HC Deb 21 July 1915 vol 73 cc1609-15

Order for Second Reading read.

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


I should be very glad if we can get this Bill before the House rises for the Adjournment As to three of its Clauses, namely, Clauses 1, 2, and 3, they are necessary as the result of war experience. As to the fourth Clause, we take occasion to introduce a change that might probably have been introduced before with advantage to the extremely few cases which the Clause will affect. As to Clauses 5 and 6, they are formal. Clause 1 proposes to amend Section 56, Sub-section (3), paragraph (a) of the Naval Discipline Act. That Section sets forth the authorities having power to try offenders summarily, with a maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment. I may here intervene the remark that a court-martial can only be ordered by the officer specially authorised for the purpose by the Board of Admiralty. Section 56, Sub-section (3), paragraph (a) of the Naval Discipline Act provides that the power conferred by the Section on the officer commanding a ship may, as respects persons on board a tender to the ship, be exercised, when the tender is absent from the ship, by the officer in command of the tender.

The employment under existing conditions of a large number of small vessels under the command of warrant officers of the Royal Naval Reserve has made the working of this particular Sub-section difficult. Though these smaller vessels are usually acting in company under the orders of a commissioned officer of the Royal Navy or of the Royal Naval Reserve, that officer cannot be empowered to administer punishment on the vessels under his orders. He can only administer punishment on the vessel actually in his command. That is true of each of them. Each boat's officer in command is invested with the authority. Warrant officers of the Royal Naval Reserve who, in these cases, are the officers in command, are men who have not been brought up in the Navy, and they themselves are unaccustomed to discipline, and they have naturally as a rule no trained and experienced knowledge as to the way in which the power that is conferred on them may be exercised. Therefore it is considered necessary that in cases of this sort the punishments on board these boats should be imposed by the commissioned officer in charge of the various groups of boats, and it is considered that this course would be better in the interests of the Service generally, as well as of the men serving on board the vessels.

Sub-clause 2 of Clause 1 is merely drafting. Clause 2 proposes a useful alteration in the original scheme of trial and punishment for offences committed by officers. It is only applicable in time of war. Under the Naval Discipline Act an officer can only be tried and punished by court-martial, except in the case of subordinate officers, upon whom certain punishments may be imposed under Section 57. In time of war it is always inconvenient and often very difficult to assemble courts-martial, and therefore it is proposed that in time of war officers alleged to have committed minor disciplinary offences under the Naval Discipline Act, shall be triable by a Court consisting of not less than three and not more than five officers, of whom one must not be below the rank of commander. I should say that the most severe punishment which it is proposed that such a Court should award is dismissal from His Majesty's Service, and the main necessity of the disciplinary provision arises in connection with the trawlers and drifters whose skippers are warrant officers of the Royal Navy Reserve. The skippers of these boats have done very fine and brave service, but among the very large number of men employed there are some whose behaviour and conduct are not always satisfactory. Now merely to dismiss them from their employment is not sufficient. The Admiralty of course have full power to discharge from the Naval Service any of the skippers for drunkenness or other misconduct, but that does not enable the Board of Trade to take any action in regard to the man's certificate, as it is contended that the conviction must be before a Statutory tribunal. The setting up of this tribunal will remedy that. Then the power conferred by this Amendment may be useful also in the case of others than warrant officers. That is to say, subordinate officers, junior commissioned officers, and officers temporarily employed. The punishments which may be inflicted under it will be quite severe enough for the class of offence to be dealt with, and the establishment of the Court will secure in all these cases that the offender shall have a fair opportunity of defending himself against any charge which may be brought against him. So much for Clause 2.

Clause 3 is again necessary as a result of war experience. Section 90 of the original Act makes provision respecting discipline on hired ships not manned entirely by naval ratings, such as auxiliary armed cruisers. It has been found expedient to purchase some of these vessels. Therefore they are no longer hired vessels, and thus there may be some question of the applicability of Section 90 of the original Act to these cases. Clause 3 makes Section 90 applicable beyond all doubt. Apart from that, there is no change in the original Act. Clause 4, which is the last Clause with which I need detain the House, as Clauses 5 and 6 are quite formal, is not a war Clause. It proposes generally to take the powers already taken by the Army Council. It has reference to the enforcement of magistrates' orders against seamen, for payments under maintenance and affiliation orders. A few cases have come under our notice where, these orders having been made, the man has refused to meet them. We have no power at present to make compulsory deduction from pay to satisfy these orders. What we do is to call the man's commanding officer's attention to the matter and ask him to use moral persuasion. As a rule this is efficacious in bringing about the desired result, but not always, and for the rest the civil authority has had to get hold of the man and either make him pay or send him to prison. Representations have been made to us from one or two quarters to ask for the same powers in this respect as are already in the hands of the Army Council.

We have so far hesitated, because it seemed very invidious to the whole body of most self-respecting men to come to Parliament and ask for these new powers. It seemed liable to misunderstanding of a peculiarly unjust character in this case, and in order that such misunderstanding may not arise I may be allowed to preface this matter with this statement. The vast majority of our bluejackets and marines do most faithfully remember and support those who are dependent upon them. Let me make that most clear. During the month of June no smaller a sum than £532,000 was sent home by the bluejackets and marines by way of allotment from pay to wives and dependants, and to naval savings banks. That is a splendid record of thrift, remembrance and recognition of social obligations and duties on the part of the vast body of these men. But there are one or two others. During the six months ended 30th June our attention was called to fifteen separation orders and fifty-one affiliation orders which had not been met. Using the usual methods of persuasion, we secured compliance in thirty-seven of those cases, but twenty-nine refused to comply, and in some cases the men gave reasons which cannot lightly be set aside. Nevertheless we think, on the whole, that we should take powers conferred on the Army Council by Section 145 of the Army Act with an important difference. Owing to the sailor's absence at sea it may be absolutely impossible for him to attend to answer a summons, and it is therefore proposed that the power of compulsory deduction from pay shall only be made use of when the authority ordering that deduction is satisfied that the individual had a reasonable opportunity of defending his case before the magistrates.

There is one other difference from the Army Act, namely, that we do not propose that the power should be extended above the rank of chief petty officer. As regards the new power now proposed to be taken, I will endeavour to put it popularly, if my hon. and learned Friend will forgive me. This is shortly what would happen. In the first place, if the order is made by the civil authority, it would be sent to the Admiralty, and then transmitted to the officer commanding the ship in which the man is serving. That officer would then proceed, under regulations to be framed, to investigate the case, and if he thinks the man has had an opportunity of defending his case, he will make an order for payment by way of deduction from pay. We also adopt from the Army scheme other features. My hon. Friend must not suppose that the necessity to apply the same will arise, except rarely. Clause 4, Subsection (2) (b) of this Bill provides that, if it appears to the satisfaction of the Admiralty, or any officer deputed by them for the purpose, that a person subject to this Act has deserted or left in destitute circumstances without reasonable cause, his wife or any of his legitimate children under fourteen years of age, then the Admiralty takes power to make deductions from pay as provided in this Bill. I must apologise for having detained the House, but I thought it well to give an explanation of the Bill, to which I ask the House to give a second reading.


Will Clause 2 create any new offences in regard to the skippers and crews of trawlers, or does it merely create a new Court before which they are to appear.


The maximum penalty is dismissal from the Service. Number 11 is the lightest penalty, and going from ten to nine, eight, seven, six, and five in each case the penalty increases in severity. The most that can be suffered is dismissal from the Service.


I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his explanation, which on the whole is very clear. Unfortunately there is no naval representative here to-night, and so far as I can gather a portion of the Bill is not in any way emergency legislation. It is true that Clause 4 covers the object of the Bill as to the maintenance of wives and children, and other things which no doubt are all right. Of course it is impossible for the layman to understand what the real result of the Bill will be, but I do not propose to offer any opposition, and I only intervene by way of caution, because sometimes the Government expect to get every stage of every Bill within about three minutes. It is not proposed to go further, I think.




It is certainly desirable that somebody who knows something about naval matters should look into the Bill before the Committee stage. Clause 2 undoubtedly introduces a constitutional change of importance in depriving certain officers of trial by court martial in certain circumstances. That, I imagine, is a matter which may be of considerable importance to the Navy. As regards Clause 4, I must say I think it is a strong one to bring in at this particular time. It is very strongly directed against those who are serving in the Navy, and it inflicts a position upon them which does not exist in any other branch of Services—


In the Army.


Power has been given quite recently in the Army. It is a somewhat invidious position in which to put those serving in the Navy to give powers against them which are given against no other citizen in the State. The Clause is certainly very wide indeed, extending not only to orders for maintenance but also to desertion orders.


That is in the Army Act.


To my mind it is no better for that reason. A sailor may be away, and an order may be made against him without his having any chance of offering a defence. It is a somewhat extraordinary power to be used against a seaman at the other end of the world, with no opportunity of knowing what his wife is doing. It also gives power for deducting Is. for the wife and 1s. a day for the child, so that, suppose a man has a wife and six children, he would be subject to a deduction of 7s.


No, no. The words are "wife or children."


What does it mean? A man leaves his wife, and there is deducted 1s. in respect of her; and, suppose he has three children, there will be 1s. for each child.


It is 1s. for wife or children.


I accept that, though it does not seem to be clearly expressed.


It cannot be other. However, we can discuss it in Committee.


I should have thought it was very doubtful and not very well expressed. As regards Clause 4, it is not a matter of urgency, and I cannot see why this great change should be necessary to introduce at all.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Tomorrow.—[Mr. Walter Rea.]