HC Deb 01 July 1963 vol 680 cc159-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. M. Hamilton.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

On the morning in Whit week when I read in the newspaper of the resignation of Mr. Profumo I determined that I would approach the new War Minister as soon as he was appointed and ask him to reopen the whole of the Drink water case.

I had been bitterly disappointed by the harsh action of the previous Secretary of State for War. He wrote me on 16th January this year refusing to reduce the sentence on Private Drink water by a single day. In the letter he said that there would be a review of the case every six months, account would be taken of good behaviour by the prisoner, and a reduction of sentence could be recommended. He wrote me again on 21st February saying that the first of these reviews had been held and there was no change in the sentence.

Mr. Profumo had only to say one word and either Drinkwater would have been released immediately, or he would have had his sentence reduced. I am appealing to the new Secretary of State for War for a more merciful attitude, hoping that he will at least reduce the sentence at the August review, or, better still, release him forthwith.

The last letter I had from Walter Drinkwater was from Preston Gaol, where he is at the moment, haying been transferred there from Wormwood Scrubs. It is dated 23rd May, He writes: The problem causing me a lot of anxiety is this review on 6th August. For various reasons it has just got to be a success. My record up to date is as good as it will ever be. I do know the one from Wormwood Scrubs is 100 per cent. This was proved by the fact that I was allowed to work on the prison officers' quarters outside the prison. As yet I have to prove to the authorities here just how far I am to be trusted. Needless to say I intend doing just that. As we meet here, Private Drinkwater has been lying in gaol for 17 months, serving a three-year sentence for his part in a fracas in the N.A.A.F.I. which did not justify, in my opinion, more than 28 days' C.B., and I intend to show that that is the case.

What kind of a man is Walter Vincent Drinkwater? I have been to see him twice in Wormwood Scrubs and I must say I am deeply impressed with his character. Aged 22, he was orphaned during the last war and brought up in a Roman Catholic orphanage and by his aunt and uncle who have a business in Salford and who are devoted to him. Private Drinkwater was a good soldier, with a first-class record. He enlisted and served three years as a Regular with the Lancashire Regiment in Hong Kong. He went back into civilian life, and after eight months decided to return to the Army as a Regular, deliberately choosing his old regiment where he had been happy. In fact, it was a happy regiment. But by that time the regiment had been transferred to Hilden. There was a new commanding officer, and the atmosphere had completely changed. Despite this, Drinkwater was about to be made a corporal when the incident occurred.

I have read the letters from this strikingly handsome young man to his uncle and aunt and also to his fiancée, and from these letters, too, it is quite apparent that he is a man of fine character. This is confirmed in a letter from his platoon commander, Lieutenant T. C. W. Proffitt, writing to his uncle and aunt on 30th March, 1962, after the court-martial had ended. Lieutenant Proffitt writes: Your nephew was extremely well behaved during the trial, and after the trial was over I talked to him. He is not depressed, and I am sure that when this unfortunate episode is over he will do extremely well in civilian life. He is an intelligent man, well mannered and a natural leader, and I am sure he will succeed. I also told him that if he ever wants references in order to get a job I will willingly give him them. I saw the letters, too, from Drinkwater to his young lady after the sentence, telling her not to wait for him, but I am very happy to say that she has waited for him. She has stood by him. His uncle and aunt have a good home waiting for him on his release and until he is married, and, in addition, a good job.

The charges under which Private Drinkwater was sentenced are serious ones. One was hitting a sergeant, and the other was incitement to mutiny with violence. What really took place was a completely unpremeditated fracas between men and a sergeant, all of whom had been drinking, in which some purple language, worthy of the Establishment Club, was used. I admit that. It was, in fact, merely a four-letter brawl.

Brigadier H. McL. Morrison, his defence counsel at the court-martial, wrote to me to say: I was shocked to find this boy charged with inciting a mutiny. The charge was obviously absurd. But the sentence was so out of proportion to the offence that it completely staggered me. This was the worst case of man mismanagement I have known in 32 years' Army Service. It appeared to him as nothing more than a drunken escapade.

That there was no premeditation is clear from the way in which the brawl started. Brigadier Morrison says: The facts out of which the charge of incitement to mutiny arose were these. On the afternoon of Sunday, 28th January, 1962, a group of men were sitting in the unit canteen drinking and celebrating the birthday of one of their number. The appellant, the Private Drinkwater, was a member of this party, and had, on many previous Sunday afternoons, used the canteen in this way and never been previously disturbed. They were behaving quite well. On this particular day the Orderly Sergeant, Sergeant Pollard, came in and ordered the party to leave. When asked why they had to leave, Sergeant Pollard said it was a battalion order. The evidence shows that no such order ever existed, and that Sergeant Pollard, to put it mildly, was aggressive. (It has come to my knowledge, since the trial, and I am in no doubt as to the accuracy of my information, that the Orderly Sergeant had himself been drinking.) The way in which these men were handled and the fact that they had been drinking undoubtedly affected them in such a way that they were likely to say and do things they would not say or do in normal circumstances. It is clear from the evidence of Sergeant Pollard himself, who was a witness for the prosecution, that even after ordering them out of the canteen he still did not leave the men alone, but provoked them further. Pollard states: I spent about thirty minutes trying to persuade them to leave and the accused, together with four others, then went into the snooker room. I then ordered them to leave the snooker room. Then they went to the Supper room. I followed them in and told them they had to leave the premises. This was confirmed by Drinkwater in a letter which he wrote to his uncle and aunt: My pals and myself were having a nice quiet party on Sunday afternoon, 28th January. Well, we were sat, minding our own business, when in walks the sergeant and tells us to get out of the bar. So we walked out of the bar into the N.A.A.F.I. canteen, which we are allowed to do. Anyway, sergeant 'Know all' tried to make us get out of the N.A.A.F.I. and we were not having it. So he starts picking on one of the mates. Well, the two of them end up having a 'scrap'. Well, another pal separated them. O.K. that was fair enough. So the sergeant grabs hold of me. I told him to get his hands off me. He wouldn't so I pulled away". While Private Drinkwater admits hitting Sergeant Pollard, he claims that he and others had been treated with violence, that the incident was provoked, and that the sergeant had been drinking. The sergeant kicked Drinkwater before he hit back.

I would remind the Under-Secretary that there have been, during the previous three months, no fewer than four courts-martial at Hilden Camp and six more men were awaiting court-martial at the end of March. The men were in an irritable mood because of the bad food, bad living conditions and bad treatment. He will recall that there was considerable attention drawn about this time to the conditions in B.A.O.R. The language Drinkwater used was strong, to put it mildly, if one studies the transcript, but I would refer to the Army Act Section 43, note 2,d, which reads: More abusive and violent language used by a drunken man, as the result of being taken into custody, should not be used as ground for framing a charge of using threatening or insubordinate language to a superior officer. How much less should it have been used for framing the very serious charges in this case?

Coming nearer the present time, I am sure that the Minister will recall the affair at Pirbright, when 25 guardsmen walked out of camp. Let us contrast the sentences. Four of these guardsmen were sentenced to 14 days' detention, three to 10 days' detention and the other 17 received sentences of up to eight days' restriction of privileges. Yet Drink-water is serving three years.

I put it to the House that this is a monstrous sentence for this kind of affair. This was not mutiny in the sense that mutiny is generally understood. If the Minister replies that the two cases, the Pirbright and the Drinkwater affair, are different, I agree that they are. The difference, however, lies in the fact that there was not the slightest element of premeditation about the Drinkwater case and, therefore, it should be treated less—not more—seriously. Nor was this a brawl involving German civilians or German soldiers which might have caused bad relations in that country.

Drinkwater's appeal against this absurdly high sentence has never been heard, although he made three attempts to have an appeal. Incidentally, I would like to point out that he did not receive the final refusal of his leave to appeal until he had served nine months of his sentence, and this, I suggest, is very similar to the more recent case of an officer, wrongly imprisoned, who served his sentence completely before his appeal was allowed. It will be remembered that on that occasion Mr. Profumo conceded that there should be a change in the procedure in these matters.

I conclude by saying that I fervently hope that tonight the Under-Secretary of State will give me good news, if not of an immediate decision then at least an indication that clemency will be shown at this review on 6th August.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

Before I answer the case put by the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun), I had perhaps better say a general word about my position in the light of what I understand from the terms of his earlier Motion and also from what he has said tonight, he is asking me to do. I think that he really wishes me to say that I am in a position to be able to do something to recommend Drinkwater's early release. What I could do, if I were to agree with him and accept this argument, is to cause a review of the case to be undertaken by the Army Council and, in so doing, if I agreed with him, I could make a recommendation in favour of his release. However, I must say that I do not agree with the hon. Member's view of this case and do not intend to cause it to be reviewed, and I shall try to explain my reasons why. There is one further point I should make about the present position.

Drinkwater is now in prison, having served 15 months out of a total of three years. If he gets maximum remission—and for this purpose he is on the same footing as civilian prisoners—he can be discharged on 29th March, 1964, having done two years out of the three. In addition, besides his eligibility for normal remission in this way, his sentence is due for reconsideration by the reconsidering authority every six months.

The next reconsideration is in August. When that happens, any representations that have been made, or that may be made on his behalf, will be drawn to the attention of the reconsidering authority, including what the hon. Member has said tonight. I think that the hon. Member quoted from a letter that I certainly have not seen and, if he wishes, this can be drawn to the attention of the reconsidering authority as well.

I want to make it clear—it is only fair that I should say this—that what I say tonight in reply to the hon. Member is not to be taken as in any sense prejudging the outcome of the reconsideration. I know that the reconsidering authority will not so take what I have to say. The hon. Member has made quite a point about the opinion expressed by the defending officer that this conviction and punishment were wrong, and it is true that defence counsel expressed the opinion during the trial that there had been bad man management and subsequently repeated this view more fully in a letter to the hon. Member, which I have seen.

It should be emphasised that, in expressing this view, the officer was giving his private opinion, that of a brigadier who retired from the Army in 1946. Clearly, it deserves to be taken into account, and so it has been. But against it there must also be taken into account the opinions of the court which awarded this sentence, of the confirming officer, without whom it could not have been operative, of the Army Council which dismissed the appeal petition, and of the Courts-Martial Appeal Court.

Thus, on the other side there is a considerable weight of opinion—not only military opinion based on military experience at least equal to that of the defending brigadier but also that of a civilian judge. The hon. Member said that the appeal had never been heard. I fail to understand that, in view of the various stages of the consideration of this appeal which I have just mentioned.

Mr. Frank Allaun

The man's plea for his appeal to be heard was rejected three times. I cannot see the Minister's point.

Mr. Ramsden

I now follow the hon. Member. I thought that he had been saying that the appeal had not been considered. It was fully considered but, on consideration, it was rejected, as he said.

I have done my best to view this case dispassionately, and, I hope, sympathetically, and have tried to get clear in my own mind the real grounds for the uneasiness of the hon. Member and the accused's defence counsel about the sentence.

Mr, Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Is it the appeal that was turned down three times, or leave to appeal?

Mr. Ramsden

It was leave to appeal—but it was an application for leave to appeal, supported by a statement of the case and considered on the basis of a review of the case.

Mr. Howell

There has never been an appeal.

Mr. Ramsden

The hon. Member is splitting hairs over this. Leave to appeal has been refused. As I was saying, I have tried to consider the case dispassionately, and to get clear in my own mind the grounds for the uneasiness of the hon. Member and the accused's counsel. I believe that what really worries them is that they feel that the wrong interpretation was put upon these events from the very beginning. In his letter the defence counsel said: I have had the good fortune to serve with some tough units…and I feel sure that in any one of these what happened would have been treated as a drunken escapade and nothing more. In an article that I have seen in the journal Today the hon. Member took much the same line as he did tonight.

If we approach the case from this point of view—that is, that things got off on the wrong foot from the start—the crux of the matter must surely be the original decision that a charge of incitement to mutiny involving violence—which was the main charge—should be preferred against Drinkwater. The charge having ever been preferred at all, once that charge had been preferred and proved and the court had convicted the accused of it there was bound to be a pretty heavy sentence, because this is a very serious military crime, and the penalties provided for it are as extreme as any under the Act.

Therefore, what the hon. Member is really saying—and I am meeting him on this basis because we cannot have the trial here again tonight—is that when the decision to prefer this charge was taken it was wrongly taken, in the light of a mistaken view of the whole character of this incident. It may help if I give the background to this decision, which was one for the commanding officer.

When a commanding officer decides that a soldier should be brought to trial by court-martial he will normally obtain legal advice from the Army Legal Services on the summary of evidence, but although the Army Legal Services prepare the draft charge sheet it is open to the commanding officer, after discussion with the Army Legal Services, to recommend to the convening officer that the accused be brought to trial on charges less serious than those drafted by the Army Legal Services, provided that such a course does not appear contrary to the evidence.

When a commanding officer takes such a decision there are certain things that he will have to bear in mind. There is the state of discipline in his unit, and the question whether it is necessary to make an example. That is something that only he can judge. He will think of the character and the record of the accused himself. The borderline between serious indiscipline and mutiny as defined in the Army Act is a very narrow one, and it must have been the view of the commanding officer in this case that the accused had stepped over the dividing line and that an incident that started as a brawl had degenerated into a mutiny. This view was certainly confirmed by the court.

The hon. Member must not suppose that it is an easy thing for a commanding officer to send a man for court-martial on a charge like this. It is a thing which has serious implications, not only for the man but for the unit, and it would not have been done had not the commanding officer considered that it was his clear duty to do so. And, of course, his decision was upheld in the event by the outcome of the trial.

Regarding discipline, I would say to the hon. Member that unquestioning response to discipline, that is to orders given by superiors in rank, is probably the most important single factor in determining the effectiveness of the Army or indeed of any other of the righting Services. I would also say to the hon. Member that it is very difficult for anyone to appreciate the significance of this who has not himself been with troops under fire or at any rate, under the stress of active service. That is true of most civilians, and it may even, in peace time, be true of some soldiers. But it is understood in the Services for the very good reason that failure to preserve discipline leads to the unnecessary loss of men's lives. It is a basic fact of Service life and the reason why, with the authority of Parliament, we have a special code of military law, and why those who are guilty of severe breaches of it must expect to be severely punished.

Regarding Drinkwater's character and his previous record, from the reading of these proceedings one may get a fairly good impression of the kind of soldier that he was. His platoon com- mander wrote to his family about him—the hon. Gentleman has quoted from the letter—principally, it seems to me, because the man had been trying to mend his ways under this officer, and, as he said after his trial, Drinkwater was sorry that he had let his platoon commander down. The fact remains that he had been court-martialled only a few months previously on two charges of striking a superior officer, so I think that it can hardly be argued that he was a particularly good soldier from the point of view of discipline.

The hon. Member said that Drinkwater was about to be made a corporal. It is true that his platoon commander said that he intended to recommend Drinkwater for promotion. But it did not lie with the platoon commander to promote Drinkwater. All that he could have done was recommend Drinkwater to his company commander as suitable for promotion.

The hon. Member rehearsed at some length the events which took place and which were the subject of evidence in this case. I do not intend myself to enlarge on them. But I must make one or two comments upon some of the omissions of the hon. Member. He stopped short in his account when the affair got as far as the canteen. He did not go on to say—this is evidence which was mainly in support of the charge of incitement to mutiny—what happened in the cookhouse, and what happened on the veranda, and the words that were spoken—they were shouted to a crowd of waiting soldiers by the accused—in recognition of which the charge of incitement to mutiny with violence was upheld.

The hon. Gentleman said that clearly the actions of the accused in this case were not premeditated. But I must point out to him that premeditation is not an essential ingredient in a charge of incitement to mutiny. It is as true under military law as I believe it to be under civilian law that a person must be presumed to intend the consequences of what he does. The fact was that words, clearly held by the court to constitute incitement, were uttered by the accused in the hearing of a crowd of soldiers. I should have thought that the consequence of that needed no emphasis upon its possible gravity.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the conduct of the orderly sergeant. This may or may not be in dispute. The fact is that the order issued by the orderly sergeant was a lawful order and as such should have been obeyed by the accused. The hon. Gentleman made a comparison, which I do not think is warrantable, between the situation here and the circumstances of the recent occurrence at Pirbright. In answer to Questions in the House I have said before that I think the circumstances are completely different and that the events at Pirbright were in quite a different category. There was no violence in question there, there was no question of resistance to arrest and though, as I say, there is a narrow borderline in these cases between serious indiscipline and mutiny, in the case at Pirbright I do not believe that was over stepped.

I have tried to answer the points raised by the hon. Member. I am sorry I cannot do as he asks, but I think that this was a bad case and, whatever the hon. Member may say of Drinkwater as a man, as a soldier he did very wrong.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock