HL Deb 29 May 1906 vol 158 cc242-4


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is another Bill which is very much wanted, and I do not think it is in any way contentious. The object of Clause 1 is to provide a summary punishment for persons who make fraudulent use of good conduct certificates of discharge granted to seamen, soldiers, and marines. As the law stands at present it appears to be a misdemeanour at common law to forge a character or to utter a forged character, and presumably a person who personated the holder of a discharge certificate in order to obtain any advantage for himself would be guilty of cheating at common law; but these offences are punishable on indictment and not summarily. A precedent for a summary penalty is furnished by the Servants' Characters Act, but that Act clearly does not apply to soldiers' characters. As there are at present a large number of discharged soldiers, it is important to protect them and also the public against impostors. The power to proceed summarily will not interfere with the power to proceed by indictment in an aggravated case.

As showing the necessity for the legislation proposed by this clause I have had a great many typical cases furnished to me. I will only trouble your Lordships with two or three. In February, 1897, a man attempted to obtain employment at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, by means of a discharge certificate which he subsequently admitted was forged by himself. The Treasury Solicitor advised that no action could be taken. In August of the same year another man presented a certificate, subsequently proved to be a forgery, at the Employment Registry of the London Recruiting District. In this case the Treasury Solicitor advised that process should be applied for against him under the Servants Characters Act. This was done, but the magistrate at Bow Street refused the application on the ground that the Act applied only to domestic servants. In January, 1903, a man presented a certificate in which the original character had been erased and "excellent" had been inserted. The case was brought to notice by Lloyd's Patriotic Fund, but no action appears to have been taken.

The object of Clause 2 of this Bill is to prevent false characters being given by men offering themselves for enlistment. This provision has become all the more necessary now that a character is required from all persons who enlist. The clause also makes it an offence to give a false character if the person giving it allows or intends it to be used for the purposes of enrolment or enlistment in the Navy or Army. The clause is intentionally drawn so as to be wide enough to include false characters given by persons other than employers, such, for instance, as a friend or an acquaintance, or a schoolmaster. I have a number of curious cases showing the necessity of this clause. In February, 1904, a man came up at one of the out-stations and gave a reference which provided him with a good character for seven years. He was duly enlisted. He said he had never been convicted, but shortly after he had joined something cropped up which caused a letter to be written to the police about him. From the answer received it appeared that there was a long list of civil convictions against him, and that he had spent the whole of the seven years in prison and was known to the police as the worst man in the county. The man who had furnished him with this seven years' good character turned out to be his own brother in-law, who said he gave it to him as he wanted to get rid of him.

There was another case of a man who was discharged from the Army with ignominy. He re-enlisted, and was again discharged with ignominy. He enlisted a third time at Cardiff, and a character was obtained from a man to the effect that he had employed this individual for five years up to within the previous ten days, and that he had never served in the Army. The object of the Clause is to put a stop to proceedings of this kind. Clause 3 has been inserted for reversing the decision which was given in a recent case, to the effect that Section 16 of the Naval Enlistment Act, 1853, which imposes penalties on persons who make or give false statements upon entering or offering themselves for naval service, does not apply to a man entering the Naval Reserve Force. The ground of the decision seems to have been that as no Naval Reserve had been constituted at the time of the passing of the Act of 1853, and the nature of service in the Reserve Force is of an entirely different character from that of service in the Navy, the Act of 1853 would not apply to service in the Reserve without an express enactment to that effect. This is a Bill of considerable importance and of some urgency, and I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Portsmouth.)


I hope the language of the Bill is not that used by the noble Earl. I presume that the intention of the clause is not to reverse the decision, but to alter the law in accordance with the decision, which was rightly given in the case to which he referred, and to prevent that difficulty occurring again.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday the 14th of June, next.