HC Deb 13 May 1971 vol 817 cc634-7
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force (Mr. Antony Lambton)

I beg to move, Amendment No. 1, in page 8, line 37, at beginning insert: (1) Section 33 of the Army Act, 1955, and section 33 of the Air Force Act, 1955 (insubordinate behaviour) shall each be amended by substituting the following for the proviso to subsection (1) (which limits imprisonment to two years for offences not committed on active service and not involving violence)— 'Provided that it shall be a defence for any person charged under this subsection to prove that he neither knew nor had reasonable cause to believe that the person in relation to whom the offence is alleged to have been committed was his superior officer.' With the consent of the Committee and for its convenience; I propose to discuss this Amendment to Clause 8, with Amendment No. 2, in page 9, line 3, leave out from first 'provisions' to 'shall' in line 5. The Clause was amended by the Select Committee, which took evidence on it and decided that while it was acceptable to retain a specific offence of behaving with contempt to a superior officer—

The Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Under-Secretary. As I have not selected the two Amendments to Clause 8 to be taken together, I think perhaps I should have the leave of the House to take them together. If that is the wish of the Committee, it is agreeable to me.

Mr. George Thomson indicated assent.

Mr. Lambton

Thank you, Sir Robert. The Select Committee decided that while it was acceptable to retain a specific offence of behaving with contempt to a superior officer in the Naval Discipline Act, where it has featured, I think, for over 200 years, it was not desirable to include such a specific offence in the Army and Air Force Acts, which have never had it.

This would, of course, be an exception to the commonality of the scheme of offences, but we do not object to it on this score. After all, contempt to a superior officer has always been an offence in all three Services and, under whatever name it is called, it will continue to be so. The only difference is that whereas such an offence in the Navy is charged under a specific section of the Naval Discipline Act, in the Army and the R.A.F. it is charged as the more general offence of conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.

The Clause in its present form is, however, defective. Firstly, the loss of the original Clause 8(1)(b) has the effect of retaining differential levels of maximum punishment for offences of insubordinate behaviour in Army and Air Force Acts, according to whether or not offences are committed on active service or involve violence. There is no such differentiation under the Naval Disclipline Act and the present Bill abolishes it elsewhere in Army and Air Force Acts. This is an inconsistency which, in our view, and, I hope, in that of the Committee, ought to be removed.

Secondly, there will be available to a person charged with an offence of insubordinate behaviour under the Naval Discipline Act a defence that he neither knew nor had reasonable cause to believe that the person in relation to whom the offence is alleged to have been committed was his superior officer, but no such defence will be available under the Army and Air Force Acts. Again, I hope that the House will agree that this defence must and should be available to all Servicemen who are so charged.

The Amendment removes these two differences. It also corrects minor deficiencies in the wording of the Clause and of Schedule 1.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

I support the Amendment. This is due primarily to the width of the Amendment that I proposed in Committee to prevent the crime of contempt in the Royal Navy from being extended to the R.A.F. and the Army. I take exception to the views expressed by the Under-Secretary in one respect. He implied that the offence of contempt in respect of seamen in the Royal Navy was acceptable. He will recall that this was contested in Committee, and, though we did not divide, it is my view that, when we next have an Armed Forces Bill in five years' time, we will have to consider very seriously the retention of this rather old, out-dated offence in the Royal Navy. With that due notice that it will be my intention, if I am a Member of the House, so to do, I support the Amendment.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

The reason for the Under-Secretary having to introduce the Amendment is the success of my hon. Friend the member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) in ensuring that the offence of contempt, as set out in the original Clause 8, was not extended to the other two Services. I confirm that there was and is dissatisfaction that this power should remain with the Navy. I am conscious that the Navy prefers to do things in its own way, and the same applies to the other Armed Services.

The whole purpose of the Bill, as I understand it, and of the reasoning behind the observations of the last Select Committee is that each of the Services should as best it can rationalise with the other Services. If each of the three Services had not done that in respect of the matters dealt with in the various Clauses, we would not have achieved the result that has been achieved. It is a matter of congratulation that each of the Services has gone this far. Each Service has had its sticking points. It was not always reason that lay behind the points sticking; sometimes it was tradition. I appreciate the tradition which lies behind many of these matters which, in the words of the witness for the Air Force, were dear to the hearts of that Service.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that in due course—I hope when the next Bill is considered—this matter will again come up. By that time the Navy will realise that the other Services can deal wifh their discipline under more general provisions and that their discipline does not suffer because they do not have the advantage of this provision. It may well be that in due course the Navy will recognise the reality and not wish to plough its own furrow.

Mr. Lambton

I thank the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) and the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) for their reasoned speeches. This matter of contempt will, in the nature of events, be considered before the next Bill is presented in five years' time.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 2, in page 9, line 3, leave out from first 'provisions' to 'shall' in line 5.—[Mr. Lambton.]

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman

With the permission of the Committee, I will put en bloc—if anyone demurs I will of course listen to him at once—Clauses 9 to 46.

Clauses 9 to 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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