HC Deb 20 May 1957 vol 570 cc987-9

9.53 p.m.

Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 32, to leave out from "officer" to "or" in line 33 and insert: (by whatever means communicated to him)". The Amendment relates to the offence of wilful disobedience to a lawful command. That is an offence punishable by dismissal with disgrace or a term of imprisonment or some lesser sentence. This Amendment was the subject in a modified form of considerable debate in Committee of the whole House. The point involved gave the same difficulty to the Select Committee, and I was glad to notice that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), the Chairman of the Select Committee, in the course of the Committee stage said that this was a matter which deserved further consideration.

Shortly, the point at issue is this. The Bill as drafted penalises Every person subject to this Act who…wilfully disobeys any lawful command of his superior officer, whether given or sent to him personally or not; … It is to the words, "Whether given or sent to him personally or not", that we on this side of the House have taken some exception.

The Parliamentary Secretary, when replying to that debate, said that this matter would receive further consideration, and on that undertaking I withdrew the Amendment which I had then moved. The Government have honoured this undertaking, and I have been privileged to receive very courteous and extremely erudite letters both from the Parliamentary Secretary and the Civil Lord seeking to justify the retention of those words. In view, however, of subsequent conversations between the Civil Lord and myself, I need only state in the shortest form the reasons why we have at this late stage pursued the Amendment which we moved in Committee, and added to it.

The doubt that we feel about the Clause as it stands is that the words: •whether given or sent to him personally or not … may in some way, if not shift the onus of proof of receipt of the order, at any rate make it much easier for the prosecution to prove receipt. There is no difference between the Government and ourselves, and never has been, in what we intended, but the arguments by which the Government, both on the Floor of the House and in the letters which they have addressed to me personally have sought to justify the retention of those words have not convinced me.

I agree that the words "wilfully disobeys" tie the disobedience to the wilfulness, and if the words which we seek to omit are deleted, there could be no doubt at all that in order to bring an officer or a man within the mischief of the Clause it would be necessary for the prosecution to establish not only the fact of disobedience but that it was wilful disobedience of an order which has been received. I am not clear that the words in the Clause as drafted have that effect.

In the course of his answer in Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary indicated that what the Admiralty really had in mind was to make sure that the modern means of communication of orders, which are now a matter of everyday occurrence, should be capable in a proper case of attracting the same penalties as an order given by the older and more conventional means of dispatch. It seems to us that, if that is what is intended, it is best to use the most explicit words possible to achieve that result. Therefore, the Amendment seeks to delete: …whether given or sent to him personally or not… and substitute for that formula: …by whatever means communicated to him… I do not think that there is a great risk in the words as they stand, but I think there is a small risk of a very grievous peril. I believe that the words which I wish to substitute remove that peril.

I would only add that the Clause in the nature of the case relates mainly to offences which will be committed in action under all the hazards of active operations. It will probably relate more to officers, or at any rate to warrant officers, than to ordinary ratings—to men who have taken what must be one of the gravest responsibilities that a man can undertake, responsibility for the lives of his fellow men in action. We on this side think that no safeguard, compatible with the discipline of the armed forces, could be too strict to protect men who have undertaken those responsibilities.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I beg to second the Amendment.

10.0 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

Although I do not think that the wording of the Clause as it stands is open to the objections to which the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. W. Wells) has referred, I appreciate the reasons which caused him to table the Amendment. As he said, there is really no difference between us. We are both agreed that the offence is that of wilfully disobeying, and that wilfully disobeying depends on the accused having received orders.

However, the hon. and learned Gentleman's Amendment makes the position perhaps clearer than it was in the original wording. For this reason, the Government are quite willing to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.