HC Deb 21 January 1947 vol 432 cc174-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pearson.]

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith North)

The subject I am raising tonight is the question of Private H.M. Johnson, a private in the British Army, who was court-martialled in India recently and whose complaints of his treatment are, firstly, that there was great delay in bringing him to trial and, what is much worse, that he was kept in close arrest during the whole of the delay. The actual period of keeping him under close arrest was slightly over 300 days.

I think it is worth while telling his story because, after all, this might happen to the son or brother of any of us. Today he is only 23 years old; he has been four years in the Army, has seen service in West Africa, India and Burma, particularly Arakan; he has seen a great deal of fighting, he has had much sickness, including jaundice, and he rose from the ranks to a commission. Some time in 1945 there was an adverse report on him, and he was called upon to resign. He resigned; he appealed, his appeal was upheld, and he ought to have been put back in his position as an officer, but so careless had somebody been in the matter of forwarding his appeal that it lay in a tray, to his knowledge, for five weeks. When his 56 days leave after his resignation ran out he had to go back and join up. If they had dealt with his appeal five weeks more quickly, he would have become an officer again, and there would never have been any trouble, because his trouble arose less than five weeks after he had gone into the ranks again.

The trouble began, in a way, because somebody was foolish enough—I understand it is a thing not normally done—to put him back to serve in the ranks in the very unit, at the very camp, where he had served as an officer. This preyed on his mind a bit—after all, he had been in Burma and had been fighting there, and people are not wholly normal after having been there and having had jaundice as well. There were whispers about him; he went absent without leave, had the sense to consult a psychologist to see if anything could be done for him, and voluntarily returned. That is not the matter for which he was court-martialled. After a time, being still in a bad state, he went absent without leave again. While absent without leave he took to drink, to which he was not normally addicted, and passed a certain number of cheques which he had no real prospect of meeting. After a short time he gave himself up to the civil authorities and, on 20th February, 1946, he came into military custody.

From that time the Army begins to behave extremely badly. He was put under close arrest on 20th February, and he was never out of close arrest again until his court martial in the following December, as I say, 300 days later. A fortnight would be enough; I have had apologies from the present Secretary of State for War for keeping people under close arrest for 28 days, and I do not think even Sip James Grigg ever managed anything like 300 days. But that is where he stayed, in the climate of India, right through the summer and right through the monsoon, deprived of pay by the operation of the regulations—which applies to men and not to officers when they are detained like that. He was getting, I think, five rupees a month to pay for all necessities. He might perfectly well have been an innocent man, and the next man they treat like that, if they do very likely will be. On 22nd March—not a gross delay yet—he was charged with the very offences for which he was tried in the following December, to wit, being absent without leave and passing eight cheques. He immediately confessed to the offences, and one would have thought that he might be brought to trial at once.

The next thing that happened, apart from his being stuck in a cell, was four months later. The charges were then what is called "completed"; and a comparatively short time after that, at the extreme end of July, the summary of evidence was taken. That corresponds, roughly, to the taking of witnesses' depositions in a police court in this country. Incidentally about that time it was disclosed to him that they were quite illegally, opening his letters. I do not know why, but they were. Still they did nothing, although the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) raised questions in the House.

On 9th October, they were so much alive that they took an additional summary of evidence—it might almost have been the trial of Warren Hastings. On 23rd October they informed him that they had succeeded in losing his brief case, with all his documents and money, and on 29th October I put a Question in this House and got a somewhat unsatisfactory reply. On 19th November I asked another and somewhat angrier Question and got an answer which was not very satisfactory. On 20th November, I cabled to him suggesting that he should immediately consult some civilian solicitors on the ground that his detention was probably illegal. That at least produced some result. On 25th November his C.O. told him that "area headquarters had been shaken up" and that his trial would shortly be held. On 9th and 10th December he was brought to trial on the charges to which he had confessed nine months before, and which had been made against him nine months before. He pleaded guilty and ultimately, when sentence came to be promulgated, he got twelve months' hard labour. Whether he had received any concession in the mind of the court for having served the equivalent of ten months' hard labour we shall, of course, never know.

That is bad enough, but I am anxious to say a few words now about the way he was treated in prison. Why was he not set at liberty in the camp to await his trial? Failing that, why was he not, at any rate, put under open arrest? Regulations say that a man will not be placed under close arrest unless confinement is necessary for his safe custody or for the maintenance of discipline. If the Army could not keep discipline without keeping this man under close arrest for ten months then the Army should have brought him to trial—this man, who should have been treated as innocent, should have been brought to trial, and have had reasonable facilities to prepare his defence, this man who had fought for his country, who had spent most of his working life in the Army, for he was a young man, and who had been seriously ill in the Army as well as having fought. He spent ten months in detention barracks among convicted persons, though there was plenty of room for him in the guard room of his own unit. During this time he was in a small cell, which was very damp. During the monsoon the rain drove into his cell, and he was often in damp clothes. He had to do his own laundering and he passed six months without being in a hot water bath, and that in the climate of India. For most of the time he had no light at all, and then he had an oil lamp. I am told by people that in the tropics even the extra heat of an oil lamp is one of the things which make conditions worse than ever. He had only one hour's exercise a day. The only other things he had were dysentery and tonsillitis.

Let me say frankly that I do not think the War Office like this story any more than I do, although they pretend that this was a very complicated case, involving lengthy investigations in many parts of India—a case of passing eight cheques and being absent without leave, to the whole of which he had confessed. The excuse advanced by the Secretary of State in writing to me, in his actual words, was "that his writ does not run" fully and completely in India. I suspect that the India Office is at the bottom of this but I cannot challenge the India Office. This is an Army matter. I must take it up with the War Office. I have been swindled about—I should not use that word, but I have had disappointments put upon me from time to time, but I do not think I have ever had the thimble and pea trick worked upon me. I cannot challenge the India Office; I must challenge the War Office. If there is any kind of reason except abominable and utter carelessness for what I have described, it may be—and there is something in the story which makes me suspect that it is —that someone in India thought that if they kept this man in abominable conditions for months they might obtain from him information which would involve someone else in some other charge. If that is the case, I hope they will go to prison. It would be a grossly wrong thing to do.

What is the position of the Secretary of State for War? I do not often sympathise with a Secretary of State, but I do sympathise with the Secretary of State for War. It is a very unpleasant thing to have to be responsible in the eyes of the country for abominable behaviour like this and yet at the same time to say, "I cannot help it." There is one way in which a man can get out of a situation like that. He could go to his Prime Minister and say, "Mr. Prime Minister, I am very proud to serve under you but if these are the terms under which I have to serve—that I have to take responsibility for abominable outrages perpetrated by somebody else—I am sorry but I must either have power to run my Army or go back to the back benches and be an honest man. There are no two ways about it.

I have raised this matter in order that the House and the public should know, not just for the pleasure of knowing it, and certainly not just for the pleasure of attacking the Government which I support pretty steadily, having, at any rate, the advantage of making up my own mind each time, whether I will or not. I have raised it for the constructive purpose of getting this sort of thing stopped. I have had a good many illustrations of this kind of thing. This is merely the worst. The only other feature is that not only is it the worst, but that the Secretary of State has a sort of alibi which is a little better than most alibis—which is not saying much. The first thing I want to know is, What will be done to see this does not happen again? The other thing is, What will be done to punish the people who behaved like this? In the other case, the last one I had, which was almost as bad as this—it was a cruel and wicked case—I got the two officers involved "punished." Whilst the man went to prison for ages for nothing, the officers were informed "that they had incurred the displeasure of the Army Council." So far as I could tell at the time, that was the only common feature between them and me. The remaining question which I wish to ask is. "If you cannot stop this, how do you think you are going to get a new Army of any kind, let alone a good one?"

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)

I only wish to add to what was said by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) one or two points which have occurred to me about the handling of this case. I was writing to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War about this man as early as 23rd July. I asked him then to explain it. I did not ask him to inquire into every irregularity, but I pointed out that it was a somewhat serious matter that this man should have been in close arrest in India since March, without having been formally tried. I said I should want a definite explanation of what unusual circumstances had led the military authorities in this case to take the unusual course of keeping a man in close arrest so long without a trial, and I said I proposed to put down a Question on the matter. He had been in custody since February or March, and that was on 23rd July. I never got a satisfactory answer to that letter.

I very seldom agree with the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith, but I do agree that this is clearly a case for the punishment of those responsible. It is no good for the right hon Gentleman the Secretary of State for War to remain in office, if he cannot enforce discipline in his Army in India. I leave aside every question which has been dealt with by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite. I simply ask how comes it that when the right hon. Gentleman himself demanded an explanation from the authorities in India, as I know he did as early as July, in order to give an adequate explanation to an hon. Member of this House, he still in December had not got an answer? Why cannot he enforce discipline in his own Forces in India; and what is he going to do to punish those who failed to give him an answer, when he demanded one, in the name of the Secretary of State for War? It is an absolutely disgraceful thing that we should be told at this time of day that a man should remain in close arrest for this length of time, and that when we ask why it has happened, we should be denied an answer month after month. I think I am entitled to demand that some better explanation than we have had during all these long months should be forthcoming from the hon. Gentleman who is to reply.

11.20 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. John Freeman)

The House, I hope, will have some sympathy with me in the position in which I find myself tonight, being assailed by one of the most expert advocates of the day and by the other hon. Member opposite who has spoken and who, if not so expert, is at least equally persistent. I am at a disadvantage in that respect. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) and the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) have, quite rightly, not pulled their punches, and they have presented the case in the blackest aspect possible. I would like to say that I fully understand, and my right hon. friend fully understands, the concern which is justifiably felt in this House on this particular matter, more especially in view of the presentation which has been given to it by the two hon. Gentlemen who have just spoken.

I want to make it plain right at the start that I am not proposing to plead guilty on behalf of the War Office to the sweeping charges which have been made by the two hon. Members. Having said that, I say that I recognise fully the cause of their alarm, and that they have a reasonable case for alarm. My hon. and learned Friend, the Member for North Hammersmith started off, as good advocates always do, by trying to distract attention from the main point at issue by talking about this soldier's previous record of service. I do not deny his right to do that, but I wish to draw the attention of the House to the facts as they exist. Here is a soldier who attained commissioned rank, but resigned his commission because he was not considered fit to continue to hold it. He then twice went absent from the Army; he was then charged, and has now been convicted, on nine separate charges, eight of which are concerned with stealing money, or obtaining goods by false pretences, or obtaining credit by false pretences; that is to say, of serious civil charges which are criminal offences in any country. There is a further charge of being absent at the same date as these offences, in addition to the previous case of absence of which the hon. and learned Gentleman quite fairly informed the House.

We were told that he has been under close arrest since 20th February I do not want seriously to dispute the facts which have been presented because I have not the time to go through this case, which is an extremely complicated one, in great detail. I do accept, broadly speaking, the outline of facts given by the hon. and learned Member. The soldier was arrested on 20th February by the civil police as a result of charges made against him by Indian citizens he was alleged to have swindled. He was not handed over to the military authorities until a month later. This does not, perhaps, make a lot of difference to the case, but it is fair that that point should be made. With great respect, I think my version of the facts is quite as accurate as the hon. and learned Gentleman's.

A reference was made to the conditions which existed during his period of detention, and to the censorship. I am anxious not to mislead the House in this matter, and I want to admit, quite frankly, there was one occasion and, as I have been informed, one occasion only during his detention when the rules concerning the censorship of letters for prisoners were incorrectly interpreted and this man's letters, particularly including one addressed to the hon. Member for Oxford, were incorrectly censored. That, I believe, happened on one occasion, and as soon as complaint was made about it is was stopped. I plead guilty to nothing more than that.

Further reference was made to the matter of the brief-case. I am in some difficulty in dealing with this matter because in talking about a man who is admittedly a convicted criminal, and convicted under civil law, I do not want to say anything which will add to the misery he is passing through and has passed through. I will only say that when he had been under arrest for a period of six months, he raised, for the first time, the question that a brief-case containing possessions of his had been mislaid by the military authorities. A conscientious search for that brief-case, and an inquiry into its possible fate, have been made, and no trace whatever can be found of any such brief-case having existed. Now a Court of Inquiry has recently sat in India on the question of this brief-case and the proceedings of that Court are on the way home now. When I receive them, I shall be only too delighted to let the House, or the two hon. Members who have raised this question, know what are the findings of the Court of Inquiry. At present, I will merely draw the attention of the House to the fact that no evidence can be found of the existence of this brief-case. Its existence was not referred to until a very late stage of the proceedings. There were many other opportunities when it could have been referred to if it existed, and from what I have learned of Private Johnson's character through dealing with this case, I would say he is not the kind of person who would have allowed a matter of this sort to rest so long if, indeed, he had any sound foundation on which to base his case.

The hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith, using the words as he did once or twice rather loosely, threw in a phrase about "illegal detention," but skilfully did not drive them home. He just used the phrase and passed on. I want to make it quite clear that while it may be a matter of debate whether anything undesirable or not has taken place, there is no question of anything illegal having occurred. The man has been quite legally detained. No breach of the law has taken place

Mr. Hoy (Leith)

What about King's Regulations?

Mr. Freeman

King's Regulations say that a man in detention must be seen daily—

Mr. Lever (Manchester, Exchange)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if a man was detained from March, 1946, to March, 1976, so long as he was seen daily by an officer, that would be legal?

Mr. Freeman

Yes, indeed, though I am not suggesting that this House would not properly have stepped in long before that. But I am suggesting that the form of this detention was perfectly legal, and I am certain that my hon. and learned Friend who raised this matter is not concerned with the detailed legal aspect of it, but with human rights under the law.

Mr. Pritt

I quite agree. I have since cabled the man telling him to get advice. I know certain specific grounds why his detention was not legal.

Mr. Freeman

If that is the case, it is a great pity that the man concerned did not brief my hon. and learned Friend earlier, because while we have had a number of submis- sions about things which may or may not have been illegal, we have not previously had any question about the actual legality of his detention, and we must stand on that. The hon. and learned member then said he had no means of knowing whether the fact that this soldier had spent a long period in detention had been counted in the sentence awarded to him by the court martial. I can assure him he can clear his mind on that point. A court martial is required by law to take that into account, and it is perfectly obvious that in a case involving not only a serious absence, but also eight serious charges of fraud, a sentence of one year's imprisonment is a fantastically moderate sentence unless the nine months detention had been taken into account.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)


Mr. Freeman

I have several points to answer. If I am to deal with them hon. members must allow me to continue. The next question raised was the responsibility as between the India Office and the War Office. In the time at my disposal I do not propose to deal with that now. But it is a fair point which the hon. and learned member has raised, and it is a point which my right hon. Friend and my noble Friend, the Secretary of State for India, are actually discussing,—whether there is defective organisation which ought to be put right. If it is decided that there is such defect, we will undertake to put it right. My right hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State for India, who is, at this moment, in India, is taking the opportunity of discussing, not only this case, but similar cases which might arise, with the authorities in India, in order to see what can be done to effect an improvement.

The basis of the complaint which has been made—and here the whole House, myself included, will have great sympathy with the hon. Members who raised it-is that, by ordinary human standards, it is an unreasonable thing to keep a man in close arrest for nine months awaiting trial. I think we all must feel great sympathy, and I certainly do, and say so frankly. What is the alternative? We have not, in the Army, the principle of releasing a man on bail, as the Civil authorities do, with sureties for his good behaviour. What can be done is to release him without prejudice to arrest, or put him under open arrest, which is virtually the same thing. Whether that course is taken, depends entirely on whether the authorities consider that they have any reason to suppose that he is likely to escape, or to remain and face his trial. I am not in a position to say, from my own certain knowledge, whether the authorities decided rightly or wrongly in this case, but they were faced with a man charged with fraud, who has subsequently been convicted of fraud, and who has twice been convicted of absence without leave. They decided that he should remain under close arrest. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why did they not try him"] If I am to use the two minutes left to the best advantage, I think I had better be allowed to proceed.

Mr. Pritt

May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman? It may be too late—

Mr. Freeman

It certainly will be too late if the hon. and learned Gentleman does interrupt.

Mr. Pritt

The hon. Gentleman did say that the man lost his commission because he was not considered fit to hold it. It is not fair to say that. The grounds on which his commission had been removed were reversed, and his commission given back to him.

Mr. Freeman

If I have said anything wrong, I shall be only too pleased to correct it, if the hon. and learned Gentleman will put down a Question, but it is important that I should deal with the very serious charges which he made. It has been alleged that this period of detention was in the harshest possible conditions. We have heard about small cells, the rain leaking in and so on. Conditions for the Army in the Far East are not particularly pleasant anywhere, but it would be as well for the House to get the right picture about this case. This soldier was confined in a cell which gave him two and a half times the space which the soldier normally has to live in, and, so far from being treated as a convicted criminal, he was taken out of the detention barracks and kept in the lock-up of his own unit, so that he should not have to associate with convicted criminals. If there are arguments about the facts, they can undoubtedly be resolved.

It is absolutely impossible to deal more fully than I have done in the time at my disposal with what has been said. I do wish to say that I regret the time this man was kept without trial, but the inquiries that led up to his trial were complicated and widespread. The fact that he pleaded guilty has nothing whatever to do with it, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows. There were civilians involved in the case who made serious charges against him, which had to be inquired into. The fact remains that he was charged, that he pleaded guilty and the period of detention was taken into account in awarding sentence. As far as we are concerned, we shall see that these long delays are avoided in future.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-six Minutes before Twelve o'Clock.