HC Deb 21 March 1955 vol 538 cc1806-15
Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I beg to move, in page 39, line 9, at the end, to insert: and in no case shall a person be held in custody awaiting trial for a period longer than one month. The Amendment is to place some limit upon the time for which a prisoner can be held in custody awaiting trial. Last month, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there was a case in Edinburgh concerning a gunner who lives on the borders of my constituency. It came as a shock to a great many people when they read about it. In that case the person concerned was held in custody awaiting trial for five months, a period which turned out to be longer than the sentence which he ultimately received.

During his detention he tried to commit suicide when another soldier with whom he was confined was sent for trial. Even then, apparently, no great haste was made to bring on the trial. The condition of the man was very severely commented upon by the defending officer at the trial. He pointed out that the man had probably suffered permanent harm to his mind, and that his nervous and mental condition are now in such a state that there is considerable doubt as to his mental fitness to undergo further confinement. 7.0 p.m.

The Minister, of course, has this case under consideration, and I am grateful to him for treating it in that way. I hope that later we shall have a report, and that steps will be taken to deal with the people who delayed the trial, particularly in view of the circumstances attaching to it. It appears, however, that this kind of thing is still possible under the Clause to which the Amendment applies.

I appreciate that it takes some time to prepare evidence for a trial. Witnesses have to be seen and evidence obtained, and it is frequently in the interest of the prisoner that there should be a period of remand whilst that is being done, but there can be abuse of that, as we saw in this case. It is for that reason that I am moving the Amendment.

I appreciate that the Government may not be able to accept the proposed period of one month, but we would like to have from the Government some indication of what steps they are thinking of taking to prevent a recurrence of cases of the kind to which I have referred. It seems to me that that can be done by an Amendment to the Clause. If the Minister can give an assurance that something will be done before the Bill goes to another place, we may be quite content, but we certainly would have an assurance that cases of this kind will not be allowed to occur again in the Army.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment. A good deal of comment was caused when it was reported in the Scottish Press that a soldier had been detained in a guardroom for five months under close arrest. I should like to know why the prisoner in this case was not under open arrest. I remember that when I was once kept waiting for trial I was placed under open arrest. I was allowed to walk about the place, and I did not try to get away.

Here is a scandal of a prisoner being kept in the guardroom for five months. That is worse treatment than is given to an ordinary civilian prisoner arrested on a serious charge. The civilian prisoner who has to await trial for any considerable time is taken to a good, healthy, comfortable gaol, but some of these guardrooms are hopelessly insanitary places, and the regulations which obtain in a civilian prison do not apply to them.

I cannot see why the Minister should not be able to accept the Amendment. It may be said that in the case which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has mentioned a very long time was needed to prosecute inquiries, but surely five months are a long time in which to carry out investigations into an alleged crime and to collect the evidence. This may seem only a small matter, but it came to light that this kind of thing could go on in the Army only when the man tried to commit suicide.

If this deplorable incident had not happened, his injustice would have continued without attention being drawn to it. I wonder how many cases there have been in the Army in recent times where the prosecuting authorities have kept a man under arrest day after day, week after week or, as in this case, month after month. Now that we know that this state of affairs exists, I submit that this is the time and place to remedy it. I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I am quite prepared to believe that there is something very wrong in the recent case where a man was kept under arrest awaiting trial for five months, but I am not sure that the Amendment is the way to tackle the problem. The Amendment says that no person shall be held in custody awaiting trial for a period longer than one month. I presume that that means that no person shall be held under arrest.

Mr. Willis

And remanded in custody.

Mr. Wigg

I wonder if the words in the Amendment mean "under arrest," because "arrest" includes open arrest. We want to ensure that if a man is charged the matter shall be investigated with the least possible delay, and that he should not be kept waiting a day longer than is necessary. To detain a man for a month may involve as serious a neglect as might be involved in keeping him for five months.

I would advise my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) to press the Minister verystrongly for an investigation into the case involving a man being held in custody for five months, but I am not sure that it is right to place a limit of one month, as proposed in the Amendment. It weakens rather than strengthens the position. The Bill says that no undue delay shall take place, and that where a man has been under arrest for more than eight days a special report on the need for further delay must be made. I do not think that the Amendment would improve matters. I certainly think that it would be unwise to base an Amendment to the Bill on a case which has not yet been fully investigated.

Mr. F. Maclean

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has mentioned the case of his own constituent. As he knows, that is now being investigated. It was an exceptionally complicated case which involved extensive inquiries, of which the hon. Member is aware, and it was also necessary to await the outcome of the trial of another soldier who was involved. That soldier had to be tried first before we could proceed with the charge against this soldier. Nevertheless, there is no doubt at all that the period of 140 days for which the soldier in question was detained is much too long. My right hon. Friend and myself, therefore, have instituted a review of existing arrangements for avoiding delays in cases of this kind.

It might be useful if, first of all, I outlined the arrangements which exist at present. Under the existing law, and under Clause 75 of the Bill, a report has to be rendered by the accused's commanding officer after the accused has been under arrest for eight days. The commanding officer has to report to the competent authority, which in this case is the convening officer of the court-martial, and to the Director of Army Legal Services or his representative. He has to do that every eight days until a period of 90 days has been reached. When a prisoner has been under close arrest for 90 days, he cannot be kept under arrest any longer unless the convening officer specifically so directs.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

That is three months.

Mr. Maclean

That is three months. On the question whether a man remanded for trial by court-martial should be kept under open or close arrest, Queen's Regulations are very wide on this subject. In fact, they allow a discretion to the commanding officer as to whether a man should be kept under close arrest or not.

We do not feel able to accept the hon. Member's Amendment as he drafted it. The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has mentioned one reason why it could hardly be the best way of settling this problem. There are bound to be exceptional cases where rather long investigations are necessary and are bound to last more than one month. That is one reason why it would not be possible to accept this Amendment, but, as I have said, my right hon. Friend feels that the present arrangements are not satisfactory, and, therefore, it is his intention to introduce a new procedure on the following lines with the object of avoiding delays of this kind as far as possible.

First of all, we propose to tighten up the rules under which a man can be kept under close arrest as opposed to open arrest, or no arrest at all. We propose to ensure that a man is only kept under close arrest when that is absolutely necessary. There are cases where there is the danger that a man may do damage to himself or to other people, or may attempt to suborn witnesses and so on, but unless it is necessary a man will not be kept under close arrest at all. When we have time to work it out a little more, the circumstances will be specified under which it is necessary to keep a man under close arrest.

The new procedure for the avoidance of delay will be roughly as follows. When the convening officer receives the first and subsequent eight-day reports which have to be reported by the commanding officer when a man is held for a period of eight days, we propose to lay down that the convening officer must satisfy himself as to the necessity for the individual's continued detention under close arrest.

When we come to the fourth period of the eight days, which is when he has been in custody for about a month, the convening officer will be required to report to his superior officer, who must be an officer not below the rank of major-general. If the convening officer happens to be a commander-in-chief, as may be the case, then, of course, the case will already be in his mind and this procedure will not be necessary. After the eighth period of eight days, that is, roughly speaking, after two months have elapsed, the case, if it has not been brought before him already, will be brought before the commander-in-chief, and if the commander-in-chief then decides that there is a genuine need to keep the prisoner under close arrest for a further period, he will be required to inform the War Office in order that the matter can be brought to the attention of a member of the Army Council.

We hope by this means that it will be possible to ensure two things. Firstly, that nobody will be kept under close arrest whilst awaiting trial unless it is absolutely necessary, and secondly, that there will be no avoidable delays in bringing a man to trial. I hope that will meet the needs of the hon. Member.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

Would the Under-Secretary be kind enough to say what would happen in the case of a man who is held under a mixture of open and close arrest, or is it that he is to be kept under continuous close arrest and then to be cleared? If it is a mixture of the two it might lead to very grave abuse indeed.

Mr. Maclean

As I say, under the present arrangements the eight day report which I mentioned just now applies whether a man is under close or open arrest. The 90 day report, when a convening officer has to give written permission, applies only to a man who is held under close arrest. If he is to be held under close arrest after 90 days have elapsed, then the convening officer must say so in writing.

Our plans have not been worked out in detail yet, but we are certainly bearing in mind the very genuine point put by the hon. Member for Dudley. We are not going to try to keep men under close arrest, because from our point of view it is better to have the men out working than staying under close arrest.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the statement he has just made is confined to the War Office, or is it made on behalf of all three Service Departments?

Mr. Maclean

It is only made on behalf of the War Office, but I think I am right in saying that, subject to anything my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air may have to say, the Air Ministry procedure is already more in this direction than ours is.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

I do not know how my hon. Friends the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) and the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) think about this matter now, but at first hearing the Under-Secretary has suggested something which sounded as though it would take us some of the way which they want to go. I am glad that the Government have recognised that there is a very real problem here, because the House has been a little shocked to hear of this case. We would like some information whether similar, analogous cases are possible, because it looks as if what one might call the analogy under military law to the habeas corpus procedure is not working well at all under present circumstances, and that is something about which the House is very sensitive.

I do not pretend to be able to tell at first hearing exactly how satisfactory are the regulations which the Under-Secretary has put before us, but, as I understand it, there will be a two-months' limit beyond which the case could not go without reference to a member of the Army Council. That seems to me to be a most important provision, but I should have liked that reference to be to the Army Council as such and not to one member of it, so that the civilian members like the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary might be brought into the case. Then we would get nearer to the House of Com- mons and we could question them here on the subject.

I am not suggesting that the civilian members would judge a matter like this any better than the military members, but the former are Members of the House of Commons and we can question them here about it. That is a decided advantage. I hope the Secretary of State might bear that also in mind in order to see whether something could not be done on those lines.

Secondly, I should like to know how these new regulations are to be promulgated. Are they simply to be brought in as footnotes to the Queen's Regulations, or are they to be introduced into the Bill in any way? Are the Government thinking of moving Amendments on those lines in another place, or how is this going to be done? If it is going to be done by amendments to the Queen's Regulations, then I think this House would very much like to have a statement from the Minister on the subject at the appropriate time and hear what has been done, because it is something obviously seized on now owing to the excellent initiative of my hon. Friends, something which I am sure the House would not like to let go without following it up so that all of us can see that it is being carried out in an effective way.

Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)

There is only one point I want to raise on this Amendment, because this matter was considered fully by the Select Committee and this Clause is founded on our consideration of what was in the Lewis Committee Report. What we recommended was continuation of these 8-day reports regularly until a court martial had been assembled or until an offender had been punished. The point with which we were concerned was that they should apply both to a man in close arrest and to a man in open arrest, and the Clause is drafted so as to apply to both. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is not proposing in any way to diminish the effect of the Clause as drafted. It is merely that in the case of men in close arrest stricter methods will be used to make certain that the appropriate higher authorities know what is going on, and so that at the earliest possible time the prisoner can be properly dealt with.

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

I think we are all on the same side in this matter. Neither the War Office nor any hon. Member wants to keep men in close arrest. We have been into the analogy of civil practice in this matter where there is the advantage of an individual, often the magistrate, before whom the accused will come at frequent intervals, and who may often intervene and say that the case cannot be postponed.

Where we are concerned, there is a certain diversity. There are the Army Legal Services, the S.I.B. and other authorities. Our aim is to try to institute a procedure to ensure that this kind of thing will not happen. There are often logical reasons why investigation before trial is protracted and why an individual remains under arrest awaiting trial over a long period. This is not the first case in which men have been in close arrest for a long time. In each case into which I have looked, although the reasons for it have been good, they have not been good enough to justify the length of arrest and yet there is no place in that period where one could say to one individual, "It is your fault that something has gone wrong."

Our idea is to limit the period by the fact that the matter must come before a member of the Army Council within a certain time. The right hon. Gentleman asked, why not the Army Council as a whole? I think it will work perfectly well if it comes before a member of the Army Council. The Army Council is most reluctant that any man should be under arrest for that period of time. The reason why this has happened is because of a diffusion of responsibility in which all the individuals concerned have had a perfectly good reason for their actions but, collectively, there is no one to say, "This must stop and there must be a trial." Our aim is to avoid the kind of situation raised by the hon. Gentleman. Nobody wants it.

Before we make the Amendment to Queen's Regulations, I should like to confer with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) as to the exact form it should take. Both the Rules of Procedure and Queen's Regulations will be amended, and I know that he has a lot of knowledge on this point upon which the Lewis Committee reported. It is our intention so to amend Queen's Regulations as to attempt to put a safety catch on ourselves, as it were, in order to avoid any delay which is avoidable.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

May I follow up the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey)? Could it not be arranged that the member of the Army Council before whom this would go would be the Under-Secretary of State for War, so that there is the advantage of consideration by a person who is in touch with public opinion and can therefore be expected to view it from the point of view that this House would wish it to be viewed?

Secondly, may I suggest that on every fourth occasion—that is after the 32nd and 64th day—the notice should be accompanied by a report from the medical officer as to whether the continued detention of the man in close arrest is having any ill-effect on his physical or mental health.

Mr. Wigg

Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough, if he does this by amending regulations, to bear closely in mind the earlier point which I made before he came in, that whilst he may stop the hole as far as close arrest is concerned, he may throw open wide the gates in the case of open arrest and a man might be under open arrest for a year?

Mr. Head

That was the point.

Mr. Willis

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman first for the way in which he has dealt with the single case I brought to his attention and, secondly, for the speed with which he has decided to do this, since it is only a month since the trial? In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.