HL Deb 04 June 1957 vol 204 cc202-10

2.56 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is quite a substantial measure and it covers the whole field of naval discipline which, with the disciplinary Acts of the other two Services, has been under close examination in recent years. Since the war, naval discipline was first examined by a Committee sitting under Mr. Justice Pilcher in 1948. The recommendations of this Committtee are almost entirely included in this Act, but the Admiralty wished to go further. A Select Committee was therefore set up under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Spens, and I wish to express my gratitude to them for the speed and thoroughness with which they examined the subject. Indeed, the proposals which we now have in front of us in the form of this Bill are substantially those which they drew up with only a comparatively few minor changes.

In effect, this Bill is modernising the Naval Discipline Act, 1866, which, in its turn, succeeded Acts starting with 1661, 1749 and 1847. That is to say, this is the fourth major Act in three centuries. Prior to that, the Articles of War had been laid down by the Commonwealth Parliament in 1653, and these in turn had been largely drawn from the non-statutory provisions of the Book of Oleron according to which crimes were dealt with According to the law and customs of the sea. These customs appear to have been of great antiquity and they are graphically described by Professor M. A. Lewis in the introduction to Naval Court Martial Procedure in the current edition of B.R.11 (1954). They seem to have gone back through the ages to a remote period of antiquity, back through Roman times to the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon. In the words of Professor Lewis this was: a deep pool of universal maritime custom. In this Bill, either the uncertainties of these laws and customs are terminated or it is proposed to incorporate them in a formal Statute. In particular the Bill lays down maximum penalties for offences. The general basis on which the Bill proceeds is to bring naval discipline in line with the Army and Air Force Acts (which were recently passed) except in so far as there is some compelling naval reason which makes it necessary to take a different course. The main reason why this is necessary is that the Navy is a highly mobile force, and the lines of its future organisation suggest that it will so continue and indeed perhaps become more so. It is not very practicable to conduct courts martial nowadays except in port, and in any case it would be necessary to draw members of the court martial from at least two ships and therefore to have two ships present. For this reason courts martial are more rare in the Navy than in the other two Services. They are presided over by senior officers.

The second reason for the difference is that in the Navy a distinction is not generally drawn between active Service and peace-time service, as is done in other Services. Lack of discipline in the Navy may endanger the safety of a ship at any time. It is therefore very necessary that the captain should continue to act as a magistrate of the community as well as a guardian in these other respects of the welfare and safety of the crew. It is for these reasons that Clause 49 of the Bill makes no change in the disciplinary powers of the commanding officer.

I will not attempt to go through all the clauses, because they have been published for some time, but perhaps I may mention some of the more important ones. At the present time, the Navy has no power to try civil offences committed in this country outside ships and naval premises. Clause 48 proposes that the Navy should have the same jurisdiction as the Army and the Royal Air Force in regard to civil offences in this country—that is to say, all offences except treason, murder, manslaughter, treason-felony and rape. The jurisdiction of the civil courts would, of course, continue to operate wherever they might wish to do so, but the Home Office have expressed their willingness to enter into an agreement with the Admiralty, similar to that which they have with the War Office and the Air Ministry, governing the kind of cases which would normally be handed over to the Service authorities. For example, any offence affecting the property or person of a civilian would be tried in the civil courts. Clause 129, however, makes it clear that a conviction in either court, civil or naval, is a bar to further proceedings in either court.

The death penalty is no longer mandatory for any Service offence, but it is retained as a maximum penalty for a number of offences committed with the intent to assist the enemy or to impede the operations of Her Majesty's Forces or Allies. Clause 8 gives the definition of mutiny, which is identical to that already contained in the Army and Air Force Acts. This is necessary because mutiny may arise by communication between members of two of the Services. It is perhaps worth remarking here that only one capital sentence has been carried out in the Navy in the last 100 years.

Clause 71 (1) (b) defines the powers of the Admiralty in the manner which is now necessary following the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act of 1951. A Serviceman has to petition a Service Department before he can appeal to the Courts Martial Appeal Court. This is obviously necessary as a filter for the Appeal Court, but it follows from this that the reviewing authority must have the same powers as the Appeal Court. If the Appeal Court is not satisfied that the accused was guilty of the offence of which the court martial convicted him, but is satisfied of facts necessary to convict him of some other offence of which the court martial could have found him guilty, the Appeal Court can substitute the one finding for the other.

If the Admiralty did not have this power, they might find themselves reviewing a trial in which they disagreed with the court martial but were unable to substitute another finding which they thought should be substituted. In such a case, they would be left with no option but to quash the conviction, because they could not uphold it, and hope that the accused would appeal to the Appeal Court, who could substitute the alternative finding. This power is, I am sure, necessary, but it does not, of course, in any way restrict the accused's right to appeal to the Courts Martial Appeal Court, whatever course the Admiralty may adopt. These powers are also identical with those held by the Army Council and the Air Council.

The other important change from the proposals of the Select Committee is in the composition of courts martial. The Select Committee suggested that this should be confined to persons holding permanent commissions and on the General List The Government felt that this was too restrictive and should include officers on the Supplementary and Special Duties Lists, who have been eligible to sit in the past and who, in certain cases, might be specially suitable to sit on courts martial. This is particularly the case in regard to flying offences, because a fairly large number of pilots are on 12-year engagements.

The other recommendation of the Select Committee was that half the members of the court martial should be holding a watchkeeping certificate. This would, of course, continue the predominance of the old-style executive officers. Although it will no doubt be necessary to limit the number of non-seamen on a court martial, at any rate for the time being, it would be wrong to fix a definite limitation by Statute. Clause 54 (4) provides that the members of the court shall not be drawn exclusively from the same ship as the accused. Moreover, by regulation, the governing authority will be personally charged with the responsibility for ensuring, so far as possible, that the courts are impartial and suitably experienced.

A peculiarity of naval discipline is, of course, that the safety of the whole ship's company may well depend on the proper execution of his duty by one or two members of the shin company. That is still as essential as it ever was, and it is now possible to obtain that standard of discipline without falling back on forms of punishment which were once thought necessary. Indeed, it is fair to say that the severity or brutality of naval punishment has long since ceased to exist; in fact, I suspect that there are many people who believe that naval discipline as practised is much more severe than it really is. I doubt if there are many people to-day who really think that such punishments as keel-hauling or flogging are still resorted to in the Navy. But if there are any, I can assure them that it is many decades—in fact, almost a century—since either of these punishments has been used.

I should like to add that since holding my present office I have had the task of seeing a number of courts martial proceedings, and I am struck by the meticulous care with which these cases are examined and the manner in which justice is done, both in the spirit and in the letter of the law. I believe that this Bill is in line with what we think right and proper to-day, and I recognise that any penal system must necessarily depend on the imagination and sympathy with which it is administered. This Bill retains something of the flavour of the naval approach to this problem and is, I believe, a worthy successor to the great Naval Discipline Acts of the past. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty for the manner in which he has introduced this Bill and for the care which he has taken to give an exposition of its more important clauses. It would seem that we are now bringing to an end the difficult discussions that were going on in the years immediately succeeding the end of the last war. I know that my noble friend Lord Hall, who at the time was First Lord of the Admiralty, and I, as Defence Minister, were very anxious to have the position cleared up but still be able to retain all those essential features distinctive to the Royal Navy which needed to be preserved in any disciplinary legislation, I must say that the Pilcher Committee and the Select Committee, under the Chairmanship of Sir Patrick Spens, have done a remarkably fine job. I watched with a certain amount of interest and—I will not say with either apprehension or anxiety, but with helpful curiousity, to find out what would be the results of their labours.

I have read the Bill carefully and I must say that I can understand it. I often found that, as a layman, I did not understand the old Naval Discipline Act so well, and I had to rely on the advice of the Judge Advocate or on what other legal advice was available to me at the time. I feel that the personnel of the Royal Navy, from the quarter deck to the humblest rating, could, with a little care and attention, easily understand every clause of this Bill. I think, with respect to the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack, that that is how the law ought to be made. There is a great deal in our legislation to-day that still makes it necessary for one to take the advice of numerous counsel before one can find out exactly what Parliament is supposed to have intended, but I do not think that there can be any dubiety about the manner in which this piece of legislation has been drafted.

I should like to say how much I welcome the Bill. I have looked round the House to see whether we have been favoured with the attendance of the number of professional naval men who are Members of your Lordships' House; but they must think very well of this Bill, for they have not wanted to come along to hear or join in the Second Reading debate. The only point on which I thought some of them might have desired to say something was the clause which he First Lord explained with regard to the constitution of courts martial, and the different procedure which is now possible from that which was usually practised under the old Naval Discipline Act. I take it from what the noble Earl said that care will always be taken to see that the court martial includes an executive officer, although I agree it would be wise, as he suggests, to draw on a wider field to make up the members of the court martial. I do not wish to comment further on the Bill which I think is a great step forward. It is pleasing to see that in the Statute-to-be we have left out powers which, if they had been in use, could have kept in being a good many of the more cruel punishments that were perpetrated in days gone by. Certainly they have not been in use in the Royal Navy for a considerable time; now, by this Bill, that is confirmed by law.

There is only one other matter to which I should like to refer. I was reading with great interest subsection (5) of Clause 111, dealing with such organisations as the Women's Royal Naval Service and Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service, which are excluded from the operation of the Bill. In thinking of that, I should like to pay two tributes. The first is to the general conduct and discipline in the Navy, which has stood this country in great stead in many dangerous and difficult situations. That, I know from my experience of nearly nine years as First Lord of the Admiralty.

The second tribute is to the first on the list of bodies excluded from the operation of the Bill, the Women's Royal Naval Service. I expect that some people have had doubts from time to time as to whether or not suct an important and great serving body as the Women's Royal Naval Service should be subjected to naval discipline. But I am bound to say, looking back over the years, how much we owe to the general conduct and deportment of that great Service, and to the interest displayed in it by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent; to the magnificently constructive work of Dame Lawton Matthews, and especially of one who is well known in this House, The Marchioness of Cholmondeley and of one who is now dead and gone, but whom I shall never forget for her service to the Women's Royal Naval Service, Miss Goodenough, who died on service in Ceylon. I think the decision of the Board of Admiralty not to include the Women's Royal Naval Service in the Naval Discipline Act has been amply justified and borne out by the magnificent service they have rendered, and the admirable conduct of that body through all the years. Generally speaking, of course, we can apply the same reasoning and tribute to Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service. I have much pleasure in supporting the Second Reading of the Bill.

3.13 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Viscount who has just sat down will believe me when I say that I am not going to attempt to step into any breach created by the absence of noble Admirals, but I want to say a word or two in support of this Bill from the point of view of our defence arrangements, as a whole. Among the many merits that I think this Bill has is the merit that it brings the disciplinary arrangements for the Royal Navy much more into line with the arrangements for discipline in the other two Services. I am sure that is right. Whilst one recognises that there must be special arrangements for sailors at sea, just as there must be for airmen in the air, nowadays the sailor on shore, the airman on the ground and the soldier are all much the same people. For that reason, I am sure that this Bill represents a great step forward, particularly in the sense that it brings one more of our administrative arrangements for the Services into line each with the other, which I am sure is the policy we should pursue in every direction. Therefore, I warmly support this Bill, not merely because of the great traditions it enshrines but because I believe it to be a Bill suited for all ranks of the Royal Navy at the present time.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I thank noble Lords for the support they have given to the Bill. It is a subject which may be highly controversial, and I am grateful for the welcome the Bill has been given. There is not much else that I have to say. The noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, asked about the structure of courts martial. That is entirely a matter for the convening officer. I think I am right in saying that there is no absolute assurance that there will be a seaman officer on the court at all. I think it is most improbable that that situation will ever arise, but, as I say, there is no assurance in the Bill that that will be the case, due, as the noble Viscount is aware, to the, new officer structure in the Navy. I think that is the right approach, and I am sure he will agree when he thinks this over.

I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for what he said. I agree with him. I think it is absolutely right, when we are thinking more and more in terms of combined Service operations, that a common disciplinary code should, so far as possible, run through the Services; and, indeed, that is the intention. The noble Viscount. Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, referred to the Women's Royal Naval Service and Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service. I entirely agree with what he said, and I think the Navy owes a great deal to those two Services. I am sure they will warmly appreciate the words the noble Viscount has spoken, coming from one who held the high office of First Lord for so long. I am glad to know of the high regard he still retains for the sense of discipline in the Royal Navy, and for his reiteration of the high duties and high responsibilities which they have fulfilled in the service of this country, which I am certain they will continue to fulfil in the future.

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