HC Deb 05 April 1951 vol 486 cc417-22

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

Mr. Low

Would the Under-Secretary please explain why it is necessary to have this Clause? Its result is to remove from the Army Act the use of the word "regimental," which is well in line with the policy which some parts of the War Office have tried to thrust upon the Army for several years in the immediate past. However, I do not want to go into the importance of the regimental spirit at the moment, because I think we have done so on many occasions, and the Undersecretary, if he did not believe in the regimental spirit before he attended debates such as this, will at least know what some of us, including the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), think about this important matter.

I want to know why it has been considered necessary to alter the wording of the Army Act. Perhaps I may point out an example of what happens when we change words which have been long understood to have a meaning and a place in the Army Act. In subsection (3), instead of the simple words "stores in regimental charge" we are in future to have the words: stores in the charge of a body of His Majesty's military forces (other than Dominion forces). Why is it necessary to substitute those words? Sometimes I wonder whether quite a lot of paper and print could not be saved.

Mr. Stewart

I fully appreciate the feeling which hon. Members in all parts of the Committee have about a change of this nature, but in the few words I want to say I hope to make it clear to them that this is no attack on the regimental spirit. After all, as hon. Members know, the regimental spirit does not depend on the wording of the Army Act. This takes up a point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Low), at the conclusion of his speech: the wording of an Act of Parliament is not intended primarily to be graceful. [Laughter.] It is intended to be clear beyond any doubt, if not clear at first sight. The object of an Act of Parliament is to cover, so far as can be done, all the contingencies which are likely to arise. If we are to do that, as in the classic publication of this type—Sir Ernest Gower's book "Plain Words "—we cannot at the same time be either very clear at first sight or graceful.

The purpose of an Act is, therefore, to establish definitely what the law is. The difficulty is that the word "regimental," used in certain contexts as an adjective to qualify institution, necessaries, books, band, mess or property has been found to be unsatisfactory and to give rise to results which are the very last results which those who particularly champion the regimental spirit would like to see. For example, there was a case of a man charged with the theft of regimental property. It turned out that it was the property of a transit camp and, on examination, it became clear that a charge of having stolen regimental property could not be sustained. The conviction which had been recorded against the man for stealing regimental property had to be set aside.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Surely the mistake was made in the wording of the charge. The man should have been charged with stealing garrison property, not with stealing regimental property. That example has nothing to do with the case.

Mr. Stewart

But I think hon. Members will agree that fundamentally the nature of the offence is the same, from whatever unit the property was stolen. It is not desirable that it should be more difficult than is necessary to lay charges properly in such cases. What we want is to make the administration of the law as simple as possible. Fundamentally, to steal Service property is the same offence whether the property is described as "regimental" or whether it is the property of some unit or transit camp and cannot be so described. It is easier for good and simple administration to have one form of words which can be used to cover all such cases.

That is why we wish to amend the Army Act so as to substitute the word "service," for the words "regimental" and "garrison." It is not as if the word "service" were in any way a derogatory word or one without dignity or meaning. If hon. Members apply their minds to it, I do not think they can maintain that to make this reasonable alteration for the purpose of simpler administration will damage regimental esprit de corps in any way. To suggest that it would do so would be pressing the argument to fantastic lengths. As to the phrase to which the hon. Member for Blackpool, North, took particular exception, he will see that in that instance the mere substitution of the word "service" for the word "regimental" would not give us the desired result. In the pursuit not of literary elegance but of precise meaning we have put in the definition of the word "service" which is contained in subsection (4). I hope the Committee will be prepared to accept it.

Sir G. Jeffreys

May I ask for one further explanation? Does the expression "service" cover private property, such as mess property, whether belonging to the officers' mess or the sergeants' mess, which has been bought not by Government money but by the money of the members of the mess? That is definitely regimental property but, if it were stolen, would it be covered by the expression "service property"?

Mr. Stewart

Yes. In no case would anything which is now covered by the term "regimental property" be excluded from the new definition introduced by the Clause.

Colonel Gomme Duncan

The explanation of the new Clause which the Undersecretary has given is completely unsatisfying. He gave us an example of the very badly framed charge, about which the officer concerned should have been reprimanded, and on that sole and slim plank we are apparently to build the new Clause. For an example of confusion I invite the attention of hon. Members to paragraph (c). When we are told about simplification I invite their attention to that paragraph.

Yet apparently for that sole reason we are to change words which have been well understood in the Army for generations and which, so far as I know, have presented no difficulty at all. Is it necessary when something is working smoothly to produce a Clause which to my mind suggests less smooth working in the future? It reminds me of the time in Army hospitals when the patient was always awakened to be given a refreshing draught which, he was told, would make him sleep better. That is the sort of thing we are doing in this Clause. I cannot understand why the Clause is necessary and still less can I understand why the hon. Gentleman has not been provided with a better reason than the flimsy reason he has produced. No doubt it is the best he can find, but it does not seem to me to justify the Clause.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

I want to support what my hon. and gallant Friend has just said. The alteration seems to be entirely unnecessary. I do not understand why anybody should have gone to the trouble to draft a Clause such as this which, in my view, is quite unnecessary. I will not weary the Committee with examples, but while we have been sitting here I have been thinking of a series of common cases which, as will become obvious, in the course of time to the people who are to administer the Act, will be ludicrous and fantastic. I ask the hon. Gentleman to give further thought to this matter and to reconsider it.

During the course of the Army debate, I thought it necessary to attack the size of the War Office and its organisation. I will not go into that subject now, but is this not an example of how some people appear to waste their time in the War Office trying to find something to do? They produce a fantastic Clause like this, which in my view is unnecessary.

Brigadier Thorp

I support what my hon. and gallant Friends have said. I can see no reason for the Clause and I am not satisfied with the arguments of the Under-Secretary. Would he repeat an answer which he gave to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Petersfield (Sir G. Jeffreys) on the subject of regimental property? Is the silver in the sergeants' mess covered by the words "service property"?

Mr. Stewart


Brigadier Thorp

It does not take property away from anybody?

Mr. Stewart


Brigadier Thorp

I wanted to be clear on that. I do not think any argument advanced from the opposite side of the House justifies the Clause in any way at all.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

Hon. and gallant Gentlemen who oppose this Clause overlook the fact that in their day in the Service, members of the legal profession did not serve in the ranks. "They do now, and that is the explanation why somebody has got away with it. There is obviously a world of difference between taking something from a transit camp and taking something from the regiment to which the man belongs. In the first category it would be regarded not as "pinching" but as "winning." In the second category it would be a gross piece of dishonesty which ought to be dealt with. I think we had better let the Government have this Clause.

Major Legge-Bourke

Has the hon. Gentleman ever been in a transit camp where there has been anything worth pinching?

Mr. H. Macmillan

We shall not press this Clause to a Division. We have had quite an interesting example of how things work today to make everything more complicated the more slender our resources of manpower become. We have nearly a whole page of printed matter because somebody did not make the right charge and charged a man with taking regimental property when he ought to have charged him with taking garrison property. We have in another part of the Clause to define the word "service." It would have been much simpler to have had one small definition to define the word "garrison," in which the whole thing could have been done. The regimental tradition having been properly sustained and the tradition of the legal profession having been duly illustrated, I hope we shall allow this Clause to pass without a Division.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.