HL Deb 07 January 1915 vol 18 cc338-41

My Lords, I desire to ask the Leader of the House whether His Majesty's Government intend to propose an amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act so as to enable British subjects to require a trial before the ordinary Courts of the land when available.


My Lords, the answer which I have to give in reply to my noble and learned friend is in the affirmative. The House remembers, I am sure, the discussion which took place on November 27 last on the amended Defence of the Realm Bill, as it was when it came up to this House, in which several noble and learned Lords of the greatest weight and authority on both sides of the House took part, all objecting to the particular provision whereby it seemed possible that British subjects might, in contravention of some of the most ancient and honoured Statutes under which we live, be tried by Court-Martial and put to death. We pointed out then that to the best of our belief no actual hardship was likely to be inflicted upon individuals, but I am not sure that that defence will be regarded as altogether complete, and His Majesty's Government, having considered the matter, will be prepared, when Parliament is sitting in a manner which enables a Bill to be passed into law, to introduce a Bill modifying that provision. Whether the Bill will be introduced in this House or in another place I am not able to tell my noble and learned friend at this moment. Nor can I say anything as to its actual terms; but he can take it from me that a measure in that. sense will be introduced. And I should hope that, just as I argued before that to the best of our belief no innocent person was likely to be damnified by our proposed legislation, I in turn express the hope on this occasion that no guilty person will profit by the amended legislation which we propose to introduce.


My Lords, I should like to give notice that the action of the Government cannot be expected to pass without comment. No doubt an occasion for full discussion will arise when the Bill is introduced, but at the outset I would like to remind the noble Marquess that this Act to which Lord Loreburn takes exception was passed by the Cabinet, sanctioned by the military and naval authorities, and received the assent of the Law Officers of the Crown, and this particular part of it passed unanimously through the House of Commons. The Act has been in operation for a month, and no abuse can be alleged in respect of its operation. There has been a Court-Martial or two. There was the Court-Martial on Lody, who was a foreigner, but no one will dare allege that that trial was anything but most fair and most complete in all particulars. It is true that this is not the occasion to elaborate the subject, but the noble Marquess has given no explanation whatever for stating that the Cabinet has changed its mind.

When the House last rose, six weeks ago, the Government gave way on this point owing largely to the fact that the noble and learned Earl, Lord Loreburn, had caught them at a most inconvenient hour. I believe that the House as a whole would have supported the Government, but owing to the difficulty caused by the fact of the House of Commons rising the following day, the Government gave way in this sense, that the Lord Chancellor gave a pledge to abrogate for a time the Act which was then passing through this House and which has since received the Royal Assent. He gave that pledge without consulting his colleagues, because it was obvious that the matter was sprung upon the Government. No one expected such violent opposition from any quarter of the House, and the Lord Chancellor gave a pledge that until Parliament reassembled the Act, so far as concerned individuals convicted by Court-Martial, should be abrogated. Well, Parliament has reassembled, and, as I interpreted that pledge, the pledge has now expired; and if any person, British subject or foreigner, is tried and convicted by a Court-Martial to-morrow under the Defence of the Realm Act the military authorities are entitled to execute him.


My Lords, I desired to maintain silence, but the noble Earl constrains me to speak. This Act to which he refers was introduced into this House at 11 o'clock at night, and the next day it was passed through all its stages before 7 o'clock. I took the only opportunity that I had of drawing attention to this defect., and the noble Earl is kind enough to think that I took advantage of the opportunity that I had—


I did not mean that.


He did not mean anything except what was perfectly courteous, I am quite sure. I have no more to say as to that. The noble Earl's proposition apparently is this, that whereas the Government have seen reason to agree to act in the way which Lord Halsbury, no mean authority; Lord Parmoor, no Mean authority; Lord Bryce and myself recommended, and think that a man being tried for his life ought to be tried by a Judge of the land and by a jury when available, the noble Earl proposes that in the interval between restoring that power the Government shall practise the right to have a man executed under the system we condemn. Therefore I must ask the Leader of the -House or the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack whether we are to understand that until this Amending Bill is brought in people will not be deprived of their lives by sentence of a Court-Martial under the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act. I presume that the undertaking continues?

THE MARQUESS OF CREWE nodded assent.


My Lords, I ought, perhaps, to say one word lest my silence may convey an improper implication. On the last occasion when the subject came up and when my noble friends Lord Halsbury and Lord Parmoor expressed the views that they did, I observed a judicious silence. I propose to do so On the merits of the question now. But it is only fair to let the noble and learned Earl know that, having had some idea that he was going to use his persuasive powers, which we know to be abnormal, on His Majesty's Ministers in the interim, and having a suspicion that if he did direct those batteries on them they would sooner or later give way, I consulted the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Lansdowne, on the matter; and I must frankly tell my noble friend opposite that from the remarks that were made by Lord Halsbury and Lord Parmoor on the occasion to which he refers he would not be wise in deducing the conclusion that men of the highest authority and weight on our side are not altogether averse from the course that he is going to pursue. I do not say how far their opinions would influence the conduct of my noble friend and those who sit on this side of the House, but I detected in his few remarks a strain almost of belief that because the Government had agreed to this introduction of an Amending Bill its passage into law was certain. I should not like the noble Earl to carry away that impression; and without making any observations as to my own opinion on the matter, I have out of courtesy to him thought it desirable to let him know the fact.