HC Deb 17 February 1955 vol 537 cc614-6

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

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I want to raise a question on Clause 77 (2) about the charge against a soldier being summarily tried by his commanding officer after investigation. My point is that a civilian should not be subject to a military court, nor subject to the military authorities' proposed restrictions on a civilian's movements.

It is very unfortunate that steps were not taken during the Select Committee's review to deal with a concrete problem of which I have an example. It would be unfair of me to raise that concrete example, and I will not do so. It should be clearly understood that my long experience of the House shows that one can take a legitimate grievance to the Minister who will deal with it after investigation, and I look forward with confidence to the application of that procedure in this case.

I know how ordinary men are treated in the Armed Forces, because I have served in them. It would have been wrong of me to have allowed this to pass. No man who has completed his National Service should still be subject to Territorial Service. A National Service man who has finished his National Service should then become a civilian and should recover his civilian democratic rights, which should be fully safeguarded.

If that is accepted, then he should be subject only to a civil court. A National Service man who has completed his National Service and becomes a civilian should be subject only to a civilian court and in no circumstances should he be tried in private by commanding officers, nor should he be tried by a military court. I have had a long analysis made of this subject after reading newspaper leading articles which gave me great concern. I wish to read two extracts, but it must be remembered that I am not dealing with the special case but only with the application of the rights of commanding officers.

… When a National Service man completes his full-time service and accepts the limited obligation of part-time service, he is absorbed once again into civil life, with all its responsibilities and rights, except during a period of war or emergency. Now we are at peace and, therefore, this is support for my plea that no man should be tried in the way that this Clause provides.

In civilian life one of the vital rights of an individual accused of an offence is to have his case heard in open court. The reason for this is to meet the essential requirement that 'justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done'. If we part with this Clause in its present form, and especially if the military authorities are able still to get away with what has taken place, there will be opportunities for commanding officers to take proceedings against young men either by court-martial or by summary action.

What annoys me is that during the war we took steps in the House and in the various committees to prevent this kind of thing happening. It is to the everlasting credit of the House that it safeguarded our democratic rights all through the war. I cannot remember how this right of commanding officers crept in, but it should never have been allowed. I feel sure that something has gone wrong and that it was never intended that civilians should be tried in this way. I hope, therefore that, though the learned Solicitor-General may not be able to give me a reply immediately, he will give an undertaking similar to that which he gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones), in which case I shall be quite satisfied.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

Perhaps it would be helpful if I indicated to the Committee the kind of situation which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) has in mind, without referring to any specific case which it may be that the Secretary of State for War already has under consideration.

It is the case where a National Service man who has done his National Service is subject to a period of training which he is under an obligation to perform and fails to report for that duty. The point of my hon. Friend is that in those circumstances, although we are dealing with a breach of duty by a man who then is a civilian to all intents and purposes, he is taken by the Army and made the subject of military procedure; and that it is desirable in those circumstances that the man should be dealt with as a civilian. I hope my hon. Friend will not think it an impertinence that I sought to give an explanation of the problem which is worrying him.

Mr. Ian Harvey (Harrow, East)

I think that the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) is under a misapprehension. The man in question would be a Territorial under the National Service Act which was passed some time ago.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

Of course the man is subject to Territorial service under that Act, but he is subject to punishment under this Bill, and disciplinary proceedings are taken against him under the terms of this Bill. I am only dealing with that aspect of the matter.

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr.Ellis Smith) and the Committee will understand that I had no notice that the hon. Member desired to raise this point. He would be the first to recognise that there would be grave difficulties attaching to the proposition that we could have someone serving in military circumstances by virtue of any kind of Statute who is not subject to military law. I will study what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I am obliged to the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) for his further elucidation. I do not hold out any hope, but I will see whether it is possible to meet the difficulty.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Let me make it clear that in matters of this kind I believe that we should play the game with one another and that certain standards of conduct should apply. I have tried to follow that principle. I could not raise this matter until I had carefully studied the Bill. I also had the benefit of the excellent legal advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South. I took advantage of this Motion in order to raise it, and I am now quite satisfied.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 78 to 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.