not been wholly satisfactory, having regard to the peculiar qualifications required for the office, and Mr. Gladstone was not moved merely by considerations of economy—for no one more desired to see justice done—when he chose a judge of the High Court for the post. Consequently the work fell into the hands of a subordinate official, who did the work very well, but still was not in a position that the new Judge Advocate-General was. He received a salary of £1,500 a year, which came to an end with the termination of his office. Then the matter was inquired into not merely by the late Government, but was suggested by the Esher Committee, which came to the conclusion that it would be well to assimilate the arrangements in the Army with those in the Navy, and they advised the creation of a permanent Judge Advocate-General who should have some skill in military law. The late Government appointed a gentleman who, he could say from experience, showed great ability and wisdom in the discharge of his duties. He was bound to say that whether it was the imperfection of his own capacity or the perfection of the capacities of the occupier of the office, he found very little reason for altering the conclusions to which he arrived. It was true that the Judge Advocate-General was not in Parliament and responsible to Parliament, but the present arrangement was come to after the conclusions of the Esher Committee, and it was one which they could not depart from without making substantial compensation to the present occupant of the office, and, speaking for himself, he would prefer to see a person of long experience, such as Mr. Milvain was, to somebody who, however capable, could only give spare time to the increasing work of the office. Therefore, speaking for himself, he should prefer to leave these matters just as they stood at the present time. On the whole, he thought the new system was probably a better system, but be that as it might, it was a system they had got, and so, whatever might be the high constitutional grounds which brought about the original office, they had adopted the system now, which was certainly much more in accordance with the conditions of the Navy, and was, on the whole, more useful to the Army.


hoped the House would notice that no hon. Member had questioned the qualifications of Mr. Milvain for the discharge of the duties of his office, but they had a patent fact in this debate, that the hon. Member for Northampton had actually recommended that this House should proceed to a system of political proscription upon change of Government, upon a completely imperfect view of the whole circumstances of the case, and showing a complete ignorance of what had taken place.


said it was a most astonishing thing that hon. Members who had objected to various parts of the Bill for hour after hour in the last Parliament did not now propose even to amend the Bill.