HC Deb 21 May 1935 vol 302 cc1093-102

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.?—[Captain Margesson.]


I apologise for detaining the House for a few additional minutes on what must be regarded by many Members as a relatively small matter. It is a matter that admittedly only affects one man, and an unemployed man at that, but it seems to me that there are certain principles involved in it that justify my asking the Financial Secretary to the War Office for a little more enlightenment on the subject than he has so far vouchsafed in reply to questions put to him in the House. On the 14th May I asked the right hon. Gentleman, as representing the War Office, as to the discharge of a certain William Walker from a branch of the Territorial Army in Edinburgh on the ground that he had participated in a hunger march in Scotland. I asked the right hon. Gentleman if this man had been court-martialled and dismissed, and the reply was that I was under a misapprehension, that the man had not been court-martialled, and that he had not been dismissed from the Forces. Further questioning elicited the point that the man had been discharged on the ground that his services were no longer required, and when I pressed the Minister for reasons as to that, he said it was not in the public interest to answer that question. I asked if the reasons were political, and he said, in effect, "No; the Army does not concern itself with politics."

That seemed to me very unsatisfactory, because it was obvious tome that at any moment the authorities in the Territorial Force could discharge a man, saying his services were no longer required, and if that discharge were questioned in the House and the Minister took refuge behind the statement that it was not in the public interest to give reasons, then the whole status of the men in the Territorial Force was changed substantially, from what is the general public under standing. It is understood generally that when a man joins the Territorial Force he does not give up his citizen rights as a man does when he joins the Army or the Navy. He remains a citizen for all purposes, but gives up a certain pro portion of his time and a certain number of his liberties to equip himself to serve in the armed forces of the Crown. He takes on certain obligations as regards training, but he retains to himself all the ordinary rights of the ordinary citizen, including his political rights. If a commanding Officer, without stating any reasons, can discharge a man, and the Minister can reply that it is not in the public interest to say why he is discharged, the man as a citizen has a serious blemish put upon his character, and he has no opportunity of getting it removed and has no way of letting it be known among his friends, neighbours and associates what were the causes that led to his dismissal.

I do not want to criticise the right hon. Gentleman unfairly. I know that the phrase "in the public interest" has its uses in this House, but if Ministers were in every minor individual matter in reply to a question to say, "It is not in the public interest," the purposes and uses of Parliament would be very largely destroyed. The phrase, in my experience in the House, has only been used in very grave matters where the giving of information could be used in foreign lands to the detriment of this country. That is the general use of the phrase in this House. This is not a matter of that magnitude at all. This is the case of an unemployed man who, feeling the grievances of the unemployed and desirous of doing something to remove those grievances, associates with other unemployed men in a demonstration in Scotland particularly directed to call attention to the unfair operation of the recent unemployment assistance regulations. He was not the only person in Britain who felt that these regulations were operating grievously. It is not an exaggeration to say that a majority of this House felt that, but they certainly did not feel it so keenly as the unemployed men who were being put under the regulations. This man joined with his fellows to make public protest against the regulations. He went to Glasgow on the march from Edinburgh. I will read what the man himself has described as his experiences: On my return from the Scottish un employed march to Glasgow, I, in common with other Territorials were sent to Aldershot for a training course. In my own case the training in particular was that of an Army cook. In this connection it should be stated that only those who satisfy the requirements of the commanding Officer are sent to such a course, indicating that at that point the man had a good character in the Territorial Force. My training having concluded satisfactorily, I re turned to Edinburgh, and on presenting myself to resume Territorial obligations I was ordered to appear before the commanding Officer. For this purpose the regimental sergeant-major and the permanent sergeant instructor become my escort, I being marched between them before the ccmmanding Officer. On order, I removed my cap. The commanding Officer proceeded to state that serious allegations had been made against me, the allegations being that I had participated in the Scottish hunger march. He then quoted sections of the King's Regulations. Naturally, having no desire to contradict such allegations, I admitted my participation. I was then questioned regarding my future line of conduct in connection with such activities. Previous to my reply on this point the commanding Officer indicated that my reply, if in support of such activities, would lead to discharge and loss of bounty and Jubilee allowances. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to state that while serving as a Territorial my political views had undergone a complete change. That explained my antagonism to the means test, and my desire and intention to do everything possible to end it. The commanding Officer, on hearing my reply, immediately ordered my discharge. It may be possible for the War Office to draw fine distinctions between what is a court-martial and what is not, but spades are spades and, in my opinion, they are frequently something worse. My discharge was an act of political victimisation and no questions other than those dealing with my political outlook were put to me by the commanding Officer. I, therefore, challenge the War Office to produce the reasons other than political for my discharge. Had I remained politically backward and without realisation of the need to struggle for the ending of poverty imposed on the working classes, I would still have been Gunner W. Walker of the 78th Lowland Field Brigade. I served four years with the Royal Scots Territorials and terminated my service satisfactorily. Subsequently I served for over two years with the 78th Lowland Field Brigade and during the six years' service I never once was reprimanded.? That is the man's statement of the case, and to me it is apparently a straightforward, honest statement. The right hon. Gentleman tells me, in reply to questions, that the man was not court-martialled. The man himself describes what took place and I suppose, in the strictly technical sense, it was not a court-martial. He was discharged by his commanding Officer. I have here the King's Regulations governing Territorials, and the appropriate section that deals with the dismissal of men by the commanding Officer—"Conduct unsatisfactory"—applies to men who conduct themselves in such a way as to render their retention in the Territorial Army undesirable, and who are discharged under the provisions of Section 9 (d). In the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907, I find that any man of the Territorial Forces may be discharged by his commanding Officer for disobedience to orders by him while doing any military duty, or for neglect of duty, or for misconduct by him as a man of the Territorial Force, or for other sufficient cause, the extent and sufficiency of such cause to be judged by the commanding Officer.

That is a sweeping and wide enough section. A man under it could be discharged for doing anything. It is pro vided that any man so discharged shall be entitled to appeal to the Army Council, who may give such directions in any such case as they may think just and proper. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to me, tells me that this man has no appeal. There is no appeal at all. I do not know any other section of the Territorial Forces Act dealing with the discharge of a man by his commanding Officer except that, and the man's statement says that he was discharged by his commanding Officer. The right hon. Gentleman tells me that he was not court-martialled. When I challenge him further on the matter, the right hon. Gentleman tells me that is not the section of the Territorial Regulations under which the man is discharged. He tells me that it is Regulation 199 (6A), dealing with "services no longer required," but when I turn to that I find that a commanding Officer is not entitled to dismiss a man under that particular regulation, that dismissal under the regulation can only be carried out by the brigade commander. This man never appeared before the brigade commander. So that under whichever regulation the right hon. Gentleman cares to take it, this man has been unjustly treated, and I do not believe the House will stand for the unjust treatment of even the most in significant citizen in the State. If the case has been made out, as I believe it is, that this man has been unjustly treated, I do not believe the House will stand for it.

The right hon. Gentleman said to me, and I thank him for it, that as an act of grace he is prepared to allow this man to make representations. I hope that if the right hon. Gentleman will not be persuaded by me and by the House to do the fuller measure of justice, that the man will be given this opportunity of making representations, and I would like the right hon. Gentleman to tell me to whom such representations would have to be made, what rights the man would have to support his representations, to whom the representations would be made, where they would be made, and what assistance the man would be permitted to have in the statement of his case. Personally I should like those representations to be made in such a manner that the man can be personally present, and that I or some one else can be alongside him and hear the whole procedure, to see exactly what takes place. But while I ask for that I ask for the bigger thing. I ask that the right hon. Gentleman should just tell us here that somebody has blundered, that a distinct breach of the King's Regulations has been committed—onlyagainst a private soldier, admittedly, but if Ring's Regulations mean anything they should apply equally to field marshal or to private; and if King's Regulations have been broken against this man, then his right is to be reinstated in the place from which he was discharged. That is what I am asking as the larger claim.

The second thing I am asking is that, failing that, if the right hon. Gentleman feels that this man has done something that called for some examination and investigation or discipline, that the man should have his appeal as a right and not as an act of grace. These are the three things I am putting to the right hon. Gentleman. I have stated the man's case. Up to now the right hon. Gentle man has not told me why this man has been dismissed. He denies that it was for the reason that the man states, and that I have stated on the Floor of the House, and I ask him to tell us what are the reasons. Secondly, I ask him to tell me what representations he intends the man should have, to whom, in what circumstances, and so on. Thirdly, I ask him to do the biggest thing of all, to reinstate the man in the Territorial Force. Fourthly, I ask him, if none of these other things are conceded, that the man should have the appeal as a right, as laid down in King's Regulations relating to the Territorial Army.

11.19 p.m.

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

The hon. Member who introduced this matter to-night started by saying it was a relatively small matter. I agree entirely with him when he added that the House would not stand for any unjust treatment, however humble the individual may be in the Army or in civil life. Having said that, I hope that I shall convince the hon. Member and the House that no injustice has been perpetrated in this instance. I hope that I shall be able to show the hon. Member that his assertion that injustice has been meted out to Gunner Walker is unfounded.

What is the history of this case? The hon. Member has stated it once more. He has included in his speech certain of the questions which he has asked me during the last few days across the Floor of the House. His first question suggested that this man had been court-martialled and discharged for taking part in a hunger march. I replied that that was untrue. Thereupon the hon. Member the next day, or the day after, said, in the form of a question, what he has said to-night. He altered his story somewhat. He changed his ground to some degree, and indicated that Walker was asked by his Officer if he would give up his association with unemployed workers, and that on refusing he was told that he would be dismissed from the regiment. That is the story which the hon. Member has repeated to-night. He asks me whether or not that is true. If I say that it is also untrue, no doubt in, a few days time he will ask me another question.


No, I will not. I want the right hon. Gentleman to tell me what is true.


I have already told the hon. Member that I am not prepared to disclose the reasons for this man's dismissal. I hope to be able to convince the hon. Member and also the House not only that it is not in the public interest for the reasons for dismissal to be disclosed, but that it is not in the interests of the man himself. Let me repeat: If I tell him again now that his later statement is untrue, by a process of elimination eventually he will find out the actual reason. I could not tell him now. The hon. Member said that this man was discharged by his commanding Officer. He said that he was discharged under the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907, Section 9 (4). I have already told him, in answer to a question, that the man was not dismissed under that Section, and that he was not discharged by his commanding Officer at all; he was dismissed under a paragraph of the Territorial Army Regulations. If his discharge was under Section 9 (4) of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act, 1907, it was a wrongful discharge, for, under that Section, discharges are carried out only in connection with a definite of fence. That is made clear—I have not the time to quote it to-night, but if the hon. Member will do me the justice to look at paragraph 201, he will see that it is perfectly clear.


That is the first time you have quoted that one


I have not had an opportunity of doing so. The hon. Member will see quite definitely that discharges under Section 9 (4) are only carried out in connection with a definite of fence. If a soldier is just a general nuisance, if his general behaviour is un satisfactory, he cannot be discharged under Section 9 (4) of the Territorial Forces Act, 1907.

The facts are as I have already told the hon. Member. This man was discharged under paragraph 199 (6, a) of the Territorial Army Regulations, as his services were no longer required. He accepted that condition on attestation. When he signed his attestation form he said he would serve for a certain number of years, or so long as his services were required. There is nothing irregular or unusual in his being dismissed in these circumstances. I have been informed that the commanding Officer did not even interview this man. I am informed that the adjutant of the 78th Field Brigade, Royal Artillery, interviewed Walker and asked him whether he had any statement to make. He replied that he had no complaint, and apparently he was satisfied.

The hon. Member asks whether this discharge means that the man must go through the rest of his life with the stigma attached to him that he has been discharged from the Territorial Force for reasons so grave and disgraceful that they cannot be mentioned publicly. My reply to that is perfectly simple. It does not of necessity mean anything of the kind. The hon. Member must not imagine that a man must be a criminal, or that he must have done some particularly disgraceful act, before being discharged under this paragraph of the Territorial Army Regulations. We always refuse to give full reasons for the discharge in similar cases, because, as I have told the hon., Member, it is not in the public interest so to do; but it is a very important argument in favour of non disclosure that it is not in the interests of the men themselves- that publicity should be given to the reasons for which they are discharged. If full information were given in one instance, it would be impossible to resist giving full information in every case. There might be cases where, if full disclosures were made, soldiers might have much less chance in civil life after their discharge from the Army. I maintain that if any injustice has been done in this case, the injustice, in the main, has not been done by the military authorities, but by the hon. Member in giving this case publicity.




Had he not done so, this man would have gone quietly out of the Army; no one would have been any wiser, no one would have had any thought that his of fence was a serious one. It is merely due to the hon. Member having brought the case before the House of Commons and the publicity that has been given to it, enabling the public to make it a much more serious of fence than it might have been. Walker has no right of appeal; never the less, in order that he should have no sense of grievance, the War Office authorities said that he might make representations regarding his discharge and that they would receive full consideration. The hon. Gentleman wants to know to whom he should make representations. He can either make them to his late commanding Officer or direct to the War Office, and finally, if necessary, they would go to the Army Council, who would decide this matter ask the hon. Member to accept my assurance that it is not in the public interest or in the interest of the individual concerned to give publicity of the character desired by the hon. Member. The Territorial Army regulations give discretion to the competent Officer, who in this case is the brigade commander, to discharge any soldier from the Territorial Army whose services are no longer required, and on this occasion he has exercised his lawful discretion with the fullest sense of his responsibility for the future well being of the Army as a whole.

The military authorities take no account of politics as such. A recruit is never asked his political faith on attestation. Apart from that it is not the practice to take any steps on account of a man's political views, but if a man shows by his actions that he is at variance with the accepted standards of thought, behaviour and general tone of the Army, he becomes an element of potential discord and consequently his services are better dispensed with. This man has not been dismissed for any particular reason. It was not thought in the public interest to be a desirable thing for him to re main in the Army. It was quite legitimate and lawful to dispense with his services, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regrets that he can take no further action in the matter.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'Clock.