§ 15. Mr. Pritt
asked the Secretary of State for War, whether the two officers involved in the recent case in which a soldier was confined in an unheated and unlit cell in winter for eight weeks and his correspondence burnt are still holding the same posts and the same ranks as they did at the time of the incidents?
Sir J. Griģģ
This is a case about which the House clearly felt some anxiety, and I will therefore, with the hon. and learned Member's permission, take the opportunity of making a full statement about it at the end of Questions.
Sir J. Griģģ
Gunner Blunden was placed in arrest on 24th December of last year. On the day following he broke out of the guard room. He was arrested on the next day and placed in a "cell" in a Nissen hut. He remained so confined 688 until his trial by Field General Court-Martial on 16th February. He was found not guilty on the charges of neglect to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, and of using insubordinate language to his superior officer, but guilty on the charge of absence without leave while in arrest. He was sentenced to 112 days' detention, of which half was remitted by the confirming authority. Complaints were received that there had been delay in bringing Gunner Blunden to trial and that his cell had been inadequately lit. These complants were fully examined by a court of inquiry, which found that there was substance in both of them. The two officers concerned were censured by the District Commander. Further complaints were then received about the treatment of Gunner Blunden and about the administration of the unit in general. The further court of inquiry which was called to examine the new complaints found that there was no substance in any of them except that the sanitary arrangements in Gunner Blunden's cell were not altogether satisfactory and that two of his letters had been burnt. These contained allegations about all the officers and some of the N.C.Os. of the battery. These allegations were of such a character and couched in such terms that the officer who read them thought that they would get the soldier into further trouble. The letters should, however, have been handed back to him, and the competent military authority decided that the officer responsible should incur the displeasure of the Army Council for his action, which was irregular, however well-intentioned it may have been.
Several hon. Members considered that the disciplinary action taken against the officers was not sufficiently severe. At first sight, in view of 'the undoubted fact that the inquiries had disclosed some unsatisfactory features, it certainly looked as if there was substance in their view. On the other hand, there was no evidence to show that there was any intention to ill-treat the man or that the delay in bringing him to trial was deliberate. In fact much of the time was lost by delays in correspondence and by lack of initiative in having the case properly prepared. It might be held that Gunner Blunden should have been released to open arrest, but in deciding against this his commanding officer no doubt took into account that the man 689 had six previous entries in the preceding 19 months and all for absence without leave. In addition he had twice been convicted by the civil courts for housebreaking.
The District Commander did definitely consider whether the two officers should be court-martialled, but he decided that a reprimand administered by him would be adequate to bring home to the officers where they had been at fault and to prevent their erring again in this way. In the light of after events it is perhaps unfortunate that the matter was not dealt with by court-martial. However, I have taken the best legal advice open to me, and I am given to understand that it is most unlikely that a court-martial would have awarded a heavier sentence than severe reprimand. As it is, the administration of censure by the competent military authority disposes of the case against the officers, and I am advised that it cannot be reopened. Similarly the case of the destruction of the letters was disposed of by the competent military authority—in this case the War Office—by informing the officer that he had incurred the displeasure of the Army Council.
The unit in question has been disbanded. One of the officers is now on the strength of a depot, and the other is serving in another unit. One officer was a substantive major and is still serving in that rank. The other was a temporary captain. He has now regained that rank after serving for a time as a lieutenant.
§ Mr. Stephen
Will the right hon. Gentleman say why the officers in this case were treated so much more gently than the man?
Sir J. Griģģ
The whole purpose of my answer has been to give a completely objective statement of the facts.
§ Mr. Gienvil Hall
Would not a lot of time have been saved if the right hon. Gentleman had given us some part of this story in answer to the original Question?
Sir J. Griģģ
I apologise to the House. It certainly would have been better if I had made a fuller statement on the first occasion. I shall be careful not to make the same mistake again.
§ Mr. W. Brown
Is it not the case that these two officers had to be dealt with under the Army Act, which leaves no punishment open to a court of inquiry between censure on the one hand, which may be inadequate to meet the case, and dismissal on the other, which may be an excessive punishment for the offence; and could the right hon. Gentleman intimate whether there is any chance of getting the Army Act amended so as to provide an intermediate punishment?
Sir J. Griģģ
It is quite true that the Army Act provides for no punithment between a severe reprimand and dismissal. From time to time the question of providing some intercalary punishment has been considered. Hitherto the House has not seen fit to adopt that, but I agree that it is a matter which requires consideration.