HC Deb 07 May 1953 vol 515 cc721-35

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Second time."

11.1 p.m.

Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

We cannot, I believe, give a Second Reading to the Bill until we have heard something from the Secretary of State for War, and it seems rather peculiar that this Bill has been formally moved, without there being any explanation before we come to the discussion. Last year, the right hon. Gentleman gave us a pledge. The Bill, as all hon. Members know, is for the continuation of the Army Act, and that appears to be the sole purpose of the Bill. At the end of April last year, the right hon. Gentleman said that this year we should have an Army Act which was up-to-date, and worthy of the Army and the Royal Air Force. Well, we have not got that new Act, and that certainly creates a difficult position for us and makes it inadvisable that we should allow the Second Reading to go through "on the nod."

Traditionally, the Second Reading of this Bill does go through "on the nod," and discussion takes place on the Committee stage. I am a great believer in tradition—in regimental tradition, but not in that sort of tradition which stultifies, and so I must raise my voice on the subject before the House tonight. There is some doubt as to the scope of the Amendments which will be possible, whether Amendments can be put down, or whether they will be called, because of the altered form of the Bill. On the admission of the right hon. Gentleman, we are tonight taking the first effective step in re-enacting antiquated laws to deal with modern soldiers; and yet we are precluded, by the very nature of the Bill before us, from dealing with these anomalies by legislative action. Therefore, we feel that, being so precluded by legislative action, we should be allowed to ask the right hon. Gentleman to mitigate their effect by administrative action until such time as the new Army Act is ready.

If we look at the long Title of the Bill, which I presume we are able to discuss on Second Reading, we read: And whereas no man can be forejudged of life or limb, or subjected in time of peace to any kind of punishment within this realm, by martial law, or in any other manner than by the judgment of his peers and according to the known and established laws of this realm; yet. nevertheless, … Then certain words follow, and it continues: a more exemplary and speedy punishment than the usual forms of the law will allow: That is the Preamble to the Bill. It is frightening, it is ferocious and mediaeval. It would not look good on a recruiting poster.

Mr. Speaker

I must remind the hon. Member that this is merely the Preamble to the Bill; it is not the Bill itself.

Mr. Simmons

Yes, Mr. Speaker, but it tells us the purpose of the Bill, and I submit with respect, that before we agree to the Second Reading of the Bill we have to agree to the purpose for which the Bill is submitted. We have a right to see that the purpose is one which merits our support.

Mr. Speaker

The purpose of the Bill is to continue the Army Act, and really the only subject discussable on Second Reading is whether or not we are to continue to have a disciplined Army and Air Force. Other considerations are out of order at this stage.

Mr. Simmons

Yes, Mr. Speaker, that is what I am trying to get at—whether this Bill is the right instrument to continue the discipline and management of the Armed Forces. We should not pass this Motion without calling the attention of the Secretary of State to the dangers implicit in the sentiments I have just read, which are the purpose of the Bill, and without putting in a plea for some mitigation of these conditions which arise govern the lives of our fellow citizens in uniform for the next 12 months, until a new Army Act is before us. These are points on which we should have some assurance before we agree to the Second Reading of the Bill, and accept that it is the right instrument to continue to maintain the discipline of the Forces.

We are the guardians of the rights and liberties of fellow citizens in uniform, whose lives will be governed for the next 12 months by the provisions of the Bill. I would not be surprised if among the many cultured and educated young men now called up for National Service there are men who have copies of the Army Act in their possession. I ask the Secretary of State to consider what will be their feelings if this antiquated Act, governing their lives as the only instrument to maintain discipline and regulation of the Army, is to continue. I think that their intelligence would be insulted and the prestige of those who use such an antiquated and out-of-date instrument would be lowered.

This instrument is incapable of achieving the intentions which we are asked to approve on Second Reading, and, later, in Committee and on Third Reading. I hope that the Select Committee will give us and the Secretary of State a better instrument, though the absence of a single ex-private soldier on that Select Committee makes me doubt whether that will happen. I feel I have discharged my duty to my fellow citizens in uniform by reminding the Secretary of State that, in spite of his promise last year, our soldiers are still to be under the discipline and conditions imposed by this antiquated Bill for the next 12 months. I ask that this Measure should be administered, not in the letter of the bad old days, but in the spirit of those who are serving on the Select Committee and whose report we hope soon to receive.

11.11 p.m.

Lieut. - Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

You have ruled, Mr. Speaker, and if I may say so with respect, very correctly, that the scope of the discussion permitted on Second Reading is to be confined to whether we are to have disciplined Armed Forces. That is the primary object of the Bill. It is made clear in the Preamble.

I have a very serious point to raise, and a serious charge to make, which can only be made on Second Reading. It cannot be made during the Committee stage, because the point is not susceptible to being formulated by way of Amendment. The accusation I wish to make is that the whole basis of discipline in the Army has been gravely and adversely affected by a pronouncement by the Prime Minister a few days ago. It is the tradition and the practice of this House that when the Prime Minister makes a statement it must be accepted as a statement of Government policy. When a Minister makes a statement it is possible to put a Question to the Prime Minister asking whether that represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government. But when the Prime Minister makes a statement such a Question cannot be put.

I was horrified and disgusted to hear the statement made by the Prime Minister in this House on 30th April. Reference was being made to an action taken by another Government in offering certain pecuniary rewards—

Mr. Speaker

I cannot see how the hon. and gallant Gentleman can bring this matter within the bounds of the Second Reading of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. It seems to me very remote.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

I have not yet got to the point.

Mr. Speaker

In that case I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will soon get to it.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

When I quote the statement it will be seen to have a very direct relevance to discipline in the British Armed Forces, because the statement which the right hon. Gentleman made was: … it does seem to me very much better to bribe a person than to kill a person—and very much better to be bribed than to be killed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th April, 1953; Vol. 514, c. 2356.] I wish to ask the Secretary of State for War if he subscribes to that statement, and whether the Army Council were consulted before a statement of that kind was made—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that if the question was asked I could not allow the right hon. Gentleman to reply. It is completely out of order on this stage of the Bill.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

In any event, Mr. Speaker, this is the position which arises. I will not quote any field of military operation in which British troops are engaged, but let us assume British troops are engaged in hostile operations in the Asiatic State of Ruritania. If the opposing enemy forces make an announcement to the effect that any British soldier who went over to the other side would be suitably rewarded, otherwise he was liable to death in the near future, then that British soldier would be entitled and able to plead by way of defence, if he were brought to book on that issue, the statement the Prime Minister made, that it is better to be bribed than to be killed, as his answer to any court martial proceedings.

That seems to represent a very serious and damaging statement and one liable to have the most undesirable repercussions throughout the whole of the British Armed Forces. It does strike me as being most inimical to the kind of discipline which this Bill is going to enforce.

Mr. Speaker

That is quite out of order, and quite irrelevant to the Bill.

Lieut-Colonel Lipton

In those circumstances, I shall consider myself bound to leave this point for the time being, reserving to myself the right, on a more appropriate occasion, perhaps, to challenge the Prime Minister's statement and to seek another opportunity of finding out what kind of effect a monstrous statement of that kind is going to have on the discipline of the Armed Forces.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I want to say a word or two about the circumstances in which this Bill is presented in this form. It is, I think, the first occasion that the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill has been presented for a Second Reading in a form which confines it to the task of continuing the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act for another year, and omits to contain provision for the amendment of that Act. I do not dissent from that procedure. I think it would be extremely difficult, and, indeed, very unwise, to attempt a piecemeal amendment of the Act. But, I do think that the Government, the Secretary of State for War and the Leader of the House might have been a little more careful before presenting the Bill in this form.

While I myself may not want to put down an Amendment, it is a different proposition to find that I cannot do so if I wish to. I do not charge the Leader of the House or the Secretary of State for War with bad faith. I do not think for a moment that they have tried to, what I might call "pull a quick one," but the facts are that the Bill, as presented, prevents any hon. Member from having an Amendment called which would undertake the general amendment of the Act. It may have been very difficult for the draftsmen but it would have been the minimum of efficiency to have had some consultations between the Government and the Opposition.

What the Government have done is to take away the right of the Opposition to put down an Amendment to this Bill, and in future some subsequent Member for Hornchurch, and one of your successors, Mr. Speaker, can quote what happened on this occasion as a precedent. It would be most unfortunate if we did not have an explanation from the Government about how this came about and why this one occasion is made a special case.

I quite agree that it is difficult to ask the Government now to take this Bill back again, but I think they ought to take it back and try to draft it in such a form as would permit general Amendments being put down with some hope of being called. I do not want to press this beyond your toleration, Mr. Speaker, or to transgress the bounds of order, but I am trying, within the rules of order, to make what is an important constitutional point.

The Army and Air Force (Annual) Act is an important occasion for the Opposition—indeed, for every Member of the House. It is the one occasion on which the House seeks to keep control of the raising of the Armed Forces, and it seems to me very unfortunate that, without any adequate explanation, the Government have taken away the right of general amendment from the Opposition, and indeed from every Private Member of the House.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

As the hon. Member keeps bringing me into this matter, though it does not concern me, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, is to reply, let me say that if he cares to look at what I said yesterday in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, he will see that I said that I was advised that the Bill as presented does not prevent Amendments being put down and carried, if they are in order.

Mr. Wigg

It is very good of the Leader of the House to put it in that way, but he knows perfectly well—and this will be subsequently put to the test —that the scope of the Bill, drafted as it is now, limits the character of the Amendments which can be put down. He will find when we get to the Committee stage that general Amendments—

Mr. Crookshank

That is not what the hon. Member said. He said that no Amendments could be put down. I said that Amendments could be put down but it rested not with me or with the Government, but with the Chair, to say if they were in order.

Mr. Wigg

I have acquitted the right hon. Gentleman of the intention to "pull a quick one," but he knows that when one talks about putting Amendments down one is talking a kind of Parliamentary shorthand; one talks of putting Amendments down in the hope of them being called. It is no good putting them down if they are not going to be called. While I recognise that it is not for the Leader of the House to say whether they are called or not, he has some responsibility to the House for the form in which the legislation is presented. He might, either across the Floor of the House or through the usual channels, have acquainted the Opposition that the form in which this Bill is presented gives very little opportunity for general Amendments to be moved.

Therefore, whether the Government intend it or not, the effect is that the limitation of the scope of the Bill puts forward this principle: the Opposition can only amend the Army and Air Force (Annual) Act provided that the Government want to amend it as well. That is a very strange doctrine indeed. It is a very novel doctrine, and I should have thought that at the commencement of this Bill tonight we ought to have had a word from the Secretary of State for War or the Leader of the House.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the House would like me to make a short reference to this matter, since it has been raised by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). This afternoon we had some discussion upon the matter, and I was asked about Amendments in the Committee being in order. I said that the question of what Amendments in Committee were in order was entirely one for the Chair- man of the Committee. The right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) said: "It is not a question of whether Amendments are in order. The question is whether Amendments can be submitted." He went on to say that after inquiries he understood that no Amendments could be submitted.

I then said that I thought there must be some misunderstanding because that was not my idea of the position. I find that the position is as I thought it was. There has been some misunderstanding, but not on the part of the Officers of the House. The position is that any hon. Member can put down any Amendments, but it must be abundantly clear to the House that the question of what Amendments are in order in the Committee and what Amendments are selected for the Committee is a matter entirely for the Chairman of Ways and Means and not for me.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Swingler (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I am most grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, because I submit that it is quite wrong for hon. Members to prejudge the question whether this Bill is amendable or not. As I understand it, your Ruling means that it is entirely within the prerogative of the Chairman of the Committee. The question which we shall have to put to the test, when we come to the Committee stage, is how far we are permitted to raise discussions on various aspects of the principal Acts which are continued in force by this Bill.

The Second Reading debate on this Bill is unprecedented because the character of the Bill is unprecedented this year, and that is something to which we ought to draw attention. It is unprecedented in the fact that this Bill merely seeks to continue in force the principal Acts in all their admitted obsolescence. A second unprecedented feature is the fact that there is a Select Committee considering the Army and Air Force Acts, and that, again, is one of the reasons why the Bill is in this very restricted form.

As my hon. Friends have mentioned, it is being argued that because of the restricted scope of this Bill it will be impossible to have the usual kind of discussion on the Committee stage which we normally have on the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill, because one can only seek to amend the actual words and Clauses of the Bill, which are restricted to the continuance in force for another 12 months of the principal Acts. That is what is being argued and what will have to be raised on' the Committee stage. But, notwithstanding the fact that the short title has been previously used, as the Leader of the House said yesterday— he drew attention to the fact that the short title which we have in this Bill was also used in the Bills produced in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951—the difference is that there were Amendments amending the Clauses contained in those Bills, and, therefore, their scope was not restricted merely to continuing in force the principal Acts. Other Amendments could be brought within the scope of those Clauses.

The difficulty in which we are placed is this. Last year the Minister held out the hope, when he agreed to the establishment of a Select Committee on this matter, that by 1953 there should be produced an entirely new and up-to-date Army and Air Force Act. That merely shows how the Ministers concerned under-estimated the task that was being given to the Select Committee. In fact, the Select Committee have been unable to complete their task, and I can quite understand why. I appreciate their special Report to the House to the effect that the House should not seek by piecemeal methods to put Amendments into this Bill on the subjects which they had already covered in their work.

It seems to me to be entirely wrong to argue that because the House has agreed to establish a Select Committee to inquire into the obsolescence of the Army and Air Force Acts that, therefore, the rights of hon. Members to raise and debate matters in regard to this Bill should be taken away. Only a small number of hon. Members are working on the Select Committee. It is a very distinguished gathering,' I agree, and is working very arduously and very carefully on the tasks submitted to it.

Nevertheless the House has the responsibility of considering annually the question of the discipline and regulations of the Army and the Air Force, and it appears to me to be wrong to argue that because a small number of hon. Members are going into the whole subject of the antiquated regulations and Clauses that exist in the Army and Air Force Acts other hon. Members should be not able to raise and discuss these matters. That point might arise. We may find that there will be no Committee stage—probably for the first time in the history of Parliament—on the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. It may be ruled that because of the restricted scope of this Bill no Amendments would be in order— for the reason that there are no amending Clauses in it which have been submitted by the Government because, they say, "A Select Committee has been set up."

It means, therefore, that the establishment of a Select Committee—which was agreed to last year precisely because hon. Members demonstrated how obsolete and antiquated these Acts were—is going to be used as a reason for taking away from hon. Members their rights and responsibilities for submitting Amendments and points on the Committee stage. That appears to be a reason for extending the Second Reading debate this year. It has been very often argued that the Second Reading of this Bill should go through "on the nod" as it is always possible to raise points about the discipline and regulation of the Army and Air Force on the Committee stage, but if we are not to have a Committee stage we are entitled to enter some protest at the fact that, apart from those few Members chosen to sit on the Select Committee, we are not being given the opportunity of discussing the regulation and discipline of the Army and Air Force.

I do not think that this has been done deliberately, but the Government should be asked to think over the implications of this question because of the serious precedent which is set. In future there may not be Select Committees sitting, but if what we fear happens this year on this Bill, Governments in future will always know how to obtain the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill without having any discussion of the Army and Air Force. It has never happened before. There have always been amending Clauses. We should be given some assurance that this is not going to develop into a technique for gagging the House and preventing discussion of important matters, and that the Government will reconsider the scope and formulation of this Bill so that points may be made.

It may well be that the Select Committee will not be able to report next year. I have read their Report very carefully and have studied the Acts concerned, and I consider that it is extremely likely that we shall be faced next year with precisely the same situation as now —that the Committee will not have completed their work. They have an enormous task before them in reviewing these Regulations. We may, therefore, have a similar Bill next year, and we shall then have gone two years without having had an opportunity to review these matters. We shall then have handed over our whole responsibility for the annual review of the Army and Air Force Acts to a small minority group of Members sitting on the Select Committee.

That would be wrong, however distinguished the Members may be. There are—or ought to be—Members on both sides of the House who want to raise matters with regard to this Bill. There always have been in the past, according to the debates which I have studied. This is in no sense a party matter. We should continue that tradition. Parliamentary control over the Army and Air Force should be retained.

I am, therefore, concerned about the nature of this Bill, and about the situation with which we may well be faced when we reach the Committee stage. I hope that the Minister will indicate that serious thought has been given to this matter, and that we shall have some assurance, either in regard to the redrafting of the Bill—if that is technically possible—so as to allow general Amendments to be debated on the Committee stage, or, at any rate, that this situation will not arise again.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I do not want to evade your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I do not want to speak for the sake of speaking, so I should like to ask for your guidance on the matter I wish to raise, and to learn from you whether you regard it as in order on the Second Reading of this Bill. The Bill provides during 12 months for the discipline and regulation of the Army and the Air Force. I want to raise the question of the position of conscientious objectors. Obviously, they are very con- cerned with the discipline of the Army. However, I do not want to evade your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I therefore ask for your Ruling on this point before I proceed.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member. That would not be in order on this Bill.

11.36 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

I have listened with attention to the points which hon. Members opposite have raised concerning this year's Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. I should like to be frank with hon. Members opposite about the whole position. I am sorry, personally, that the general tenor of feeling of hon. Members opposite about this Bill should have arisen when the Select Committee itself has been working in such marked harmony on this subject. I accept full responsibility for any difficulties, misunderstandings or sense of grievance that hon Members opposite may have, but I personally—I may be wrong—have no sense of guilt on the subject. I shall endeavour to explain why.

It would be fair to say that the House had two ways in general of dealing with this Measure year by year. The first, which obtained when we were in Opposition, was to treat it as an annual formality which had to be gone through in order that we could have an Army. We generally confined our remarks about the Army to the debates on the Army Estimates and Supply days. Protracted debates on this Bill were not a feature of the period when we were in Opposition. I was present on all those occasions after the war. I am not denying there may have been small Amendments, but there was no attempt to go into the Bill as a Bill in the ordinary way. The other alternative way the House had was to consider the Bill as an ordinary Bill.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite had six years as the Government, and the Act was their Bill. They carried it and left it, and I inherited it; and I inherited with it an Augean stable. Never had there been an Act so out of date and so full of anomalies. But it belonged to hon. Gentlemen opposite. They had six years to right it.

Mr. Simmons

The Tories had 606.

Mr. Head

We had to introduce a major amendment to the Act for the 22-year engagement. Hon. Members opposite, especially those of the legal persuasion, licked their lips at it. It made their hair stand on end. Down went a very large number of their Amendments to our Bill. It was as a result of that that the Select Committee was appointed. It will, in the long run, be a great blessing to the Forces that the Select Committee was appointed.

I knew long ago another Bill would have to be brought in, and I asked the Under-Secretary of State, who is on the Select Committee, "What are we going to do about the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill?" He sought the opinion of the Select Committee about what form it should take and what we should do. The Select Committee's advice to me was, "We are in the middle of this task. We cannot put forward half our recommendations. We have not finished our work. To take two bites at the cherry would be most unwise. We suggest that the whole question be left over until we have completed our report." I believe that to be a sound recommendation.

I ask hon. Members to put themselves in my position. Had they been responsible for this Bill would they have tried to put down some small Amendment when a Select Committee is dealing with this Bill which has remained uninter-fered with for so many years? I suggest to take such a step would have been ludicrous. Therefore, I presented the Bill completely without amendment. When I did so—and I frankly admit this to the House—I had no idea whatever that that action, which was taken in good faith, might limit or even preclude hon. Members opposite from putting down Amendments.

Hon. Members ask why I did not consult the House about this matter. In so far as the form of the Bill limits discussion, again my answer is that I was unaware of the fact. The first I heard about it was when I was told that hon. Members were feeling aggrieved that they could not put down Amendments. There have been a great many remarks about Amendments which hon. Members wish to put down, but I am a little sceptical about the worthwhileness of some of those Amendments. We have a Committee representing both sides of the House doing a worth-while job.

Mr. Simmons

But no privates.

Mr. Head

I thought at first the hon. Member said, "No politics," and that would have been true of this Select Committee. The Amendments which hon. Members feel they ought to put down would have been very mild and unimportant compared with the work of the Select Committee.

It has been suggested, also, that this Bill restricts the House's ability, on this particular occasion, to raise matters concerning the Army. There are usually very long debates on the Army Estimates, and I understand that that debate can go to 10 o'clock the next morning. In addition to the Army Estimates, there is the opportunity afforded by Supply days. I should also like to inform the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler), before he gets to his feet—and perhaps I might answer the question he intends to put— that if he desires to deal with the matter from the purely legal aspect of the Bill, surely to attempt to tinker with the subject when the Select Committee is considering the matter is a very dubious way of trying to put some particular thing right.

Mr. Swingler

This is a serious point. Is the Minister saying that until the Select Committee has completed its work of reviewing the whole Army Act and the whole Air Force Act, and is able to make its recommendations and produce a completely new Army Bill and Air Force Bill, nothing should be done to alter existing Regulations and the existing form of the Army Act at all? That may have serious implications. Supposing in 12 months' time the Select Committee has not completed its work?

Mr. Speaker

I can assist the House on that. What happens in 12 months is not a matter about which we need trouble ourselves tonight, for this is an annual Bill and it is bound to be introduced again then, as the House will only be passing this Bill for a year.

Mr. Head

I would say that if there is some particular point concerning the Army Act about which the hon. Member is worried, and which he thinks needs urgent consideration, then it is perfectly legitimate for him to make representations to his hon. Friends on the Select Committee first; and if he thinks that the matter is more urgent and of very serious consequence, then it can be raised on the Army Estimates. Lastly, if he thinks it is a very serious matter, I will be delighted to discuss it with him to see if it can be righted, or I will put down an Amendment myself.

What I am saying is that this Bill is not attempting to gag hon. Members or an attempt to prevent them from expressing legitimate points concerning the Army. I always welcome such points. Nothing I have done in the introduction of this Bill has been designed in any way to prevent hon. Members from speaking their minds and debating necessary points. If there has been a misunderstanding I hope that it will be forgotten because of the very satisfactory and harmonious work now being carried out by the Select Committee.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Sir H. Butcher.]

Committee upon Monday next.