HC Deb 29 May 1916 vol 82 cc2477-80

Order for Second Reading read.

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


The purpose this little Bill seeks to achieve is one with which everybody in this House and out of it would, I am quite sure, be glad to be associated. It is to lighten the labours of the Commander-in-Chief Grand Fleet. Section 58, Sub-section (10), of the Naval Discipline Act reads as follows:

"An officer holding a commission from the Admiralty to order courts-martial shall not be empowered to do so if there is present at the place where such court-martial is to be held any officer superior in rank to himself on full pay, and in command of one or more of His Majesty's ships, or vessels, although such last-mentioned officer may not hold a commission to order courts-martial, and in such a case such last-mentioned officer may order a court-martial, although he does not hold any commission for the purpose."

Sound as it is, that law never contemplated the situation which the War has created. The effect of it is this, that if a court-martial has to be held on any person in any ship of the Grand Fleet present with the Commander-in-Chief, all the work of convening the court and so on falls on the Commander-in-Chief. The Commander-in-Chief Grand Fleet has with him members of one Fleet, officers who hold the Admiralty warrant authorising them to order and convene a court-martial. In their time they have so ordered them, and in due course will do so again no doubt as and when occasion arises. Nevertheless, there is only one senior officer present, and therefore all their functions in this respect are set aside and vested in him. He alone can order, convene, and generally supervise court-martial proceedings in the great Fleet over which he rules. That widely-extended jurisdiction imposes upon him routine work never contemplated. I should make it perfectly clear here that it is the aggregation of ships in one Fleet that has made this Bill necessary, and by no means any increase in crime among the blue- jackets. It would be extremely ungracious, and extremely ungrateful if that were imagined. In proportion to the numbers borne courts-martial are less frequent than in times of peace.

Having said that, there are one or two other facts which reflect the character generally of the British bluejacket. It is, I admit, quite unnecessary in connection with this Bill to rehearse them, but I confess that they have always impressed me so much that I cannot resist the temptation to refer to them, and I am quite sure the House and the country would be glad to know them. I see that at the present time the non-commissioned officers and the men of the Fleet are sending home from their pay to their wives and other relatives through the machinery of official allotment and remittance, roughly about £680,000 a month. Beyond that, of course, they no doubt send through the Post Office private remittances in the form of postal orders and treasury notes. I observe that postal orders sold to officers and men of the Fleet by naval paymasters amount to £15,000 a month. I see, further, that the men of the Fleet are investing in the Naval Savings Bank, out of their pay, something like £40,000 a month. Beyond this, of course, no doubt some of them are investing in the Post Office Savings Bank. I see further that the sums invested from their pay by the sailors in the Naval Savings Bank exceed at the present time, a million of money, as compared with less than £300,000 before the War. Finally I see that over and beyond all this all ranks of the Fleet, officers, non-commissioned officers and men, have already taken up over £70,000 in War Loan. When we talk about delegating powers to hold courts-martial it is rather nice, I think, though no doubt quite unnecessary, to recall to what sort of man the British bluejacket really is.

As regards this Bill, observe what the law as it stands imposes upon the Commander-in-Chief. When the commanding officer of a ship present with the Commander-in-Chief considers that a charge against any of his ship's company is serious enough for a court-martial, he reports the circumstances to the Commander-in-Chief. The Commander-in-Chief must satisfy himself that the charges are correct and sufficient, that the documents are all in order, and that there is sufficient evidence to justify placing the accused on his trial. He must then issue a warrant to the officer whom he selects to preside, directing him to assemble a court-martial. At least twenty-four hours before the court-martial assembles the Commander-in-Chief gives notice of the trial by signal, and notifies the names of the president and of the other officers whose presence will be required. On the morning of the trial the Commander-in-Chief sends to the president a list of the officers present, who may be required to sit as members of the Court, and notifies him of any whose attendance is not attainable by reason of the exigencies of the public service. After sentence is pronounced it is the duty of the Commander-in-Chief to point out to the Admiralty anything of doubtful legality in the proceedings. The Commander-in-Chief must also, if imprisonment or detention is awarded, issue a warrant for the accused to be committed to prison, or subsequently for the accused to be transferred from one place of confinement to another. In a proper case the Commander-in-Chief must at his discretion issue an order suspending the sentence, and subsequently must decide at intervals of three months whether the sentence shall remain suspended, be enforced, or be remitted.

Obviously all that is a quite unnecessary tax upon the Commander-in-Chief, and the purpose of this Bill is to enable him to delegate his functions in relation to courts-martial to the several vice-admirals under his orders. The procedure will be, broadly, that each vice-admiral will convene courts-martial in his own squadron in exactly the same way as he would do if there were no other ships present. And not only courts-martial but disciplinary courts. A disciplinary court, I may explain to the House, represents a minor court-martial with power to inflict punishment inferior to detention. Provision for it was introduced in the amending Naval Discipline Bill, passed on the 29th of July last year. I ought, perhaps, to explain the purpose of Clause 1, Subsection (1) (b), of this Bill. Under the existing Act all officers present, next in seniority to the President, must sit as members of the court-martial, "until the number of nine or such number, not less than five, as is attainable is complete." That is provided under Section 58, Subsection (16), of the original Act. The effect of this Clause 1, Sub-section (1) (b)will be that for the purpose of constituting the court the officers of ships present, which are not under the command of the particular vice-admiral convening the court, will be treated as though they did not exist. I should make it clear that the vice-admirals to whom these powers and duties are now proposed to be delegated are, of course, flag officers of a rank to which the Admiralty has issued, does issue, and will issue, under the existing law, authority to hold courts-martial. In that particular case, that is, when the Commander-in-Chief is present, they are not authorised to convene the court, and so on, because the Commander-in-Chief is senior to them. For the purpose of freeing the hands of the Commander-in-Chief we wish to remove the disability in this respect which his presence imposes on them, and, therefore, when two or more of the vice-admirals are together at a place where the Commander-in-Chief is not present, the new Bill will similarly prevent the whole of the court-martial work falling on the senior officer.

Commander BELLAIRS

I venture to say that the only surprising thing about this Bill is that it was not introduced many months ago instead of after a lapse of twenty-two months of war, because this pressure of work on the Commander-in-Chief has gone on all the time, and this House would naturally desire to relieve the Commander-in-Chief of all possible work of a routine character which could be done otherwise. The present Commander-in-Chief commands a Fleet which is probably ten or twelve, or thirteen times as big as any admiral has commanded in peace time since the Crimean War. It comprises many tens of thousands of men, and that pressure naturally all reacts, not only on the Commander-in-Chief, but, I venture to say, on all those on board the flagship itself. You have to crowd officers and men into that flagship, the "Iron Duke," and the wonder is how they manage, crowded there, to carry out that routine work on board the flagship. I welcome this Bill, because it will relieve the Commander-in-Chief of these routine duties which can very well be performed by others. The authority in this Bill will merely be delegated by the Admiralty and Sir John Jellicoe, and they will not therefore lose an atom of their authority by delegating those powers.

Question put, and agreed to.

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