HC Deb 02 November 1966 vol 735 cc498-503

Question proposed. That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

The Clause deals with the new punishment of a fine provided by the Bill in the Army and Royal Air Force, and the corresponding Clause for the Royal Navy is Clause 32. So far as I can see they are more or less the same. This is a new punishment and replaces some of those that went before. Until now fines could be imposed only on men in the Army and the Royal Air Force and only for the offence of drunkenness, with a limit of £2 when the matter is dealt with summarily and £5, I think, when it is dealt with by court-martial. The other two relative payments are forfeiture of pay which is used on active service only and a punishment called forfeiture of a sum from pay.

It seems to me, as it seemed to the Defence Council, for that is why it has brought this forward, that a fine and forfeiture of a sum from pay are really very much the same. I understand that it proposes to do away with the punishment of forfeiture of a sum from pay and replace it with a fine which will therefore no longer be inflicted only for the offence of drunkenness. I understand that the other difference is that now all men in all three Services can be fined. Up to now, naval ratings could not be fined. I also understand that all officers can now be fined. For some reason which I entirely fail to understand, the only officers who could be fined until now were naval officers, which seemed to me most unfair.

The maximum fine provided for in the Bill is 14 days' pay where it is awarded by a man's commanding officer, and 28 days' pay where it is awarded by court-martial, subject in both cases to the limitation that if the offence for which the man is fined is a civil offence, the maximum fine cannot exceed the maximum that would be awarded in a civil case.

One other difference is that in the Royal Navy a commanding officer has power to fine a man up to 28 days' pay—not 14—but if he awards a punishment of over 14 days' pay he must obtain his flag officer's approval. This is quite acceptable, because in many respects naval discipline takes account of the fact that a ship may be very far away from its home base, and the possibility of setting up a court-martial is more remote.

I have two or three questions on the Clause. First, I presume that the list of offences for which a man can be fined is the same as the list of offences for which up to now he has either been fined or awarded a punishment of forfeiture of a sum from pay. Is there any extension of that list? Are most of the offences also civilian offences? For some Service offences there is I think—there certainly used to be—the punishment of stoppage of pay even when not on active service. For example, absence without leave involved that and not a fine.

I should like to clear up whether stoppage of pay or forfeiture of pay and fines should be confined to the same list of offences as before, and whether it is mostly civilian offences for which a man can in future be fined. On the whole the Select Committee came to the conclusion that the proposed system of fines was a good idea and we on this side of the Committee accept that it is a sensible method of maintaining discipline in the Armed Forces. There are many offences for which, if this new penalty is approved by the Committee and the Bill goes forward, a man will be fined instead of being sent to prison or kept in detention or in a cell. That is obviously a good idea as the Service is not deprived of him and does not have to provide another man to look after him while he is locked up. This is a very sensible provision, but I have three questions about its application.

5.30 p.m.

First, we are told that a fine can be awarded up to a maximum of 14 or 28 days' gross pay. What is the definition of gross pay? Clearly, it would not include such things as marriage or children's allowances. Does it include any specialist allowance? Does it include any extra money a man has been awarded for long service or good conduct?

Next, the question of tax. We may not have fully realised the implications of the Clause here. When a man is punished by forfeiture of his pay, he loses that pay and, since he never gets it, he cannot be taxed on it. On the other hand, if he is fined a sum of money, he has to pay the fine out of his taxed income. At least, I think so. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that that is so.

Third, the method proposed for recovery of fines. This was gone into by the Select Committee. The Committee was told that the rate of recovery of a fine is left to the discretion of the man's commanding officer or, presumably, when it is awarded by court martial, by the court martial, and that Regulations under the 1955 Acts laid down the minimum proportion or sum which a man must be allowed to retain, in other words, the minimum proportion of his day's pay or the minimum sum per day beyond which he cannot be fined.

The Regulations lay down for officers the proportion of one-third of their pay or 7s. per day, whichever be the greater. For soldiers and airmen the sum is 4s. per day, with nothing whatever about a proportion. The Select Committee was told that the Defence Council is reviewing this matter and proposes in due course to change the Regulations. In paragraph 14 of its Report, the Select Committee recommended that for both officers and both other ranks in all three Services the minimum should in all cases be expressed as a proportion rather than as a fixed sum". Will the Minister confirm that these regulations will be prepared without delay? Since this is a new punishment in the Navy and the Navy, I understand, will have to make new regulations on the subject, while it is being done for the Navy perhaps the Minister will take it as a good opportunity to do it for the other Services as well. I am sure that this is a better idea. The Select Committee thought so, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that will be done.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I warmly welcome the system by which a tax rebate is to be given on fines by calling them forfeiture of pay. Will the Minister suggest to the Attorney-General that this might well be extended into civilian life? It would be welcomed by motorists throughout the country.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

It is not for me to comment on that last point, and I shall come straight away to the question of proportions.

Clauses 21 and 32 are related, referring to the same material, and they have two purposes. The first is to simplify the law by removing the confusing and anomalous position in which there are three names—fines for drunkenness, forfeiture of a sum from pay and while on active service forfeiture of pay—for what are, in substance, the same punishments. The second purpose is to increase the amount of the fines which may be awarded in certain circumstances to a more realistic figure. There are cases today in which courts-martial find that they have to impose a less appropriate penalty than a fine because they do not have power to impose a fine which would be appropriate to the offence. I am sure that, in general, the Committee will welcome the removal of this anomaly.

The main safeguard against the imposition of excessive fines is, of course, the good sense of the court-martial and our well proved review and appeal procedure. If, on further examination, a fine is found to be excessive, the injustice can be remedied very simply by repayment of a part of it, a process which may not be possible with other forms of punishment.

I can give the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Humphrey Atkins) the assurance for which he asks. The Secretary of State has accepted the recommendation of the Select Committee that the minimum rate of pay to be left to an offender when a fine is being recovered should be expressed as a proportion of his daily rate of pay rather than as a fixed sum. As the Committee knows, this matter is now being looked at. The outcome will eventually find regulation form and will be dealt with in the way discussed. The ideas which the hon. Gentleman put to the Committee will be taken into account.

I was asked to explain the meaning of gross pay. This is covered by Clause 21(6) and Clause 32(3). Gross pay means the basic pay prior to tax or other deductions—including, for example, a fine—appropriate to a man's rank, branch or mustering, plus increments of pay and any additional pay, for example, flying pay or trade pay, but excluding allowances such as marriage allowance or local overseas allowance. In short, gross pay means pay as opposed to allowances, and gross means prior to deductions.

Next, the question of tax. The amount of the fine is based on gross pay before deduction of Income Tax. The fine is, however, recoverable from net pay after deduction of Income Tax. But it would not be true to say that a fine is a more severe punishment than forfeiture of a sum from pay since a forfeiture of a sum from pay has always been recoverable from net income. It is, however, a more severe penalty than a forfeiture of pay which can be awarded in active service conditions, and it is also a concomitant of certain other penalties such as detention or imprisonment. In that case, as part of the pay itself is no longer payable, it does not attract Income Tax. However, the substitution of a fine for forfeiture of a sum from pay will not affect the severity of the punishment.

I must say that, when I looked into this matter after it was brought to my notice, I realised that this was something which I had always imagined to be the other way round. Looking back over the discussions of the past year, I am surprised to find how many other people who served in the Armed Forces suffered a similar misapprehension.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the offences for which the fines would be imposed. The fines will be awarded for the same offences as forfeiture of a sum from pay, and this will include drunkenness, though the crime of drunkenness by itself, or a fine for drunkenness, has gone and will now appear as one among many. Fines are new for the Navy, as I think the hon. Gentleman already knows. If I have omitted any point which he raised, perhaps he will let me know afterwards.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 22 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.