HL Deb 26 March 1889 vol 334 cc827-30

My Lords, I have to ask the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for War whether the subjoined extract from the Times of Wednesday, March 13, 1889, is an accurate account of the facts:— Private Collins, of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, was yesterday removed from Gosport Barracks to undergo a sentence of five years' penal servitude. Collins was tried for striking a sergeant, and was sentenced to six months' hard labour. The sentence was read out on parade, when prisoner used a filthy expression to the adjutant; he was thereupon placed in the guard-room, and was afterwards tried for the second offence. The sentence of five years' penal servitude was promulgated yesterday, having been confirmed by the General commanding the district.


My Lords, before the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State answers that question, I should like to express the opinion that both these offences were deserving of the most severe punishment. It is impossible to enforce discipline in a regiment if a private is not severely punished for striking a sergeant. The second offence was using a filthy expression towards an officer. That would have been formerly an offence to visit with corporal punishment, and I am sorry that this form of punishment is abolished. The mitigation introduced within the last few years in the punishment for offences of this kind has had a most prejudicial effect. I feel certain that such power was much required, because it gave larger powers to the commanding officers to deal with irregularities of all kinds. At the same time, I do not think that your Lordships' House is a proper place for discussing questions of discipline of this description.


My Lords, if this be a true statement of the facts as they occurred, the sentence, in my opinion, was nothing short of monstrous and outrageous, and wholly unsuited to the offence mentioned in the question. When it is publicly stated that such a sentence has been passed, it will evoke a feeling that it was a most tremendous one, and I cannot see that such a sentence ought to be inflicted in any case unless under proper circumstances. Five years' penal servitude is a tremendous sentence for using even filthy language, and in this case seems to be out of all proportion to the offence.


My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord that the sentence was undeserved. I think it was perfectly just and proper. Offences against discipline in the Army are extremely serious.


My Lords, I think this is another instance of the necessity for corporal punishment. Had corporal punishment been retained in the Army the second offence would probably never have been committed, and it is the abolition of corporal punishment that causes the necessity for these long terms of imprisonment. It seems to me, my Lords, that this was a very grave offence, which I do not think is quite appreciated by the civilian mind.


My Lords, I am not prepared to endorse the opinion of my noble and gallant Friend. I cannot say, from my personal point of view, that it is a desirable thing to ruin a man by the infliction of such punishment upon him. However desirable corporal punishment may be for boys, I do not think it is desirable for grownup men, save in those cases in which it is expressly recognized by the law. Neither am I prepared to recognize that Parliament should under no circumstances whatever take an interest in the maintenance of discipline in the Army. But I do think that in so serious a matter as the discipline of the Army it is incumbent upon anyone, either in your Lordships' House or in the House of Commons, who wishes to make a question public with regard to the Army, that he should first inquire at head-quarters whether the statement on which he founds his question is correct or not. I have information that the extract from the Times is absolutely incorrect, and that there were very much stronger grounds in this case for the increase of punishment than are shown in the statement on which the question is founded. I think it would have been better had the noble Lord taken care to ascertain that the circumstances were such as to require a Parliamentary discussion on the matter in question. The question put to me by the noble Lord is whether a certain statement in the Times is accurate. It is not accurate as far as it goes. The statement is that Private Collins had his sentence of six months' hard labour for striking a sergeant increased to five years' penal servitude for using a filthy expression to the adjutant, and impliedly for no other offences. The facts are that he was tried and found guilty of (1) using insubordinate language to his superior officer (adjutant); (2) striking his superior officer (provost-sergeant), being in the execution of his duty; (3) using threatening language to the same; (4) striking his superior officer (lance-corporal). He had been twice previously convicted. In these circumstances I do not think the sentence was excessive. I am informed that Private Collins has served nearly ten years. With regard to the question of improvement in the percentage of punishments for offences in the Army, I am able to give the noble Lord some information as to the number of men in the Army who have been tried by court martial. They were, in 1885, .74; in 1886, .70; in 1887, .56; in 1888, .52. The number of minor punishments in the Army at home, exclusive of Royal Artillery, was, in 1885, 134,912; in 1886, 129, 193; in 1887, 116,045; and in 1888, 104,765. The statistics of military prisons were as follows:—Brixton would hold 493, and on the 18th of March contained 117 prisoners; Gosport would hold 166, and contained 120; Taunton would hold 154, and contained 37; Aldershot would hold 162, and contained 52; Chester would hold 164, and contained 97; and Stirling would hold 48, and contained 25; the accommodation, therefore, being 1,187, and the total number of prisoners 448. These figures show a gradual decrease in the number of convictions. As to minor punishments, the figures had been reduced from 134,912 in 1885 to 104,017 in 1888. I am able to say that the military authorities are entirely satisfied with the decrease which has resulted from the summary dealing with military offences, and I hope and have no reason to doubt that the decrease, which I have been glad to state to the noble Lord, will continue in future years.


My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, so far from finding fault with my noble Friend, ought to be glad of the opportunity which this question has afforded him of explaining the real facts of the case has afforded him. What has been the result in this matter? It has been shown that the sentence, which has been held out as one of great severity and hardship, was not given under the circumstances stated by the Times. I should have thought that was a most satisfactory conclusion to have been brought about, and it shows that my noble Friend was justified in asking the question. I congratulate the noble Lord on his having been able to make the very satisfactory statement he has made with regard to the decrease in military offences.


I am quite satisfied, my Lords, with the change that has taken place.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.