HC Deb 29 March 1935 vol 299 cc2197-205

11.6 a.m.


I beg to move, in page 4, line 16, at the end, to add: Provided that in every such case the military prisoner, if he so desires, shall be entitled to serve his sentence in this country if he has been enlisted in this country. As far as I can gather, this Bill alters the Army Act, which allows soldiers sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment or more to serve that sentence in this country. I feel that we ought to have had an explanation from the right hon. Gentleman of any alterations which the Bill proposes to make in existing legislation. One of the drawbacks of not having a Second Reading debate is that one does not know what alterations are being made, and has to go through the Bill to try to find them out. The Army Act says that a soldier sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment or over can be brought borne to serve that sentence in this country, but now, apparently, the powers-that-be have decided that they have the right to prescribe in what Dominion or Colony, or India, he is to serve that sentence. We think that a man serving in India who is sentenced to three or four or five years' imprisonment should at the end of 12 months be brought home and serve his sentence here, but the Government now say that if they think fit the whole term is to be served in India. A sentence of five years is severe punishment in the ordinary way, but for a British subject have to serve that term in India with its special climatic conditions, is an added punishment, and may border on torture.

Therefore, I propose that a soldier who joined the Army in this country shall, if "sentenced abroad, be allowed to serve his sentence in this country. It may be that the Minister will meet that claim with the rejoinder that sometimes only short sentences are imposed, and that in such cases it would not be practicable to bring a man home. If that be the case, let me make the condition apply to sentences of not less than 12 months. In this country even murderers have a right to receive visits from their friends, but, if a soldier were left to serve a long sentence in India—it may be a life sentence—he might never have an opportunity of seeing his relations, and, therefore, he would be in a worse position than any civil prisoner.

11.11 a.m.

The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Mr. Douglas Hacking)

I can only deal with the Amendment as it appears on the Order Paper, but I should mention that there is a proviso to Section 64 of the Army Act which has not been interfered with at all by the Amendment which is being proposed by the Bill. That proviso says that if the term of his sentence exceeds 12 months a soldier shall be transferred as soon as practicable to a prison or detention barracks in the United Kingdom, with certain exceptions, and, therefore, in the main, the case of any soldier with a long sentence is already met. We have only altered something which comes in before the proviso, and, therefore, this Amendment is dealing with short sentences as well as long sentences. The hon. Member said that I should probably meet his argument by referring to short sentences. Of course I must meet him with a reference to short sentences, because, as he admits, it would be absurd for a soldier serving in, say, Singapore, who receives a sentence of 14 days' detention to be brought home to serve that sentence—a five weeks' journey home and a five weeks' journey back. That would be the effect of his Amendment.


Will the right hon. Gentleman kindly tell me what is the change that is being made by the Bill? I know that the Army Act specifies a sentence of 12 months, but now the authorities are taking to themselves the power to exercise discretion in the matter.


I do not know whether I am entitled to discuss the whole of the Clause on this Amendment, but, if I am, I will gladly do so. The new Clause in the Bill states that so much of Sub-section (4) shall be amended as precedes the proviso, so the proviso remains exactly as it is now, and surely that meets the point which the hon. Member has had in mind. He desires that those who have to serve long sentences shall be brought home, and I can assure him that, generally speaking, and save for the few exceptions which are contained in Section 64, which are very unimportant and very unlikely to arise, men sentenced to long terms of imprisonment will be brought home. But his Amendment covers both the short sentence and the long sentence, and it would be absurd to bring a man home from the Far East to serve 14 days in this country. As far as long sentences are concerned, the case is met by the proviso.

11.14 a.m.


As this Clause to amend a section of the Army Act, deals with a point of the same nature as that raised by the hon. Member's Amendment, I think it would be useful if the right hon. Gentleman could explain why that Section is to be altered. When I saw the Amendment on the Order Paper I wondered at what point it would be suggested that the man concerned should be brought home. The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has made that point clear. The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the fact that, under the Army Act, if the term of sentence exceeds 12 months, the soldier must be transferred as soon as practicable to a prison in the United Kingdom. That means that there is a 12 months' limit. In what respect are the Government altering that Section? Is this only a minor Amendment? It would be very useful if the right hon. Gentleman explained what is the particular point. It may be necessary to wait until we come to the Question "That the Clause stand part of the Bill" before we can deal with it.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Captain Bourne)

I think it would probably meet the convenience of the Committee if we dealt with it now. Obviously, the explanation of the Government's attitude will depend upon the alteration which is proposed in the Army Act, and it is desirable that the point should be put now, on the understanding that it is not debated at a later stage.


I am very much obliged to you, Captain Bourne, for your ruling. We may get this matter perfectly straight now, so that we may know exactly where we are. The change which we are making in the Army Act, by Clause 4 of the Bill, is twofold in character. In the first place, it will enable us to send the soldier sentenced to a term exceeding 12 months in the Dominions or in a foreign country, to the United Kingdom, as soon as practicable, which is exactly what hon. Members desire. The present intention of the Army Act is not quite clear. In point of fact—I think I am giving no secret away—there has been a little doubt about the exact interpretation of the Section. In the past we have sent soldiers home to this country to serve long sentences, but there has been just a little doubt as to whether we have been doing it in accordance with the law. The proposed Amendment of the Act will make it perfectly clear that we can do it. It is the desire of the hon. Members who put down the Amendment under discussion that that should be done, that soldiers should be sent here if their sentence is a long one. That obviously is for the soldier's benefit.

The second effect of the proposed amendment of the Act is to enable a soldier sentenced in Palestine or in Cyprus, which are colonies in the meaning of the Act, to undergo in Egypt a sentence of under twelve months. At the present moment there is a little doubt about that. The amendment of the Act would make it possible for the soldier serving in one of our colonies, and sentenced in one of those two colonies, to serve his punishment in Egypt, which is not a colony or a Dominion, but is termed a foreign country. There are no military prisons or detention barracks in Palestine or Cyprus, and prisoners otherwise would have to be sent either to the United Kingdom or to Malta for short sentences. Troops in Palestine and in Cyprus are under the administration of the General Officer Commanding Troops in Egypt. Therefore, it would be quite appropriate that they should serve their sentences in what is termed a foreign country by law, and it is again for the soldier's convenience that he should not be sent to Malta or to a long distance to serve a short sentence. It is also in the interests of economy. Those are the sole reasons for the amendment to Section 64 of the Army Act.

11.20 a.m.


The proposed amendment of the Act carries a great deal farther than Cyprus or Palestine. The Act, if amended as suggested by the Government, will mean that a British soldier may have to serve his sentence in any country in the world, if he is sentenced in a foreign country. There is no limitation as to mandated territory, and, if a British soldier is serving in any part of the world, he may be compelled, if the amendment proposed in the Bill be accepted by the Committee, to serve a sentence, for any offence which he may commit, in a foreign country. Take, for instance, a man who was in the—


This is for short sentences only. Sentences of 12 months and over are covered by the proviso to Section 64 in the Army Act.


In the Act, as I read it, I see no provision which allows a British soldier to be imprisoned in a foreign country. This amendment would and does make that provision. The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable explanation that it is for places like Palestine. I was citing a case such as that of the men who were in the British Army in the Saar, which is a foreign country. One of those men commits a serious offence, and he is convicted there; under the Amendment proposed in the Bill he may be imprisoned in a Saar prison or a German, French or Belgian prison. The terms of the clause are very wide. I see nothing in the Act which gave that power before.

11.21 a.m.


I am very sorry that the Hon. Member comes to the House and puts down an amendment without reading the Act. He says that he finds nothing in the existing Act which gives power to make a soldier serve a sentence in a foreign country if the sentence has been imposed in a foreign country. May I direct the hon. Member's attention to Section 64 (3), which is as follows: A military prisoner or soldier under sentence of detention who was sentenced in a foreign country shall undergo his sentence either in that foreign country, or in any foreign country. The power was there before. Our proposal simply makes it clear that anybody sentenced in a colony can serve his sentence in a foreign country; that is the only difference it makes. Any soldier, having been sentenced in a foreign country, can now, under the existing Act, serve that sentence in the foreign country.

11.22 a.m.


I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has really met the point. The Clause which we are discussing in the Bill reads: A military prisoner or soldier under sentence of detention shall… if he was sentenced in a foreign country, undergo his sentence either in that country or in any other foreign country… or in the United Kingdom, or in such other place as may be prescribed. That may be a foreign country. If the real point is that the soldier may be sent to Egypt, why not say so? This country may be in alliance with another country, Russia, Germany, China or Japan, and, if this power is put into the Act, the soldier may have to serve his sentence in one of those foreign countries. I agree that the case which has been put in regard to Egypt is one thing, but the Clause would allow the handing over of a British soldier to serve a sentence in a foreign country.

11.24 a.m.


If the right hon. Gentleman will read the two provisions together he will see that they state that, unless the soldier can be transferred from the foreign country in which he may be serving and in which he committed his crime, to another foreign country, he will have to finish his sentence in that country. The Clause in the Bill needs re-drafting, because it is not in the same terms as that which is in the Act.

11.25 a.m.


The hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) has asked that specific mention should be made of any particular country—Egypt, for instance—which may be contemplated; but surely, if a soldier is sentenced in a particular country with which this country may have an alliance, it is desirable—


This is not a case in which a soldier is sentenced in a foreign country in a time of war; it is a case in which he may be sentenced in a Dominion or Colony, and, under this amendment of the Army Act, although he may be sentenced, say, in Canada or India or a British Colony, there is power to make him serve his sentence in a foreign country.


He may have to serve his sentence in a foreign country, but surely it is not desirable to mention a particular country—say Egypt—in any legislation. Similar cases may occur in which soldiers may be sentenced in another foreign country, and it might be desirable that the sentence should be served, say, in Russia, or any other place, according to the course of events. I cannot see that any hardship is involved. It is simply a question of the desirability of it being allowed, and I think the intention is perfectly clear.

11.28 a.m.


I do not intend to press this Amendment, for I am not altogether satisfied with its wording. It is, however, no use the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite saying that it is desirable to do this or that. In these matters of soldiers' sentences it is much more desirable to be specific than in the ease of the civilian population, because, while in the case of the civilian population the matter can always be adjusted through a Member of Parliament or some other person, in the case of a soldier it is much harder to adjust anything that may appear to be wrong. We should have liked the Minister to make much more clear in the Act itself the definitions which he applied in his speech, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, before the Bill is introduced again 12 months hence, to try to make the Act clearer according to the conception he has stated. As I have said, I do not wish to press the Amendment, but will ask the Committee's permission to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

11.29 a.m.


I do not want to reopen this question, but would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it would not be possible, before the Act is brought into force, to add words specifying that the place in which the sentence is to be served shall be a place which is under the control of a British officer, or whatever may be the proper form. The provision is very wide at present. I agree that we do not want to put Egypt in, but as it stands it is left very wide, and the sentence might have to be served in places where there is absolutely no control by anyone connected with this country. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would consider the matter again between now and Report.

11.30 a.m.


I am afraid I cannot make any promise on that question at this moment, but it is very unlikely that the difficulty which the hon. Member foresees will take place. As the Committee know, we have to get this Bill through, and cannot very well put down amendments now; but I will promise that the matter shall be considered before the Bill is introduced next year, and, if there is found to be any difficulty, and if it is possible then to put in an amendment such as the hon. Member suggests, it will be done. I cannot, however, promise to amend the Bill to-day.


I cannot accept for a moment the position that the House of Commons is not allowed to make amendments because the Government are in a hurry. They have the control of Government business, and should give the House the necessary time. Surely the House is not to be denied the right to take a Bill or reject it because the Government are in a hurry.


There is not so much hurry as to prevent full discussion, and there has been already, and will be, full discussion of this Bill to-day. We are not in any way attempting to curb discussion. We want a full discussion on the Bill, and we want to get it through on its merits.

11.32 a.m.


Are we to be met in each case with the fact that the Bill has to be got through quickly and without any consideration? Cannot the matter be dealt with in another place? I know the difficulties of the Report stage, and of throwing the matter open to discussion again, but I think the right hon. Gentleman might try to see if it cannot be done in another place.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Remaining Clauses ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The following proposed new Clauses stood upon the Order Paper:

Amendment of Army Act, Section 76. The following proviso shall be added at the end of section seventy-six of the Army Act (which relates to the limit of original enlistment):— Provided also that where a boy is enlisted before attaining the age of eighteen he shall be discharged upon a request to this effect being made by a parent or guardian if such request is made before the boy attains the age of eighteen and it is shown that the boy enlisted without the consent of the parent or guardian."—[Mr. Lawson.]

Amendment of Army Act, Section 80 (1). The following words shall be added at the end of sub-section (1) of section eighty of the Army Act, "and produce his birth certificate."—[Mr. Tinker.]


Before I call upon the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) to move the Clause which stands in his name, I would point out that the Clause in the name of the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) seems to me to cover the same point, and I would suggest that we take the discussion of these two Clauses together, the hon. Members having the right to divide on them separately should they wish to do so.