HL Deb 13 August 1940 vol 117 cc194-201

5.48 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill intends to confer such powers as are necessary to implement the negotiations which have been taking place, and which are still being carried on, between His Majesty's Government and certain foreign Governments and authorities which are maintaining Forces in this country. Legislation is necessary to give full extra-territorial status to the Service codes, the Service Courts and authorities of Forces belonging to foreign Governments—to give the instances alphabetically, those of Belgium, Czecho-Slovakia, Holland, Norway and Poland—and to provide an adequate legal basis for the Service codes, Services Courts and authorities of Forces raised by an authority which is not a Sovereign Government—namely, in the particular case of the Forces under the command of General de Gaulle. Thirdly, it is required to enable British authorities, whether Service or civil, to provide the necessary machinery for enforcement.

Clause 1 (1) confers extra-territorial status on the Service Courts and authorities of sovereign foreign Powers allied with His Majesty. This corresponds with a similar provision in the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act, 1933, relating to Dominion Forces in the United Kingdom; and subsection (2) confers power on any foreign authority which is recognised by His Majesty to lay down a Service code, based on the national code of the country from which that Force came, for the Force whilst it is serving in the United Kingdom, and to set up the necessary Courts and authorities to administer the code, as in the case of the French Forces at present in this country. Subsection (3) enables various provisions of the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act, 1933, to be applied with the necessary modifications in relation to the foreign Forces concerned.

The principal matters in subsection (3) are those which affect the arrest of deserters from these Forces, the holding of foreign service men in imprisonment, and the power to billet foreign troops. The main purpose is to provide the necessary legal and administrative machinery for enforcing the jurisdiction conferred, and for affording to these Forces facilities similar to those which have previously been, and are now being, afforded to Dominion Forces at present serving in this country. In the application of subsections (5) and (6) of the Visiting Forces (British Commonwealth) Act, 1933, the subsection enables His Majesty to make corresponding provision in the Colonies or Mandated Territories where these foreign Forces may be operating. Clause 2 saves the jurisdiction of civil Courts in respect to offences under the ordinary law of this country, and generally speaking it places members of these foreign Forces in the same position as members of His Majesty's Forces. It is proposed to set up machinery which will secure that offenders who ought to be dealt with by the civil Courts of this country will be handed over for that purpose.

Clause 3 meets the case where, owing to the necessity of close co-operation between our own Forces and these foreign Forces, you have a small section or body of the troops of one of these foreign Forces working with or under the command of a superior British Force. If I may give an example, there are certain airmen of these foreign Forces who are at present working with our flights and squadrons, and in that case it is necessary to have some provision in order that they may be dealt with in questions of discipline. In particular, the clause provides for Courts Martial, comprising officers not only of the foreign Force concerned, but also British officers of the Force in which this small body or section of men may at the time be operating. Clause 4 provides for variation or revocation of Orders in Council—that is subsection (1); and subsection (2) is necessary because there is no foreign Government in this country to print it. Clause 5 provides for the Title and duration of the Act. It includes provision for continuing sentences passed before the Act expires.

There is one point which possibly may have occurred to your Lordships, and certainly gave some of us a moment's consideration in our desire to get this measure carried quickly, and that was the possibility that there might be codes of discipline in the foreign countries concerned which might possibly have given offence to the people of this country; but we have made very careful inquiry and we find that the foreign codes concerned, whilst naturally differing in certain respects from ours, are not in fact so widely different as in our opinion would cause any trouble of that description. The legislation is urgent because these Forces are now all being trained and organised, and it is already apparent that they are likely to be of very great advantage to the strength of our cause. They are in many parts of this country already, and have been very much welcomed by our people there. They are very gallant fighting men, most of them tried veterans, who have already been in the field, and it is essential that legislation such as this should be passed at the earliest possible moment, in order to regularise the position. For that reason I ask your Lordships to assent to the Second Reading of the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Croft.)

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, this is an important Bill and I am glad that it has originated in your Lordships' House. My noble friends and myself have given it close examination, and we want to support the Bill. I have only two observations to make in regard to the text of the Bill. As far as I read Clause 1 (1), you may have a case of British and French seamen serving together in a man-of-war, which may be a British or French man-of-war, and they are subjected to different codes of discipline and different regulations. The noble Lord very naturally mentioned the case in another connection of the small military force of one of our gallant Allies serving under British command. He naturally would think of the military case, which is simple. But on board ship I can foresee perhaps some little friction, and this may have been allowed for—I do not know. I am quite sure, of course, that with tact and good sense all difficulties can be got over, and no doubt will be, but I think it just worth while to draw attention to that fact as I read the Bill.

Presumably British seamen will not be subject to the French naval code and French seamen will not be subject to the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, the Naval Discipline Acts and our own articles of war; they will each be subject to their own code. Now is that the case? You have in one case a British man-of-war with French seamen on board, and you have the other case of a French man-of-war for which General de Gaulle's Forces are not able to supply the full crew for the time being, and you reinforce them with British officers and ratings. How does the Bill apply there? It seems a slightly complicated situation. In the last war we had a similar situation to this once or twice, but there was no difficulty at all so far as I know. We had not then the benefit of this Bill which no doubt will become an Act.

May I now refer to Clause 3 subsection (1) which deals with the setting up of mixed Courts Martial? If I may say so, that is a very good arrangement indeed. It would have been most useful to us in one or two cases in the last war. Take, for example, the situation at Gibraltar. We had there an extraordinary mixture of warships for the great convoy services which we ran through the Western Mediterranean from Gibraltar across the Atlantic, and up to the English Channel, down to South Africa, and so on. We had under the command of a British Admiral there a very powerful American force—they had actually more warships than we had—our own of course, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Brazilian, six different nationalities. Once or twice we had visits from Japanese men-of-war, though they were generally at the end east of Malta. They were in the Eastern Mediterranean, and came under a different organisation. The escorts of the convoys were mixed as well. We would send convoys with perhaps warships of three nationalities as escort, and the senior officer in command, whoever he might be. It might have led to all sorts of difficulties, but in fact there was none. We worked together as a very happy team.

When offences were committed—and there were some offences—we used to get over the difficulty of deciding who was to blame and what the circumstances were by setting up a mixed court of inquiry—I hope this will not shock my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack, for I do not know whether the procedure was authorised or not—consisting of officers of different nationalities. There was no Act like this Bill in existence. In fact it was in practice a Court Martial. If there was blame attributable, the findings and the report in any case went to the competent authority, and it was the responsibility of the senior naval officer or Admiral of the officer concerned, if he was not a British officer, to hold a Court Martial subsequently. This provision in Clause 3 would have been very useful at that time. We had not many cases, but there were two or three serious cases and we had to do it on the spot. The report of our Court was sent to Rome or Lisbon or wherever it might be that the country of the officer concerned had its seat of government. This question of jurisdiction in regard to foreign men-of-war is sometimes a little complicated. I apologise for dealing only with the naval side, but I am content to leave the military side in the able hands of my noble friend Lord Croft. I remember a case of a Russian man-of-war which had a minor mutiny on board in the harbour of Hong Kong. They sentenced one of the crew to death by hanging, and asked permission to hang him in the port. Permission was refused, and they had to go to sea to carry out the sentence. That was in the old Russian Navy before the Russo-Japanese war.

I venture these few observations, and I do not expect an immediate reply. I dare say the only matter of substance to which I have referred is the clarification that I have suggested might be made in Clause 1, subsection (1). The language is not too clear, as is often the case in Acts of Parliament, and these words have now to be translated into six different languages. My noble friend read out the names of the countries which have Forces serving here, and I for one hope the number will be added to. My noble friend wound up his very clear explanation of the Bill with some remarks about the stationing of these Allied contingents in this country, and how welcome they were to the inhabitants. May I just re-echo the sentiments expressed by my noble friend? These contingents, some of them small, some large, and all of them growing in size as the nationals can escape, are symbols of their countries. In certain cases they are very substantial contingents of high military value already, and they are helping us in this great cause on which we have embarked. I am informed, for example, that the French contingents are being added to every day, as Frenchmen are able to escape from the intolerable situation in which they feel they have been placed. Undoubtedly, as time goes on, this process will be enlarged, and more of these splendid Allies of ours will come to help us in the common cause. All the accounts I get about their treatment in the country districts where they are billeted coincide exactly with what my noble friend has said.

I understand also a great deal has been done to make their lot happy, and that is particularly necessary in the case of the free Frenchmen who follow the lead of General de Gaulle. I believe a little more could be done in that direction. We are speaking now of discipline. Discipline in the last resort depends on contentment and willing acceptance of the state of affairs. I suggest a little more might be done—I am sure the War Office have this very much in mind—to make the lot, particularly of these French Allies of ours, as easy as possible. Many of them are in a difficult position. Their families may be in occupied France, they are worried about them very naturally, by their very presence here they are doing us a very great service in this war, and everything we can do in return—I am sure it is being done—should be done to see that their interest is kept alive and our hospitality extended to them in every possible direction. I am certain that will repay us many times. On behalf of my noble friends I am glad to support the Bill.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support and the manner in which he has expressed it. I shall only say with regard to the questions he has asked that I give the instance of the Air Force as typical. Under Clause 3 you might have small contingents of these foreign Forces under British command in large formations, but that same principle applies to the question of ships. In British ships certainly this question is mainly covered under Clause 3 by the Naval Discipline Act, if there are any foreign Forces on board. There is no doubt about that. The French code will apply only to minor offences. It is conceivable that you might have a purely French ship, and in that case they would carry out the French code, as is made legitimate under this Bill we are now discussing. With regard to the interesting reminiscences of the noble Lord at Gibraltar in the last war, the experience he found there will also be found in the mixed Courts Martial proposed in this Bill, and I am very glad he supports the principle of these mixed Courts Martial.

There is only one other word I would say, and that is with regard to the contentment of these Forces. That is very much in our minds. I have myself arranged for officers to go to most of these camps of the foreign Forces in the last fortnight. There are not a great number of Polish-speaking people, for instance, who could entertain and provide for the welfare of the Polish Forces, although great things have been done in certain cities, but the British Council has in some cases sent a good linguist who understands the problem to help, so that the advantages of welfare and lectures which we are attempting to extend to the British Forces may also be extended to these foreign troops. I can assure my noble friend that this is a policy which has been very actively pursued recently. We are anxious that these gallant men, who are sacrificing so much and risking so much in many cases, as the noble Lord has pointed out, should be made to feel at home, and we intend to give them every kind of advantage that we are giving to our own Forces.


May I ask one question, by leave of the House? Would my noble friend consider having an explanatory memorandum issued with this Bill as soon as possible for the use of our own officers?


I will consider that. I am hoping that this measure really is not so complicated, but I will certainly give consideration to the suggestion.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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