HC Deb 04 January 1916 vol 77 cc877-81

Sub-section (4) of Section fifteen of the principal Act shall be read as if the words "of the second class" were struck out.— [Mr. Pringle.]

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a second time."

The effect of this proposal will be to abolish imprisonment as a penalty for an offence under the Act. There has been the very strongest feeling regarding cases of imprisonment, and these have been very largely responsible for unrest, and they have also been instrumental in bringing the law into contempt. When this Clause was under discussion during the Committee stage we did not make the men who were imprisoned under the Act criminals either in their own eyes or in the eyes of their countrymen, but you made them heroes and martyrs, and it is from that point of view that the Act is objectionable. No House of Commons which has any regard for keeping the statute law in conformity with the common opinion of the whole community would insist on a provision which has that effect upon public opinion regarding the law. I understand that the Minister of Munitions is willing to accept this Amendment.


I desire to second this Motion, and in doing so I wish to put one point before the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. As I understand the new regulations which have been made under an Order in Council, even if this Amendment is accepted the right hon. Gentleman has still an even more drastic power of imprisonment than that which he is now parting with under this Act. The Order in Council appeared in the "London Gazette" of 1st December, 1915, and Regulation 42, as amended, runs:—

"If any person attempts to cause mutiny, sedition, or disaffection"


That has absolutely nothing to do with the Munitions Act. It comes under the Defence of the Realm Act as an Order in Council, and it would be irrelevant to discuss that Order in Council now.


I am quite aware that this is a regulation under the Defence of the Realm Act, but is it not a fact that that regulation gives the right hon. Gentleman power to deal with the very offences contemplated by the Munitions Act, and it gives him a far more drastic power of imprisonment for a like offence. I will read the whole of Regulation 42 as it is amended by the Order in Council:—

"If any person attempts to cause mutiny, sedition, or disaffection among any of His Majesty's Forces or among the civilian population"—

and now I come to the crucial words—

"or to impede, delay, or restrict the production, repair, or transport of war material or any other work necessary for the successful prosecution of the War, he shall be guilty of an offence against these Regulations."

Those Regulations enable the penalty of penal servitude for life to be inflicted, and if the case comes before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction imprisonment with or without hard labour may be inflicted for a term not exceeding six months. That is far more drastic than if the powers of the Munitions, Act were retained. It is an offence under the Regulation I have quoted for any person to "impede, delay or restrict the production, repair or transport of war material or any other work necessary for the successful prosecution of the War." As I read and understand those words, anyone who worked short time, for example, would be "impeding or delaying the production, repair or transport of war material." That is the precise point I would like the right hon. Gentleman to clear up. So far as I am able to understand this matter, the right hon. Gentleman has taken a far more drastic power than that which was given him under the Munitions Act. I would like to know if it is the view of the Law Officers of the Crown that no person guilty of an offence under the Munitions Act can possibly be dealt with under the Regulation which I have referred to.


I have already promised to accept this new Clause, and I stand by the undertaking I have given. The point just raised by my hon. Friend (Mr. Roch) has really nothing to do with this Act, and I can only reply to this question by permission of Mr. Speaker. If a man works short time he could not be prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act, but if he went about organising short time amongst the workers and persuading workmen not to work full time, or if he deliberately took part in an organisation to impede the output of munitions he could be prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act.


That is also an offence under the Munitions Act.


Those are offences which are not covered by the Munitions Act. What is dealt with by the Order in Council is practically incitement to mutiny. Any incitement to mutiny against an Act of Parliament designed to decrease the output of munitions would be an offence under the Defence of the Realm Act, but that has nothing to do with this particular Clause, and it would not cover the offences which come before the munitions tribunal.


I am glad that this new Clause has been accepted. I want to raise once more the point that has already been dealt with, because I should like a definite assurance upon it. The words used in the Order in Council are very wide and very vague, and they are words which I think could include quite easily some of the offences under the Munitions of War Act. If the right hon. Gentleman will give us a definite assurance on this point I shall be satisfied. The words of the Regulation are "impede, delay, or restrict the production, repair, or transport of war materials." Take the case of a workman who, in defiance of the Munitions Act as an individual, leaves his work. Could it not be argued that that man is "impeding, delaying, or restricting the production, repair, or transport of war material." I do not see where the Minister of Munitions draws the line, but I am afraid that he is only giving us his personal view.


If the hon. Gentleman is asking for an undertaking that a case of that kind would not be prosecuted under the Order in Council I have no hesitation in giving that undertaking. In my view the Order in Council deals with a totally different kind of case. The workman who turns up late, or breaks regulations, or commits a breach of discipline is dealt with under the Munitions Act, but the cases referred to under the Order in Council are those in which there is incitement to mutiny to prevent workmen from doing their best to assist in the output of munitions.


That explanation makes the matter a good deal more clear, although I am not sure that the legal interpretation would be quite so clear. I gave a case the other day where a woman was indecently assaulted by a night watchman and left her employment. I am not so sure that these women could not be charged with impeding and restricting the output of war material. This is a very important matter. Take the question of a strike where a number of men might be driven into a temporary withholding of their labour. Are they going to be tried by court-martial under the Defence of the Realm Act for which the penalty may be imprisonment for life? We are living in very strange times, and we do not know where we are being taken. It is from that standpoint that I want an assurance. I believe the Minister of Munitions, in his own mind, does not in the least anticipate this result, but is he equally sure that the Law Courts and the judges will take the same view?


Of course, we absolutely accept what the Minister of Munitions has said, that it is not the intention of the Government to use this power in this particular way. But the right hon. Gentleman also knows, as an ordinary member of the public, that when these matters are taken into the Law Courts and interpreted in various ways by counsel and judges that is something against which the Minister of Munitions cannot protect himself. If the right hon. Gentleman will make this more clear we shall be quite satisfied. We are absolutely satisfied with his word, but the difficulty we have in our minds is that, in spite of what he has said, the interpretation of the judges may commit him to an entirely different position.


Perhaps I might be allowed to say that I will take counsel's opinion upon these words. What has been stated is certainly not our intention. My hon. Friend says the words might bear a different interpretation, but I will promise to confer with the Legal Department as to whether the words quoted are too wide or not. It is not intended to deal with the individual workman for an ordinary offence under those regulations, which are intended to deal with the man who deliberately goes about with the intention and in order to interfere with the output of munitions, and that man comes in a different category altogether. That is the kind of man, amongst others, at whom the Privy Council Order was certainly aimed. I will confer with those who drafted the Order and see whether it is necessary to restrict the words in order to make it impossible for us after the acceptance of the Amendment by other means, and by what I would not hesitate to call an underhanded way, not only retaining the power but increasing and aggravating it That certainly is not oar intention.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a second time, and added to the Bill.