§ "On and after the passing of this Act, every person accused of an offence under the Army Act shall be entitled to demand to be tried by court martial."
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Mr. HUNT
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."
2018 In obedience to your ruling, Sir, I have erased the words from the Clause as it stands on the Paper, "with a view to amending Section 4 of the Act of 1881." The object of the Clause is to give the right of trial by court martial to everybody in the Army. There was a similar Clause moved in April, 1905, by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Yorkshire), on the other side of the House, and he said:—There had been many cases of injustice in which men would have liked to have been tried by court martial, but were disgraced for life without trial, and were at the mercy of some one above them.I think that is a very serious state of affairs, and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War knows perfectly well that to be quite true. He knows that the 2019 system is very unsatisfactory, and I feel sure personally that he would like to alter it. The right hon. Gentleman made the same complaint in 1905 as I do now. He himself made an appeal for exactly the same thing that I am asking for now, namely, that every officer as well as every man in the Army should have the right of trial by court martial, so that he might have the chance of being judged, after stating his own case for himself. The present Secretary of State for War on that occasion appealed to the then Financial Secretary for War to carry out what I now propose. He sat below the Gangway and he used very eloquent words in enforcing his appeal. I am now endeavouring to appeal to him in exactly the same way. The right hon. Gentleman said:—The hon. Member would remember that in the case of a distinguished officer who was dismissed, he himself brought the matter before the House, and in very eloquent language pleaded again and again that officers should have the right to demand a court martial. He was sure that anyone who had heard the hon. Member…the Financial Secretary to the War Office—then, would be quite certain that, when they appealed to him to fulfil when he was in office what he said when he was out of office, they would plead not in vain.I am making the same appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for War, that he himself made before he took a seat on the Treasury Bench. He went on to say:—This officer was removed from his position, and he frequently asked for a court martial but could not get one. He would ask the Financial Secretary whether he would not on that occasion say something of the same kind as he said two short years ago, when he vehemently upheld the view which they were now bringing before the Committee.I venture to say the same to the right hon. Gentleman now. I would remind him that since that time there have been bad cases of injustice to officers because they could get no trial. I know of one case which the right hon. Gentleman may remember, for I have asked a good many questions about it to which the right hon. Gentleman was not able to reply and really did not attempt to reply. It was the case of Captain Price Wilson. I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman remembers it. If the Secretary for War had answered the questions which I have put to him, I would have been very much more satisfied than I am. In the case to which I refer the War Office began by breaking their own regulations. They did not show the bad report to this officer before it was sent in to the officer commanding the 2020 district, whoever it was; though that was laid down as a duty it was not done. This officer appealed again and again to be allowed a trial by court martial, but he was continually refused. I am not saying that he was right, but I do say that the right hon. Gentleman and the War Office were wrong in refusing to give the office a fair trial. I think it will appeal to everybody in the House when I say that any man should have a chance of defending himself. Under the present system of the War Office he has no chance; he is not allowed to defend himself. One of the reasons actually given by the general officer for getting rid of him was that name was "Flash" Wilson, and that it "fitted him very well." I told the right hon. Gentleman once before that neither the Secretary for War nor anybody else would have a very good chance of holding a position if he was to be kicked out because nicknames might he applied to him.
I put to the right hon. Gentleman plainly that it cannot be right that an officer, as admittedly in the case of Captain Price Wilson, who had more than nineteen years service with good reports, who had given the best part of his life to service in the British Army, should, because he happens to be for a few months under one man, and because he got one bad report from that one man, be kicked out of his regiment, with the result that he could not get employment in New Zealand because the Government refused—well, how shall I put it—to give him a character. Surely it must be obvious to the House of Commons that it is hardly right to treat an officer who had served his country well up to that time, to give him no chance of defending himself, when you allow an alien murderer, an alien spy, or a man engaged in the white slave trade, or anybody, however criminal, a fair chance of defending himself, to the extent even of giving him clever lawyers to defend him. But the British officer has no chance at all. One bad report from one man who may have taken a dislike to him, and his career is practically ruined. I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether I am not stating the case perfectly fairly and perfectly correctly. Is it really beyond his power to put this thing right? I feel sure that he knows perfectly well that it is considered very unsatisfactory by the Army Council at the present time, and has been considered very unsatisfactory for a long time.
I do not see how this proposed Clause is supported by the hon. Member's speech, which appears to be directed to the case of an officer whose services were dispensed with by His Majesty as no longer required. That does not seem to me to come within the hon. Member's Clause.
§ Mr. HUNT
I will not transgress, Sir. I only wish to say that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will at all events make some attempt to put this matter right, and not allow a British officer to suffer under such serious disadvantages.
I will ask the Secretary of State for War the same question—how does the case quoted by the hon. Member come under a Clause of this kind?
§ Colonel SEELY
On that point I was going to submit to you, Sir, that the observations of the hon. Gentleman were really not germane to the Clause which he has moved. I presume, however, that the Clause itself is in order, but that a discussion of the case of the particular officer to whom he refers would not be in order.
§ Mr. HUNT
On the point of Order, Sir. May I draw your attention to the fact that a very similar case was mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman himself, and it had reference to a distinguished officer.
§ Colonel SEELY
I am afraid I cannot accept this new Clause. It is impossible to discuss the particular case of an aggrieved officer, because it would not be affected by this new Clause. Cases like that to which the hon. Gentleman refers, are not cases where the persons concerned have committed offences under the Army Act. They are mainly cases where it has been decided that an officer should be removed for inefficiency.
§ Colonel SEELY
I am not referring to this particular officer. I am referring to the cases of officers who may be turned out for inefficiency, and such offences in many cases do not constitute offences under the Army Act. Therefore, I should be out of order in referring to the case 2022 cited by the hon. Member. But apart from that consideration, I do not think we can accent the Clause. If the hon. Member wants to raise the case, he can find another opportunity, although it has already been fully argued. As far as the Clause is concerned, I do not think it is required, nor do I think it would be in the interests of the soldiers themselves. Wherever punishment is awarded by a commanding officer under the Army Act, the man has a right to claim trial by court martial. It is only in minor cases a man has not that right. Therefore I think it would not be in the best interests of the soldier that he should have that right.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
But the soldier has that right!
§ Colonel SEELY
That he should have that right in all cases. With regard to officers, this raises a great constitutional point which has been argued on many occasions, namely, as to whether an officer should always have the right to have a court martial. It has been held, in the interests of the Army as a whole, that the unquestionable right of the Sovereign, acting on the advice of those whose duty it is to advise him, to dispense with the services of an officer is an inherent right, which should be maintained. I do not think I can take on myself the responsibility for changing it. There is much to be said for it, and there is much to be said against it, but on the whole I should be disposed to think we would be well advised not to adopt this Clause.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
I think it is rather a pity that the Secretary of State did not deal with this question on the merits. It is not the first time this question has been discussed in Committee of this House. It has been debated on ten or fifteen occasions, and on each occasion it has been pointed out to those responsible for the conduct of the Army that it was very desirable that an officer should in all circumstances have practically the same rights of showing that he was innocent of any offence with which he was charged as a private soldier has got. The private soldier who is charged with an offence has got the right first of all to appeal to his superior officer, and, under the Army Act, from him to the officer in command, and from him, again, he has also an appeal, so that he can have the whole circumstances investigated. The 2023 real trouble with regard to this matter is in the case of the officer. At present he has got no such right. His case goes behind his back to the Army Council, and in a great many cases he has no knowledge of the offence with which be is charged, and no opportunity of answering it. His Majesty simply dispenses with the services of the officer. There is, I am sure, a large body of opinion, both outside and inside the Army, which considers that that state of affairs ought to be put an end to. I am not very keen myself upon supporting what are called courts martial, because I have read of and I have seen courts martial conducted in a manner not calculated to do justice to the culprit or anybody else. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] Yes, I have. I am simply stating my own point of view, and it will be open to other hon. Members to tell theirs. I say I am not particularly keen on that special form of Court, but what I have always thought and advocated every time the subject has come on in this House is that an officer in the Army, like every other subject of His Majesty, ought to have the right in some kind of Court to vindicate his character, and the right to show he has not been guilty of the particular offence with which he is charged, whether or not his services are going to be dispensed with afterwards for other reasons. For those reasons, if any hon. Members are willing to go to a Division, I shall be willing to go with them in support of the contention that an officer is entitled to common justice, although he is an officer.
§ Mr. JOHN WARD
The subject-matter of this proposed new Clause is extremely interesting. I venture to suggest it is one of the subjects which sooner or later when we are considering the Army (Annual) Act we shall have to place on a much more satisfactory basis than it is at the present time. The reason I object to the Clause as it appears on the Paper is that it would lead one to suppose if it were adopted by the House of Commons that it was adopted because the House of Commons thought that there was some equity and justice to be obtained in courts martial, and that from those courts the officer or the common soldier might expect justice equal to that he would receive in the ordinary Courts of the country. The observations of the hon. Member who spoke last are, I believe, supported by the rank and file of the Army generally. While no doubt 2024 the common soldier will claim to be tried in a court martial in preference to being disposed of without any trial, yet at the same time he does not make that choice because he believes the court martial is a fair court to decide his case, but just as the lesser of two evils, and because he knows that he will have some kind of publicity, and that there will be a chance, in case of very severe punishment, of his being able to appeal to some sort of third party with reference to the conviction. I venture to say that the country will, sooner or later, come to the conclusion that art Army like ours, which is a voluntary Army, and which I hope will be democratic, and at any rate is organised for the purpose of protecting a democracy, that sooner or later, at least as far as circumstances will permit, in peace time, the soldier will not lose his right of citizenship, and that when an accusation of any kind is made against him he will have exactly the same power as any other citizen to have his case tried before the Courts in the country in preference to courts martial. One could quite understand if we were at war or if there were danger of war, or even if this House were to declare…
The remarks of the hon. Member seem to be rather for the Third Reading, and to go a great deal further than this new Clouse.
§ Mr. J. WARD
My point is that the Clause would suggest, if it were adopted by the House or supported by any considerable proportion of the House, that we were in favour of courts martial and regarded them as courts of equity where those who were brought before them got that ordinary justice which one expects in the ordinary courts.
§ Mr. WATSON RUTHERFORD
Are they not better than nothing?
§ Mr. J. WARD
Perhaps they are, bat that even is doubtful. I cannot say, from inside knowledge, what is the point of view of the officer as to court martial, but I believe those courts are not in the interests of the ordinary private soldier in times of peace, and I object to the new Clause because, if we were to adopt it, we would be supposed to believe that those courts were courts of equity and justice, where the men accused could get a proper decision. That, I think, not even the Presidents themselves of courts martial would ever dream of suggesting to anyone.
§ Mr. PIRIE
I think if the system foreshadowed by the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. J. Ward) were to come to pass it would mean that discipline might disappear in the British Army. I feel sure that the British soldier has confidence in the spirit of equity and justice which always animates the British officers who sit in courts martial. I am, personally, very glad that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Hunt) has raised the question if for no other reason than that it would tend to diminish the military and naval cases which ought never to come before this House, for if there is one bad court in this realm for military or naval questions it is this House. I therefore support the new Clause, because I wish to see those cases diminished, though I do not commit myself to the precise wording of the Clause, but rather to the principle which has animated the hon. Member. I regret that the Secretary of State for War, after his very lame answer of a few sentences, should have left the House, more especially when the hon. Member for Ludlow quoted the views expressed by the Secretary of State when he was in Opposition.
§ Mr. J. WARD
He did not read a quotation.
§ Mr. PIRIE
It seems an astonishing thing to me how hon. Members when they come from the opposite benches to the Front Bench here, seem to eat their words and abandon every principle and idea they ever had. The Secretary for War laughs at this…
§ Mr. TENNANT
I am not Secretary.
§ Mr. PIRIE
He has something to do with the War Office; some minor post quite suited for him. I shall certainly support the hon. Member who moved the new Clause. I hope his efforts will not be lost, and that we shall have removed the grave scandal, which exists in no other Army, and that an officer when he demands a court martial shall have the right to demand a court martial.
I wish to dissociate myself from the remarks of the hon. Member for Stoke, because I think there is very little discontent among the rank and file of the Army with regard to the way in which their cases are dealt with. I have often heard civilians complain of the delay to which they are subjected as compared 2026 with the man in the Army who is had up before his commanding officer and has his case dealt with within a reasonable time. Anybody with any experience of the rank and file will appreciate the fact that it is to the interest of the officers to be on good terms with the men and to know them thoroughly, not only on the drill grounds, but also in their everyday life in barracks. The Army, more than any other branch of the service of the State, requires to be absolutely self-contained. It is necessary to be able to mete out justice within the ranks of the Army itself, without having to appeal in every case to the Civil Courts. When the Army is required to go abroad it is necessary to carry with it the whole machinery of courts martial, and if you do not start at home in peace time to train both the men and the staff necessary to carry through the work of meting out justice either in the orderly room or in courts martial, how can you expect the men to be properly dealt with when abroad? It is only by building up the whole fabric at ordinary times that you can ensure that justice shall be meted out rapidly and fairly. I do not agree as to the necessity of this Clause. I think it would be prejudicial to good order and discipline, which everyone would desire to see maintained at the highest pitch of perfection. It would be injurious to the Army to undermine the authority of commanding officers by giving this right to demand a court martial when those in authority considered that it would be prejudicial to the Service to grant one. Personally, I have never heard any expression of discontent on the part of officers on the ground that they were not able to have their cases properly considered, or on the ground that they had not the right to demand a court martial.
§ Colonel BURN
I hope that my hon. Friend will not press this Clause to a Division. If every soldier was able to claim a court martial, I think it would cause delay; it would certainly delay the discussion of the case. It is not always possible to assemble a court martial at very short notice. The powers of commanding officers, as I know by experience, are quite sufficient to deal with most of the offences that occur in the Army at the present time. Very few soldiers will ever wish to claim a court martial when Hey have been sentenced by their commanding officer. The soldier always gets a fair hearing, and has his squadron or company officer to speak as to his character. In 2027 the Service fair and just treatment is meted out, and the British soldier knows it. As to officers, it must be remembered that their offences are not criminal offences. The case that the hon. Member quoted was that of an officer who was considered inefficient as an officer.
§ Colonel BURN
As a rule if an officer does not get his promotion or has to leave the Army, it is on account of something quite other than a criminal offence. His ease is altogether different from that of a private soldier. I hope my hon. Friend will not press his proposal to a Division, as I feel that it would not be to the advantage of the Army.
§ Question put, and negatived.