The hon. Member suggested that an officer was treated more leniently than a corporal, and he went on to develop a considerable argument—I am within the recollection of the House—that there was discrimination in the exercise of justice in the Army. Perhaps I may be allowed to deal with the question in the same way, that is, first to deal with the case of the corporal on its merits, and then to deal with the case of the officer. At the end I will put to the House whether there has in fact been any discrimination.
The hon. Member recited the history of the case and read out my letter quite accurately, and, as he pointed out, I cannot pretend that he was appeased by my letter. He raised the matter again in the House on 23rd June and brought forward the case of the officer who, on the face of it, had been treated more leniently. The suggestion at that time, if he will remind himself of his supplementary question, was definitely that there was discrimination generally in the treatment of officers and other ranks. It will be within the recollection of the House that the hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) mentioned this suggestion when he asked,
Does not this case bear out the contention that there is a caste system in the Army?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June, 1942; col. 1797, Vol. 380.]
Perhaps I may deal with the contention of the hon. Member about the gravity of the corporal's offence. In reading my letter, he set out the Army Council Instructions, which pointed out that the Army took a very serious view of the theft of petrol, and it has done its best to stimulate courts and confirming officers who deal with cases of theft of petrol to deal with them seriously. The hon. Member made great play both in his speech and in his letter to my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary with the argument that the soldier takes an entirely different kind of view about theft from the view a civilian takes, and that in the Army there is no such thing as stealing; in other words, that a civilian steals things and that a soldier wins or scrounges them. I am asked to believe that this state of affairs is not only inevitable but perfectly reasonable. Indeed, I caught myself wondering during the hon. Member's speech whether he did not regard the theft of petrol as a praiseworthy act.
Whether the hon. Member's description of the Army's attitude to other people's property is accurate or not I do not propose to argue, beyond saying that I do not believe it. It is not in accordance with any experience of mine, and I am sure it is not in accordance with the experience of most other people. All I am concerned with is that petrol stealing is a very serious business indeed, and when we reflect that this commodity is brought to this country by merchant seamen at the risk of their lives, it seems to be going a little far to suggest that the theft of petrol is not only a venial offence but that it is not an offence at all. Then, in his correspondence at any rate, the hon. Member develops another kind of argument, that because so many of these cases of theft or waste are undiscovered, it is unjust to punish offenders who are discovered. I leave hon. Members to reflect at leisure upon the implications of that remark.