HC Deb 26 June 1961 vol 643 cc104-17
Mr. Wigg

I beg to move, in page 17, line 38, at the end to insert: (2) Section sixty-nine of each of the Acts (conduct to prejudice of military discipline) (conduct to prejudice of air-force discipline) shall be amended by the addition at the end of the section of the words "except that punishment imposed under this section shall not include forfeiture of sums from pay". This Amendment would widen a provision that the Royal Air Force has had for a long time and which it has sought to extend. I can understand why the R.A.F. wants to do it. It wants to substitute a fine for major punishment instead of detention which might deprive it of a man's service. I pointed out to the 1955 Select Committee that I understood why the R.A.F. needed the power, but that it was clear that the breaches of discipline with which it was concerned were of a rather different form from those in the Army, and that already the Army had very considerable punitive powers.

I set out to make a list of deductions, which is repeated in Appendix 2 on page 71 of the Select Committee's Report. That list is comprehensive, but there are one or two additions, such as the maintenance deductions under Sections 150 and 151 of the 1955 Army Act. There are also circumstances in which a prisoner of war can forfeit his pay. There are deductions which are not penal deductions, since, under the Pay Warrant and the allowance regulations, public debts can be recovered from soldiers. In addition, Sections 147 and 148 of the Army Act give a list of regulations under which a soldier can be fined.

I do not raise my voice against the reform by which a fine may be imposed for the same kind of offence and at the same rate as that which would be imposed in a civil court, and my Amendment does not seek to limit that reform. In the Rhine Army, many soldiers have cars or motor cycles and find themselves before the courts for breach of traffic regulations. If this happened at home, they would be fined, and I have no objection to military courts fining them in the same way. It is perfectly true that the proposals in Clause 19 are modest in character. They propose only to fine up to a period of fourteen days pay, and then the soldier, quite rightly, will have the right to elect. It is equally clear that the Army Council has sought to be sure that no soldier or officer should be put in a position of being without money because of deductions for a fine.

The provisions in that respect are contained in Army Order No. 109 of 1956, made under virtue of powers conferred on the Army Council by Section 144 of the Amy Act, but it is worth noting that the rates contained in Army Order 109 were about three increases of pay back. I should have thought that, as increases of pay are given, the amounts of money levied in fines on officers, warrant officers, N.C.O.s and other ranks should rise as well, so as to be related to pay. If pay is 6d. a day and a man is left with 2d. in his pocket, then he is well off, but if the pay is £1 a day and he still has only 2d. he will be very poor.

The Secretary of State should look at the figures contained in Order 109. The Select Committee was given these rates as a safeguard to ensure that a soldier would not sink below a certain minimum. There is one very curious thing about the rates. I mention it because we are to have a battalion of Gurkhas, or part of a brigade—a composite unit—coming to this country.

Mr. Paget

May I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) what Amendment he is moving?

Mr. Wigg

I am seeking to limit the imposition of fines. I am dealing with the background to fines and with the point made to the Select Committee concerning the minimum pay laid down in Army Order No. 109, of 1956.

Mr. Paget

It has certainly appeared to me that the question of fines generally, and of what should be left to a man in the Army, comes under a later Amendment, to line 42. The question under the Amendment which is being moved by my hon. Friend—to which I have also attached my name—is whether fines are an appropriate punishment to one form of Army crime—"conduct to the prejudice".

The Temporary Chairman (Sir Godfrey Nicholson)

I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). If it is agreeable to the Committee, we might perhaps consider the other two Amendments to Clause 19, in page 19, line 8, to leave out paragraph (b), and in line 42, at end to add: Provided always that in no circumstances shall fines, stoppages and forfeitures of pay be so operated as to leave a soldier or airman with less than four shillings per day and also the Amendment to Clause 27, in page 23, line 12, at end to insert: Provided always that such person shall receive a minimum of four shillings per day. That would put the hon. Member for Dudley's speech in order.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. The Amendment I have moved raises quite a different point, Sir Godfrey. The minimum amount of cash which is left to a man at the moment is laid down by the Army Council under Section 144 of the Act. It is not limited to a particular amount per day. What my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) wants to do in the Amendment to Clause 27 is to lay down that a man who has been fined shall still receive a minimum of 4s. per day.

The Temporary Chairman

It would clearly be out of order to discuss that on this Amendment. The Amendment which has been moved by the hon. Member deals only with the principle of punishment imposed, It does not include the quantities.

Mr. Paget

Further to that point of order, Sir Godfrey. Your suggestion that these other Amendment should be discussed at the same time as the one moved by my hon. Friend is a good idea, particularly in view of the general line taken by my hon. Friend. The others fit in perfectly well with our discussion.

The Temporary Chairman

Then, if it is agreeable to the Committee, we shall also discuss the Amendments I have mentioned. I suggest that the hon. Member for Dudley now continues his speech.

Mr. Wigg

I was dealing with the point that a brigade group of Gurkhas is coming to this country during this year and that the minimum rates of pay left to them are not unimportant. Under Army Order 109 of 1956, they would be left with 3d. a day. The Royal Warrant of 1940 and the A.C.I. to Article 952 laid down that the minimum which could be left to a non-European soldier was to be 4d. a day, so that the minimum rates of pay which can be left to a non-European soldier are now less than they were before the war.

I do not want to stress this too much, but I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be good enough to indicate that the Army Council would consider the rates of pay to be left to a soldier who was fined. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will accept the proposal for 4s. a day, but the position of the Gurkhas should be considered.

A charge brought under Section 69 is of conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. That is one of the vaguest and most often prayed in aid that the Army knows. It is a portmanteau charge, and when there is nothing else, it is always in the background. It is one of the mainstays of discipline and fines under it should not be imposed by the Army for purely disciplinary reasons.

Army experience of handling young men compares very favourably with what happens in civilian life. In a good regiment—one has had the privilege of serving in them—there is practically no crime, but there is the sanction of discipline which makes it a good regiment and which has the effect of preventing crime. If crime occurs, it is dealt with fairly and in a way which all men can see, with the result that there is not much crime.

In other words, a young man doing his C.B.—the name is now changed to restriction of privileges—for a breach of discipline has broken what is probably the first rule of the military code—he has been caught. He stands there as a warning to others. If on charges of this nature the Army starts to impose fines merely because the Royal Air Force does so and because the Army has been pressured into accepting something which was resisted by the 1955 Select Committee, a serious backdoor breach will have been made into Army discipline.

There is no doubt that the discipline which the Army requires—certainly in combatant units—is very different from that which the Air Force wants, or which the Services want. A future writer, probably from Peking, on the decline and fall of the British Empire, when dealing in his military section with the weakening of the discipline of the British Armed Forces, may put his finger on this as one of the methods which led seriously to a weakening of discipline—if he is a good enough researcher.

There was an event this week which provoked no response at all. On the front page of the Daily Mirror, which, as everyone knows, is always concerned with the public good, there was a photograph of a young soldier of the Household Cavalry with a very attractive young lady by his side. He had been put on a charge under Section 69. So little was thought of the fact that a leading article said that the charge was rubbish that no one said a word. I should have thought that it was contempt of court and that charges and punishments framed under the authority of the Army Council were just as serious and just as much part of the process of law as a charge heard in a court of summary jurisdiction, or at a court-martial or High Court.

If in the exercise of his authority an officer decides that a matter needs to be investigated, it should be treated seriously and handled in such a way as not merely to inflict a wound or punishment on the individual concerned, but also to set an example. The Army Act is not merely a code of discipline, but a way of life. The way it is framed and the whole purpose of framing it and its very being is to buttress men and give them strength of character, perhaps strength in their weaknesses, at moments when they are faced with terror. If it does not do that and is not recognised as that, it is nothing. The problem of the Air Force is completely different. It has to keep aircraft in the air. If a man has been on the binge, the Air Force does not want to stop him flying and so a fine is appropriate, but that will not do for the Brigade of Guards, or the crack infantry regiments.

Dr. Alan Glyn

In the case the hon. Gentleman has quoted it was a technical offence and the man was charged so that he could have an opportunity to state his case and say exactly what happened.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

I do not know anything about the circumstances. All I know is that it is not good for the discipline of the Army that the matter should be treated in this way. I am saying that it is not good for the Army that disciplinary offences should be treated lightly or dealt with merely by stinging a fellow 5s. and charging it against his account. That has no effect. The short, sharp punishment which is necessary to produce discipline is quite different.

The line has to be drawn somewhere. I can understand fines being imposed for civil offences, or for the kind of offence for which a man might appear before a civil court, but I do not want fines to be a punishment for offences concerned solely with a man's behaviour and with his discipline and with the whole tone of the unit of which he is a part. I draw the line at Section 69, because the offences which that covers are purely disciplinary. With the Secretary of State in his present mood, I do not expect to make much progress with my Amendment, but I hope that future reformers will take a little more care than the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Paget

I have a good deal of sympathy with the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) that while fines are a valuable and even useful addition to available punishments, they are not in general appropriate to strictly disciplinary offences such as those normally covered by Section 69.

The case my hon. Friend has mentioned concerned a horse, Alexander the Great, and his photograph with an attractive young lady. I hope that that sort of matter is not dealt with by Section 69. This was a breach of orders. Merely because an act may affect the sense of dignity of an officer is no reason for making it an offence punishable by a fine or anything else.

Fines are not a suitable penalty under Section 69. I did not think of it when I was on the Select Committee considering fines generally, but, having discussed it with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley since, I feel that that was an omission on our part. Fines are not a suitable punishment for offences under that Section.

I now deal with the Amendment and this question of not allowing deductions. Whether they be fines or affiliation orders or anything else, it is wrong to leave a man without any money, because when that happens the trouble starts. He starts by "flogging" his own kit, and moves on to "flogging" his comrades' kit. All kinds of trouble arise because a situation has been created in which life has become intolerable for him. A minimum which enables a man to live a military life in tolerable conditions should always be reserved for him. That is important to the discipline of the Army.

My Amendment cannot, of course, be accepted. I never for a moment thought that it could. One cannot put in a vague figure like this. There must be qualifications and various other things, but I want an assurance put into the Bill that the first consideration will be the discipline of the Army, and the discipline of the Army requires that once a man is in the Army life for him is tolerable. This involves having some level of spending power. I make no point about what the level should be, but the principle behind my Amendment is that life should be tolerable for him. I leave it to the Secretary of State to decide what form the Amendment should take, but I think that he should accept the principle of my Amendment.

Mr. Cronin

I propose to confine myself to the Amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). All who have had any responsibility for the discipline of troops or airmen will agree that the charge of conduct to the prejudice of military discipline, or conduct to the prejudice of Air Force discipline, is a valuable form of charge in maintaining units at a high level of efficiency and dealing with various matters which are obviously prejudicial to the state of the unit but which cannot be framed as a specific charge.

This form of charge, although it may be valuable from a military point of view, is unsatisfactory from the point of view of justice and equity. The charge is often too vague. The evidence is often of a subjective nature. An officer may feel that some act or form of conduct is prejudicial to military discipline when he is in one mood, but may not consider it to be a breach of discipline when he is in a different mood. This variation of mood may occur in the tropics or under conditions which lead to a certain irascibility on the part of the officer who makes the charge.

If one considers the type of offence being used for this purpose, they seem of a vague nature. For instance, page 314 of the Manual of Air Force Law says that being in improper possession of Public or service property or of property belonging to an officer or comrade where there is no evidence of actual theft, is an offence. Someone who had not stolen anythng could be charged wth being in possession of property.

Again A person who drives a service vehicle without authority or, while on an authorised journey, improperly deviates from his authorised route, or, where no route has been laid down, from the shortest and most direct route, commits an offence against this section. Another common offence under this Section is behaving with undue familiarity towards an airman subject to the accused's authority. All those are somewhat vague charges. It would be better if they were framed as charges of a specific nature, but under this umbrella they no longer hold the precision which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. There is a possibility of injustice when this form of charge is used. I have no doubt that the injustice is kept to a minimum, but it is the responsibility of those who are concerned with the welfare of soldiers and airmen to ensure that this injustice is kept to the minimum possible, and that if it occurs the effects are very slight.

It is important that the penalties for the charge of conduct to the prejudice of military discipline should be kept to the minimum. It might be argued that under Section 69 of the Army Act a court martial can impose a heavy penalty for this charge—up to two years' imprisonment—but I think it will be found that they rarely use this penalty unless it is an offence of a heinous nature. The tendency is to impose the lesser penalty. For officers it is usually a severe reprimand instead of a loss of seniority, and a lesser penalty instead of detention for soldiers.

The Amendment will therefore have the effect of more leniency being exercised by courts martial when dealing with for this charge. It will also prevent sums of money being forfeited in expiation of an offence tried summarily at unit level, because such a procedure is subject to the accused person being able to be tried by court martial if he so wishes. The general effect of the Amendment will be to decrease the penalty for conduct to the prejudice of military or Air Force discipline.

Another aspect is that if it were permissible to use the forfeiture of a sum of money as a penalty for conduct to the prejudice of Air Force or military discipline, there would be a tendency to use this charge more frequently instead of a more specific and carefully defined charge. The Amendment will lead to a more liberal attitude towards this form of charge which most of us find rather unpalatable from the point of view of pure justice.

Mr. Mayhew

As nothing has been said in explanation of the Amendment in page 19, line 8, perhaps I might briefly explain that as the Bill stands it makes it impossible for an officer to forfeit, say, both seniority and pay as an alternative to dismissal. I have no doubt that the thought behind it is that loss of seniority involves financial loss—sometimes quite serious and continuing.

Nevertheless, in the Second Reading debate the Secretary of State said that if it is wished this punishment may be awarded in conjunction with other punishments, and that the Bill gives powers to courts-martial to award forfeiture of pay and a reprimand or a severe reprimand. We do not think that this kind of combination of the two punishments would be used frequently, but we see no reason for tying the hands of the judicial authorities in this way. We suggest that this option should be left open to them.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Profumo

I will try to deal one by one with the various Amendments which are being taken together. I start with that in the name of the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). This proposal is not satisfactory. The main object of the introduction of the new punishments is to bridge a gap in the present scale of punishments—a gap which extends between forfeiture of seniority and severe reprimand in the case of officers, warrant-officers and non-commissioned officers, and detention and minor punishments, such as the restriction of privileges and extra guard duties, in the case of soldiers. That gap is too wide, and it applies in case of offences under Section 69 and military offences in general, in exactly the same way as in the case of offences, including civil offences, under any other Section.

The most frequent use of Section 69 is made in respect of charges which allege the improper possession of another soldier's property and the misuse of Service transport. Both offences qualify for the title of civil rather than military. The hon. Member's assumption that Section 69 caters for military offences only is, with respect, incorrect. Charges are sometimes laid under that Section that could be laid under other Sections, and it would be wrong if the type of punishment resulting were to depend on the wording of the charge. I consider that the forfeiture of sums from pay—or fines—will be a useful punishment for first offences under Section 69 that require more than the award of ordinary punishments, even when the offences are of a military nature.

I realise that some offences, including those charged under Section 69, will deserve a military punishment, such as detention, rather than a civil punishment, such as the forfeiture of a sum from pay, but I consider that commanding officers must be left to work out these problems for themselves as individual cases arise. I intend to issue administrative instructions drawing attention to the point, and those instructions will emphasise that the new punishment must be imposed with discretion, and that it is not a suitable method of dealing with serious breaches of military discipline.

Although, logically, it is possible to try to draw a distinction between civil and military offences, I find it difficult to see any reason why Section 69 should be separated from all the other Sections dealing with military offences. For example, mutiny and the incorrect wearing of headdress—the latter of which would be charged under Section 69—are both military offences, although they differ greatly in their seriousness. Those are the reasons why I cannot accept the hon. Member's Amendment.

In the course of what he was saying he drew attention to something upon which I ought to comment. I agree with him in what he said about the very trivial case that arose a weekend ago, concerning a guardsman and his horse—including the vital statistics of the horse—and their being photographed with a young lady. The triviality of the case was blown up because a newspaper story was made out of it. I am not trying to say what newspapers should do or should not do. I am all for their criticising. In fact, in the same edition of that newspaper there was a very fair account of life in the modern Army.

Nevertheless, I agree that controversial comment at that stage is as undesirable and reprehensible as similar comment made during a trial by court-martial. A commanding officer will have to decide whether to deal with a case summarily or to remand it for court-martial, and comments such as this might cause unfair pressure to be brought to bear upon him. In my view, it might even be not without danger to the author. I am happy to say that the case referred to was dismissed, as it probably should have been. I do not think that it should ever have caught the public eye. But the point of principle with which the hon. Member dealt required some comment from me.

I turn now to the Amendment in page 19, line 8, to leave out paragraph (b). This would give power to an appropriate superior authority to award the punishment of forfeiture of seniority of rank and forfeiture of a sum from pay together. As drafted, the Bill does not provide this power. The powers of punishment it provides are, first, forfeiture of seniority, secondly, forfeiture of a sum from pay, thirdly, severe reprimand or reprimand, and, fourthly, stoppages. The superior authority may award one or more of those punishments—that is the point to which I was referring in the Second Reading debate—but he is not allowed to award forfeiture of seniority and forfeiture of a sum from pay together. I consider that appropriate superior authorities—that is to say, officers of the rank of brigadier or above and air commodore or above—already possess sufficient maximum powers of punishment.

Forfeiture of seniority may be a very severe punishment, which can affect the career of an officer or warrant officer, and can also have a severe financial effect later. It may even affect a man's pension. No limit is placed by the Acts on the amount of seniority that is to be forfeited, though, in practice, a maximum award of one year is normal for an appropriate superior authority. There is no necessity for both punishments to be awarded together in order to produce the required degree of flexibility to which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) referred. It is the punishment of severe reprimand or reprimand which provides the necessary flexibility.

For example, the appropriate superior authority can choose between forfeiture of seniority and forfeiture of a sum from pay together with a severe reprimand. If he wishes, he can award forfeiture of seniority and a severe reprimand. Courts-martial have no power to award forfeiture of seniority and forfeiture of a sum from pay together, and I am sure that there should not be greater power in this respect for appropriate superior authorities than is given to courts-martial.

The last Amendment concerns the sum which we should be able to take from a man's total emoluments by way of fines or forfeiture of sums from pay. This question was discussed by the Select Committee, and the present situation was accepted. The Amendment seeks to lay down a minimum rate for soldiers and airmen in the Act itself, and to increase the minimum rate at present prescribed. I was glad to hear the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) say that he did not expect his Amendment to be accepted in this form. Nevertheless, I have every sympathy with the principle behind the Amendment, and am prepared to accept that principle. I undertake here and now—and I wish to put it on record—that a soldier or airman on a Regular engagement shall receive a minimum of 4s. a day.

But I do not think that 4s. can be the minimum rate for everybody. Even apart from National Service men there are certain categories of men and women—Gurkhas, locally enlisted personnel and boys—whose rates of pay are lower than those of ordinary soldiers. It will, therefore, be necessary to make special arrangements for them which will ensure that each is treated fairly in relation to others. In the end, we shall have to specify a number of rates in considerable detail.

I do not think that an Act of Parliament of five years' duration is the right place in which to lay down details about rates of pay. The Act does not deal with rates of pay anywhere else. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will continue to leave the formulation of the detailed regulations and rates to the Army Council and myself, subject to the undertaking that the soldier or airman on a Regular engagement shall receive not less than 4s. a day.

Having said that, I hope that the hon. and learned Member will feel that his principle is satisfied and will understand why I cannot accept the Amendment.

Mr. Paget

What the right hon. Gentleman has said is entirely satisfactory to me, subject to this. I was a little anxious about the reference to National Service men. The National Service man in the Army has to live with Regulars at the moment. What we are concerned with, from a disciplinary point of view, is that men should not be in a position which makes life intolerable for them. Personally, I feel that if we impose fines on, or make deductions of pay from, National Service men, the same minimum limit should apply to them as to Regulars. As to the position of Gurkhas, boys, and people like that, I entirely agree about the need for a schedule. I merely enter this caveat in regard to National Service men.

Mr. Wigg

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to retain the existing procedure, that is to say, power vested under Section 144, but will produce another Army Order which will amend the Army Order 109/56?

Mr. Profumo indicated assent.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.