HC Deb 13 April 1920 vol 127 cc1625-7

"In Section 46 of the Army Act (which relates to the powers of a Commanding Officer) the words from 'may award' to the first '28 days and' in Sub-section (2) (d) thereof shall be omitted."—[Major Hayward.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

This new Clause is to make it impossible for a commanding officer, as distinct from a court-martial, to inflict the Field Punishment No. 1. The Committee have just decided to retain this form of punishment as inflicted by court-martial, but it is a very different proposition that the punishment should be inflicted by commanding officers. It is to make that impossible that I now move this new Clause. I will not enter the subject at any length, because, even in the very exceptional cases when, as stated by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, this form of punishment may be necessary for the maintenance of discipline—although that is a position which I do not accept—it must occur to the Committee that this is far too important a power to place in the hands of a commanding officer, especially in these days, when commanding officers have not that experience and knowledge of military law, and of the handling of men, that the old Army officer had. Moreover, anyone who knows anything of the administration of military law in France during the last four or five years, knows that that administration was carried out on most unequal lines, owing to the different mentality, temperament and experience of the various commanding officers. The great majority of the commanding officers were men of discretion, who could be trusted never to inflict this form of punishment except for the very gravest offences; but there were exceptions, and again and again during the last Parliament there were brought up in this House cases where this terrible form of punishment was inflicted for the most trivial offences. I believe that, if those cases had been inquired into further, it would have been found that that punishment had been administered by a commanding officer. I venture to suggest that this is a form of punishment so terrible that it ought not to be inflicted except by a properly constituted court-martial.


I do not propose to enter again into the question of field punishment, as the Committee have already dealt with it. It is felt that the power should remain in the hands of the commanding officer to apply this punishment, and that he should not be compelled to send the case to a court-martial. It might even be that the man would prefer to be tried by his commanding officer, rather than appeal to a court-martial. It must also be remembered that this new Clause would include not only Field Punishment No. 1, to which the hon. and gallant Member has referred as objectionable, but also Field Punishment No. 2, which is a very much milder form, consisting of extra work, extra drills, and so on, and I think no Member of the Committee could reasonably take any objec- tion to that. Therefore, I am sorry that I cannot accept the Clause.


Surely an explanation of that kind ought to be supported by better arguments. I know nothing at all except what I have heard. [HON. MEMBERS: "Keep it up!"] There are a great many men in the country who have suffered both Field Punishment No. 1 and No. 2 who will keep it up for a very long time, and it may be very inconvenient for the hon. Member in his own constituency to defend his vote in favour of the degrading punishment, which was extended to so many gallant men prior to the outbreak of the War. The right hon. Baronet says it would be very much better for the man to have an option. Why should not the Government give an option? He suggested that it might be very much worse for the man if he were sent to court-martial.


I did not say it might be worse for him. I said if the Amendment were passed it would be obligatory to send him to court-martial.


Every soldier at present, if he is going to be sentenced by his commanding officer to any punishment which involves forfeiture of pay—and field punishment does—has the right of electing trial by court-martial.


I understand the right hon. Baronet to say the trial would also include Field Punishment No. 2. This Committee is placed in a very awkward position, because most of the new Clauses have been handed in in manuscript. We are not in a position really to say what their effect is without seeing them on the Paper, I protest very strongly against the way this stage has been taken so quickly after the Second Reading, which has not given hon. Members interested in the subject a fair opportunity of going into these very important matters. In the old days the Army (Annual) Bill was merely a question of renewing the standing Army. There are in this Bill a number of new Clauses, which are the result of certain recommendations, and it places me in a very difficult position. I protest very strongly against the way in which the Committee Stage has been forced on this House in this hurried manner.

Question put, and negatived.