Orders of the Day — Army Offences (Sentences).

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

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Photo of Sir James Grigg Sir James Grigg , Cardiff East

The hon. Member's own words were: Is there not something wrong with a system which punishes the corpora] so severely and lets the officer off so lightly? "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June, 1942; col. 1797, Vol. 380.] I was in the process of saying, when the hon. Member interrupted me, that I did not propose to deal with the caste system, as he expressly disclaimed it. Perhaps the House will allow me to make a few preliminary observations. I am now dealing with the discrimination issue in regard to the punishments prescribed by the Army Act. The punishments awarded in individual cases for offences which on the face of them are very similar do undoubtedly differ, not only between officers and other ranks but between soldiers of the same rank, apart from differences in the circumstances of the case, and no two sets of circumstances are exactly the same.

The difference also arises for other reasons. In the first place—and it is a very important consideration—in assessing sentence the past record and services of the individual are taken into account, and although I do not wish to pontificate on a subject of which I know nothing I understand that is the position in civil justice also. Then we have the fact that the Army Act prescribes a different set of punishments for the officer and for the soldier, not at all because of the existence of any caste system or a desire to discriminate or to treat one more leniently than the other, but because the circumstances are different and because the consequences of punishments to officers and other ranks are different. For the soldier there is, in this case, but for the officer there is not, the punishment of detention, which is not the gross sort of imprisonment which the hon. Member suggested, t is a remedial kind of confinement which allows a man to go on with his military training in a good many directions. For an officer, no punishment is provided—I am talking about the Army Act—short of dismissal, except a severe reprimand or a reprimand.

There are, of course, more severe punishments than dismissal, such as cashiering and even imprisonment. In this matter it is necessary to bear in mind that a sentence of dismissal or cashiering not only ends a man's career as an officer but makes it extremely difficult for him to get a livelihood in civil life. Undoubtedly a sentence of imprisonment on an officer inevitably involves the determination of his military career; so that the punishment does not fall quite equally on the two classes. In the light of these considerations let us consider the case of the officer. The officer was sentenced to dismissal. The one consideration which the hon. Member has left out is that the court-martial, which, heard all the evidence, recommended him to mercy. In military law, a recommendation to mercy is a very rare occurrence and a very significant one. Perhaps I might be permitted to quote from the Manual of Military Law. For hon. Members who may want to refer to it I will gve the reference: Chapter 5, paragraph 84, page 62. The Manual of Military Law on that page says: In view of the discretion of the court in the matter of awarding sentence, recommendation to mercy will be exceptional. It will usually be made only when the court, though unwilling to pass a lenient sentence lest the offence should be considered a venial one, think that, owing to the offender's character or other exceptional circumstances, he should not suffer the full penalty which the offence would otherwise demand. Recommendation to mercy has to be promulgated as well as a confirmation of the proceedings, and promulgation therefore would make it clear that the offence of which the accused was convicted was a serious one, deserving, in normal circumstances, a sentence of dismissal; but that the confirming officer accepted the opinion of the court that, owing to the offender's character or other exceptional circumstances, a sentence of dismissal was greater than the accused deserved. As a recommendation to mercy is such a rare occurrence and can only be made in exceptional circumstances, it is a consideration to which a confirming officer must pay serious attention. This officer was aged 50, so that there was no question of his being called up in the ranks and going on with his military career exactly as if nothing had happened. Dismissal would have fallen with great severity on him. He would have found the greatest difficulty at his age in living down his disgrace and in finding any means of livelihood. He had previously had a good record in this war and he had served throughout the last war in the ranks. Certainly, I do not see how the confirming authority could have failed to take account of the recommendation to mercy.

Let me say a word on the general question of the severity of sentence against officers for petrol offences. The hon. Member drew the conclusion from this one instance that this was a general practice. I have taken the trouble to look up the cases of officers who have been court-miartialled for petrol offences in the last 12 months or so. There are 28 of them; in only eight of those was the final sentence less than dismissal, and in a number of them it was even more severe, including even imprisonment, and, as I said just now, imprisonment for an officer is a very different affair from detention for a soldier. I am confident that the arguments and facts that I have given dispose of the case for discrimination, not only in that particular case, but in general. If an hon. Member is still disposed to think that in the present case favouritism was Shown because the offender belonged to the officer class, it may not be out of place to add that he was not a Regular officer, and to repeat that he served in the ranks during the whole of the last war.

There remains the question of trying to ensure that the decentralisation which is part of the policy of the Army Council does not result in an undue lack of uniformity in sentences. The hon. Member was pleased to be almost facetious about a passage in my letter dealing with the policy of decentralisation. He went on to say that the War Office was the worst administered Department in the State, and that it was all my fault. I personally have had a good deal of experience of the administration of Government Departments, not only in this country but abroad, and I say without any hesitation that the War Office is not a badly-administered Department. That being so, it disposes of the argument that it is my fault. For the last two years I have spent a great deal of time on administrative problems, and I have done my best to urge, in and out of season, the policy of decentralisation, which means that business shall be transacted as near to the line as possible and as far from the War Office as possible. In that way you cut out what is known as the "paper war," and reduce red tape to a minimum. It is a very difficult process to reverse the tendency and traditions—I was going to say of 40 years, but it is much longer than that—of 100 years. It is very difficult to reverse that process, but it seems to me absolutely essential, for the efficiency of administration of an Army which has expanded 10 times, that it should be done. The administration of justice is one of the matters in which there has been a further decentralisation, and I am not in the least penitent about using the argument which I did use to the hon. Member to the effect that I am not called upon to interfere with the judgments of Commanders-in-Chief in the Army Commands unless I feel it absolutely vital to do so. The whole essence of the policy of decentralisation or delegation is that you should trust the people to whom you have delegated, and that is, so far as I am concerned, the policy of the War Office and one which will be pursued.

I turned aside there to say a few sentences about decentralisation because it seems to me that it is a very important issue indeed, and nothing would induce me to sit silent while its importance is being belittled. There remains the question of trying to ensure that the decentralisation which is a very important part of the policy of the Army Council does not result in an undue lack of uniformity in sentences. I seem to remember, even in the short time I have been in this House, similar complaints being made about civil sentences. Of course, that sort of thing must happen when you have a dispersed system of justice, and when you remember, in particular, that no higher authority in the Army can increase a penalty but can only reduce it, a certain number of instances are inevitable, in the Army as elsewhere. In some cases the apparent lack of uniformity is undoubtedly due to the fact that the circumstances differ. You must not forget that the court after all is in the best position to appraise the circumstances.