HC Deb 17 February 1955 vol 537 cc643-9
Mr. Emrys Hughes

I beg to move, in page 69, line 32, at the end, to add: Provided also that a person sentenced to a period of more than six months' detention may be allowed on request to serve such sentence in a civil prison and at the end of that period be entitled to ask for his discharge from Her Majesty's forces. We have not been very successful in persuading the Government to accept any of our Amendments, but here is an opportunity for a little generosity as we are nearing the closing stages of the Bill. My Amendment refers to "detention." What is detention? In different parts of the country we have had for generations now military prisons which combine the worst features of military discipline and the civil penal code. I hold the view that the detention prisons are a blot on our civilisation and should be abolished. I speak with some inside knowledge. I have some idea of what goes on in detention prisons.

Everybody knows that the "glasshouse" means something rather terrifying to the soldier. If the Army is so popular, I do not know why such an elaborate system of torture chambers, called glasshouses, is essential in the interest of military discipline. I do not for a moment argue that I can carry many hon. Members with me in this respect, but I have heard the Prime Minister make some very good remarks about political discipline. He said that he wanted camaraderie and not coercion from above. Surely that also applies to military discipline. These very elaborate penal measures and this organisation of glasshouses are something which would simply have appalled people like Oliver Cromwell, who believed that they had something to fight for and believed that people can organise an army and that military discipline is possible, and indeed military victory is possible, without this threat of the glasshouse in the background. I am quitesure that when Robert Bruce won the Battle of Bannock-burn he had no system of glasshouses to back him up. Indeed, on the eve of Bannockburn Bruce said that if there were any soldiers who did not want to fight, they could turn and flee. I am not sure that that should not apply to the Army today. If a soldier did not want to serve in the Army after a certain time, then he should turn and—I will not say "flee"—but get some more congenial and useful occupation. We have it on record that the Duke of Wellington, one of the most informed persons on military matters for 200 years, expressed the view that the military profession was a damnable profession. Nothing I have been able to say here can put it further than that. The people who have been sentenced to long terms of military detention would re-echo the views of the Duke of Wellington and say that the military profession was a damnable profession and the most damnable part of it was military detention.

What I suggest is that a soldier sentenced to a long period of military detention should be allowed to say that he preferred to serve his sentence in a civil instead of a military prison, and at the end of the period he should be allowed to leave the Army entirely. I do not know what the military authorities think they can gain from a military point of view by hanging on to the bodies of people who, after serving in a military prison, must be thoroughly browned off and thoroughly disgruntled. To me they do not seem to be useful military raw material.

I do not ask the Committee to accept my suggestions as infallible, because my experience is limited, but I know a little about the glasshouse. We have been told that things have changed in recent years, but periodically there crops up an ugly case of a prisoner being badly treated. Memories of certain cases of that nature are still within the recollection of the Committee. I think the Minister could accept this Amendment without the Army falling to pieces.

If there were an Army composed of people who really believed in military activities and were bound together in a common desire to serve their country, then there would be no need for all this elaborate penal background nor the severe penalties which an individual has to endure which often represent to him physical and mental torture. I submit to the Committee that here is an opportunity to do something for the soldier. It does not relieve him of his obligations. He can still be sentenced to periods of imprisonment, but a soldier should have the opportunity to say he prefers to serve his sentence in a civil prison. I believe such a choice would not injure the discipline of Her Majesty's Forces and it would be a humane thing to do to a person who otherwise would have to spend long periods in a military detention camp.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has treated us to one of his disquisitions on the subject of discipline in the Army. But he missed one or two rather important points. First of all, the purpose of this Clause is to distinguish between detention in a detention barracks and detention in a civil or military prison. The effect of his Amendment would be to send a man to prison instead of to a detention barracks. That would, I think, be most undesirable because the aim of a spell in a detention barracks is to give a man who has committed only a comparatively minor offence, a chance and, in fact, every encouragement to become a good soldier once more. By sending him to prison the stigma of that place would attach to him and would deprive him of that opportunity.

Another objection is that in wartime it would enable a man who wanted to, to shirk his responsibilities altogether—and I am not referring to the conscientious objectors because they come under a different category altogether—because all he would have to do would be to commit an offence which would get him a sentence of say seven months. After that, he could opt for imprisonment in a civil prison and when he had done his spell he would be discharged from the Army. It is open to question what the further legal effects of such a proposal would be under the National Service Act. Quite obviously this is not an Amendment that we could possibly accept.

Mr. Simmons

The Under-Secretary is making it too easy for these would-be offenders. He has told them how to do the job. He says that all they have to do is commit an offence, get seven months.' imprisonment, and then when they have done it they can walk out of the Army.

Mr. Maclean

I said that they could do that if this Amendment were accepted.

Mr. Simmons

Yes, under the Amendment proposed by my hon. Friend. But he would be a very clever private who would know exactly what sentence to a month would be imposed for any particular offence that he might want to commit.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

He would be a good strategist.

Mr. Simmons

After all we have heard about the superior intelligence of the officer class, and the horrible possibility of democratisation and co-existence in the Army between officer and private, now we have the Under-Secretary—I do not know what his chief will think about it—coming along and attributing to a private soldier an excess of intelligence or intelligence to the extent that he can estimate to a month the sentence he will get for a certain offence and then, after being in "chokey" for a certain period, he will be able to opt out of the Army and walk out of the barracks at the end of the day.

Mr. Hughes

He ought to be on the General Staff.

Mr. Simmons

I do not know what are the qualifications for the General Staff, but surely we ought to have some more information about this matter. We are told there is a great difference between a detention barracks and a military prison. What is the difference between a detention barracks and a military prison?

Mr. Ellis Smith

My hon. Friend should know.

8.0 p.m.

Mr. Simmons

I always managed just to steer clear. Occasionally I balanced on the doorstep, but I never got inside. Do we understand that today a detention barracks is more like a Borstal institution? I am interested in this matter. Before we decide which way to vote on the Amendment we are entitled to know what is the fine distinction between a detention barracks and a military or civil prison.

Is a detention barracks for rehabilitation? If so, one has to be certain about the material that one is to rehabilitate. There is a great deal of force in what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has said. On the National Service Bill I had something to say about this which was slightly misrepresented. What is the object of the Army? Is it to get anybody and everybody, irrespective of their quality, within its clutches, or is it to make good soldiers?

We have heard about influence this afternoon. Who are the people who have influence on the candidates for the "can"? What is their influence upon the rest of the troops with whom they come into contact once they have landed inside "chokey"? Have they not proved themselves to be guilty of conduct unbecoming a soldier and a gentleman, and, therefore, ought they not to be removed from further contact with other soldiers and gentlemen who are still in Her Majesty's Forces?

I beg the Under-Secretary not to brush the matter aside as he has done but to go into a little more detail about it so that we can appreciate the full impact of the Amendment. If he can prove that the impact would be to the detriment of a soldier or to the detriment of the Service, we shall vote against it, but we have to be convinced first.

Mr. Willis

The Under-Secretary said that a detention barracks was intended to rehabilitate a soldier and make him a good soldier. I wonder what facts he has to substantiate that statement. Is it not true that men who go to detention return to detention time and time again? How many of the men who go to detention come out better soldiers and gain rapid promotion as a result? We ought to have some information about this. The Under-Secretary made rather wide, sweeping statements about the beneficial effects of detention barracks, but no one would accept from his own Service experience that detention barracks make a man into a better soldier.

Mr. F. Maclean

What I was trying to do on the point about detention barracks was to distinguish between a spell in a military or civil gaol and a spell in a detention barracks. As to the distinction between the two, a detention barracks is designed for a soldier who has committed a less considerable type of offence, and the purpose is to give him a chance to rehabilitate himself. It is possible that a man may go into a detention barracks more than once, but there is no reason why it should not do him good. If a man is sent to a civil gaol, it is undoubtedly a more severe stigma on his record. That is the point.

Mr. Simmons

Will the hon. Gentleman say whether his idea is rehabilitation on the instalment plan?

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham, East)

When I held the office which the hon. Gentleman now holds I visited both the main detention place at Colchester and the military prison at Shepton Mallet. In my experience, all penal establishments, whether military or civil, are melancholy and depressing places to visit. One finds that some of the inmates are people who make one despair. It looks as if throughout the whole of their lives, whether they are in the Army or out of it, they will be up against society.

However, having allowed for that small and tragic section, I was profoundly convinced that the military corrective establishment at Colchester was doing a useful piece of work with young men who either commit a purely military offence or do something which would be an offence against the civil law but are not irreconcilable enemies of society.

I remember the story, which had a good deal of currency and is true, of a young illiterate soldier who was sent to a detention barracks. As is common in such places, he was taught to read and write. The great day arrived when for the first time in his life he could write a letter to his mother. Perhaps not unnaturally, he concealed from his mother the exact place from which he was writing and merely described himself as in D.B.—detention barracks. Delighted at the receipt of the letter, his mother wrote to the commanding officer of his unit a letter expressing her great pleasure and concluding, "God bless D.B.! Why was not my boy sent there years ago?" I do not say that the results are always so satisfactory, but I believe that in detention places nowadays a genuine attempt is made to help the young man. I do not say that the young man likes it; it would be silly to pretend that he does.

However, there is a real difference between that and the much more serious sentence of imprisonment. There is a further point to be considered in this respect. In seeking certain kinds of employment in later life, a man may have to answer the question, "Have you ever served a term of imprisonment?" He can, quite truthfully in the letter and the spirit, answer "No" to that question if he has served only a term of military detention. If the Amendment were passed, I am not at all sure that he could do so. For that and other reasons, I hope that my hon. Friends will not press the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 125 to 130 ordered to stand part of the Bill.