HC Deb 10 December 1919 vol 122 cc1321-3
79. Mr. T. A. LEWIS

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he can see his way to release all soldiers now serving sentences of penal servitude and imprisonment for purely military offences?


As I have already stated on previous occasions, the Government decided, after very careful consideration, not to adopt the course suggested. I would, however, draw my hon. Friend's attention to the statement which I am about to make in answer to question No. 82 on the subject of the suspension and remission of sentences generally.

82. Mr. K1LEY

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is aware that during the War many soldiers were sen- termed to terms of imprisonment for offences other than criminal; is he aware that these men were not then imprisoned but were put in the firing line, and those who were not killed or maimed were sent to prison after the Armistice was signed; and, in view of the fact that nearly all the Great Powers have released their military prisoners, is he prepared to advise similar action so far as British soldiers are concerned?


I cannot accept the terms of the hon. Member's question as a correct representation of the facts. During the War many soldiers were sentenced to terms of penal servitude and imprison-men for offences other than those or a criminal nature, of whom many thousands in fact never served one single day of such sentences. This is due to the operation of the Army Suspension of Sentences Act, which I venture to claim is the most humane measure that has ever been passed in the history of the British Army. Under that Act it is possible for a soldier by an act of gallantry or satisfactory conduct in action, or by a period of good conduct, to earn absolute and complete remission of his sentence. There have been cases where soldiers convicted by courts-martial of most serious offences have within a few weeks, or even days, earned immediate remission of their sentence through their gallantry in action. I cannot state exactly the number of eases where sentences have been suspended, but 20,000 men have probably received the benefits of this Act. All sentences, in a state of suspension, lapsed automatically on the demobilisation of the soldier, and, moreover, the fact that a soldier is under suspension of sentence does not debar his demobilisation.

On the other hand, with regard to soldiers who have abused the privileges which the Act has extended to them, there was power under the Act that for subsequent offences of misconduct the sentence so suspended might be put into execution. Again, I cannot quote precise figures, but there doubtless has been a considerable number of cases where soldiers have been committed to prison to undergo a previously suspended sentence.

But the clemency which has been extended to the soldier does not end with the Army Suspension of Sentences Act. A most careful and complete review of all sentences of penal servitude and imprisonment has been going on not only all through the War but since the Armistice as prisoners arrive in this country, and as a result I am glad to be able to say that the sentences of all soldiers under sentence at the Armistice have now passed under review with the following result:

Four hundred and forty-five sentences of penal servitude have been reviewed for the first time.

Of these there have been forty complete remissions and ninety-six immediate mitigations to lesser punishments.

Of these 445, 198 sentences of penal servitude have now been reviewed for the second time, and large reductions effected.

To give an idea of the scale of the reduction I should mention that of these 198 cases reviewed a second time, 1,207 years out of an aggregate of 1,659 years have been eliminated from the sentences, and the prisoner informed of the exact day when he will be released from prison provided he behaves himself.

This second review will in due course be completed, and a similar scale of reductions may be anticipated with regard to them. 918 cases of imprisonment have been reviewed, of which 251 have been totally remitted and 330 commuted to the lesser punishment of detention.

Further, about 950 soldiers have been released from detention, and the weekly releases from detention average about forty. It will thus be seen that no soldier has been permitted to remain undergoing penal servitude, imprisonment, or detention, without most careful inquiry and consideration having been given to his case, and the most substantial remissions possible being granted to him.

It can fairly be claimed, therefore, that no soldier has during this War or since been allowed to remain forgotten in prison. The utmost clemency has been extended to him all through the War, and since not only by the operations of the Army Suspension of Sentences Act but by the continuous review to which all sentences have been and are being submitted.

If any Member will place me in possession of the particulars of any case in which he considers hardship is being inflicted, I shall be glad to furnish all information as to the nature of the offences which the soldier has committed, the punishment which he is undergoing, and the date upon which he will secure his release if his conduct is satisfactory.