Orders of the Day — Army Offences (Sentences).

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 9th July 1942.

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Mr. Robertson:

Twenty-one years. The corporal was court-martialled and convicted of stealing War Department petrol to the value of 3s. 7d. He was sentenced to be reduced to the ranks and to serve six months in detention barracks, and 3s. 7d., the cost of the petrol, was stopped from his pay. The finding of the court-martial was confirmed, except that the sentence of six months was reduced to three months. The father, who was a citizen soldier in the last war and was severely wounded in the lungs, took the view that the sentence was much too severe. I shared that view, and I at once approached the Secretary of State for War, on the telephone and in writing, urging that the case should be reviewed immediately, with a view to releasing the corporal from detention. I am sure that the detention barracks system of punishment was not devised to deal with the stealing of 3s. 7d. worth of petrol. I drew the attention of the Secretary of State to the system of "scrounging," or "winning," things in the Army, and pointed out that the soldier does not regard such a matter in the same light as civilians do. Much of the soldier's pay is in kind. Everything is provided for him, including free railway passes home four times a year. It was not a heinous offence to take petrol in order to get home on a fifth occasion. Hon. Members get free railway passes to their constituencies every week; I wonder how we should feel if we got home only once every three months.

There is a petrol shortage; but, even now, taxis can be obtained to get to race meetings or to dog meetings. I passed the White City the other Saturday, and there were rows of taxicabs outside. They can be hired in order to go to the theatre. Anyone owning a blood mare can get petrol to see it in training or at a race meeting. A friend of mine in Buckinghamshire has a petrol allowance for that purpose. People at Maidenhead recently complained that they could not get seats in public service vehicles because there were so many Service men using the vehicles. Two large motor buses were immediately put on to take the Service personnel back to barracks. That does not indicate such a serious shortage of petrol as would be suggested by this sentence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air, in an interview with an American newspaper correspondent recently, said that he intended to fight for an allowance of petrol to enable his pilots to get home, just as this corporal wanted to get home. I find it difficult to reconcile those facts with the savage sentence passed on my constituent.

I recollect that appeals were being made in the House, and published throughout the country, to motorists to give lifts to men of the Forces. Like other hon. Members, I have given lifts to many men. In the majority of cases, these fellows were on 48 hours' leave, were going home, had not a railway warrant, and were hitch-hiking. To the great credit of the British public, they responded to those appeals. The young man about whom I am speaking was going home, but he was using two gallons of petrol which he was not entitled to take and which he ought to have been punished for taking, but not punished in this way—36 days under close arrest awaiting trial, three months in detention barracks, reduced to the ranks, with the stoppage of pay involved. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for War looked into the case. He was most sympathetic and I think he shared my views, but something occurred which threw the case on to his senior, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, whom I approached in February, when I learned that the case had passed from the hands of the Joint Under-Secretary of State. The Secretary of State wrote to me as follows: I have now had an opportunity of looking into the case of Corporal—— Your suggestion that I should intervene to have this soldier's sentence remitted raises an important question of principle. As you probably know, the whole tendency in the Army nowadays is towards decentralisation, and this tendency has been actively encouraged by the War Office, and I had always understood that it had the full support of the House. The sphere in which decentralisation has been carried out in the last 12 months includes court martial procedure among other things, although the powers under which this particular sentence was promulgated were already decentralised before the recent reforms. I should, therefore, be most reluctant to interfere with a sentence which had already been reviewed and promulgated by the proper military authority unless I were absolutely convinced that it was essential to do so in the interests of the Army— not of the individual, but of the Army— I find it quite impossible to take this view in the present case. It was represented to the War Office last summer that large quantities of petrol were being stolen and in general the Army took the same view of this offence as you put forward in your letter. An Army Council Instruction was accordingly issued bringing to the notice of all ranks that the use of War Department petrol in private vehicles was forbidden and that anyone caught using it was liable to be tried by court martial for stealing and if found guilty to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. This was published three times in unit orders. There can, therefore, be no question but that the Army has had full warning of the way in which cases of this sort would be treated. I should also point out that Corporal was a non-commissioned officer in a unit which had to deal with large quantities of petrol. Pilfering of petrol in such a unit is a very serious matter and the commission of the offence by a non-commissioned officer is doubly serious. In the circumstances I am afraid that I cannot accept your suggestion that I should overrule the findings of the court. I put a question about the matter in the House, and although the reply was unsatisfactory, I felt it was undesirable to carry the matter further. Right from the beginning I have struggled to avoid publicity. I am so proud of the British Army that I do not want to reveal details of a case which must reflect on the administration of the Army. For that reason I decided to drop the matter, although I realised that the corporal would have to carry the stain of this conviction and imprisonment with him to the end of his days, and that if any civilian employer asked him if he was in trouble in the Army, he would be obliged to confess his crime, and it might cloud the whole of his future career. Shortly after the corporal was released from prison, he called at the House, with his father, to thank me for my unsuccessful efforts, and I then earned with amazement that an officer in the same company had committed a similar but greater offence at the same time, had been tried and convicted by a court martial, and sentenced to be dismissed from His Majesty's Service. The G.O.C.—presumably the same officer as dealt with the corporal—confirmed the findings of the court martial, but he altered the sentence from dismissal to a severe reprimand. When this extraordinary decision was published in company orders, a number of the men were naturally indignant at the treatment meted out to the corporal, and they approached the serjeant-major and asked whether he could explain the extraordinary operation of the Army Act which caused a noncommissioned officer to be dealt with with such severity and an officer with such leniency. The sergeant-major could offer no explanation. It was quite beyond his powers.

I reopened the matter with the War Office, and I told them I intended putting down a Question, and I did so with two motives in mind. Firstly, so that there should be ample time to prepare their case, and, secondly, I hoped that the Secretary of State for War would see me privately and take some steps to recompense the corporal, by expunging his case from the records, or by some other action, and at the same time give me an assurance that in future justice in the Army would be administered in a proper manner. After waiting a month, during which time he made no approach to me, I put down the Question which I have read to the House. Perhaps it is just as well that the matter has been ventilated, because, if sufficient notice is taken of this case, it can only be for the ultimate benefit of the Army. No system in which injustice applies can ever succeed. Unlike an N.C.O. or a private, an officer receives all his income in cash.