§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ 11.0 P.M.
§ Mr. J. WARD
It is rather unfortunate that on an occasion of this description, and in a Session which is supposed to be devoted entirely to two great measures, one dealing with the finances of the country and the other the relations of the two branches of the Legislature, when we were promised that no matter except purely Departmental subjects should be brought forward, we should have again an Army (Annual) Bill, which, until at least some explanation is given, is a very contentious measure indeed. We have in this country under our voluntary military system probably one of the most brutal military codes of any country in the world. On the last occasion when we discussed this measure, and the subject of billeting, and the innovations which have never been attempted by any Minister for War before, there was an evidence that since the right hon. Gentleman has been Chief of this Department there 896 has been a tendency to tighten up and make the conditions of service more stringent, and to make the military code more severe, both to the citizen and to the soldier, and on this occasion it would be unwise, at least without some explanation from the Secretary of State, to pass such a clause as we have in this Bill. Clause IV. is very ambiguous. It alleges that with a view to reducing the number of cases which have been sent to court martial, it proposes to do such and such a thing, and the way in which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to reduce the cases of soldiers sent to courts-martial is by increasing the power of the commanding officer to inflict punishment on the soldier to very nearly double the extent without any court martial at all. Why should we have more courts martial held considering the size of the Army, and more soldiers sent to penal servitude by court-martial than any other country in the world? I have not been able to get comparative figures, but the figures which have been secured haphazard for our Army at home, independent of our Indian garrison, up to 1907 is a very serious indication of the truth of the observation I am now making.
I asked a question on 18th June, 1908, as to the number of courts-martial which took place in the English Army and the comparative amount of sentence imposed. The answer was that at general courts-martial eight were tried, one was acquitted, and seven were convicted. At district courts-martial 5,385 in one year were tried, of whom 131 were acquitted, and 5,131 sent to prison. We have a small Army. Some people imagine that it does not constitute an Army at all. That we should have laws so stringent that 6,000 men are put in prison every year by courts-martial—some of them for long terms of imprisonment, some of them even for penal servitude— without any sign of what I consider fairness in the trial, is one of the blots in our Army system. If we had conscription in our country, and if it was understood that we had to drag our men to serve, I could understand that you would be obliged to keep them in a state of subjection which would not be tolerated under better circumstances; but we have a voluntary Army, and it may be taken that a large number of the men who volunteer wish to be soldiers. I see that some of the sentences by courts-martial amount to four or five years' penal servitude. In cases where sentences of 897 imprisonment with hard labour are pronounced, the average term is fourteen months. These cases are tried practically with closed doors, the public having no knowledge of the thing whatever. I think that is a question which requires very serious consideration on the part of this House. I object to the policy contained in this Clause. I daresay it is a suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman and his Army Council. They see that hundreds and thousands of soldiers are sent to prison by courts-martial, and they want to do something to reduce the number of cases. Instead of giving the men a better chance of being defended they propose to allow commanding officers to inflict in future just double the sentence they can give to-day. There will then be no necessity to send a soldier before a court-martial at all. I think that is jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. I would sooner that a court-martial should sit and that I should have a show of answering a charge than that I should be brought before a commanding officer. The mere fact that a soldier denied a charge would be sufficient to give him a month's imprisonment. I myself would much prefer the courts-martial to the policy indicated in this Clause. While I do not wish to oppose the Bill, I think we should have some reasonable explanation why this attempt should be made to inflict punishment to a greater extent than hitherto by commanding officers without any trial whatever. I consider that our military penal code is strong enough already. I consider that the discipline is stronger in our Army than in any other European Army. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] I daresay those "noes" are from Gentlemen who think they know. I am as well entitled to know as they are. I have been through the mill. I ought to know, and I say I believe that the discipline in our Army is as strict as in any army in Europe, and I believe that the tyranny of the officers over the men is more severe than in any other country. For that reason I raise my voice to-night, because I do not wish that the commanding officers, without, at least, the semblance of a trial, should have the right to send men to detention or other form of punishment, and for longer terms than is possible under the law as it stands to-day.
§ Sir CHARLES DILKE
There are some questions that I would like to ask my right hon. Friend. I have often called his atten- 898 tion to the extraordinarily high number of courts-martial in the Home Cavalry. The reform by which detention has been substituted for imprisonment has not in many cases prevented a very considerable amount of imprisonment in the Cavalry at home as compared with detention. A comparison of the figures for the Cavalry at home with those for the Infantry shows that the number of courts-martial, imprisonments, and punishments is very high for the Cavalry, and I do not understand why that should continue to be the case. General Haynes, in his Report last year on the Cavalry, has called attention to the very high character of the men. He says: "It is gratifying to see the improvement as regards class and intelligence apparent in the non-commissioned officers and men. The ranks of the Cavalry are filled by men who would bear comparison with the pick of the Continental armies." That being so, it is very strange, and certainly deserving of notice, that the courts-martial and the imprisonments as compared with detentions and as compared with imprisonments, detentions, and courts-martial in the Infantry at home, are extraordinarily high in the Cavalry regiments. The new tables show a certain improvement, but very slight improvement. In the Report issued two days ago it will be found that the number of punishments is very high as compared with the Infantry, and so is the total number of punishments. I think that the House must contrive to press for some explanation of those very strange figures, which really point to their being something the matter with the Cavalry at home which does not apply to the Cavalry in India or other places abroad. On the general question raised by my hon. Friend, all the House knows that the military law is in a state of the most extraordinary complication. No one who has sat up all night in Committee at Debates on the Army (Annual) Bill year after year but knows that our military law is complicated beyond all description, and we have pressed successive Secretaries of State for War—we pressed my right hon. Friend when he came in—to make some serious effort to codify and simplify the military law in this country. He knows as well as anyone how complicated it is to understand. The Army Act, which is complicated in itself, cannot be understood without reference to the whole of the King's Regulations, and confusion has been made worse confounded by the necessary application of the Act to the 899 Territorial Army in certain clauses which did not formerly apply to Volunteers. An extraordinary example of that fact was given last year on one clause which amended the law in respect of the Territorial Army, when we had to refer to somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 paragraphs of the King's Regulations. There were over 2,000 pages of Regulations which had to be put right in connection with this Act, and no one can understand what the Act exactly means without reference to almost all the King's Regulations and the Army Orders, which are issued at the rate of four per week, and which no one, I think, in the country has really studied. The Secretary of State, on page 5, attached his Memorandum to the Army Estimates, relies on powers which have always existed, and which were extended two years ago to seizing horses, vehicles, and snips in time of war. County Members in this House were under the impression that the Secretary for War was going to do something about horse breeding in this country; and now we are informed that he has power to get all the horses he wants without going through any complicated forms. The power of seizing horses, vehicles, including motors, ships and boats, in this country is much stronger than that which exists in foreign countries. The power of billeting is much less than exists in foreign countries. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dover and other Members of the Front Opposition Bench, in the Debates on the Estimates this year, suggested that the power of billeting should be increased in this country and brought up to the foreign level. The compulsory seizure of horses and vehicles exists under two sets of peace provisions—that is to say, route marching and also on emergency as declared by the Secretary of State. There are two quite separate powers for route marching and for emergencies in time of peace. Billeting, of course, depends on habit. In France, Germany, and Continental countries billeting is accepted as a matter of course. As regards the taking of horses and vehicles, I do not think anyone in this country realises how extraordinarily strong the powers are. What I want once more to press on the right hon. Gentleman is the necessity of trying to simplify and codify our military law. A very distinguished professor was called in, I believe, to the War Office, and did his best for two or three years to try 900 and simplify that law, but nothing came of that endeavour. The law is now more complicated than it ever has been before in spite of the efforts of the right hon. Gentleman, and in which he has my sympathy. He knows how complicated it is and how wise it would be to simplify it if possible. I leave the matter there. I am pressing this question with regard to cavalry courts-martial because it seems to me there is something wrong in the state of the Cavalry at home, and I am sure he will do his best to clear it up.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Haldane)
My attention has not been called to the figures which have been mentioned, but I hope I shall be able to deal with them. Whether the inference he draws is correct we shall see when we have seen the whole figures.
§ Mr. HALDANE
As regards the second part, the codification, there is nothing I should like so much as to simplify the code of military law. We are always trying to do so. Last year when the Committee was investigating the circumstances under which the military might render assistance in cases of civil disturbance, I did my best personally before that Committee. I took great interest and trouble in disentangling the law, which was in an extraordinarily obscure condition. I got, I think, to the bottom of it. I put my evidence in the form of simple propositions, and I came to the conclusion it was best to publish them and leave other people to take particular cases to test them. If you tried to put those into the code you inevitably do not cover certain cases. There are some parts of the code so simplified such as that on Bills of Exchange. The judges of the land tried more than once, and on one memorable occasion to codify the criminal law, and they failed. Where they failed it is not very easy for a humble military man to hope to succeed. We do publish very useful volumes annually on military law.
§ Mr. HALDANE
Not as much as that. It is a reasonable-sized volume of five or six hundred pages, and there the whole of military law is set out in very clear fashion. It is the nearest thing anybody can get to the code unless he wishes to be misled 901 by all sorts of obscurities. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir Charles Dilke) referred also to the power of seizing horses and vehicles. He says those are much greater than the corresponding Powers on the Continent. I do not know whether he has read lately the French code. I am sure he has.
§ Mr. HALDANE
What are powers there? The maire is commanded to do three things, under a penalty of 1,000 francs to issue orders to all civilians around who possess horses and vehicles, not only to let them be inspected with due access to them, but to parade them and have the horses brought to a certain point.
§ Sir CHARLES DILKE
That is the horse and vehicle census. They have no powers in peace without a special Act, and they are passing one this year.
§ Mr. HALDANE
They are brought out in times of peace for inspection. You may call it a census if you like, but when the list is made and the unfortunate citizen has complied with the law, or has paid his fine of £40 they pass every year an Act which not only brings out these things if war breaks out, but brings them out in time of peace for manœuvres.
§ Mr. HALDANE
You may call it a special law, I will not quarrel about terms, but it comes out every year. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent (Mr. John Ward) complained that this Bill should be brought forward at a time which, as he said, would only justify the merest Departmental Bills. I need hardly remind the House that on 30th April unless this Bill is passed the whole of the Army becomes illegal.
§ Mr. HALDANE
Last year I had to ask my hon. Friend to read the Bill carefully before he discussed it, because we then lost two hours on a point he raised. If my hon. Friend had read the Clause this year he would have found he was mistaken. This Clause, so far from inflicting punishment or penalties on soldiers in excess of what they are now, diminishes them. Its effect is this: A commanding officer is at present compelled to send every case to 902 court-martial, unless he is satisfied that a sentence of fourteen days' detention is sufficient. We propose to enable him to award a sentence of twenty-eight days instead or fourteen in lieu of sending the case to court-martial, but we fence that in by giving the soldier the power of going to a court-marital if he prefers it, so that it is at the option of the soldier. The result is that we shall probably diminish courts-martial by about 25 per cent. If this Clause were struck out the position of the soldier would be worsened.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.