HC Deb 09 February 1955 vol 536 cc1987-92
Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I beg to move, in page 33, line 14, after "shall" to insert: be tried by court-martial and.

The Deputy-Chairman

It may be for the convenience of the Committee if the two Amendments to this Clause, standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), are taken together.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

I hope that the reasons I shall set forth will so commend themselves to the Committee as to persuade it to accept the Amendment.

The provision of the Army Act corresponding to Clause 63 of the Bill is contained in Section 6 (3, d) which I should like to read. It says: Every person subject to military law who commits any of the following offences; that is to say (d) Does violence to any person bringing provisions or supplies to the forces, whether Her Majesty's forces or forces co-operating therewith; or commits any offence against the property or person of any inhabitant or resident in the country in which he is serving … shall, on conviction by court martial, be liable, if an officer, to be cashiered, ought to suffer such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned, and if a soldier, to suffer imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or such less punishment as is in this Act mentioned. Clause 63 contains a very important and significant alteration. If my Amendment is accepted the Clause would read: Any person subject to military law who, in any country or territory outside the United Kingdom, commits any offence against a person or property of any member of the civil population shall be tried by court-martial and on conviction be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or any less punishment provided by this Act. The purpose of the Amendment is to deal with a type of case of which there have been more than one or two examples in recent years. It is the type of case where a British soldier serving, for example, in Hong Kong or Singapore, is found guilty of an offence in the civil court and is condemned, not only to a term of imprisonment, but also to a number of strokes of the cane.

It is monstrous and indefensible that we should tolerate a situation in which a British soldier who, committing a particular offence in this country, is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, but, doing it in Hong Kong or Singapore and found guilty there, is also flogged. I cannot believe that a code of law which in this country we have found barbarous and unacceptable should, by reason of this unamended Clause, be continued in relation to British troops serving in British territory overseas.

I have endeavoured, without success, to obtain particulars from the War Office of the number of cases in the last year or two in which these soldiers have been sentenced by a British magistrate to be flogged as well as imprisoned for offences committed in Hong Kong or Singapore. I was referred by the War Office to the Colonial Secretary. This is apparently not a matter for which the War Office considers itself responsible. I still await information from the Colonial Secretary which would indicate the magnitude of the problem and the extent to which British troops are still being flogged in Hong Kong and Singapore for offences which they may have committed in those places and for which they find themselves condemned by a civil court.

This matter has been raised in the House of Commons on one or two occasions and some small driblet of information has been vouchsafed by the Colonial Secretary to one or two hon. Members who have interested themselves in it. It so happens that not so very long ago the secretary of the Blackpool branch of the Royal Pioneer Corps Association protested to the Prime Minister about the flogging of British Service men in Hong Kong and Singapore. The Prime Minister apparently transferred the protest to the Colonial Office.

I should like to read, for the information of the Committee, an extract from the letter which was sent to the branch secretary from the Colonial Office on 19th August, 1954. It is as follows: I am directed by Mr. Secretary Lennox-Boyd to refer to yours of the 21st July to Sir Winston Churchill concerning the award of corporal punishment to British Service men in Hong Kong and Singapore. I am to say that the Service men in question were not, and could not be, whipped by order of Her Majesty's Government or the Colonial Government concerned. They received corporal punishment in accordance with sentences passed by the Civil Courts in pursuance of the Criminal Law in force in those territories. As you are no doubt aware, the Army Act does not affect the jurisdiction of Colonial Courts; and Section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, which abolished whipping in this country does not apply to the Colonies. I am to add that it is the policy of the Secretary of State, as it was of his predecessor, to encourage the abolition of corporal punishment in those colonial territories where it is permissible. Considerable progress has been made in this direction over the past few years, but local circumstances in many territories make it difficult for this form of punishment to be dispensed with at present. I ask the Committee to agree to assist the Colonial Office and the Government in their apparent intention to abolish corporal punishment in the Colonies.

Let us make a start at least in relation to British Service men who, in the course of their duties, find themselves out in the places which I have mentioned and who get themselves into trouble. If the Amendment is accepted, it will mean that if an offence is committed against a member of the civil population the offender, who may be a National Service man, a Regular soldier or a sailor, will be tried by court-martial and subjected to whatever term of imprisonment the nature of the offence may justify. But the one thing which the court-martial will not be able to do will be to flog the soldier who has been guilty of this offence. That is why I attach some importance to the Amendment, which, I hope, the Government will be disposed to accept.

8.15 p.m.

I think it is common ground that corporal punishment has been abandoned in this country and is not likely to be reinstituted here. Surely it is also common ground that there does not seem to be any logical justification for a National Service man serving overseas finding himself subject to a barbarous code in Hong Kong and Singapore which we in this country have long rejected. If the Amendment is accepted, it will represent a step forward in the policy which the Government agree ought to be followed. I hope that by accepting the Amendment we shall put a stop to the deplorable practice of subjecting Service men overseas to flogging a s well as sentences of imprisonment.

Mr. F. Maclean

We appreciate the purpose which underlies the Amendment, but I am advised that it would not have the effect which the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) desires. The trouble is that it is doubtful whether an Amendment to the Army Act would affect the jurisdiction of any civil court, let alone of a civil court overseas. I appreciate the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point of view and I should be only too glad to discuss it with him and look into the possibilities of getting round the difficulty in some other way, but it is a matter which will have to be settled by mutual agreement between the Governments concerned—Her Majesty's Government and the other colonial or foreign Government.

The effect of the Amendment would be that irrespective of any trial by civil court the offender would also have to be tried by court-martial. The Amendment would not prevent his being tried by a civil court but it would mean that if he were tried by a civil court he would have to be tried by a court-martial as well. That is why we cannot accept the Amendment.

Mr. M. Stewart

I was happy to hear the Minister say that he will be glad to discuss this matter with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), who has raised a point of some seriousness. It is all the more serious when we have compulsory National Service, because it means that by the National Service Acts we impose more liabilities on men than we sometimes realise.

We not only impose the military service but oblige them to travel overseas, possibly into territories where the penal code is in the opinion of some of us, more barbarous, or as some would say more rigorous, than ours. At any rate, it produces the result that a British soldier who has not voluntarily taken up the Army as a career but who has been brought into it by National Service Acts can be sent overseas and if he is convicted for certain types of offences can be flogged, although that penalty could not be inflicted in this country.

Until there were one or two cases recently, I am not sure that the legal position was generally realised. It is a serious position and we ought to look into it. In view of what the Minister has said about it, I must confess that it is extremely hard to devise a workable legal remedy for that position. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton will agree with that. Let us suppose that we could do what I take it the Amendment is intended to do. I wonder what view would be taken by the people of Australia or New Zealand if we said that if we had soldiers there they would be exempt from the jurisdiction of their civil courts. I think it would be very difficult to persuade them to agree to that.

I take it that what we really want to do is to say that if our soldiers are in a country where the penal code is acceptable to us, we are satisfied that our soldiers should come under the civil law there, but where the penal code is unsatisfactory to us, our soldiers ought not to come under it. I believe that that is what my hon. and gallant Friend is saying, but I am sure he will agree that there would be great difficulty in getting that into a statute.

May not the remedy be for the Colonial Secretary to urge very strongly upon colonial Governments the opinion held in this country? While it is always, no doubt, part of his duty to see that colonial penal codes are humane, appropriate and reasonable, it becomes all the more his duty when under the working of the National Service Acts and the Army Act our soldiers can become subject to those codes.

I am now raising a point which is more appropriately addressed to the Secretary of State for War than to the Under-Secretary. I hope that the Secretary of State will give an undertaking to take the point up with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies. I ask him, as the senior Minister, to do that. It is a point worth looking at, but I confess I see no way of doing it other than by means of the influence which the Colonial Secretary can bring to bear upon colonial legislatures. I hope the Government will be prepared to look at the matter in that light.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

We have had an offer from the Under-Secretary, who said that he was willing to enter into discussions with me on the subject. We have also, I take it, an undertaking from the Secretary of State for War that he will enter into consultation with the Secretary of State for the Colonies. If that is a correct interpretation—there being no dissent on those two propositions, I presume that they are accepted—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.