Orders of the Day — Courts Martial Procedure

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd February 1949.

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9.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Stafford

I am glad of the opportunity to raise tonight another question which concerns the Service man. I refer to the question of justice and its administration in the Armed Forces. I am glad that the Minister of Defence has been able to come along tonight to reply to this Debate, and I am grateful to him for doing so. I sincerely regret that this matter has had to be raised at such short notice, but I must cast the responsibility for that upon the Minister because of what I regard as his highly unsatisfactory reply to a Question which I put down today on the action to be taken as a result of the recommendations of the Lewis Committee on the system of courts martial in the Army and Air Force.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the gist of the reply given in answer to my Question today on that subject, and to the situation which has thereby been created. The Minister said: Among the major recommendations of the Committee— that is the Lewis Committee— still outstanding are the creation of a courts martial appeal court, the reconstitution of courts martial with civilian Judge Presidents, and unanimity of findings. The adoption of these three recommendations would entail a fundamental change in the basis of the administration of justice in the Fighting Services. Owing to the wide differences between the circumstances of life and service in the Navy and in the other two Services, it was considered advisable to confine the remit of the Lewis Committee to the latter. It is, however, clear that the same principles should so far as practicable apply to the three Services. It has, therefore, been decided to set up a committee under Mr. Justice Pilcher, of similar composition to the Lewis Committee and of equal authority, to examine the naval courts martial system. It is hoped to receive the report of this committee without undue delay. A decision as to legislation on these major points will, therefore, be withheld until this report is available. I complain bitterly tonight of the further delay which is now caused in the reform of the administration of justice in the Armed Forces when the reason is given that because the Navy was not brought under review by the Committee set up in 1946, another committee must now be set up. There must be a further period of delay while they go through the rigmarole of inquiring into Naval courts martial and, in the meantime, the major recommendations of the Lewis Committee are left suspended in midair. I wish to point out that these problems and grievances about the administration of justice in the Armed Forces have existed for some time. Before the war there was a committee called the Oliver Committee which is frequently referred to in the Lewis Report. The Oliver Committee made certain recommendations as a result of an inquiry into the courts martial system in the regular Army and Air Force. Their report was dated 1938.

The major recommendations of the Oliver Report were not carried into effect because of the outbreak of war in 1939. That report has stood over since then and in 1946, as a result of further pressure, the Lewis Committee were set up. That Committee sat from November, 1946, until April, 1948. Their report was dated April, 1948. I wish to pay a tribute to the work done by the Committee. Anyone who has read that report must agree that they went very thoroughly into the previous reports about the system of courts martial in the Army and Air Force—those of the Darling Committee of 1919 and the Oliver Committee of 1938. They had 37 meetings, they heard and examined 57 witnesses and they received over 200 memoranda about the administration of justice in the Armed Forces.

An important principle was laid down in the Report of the Lewis Committee about the difference between the consideration of the system of justice in the Armed Forces since the end of the war with the systems which had to be considered by the previous Committees. On page 30 the Report says: Circumstances have changed since the Darling and Oliver Committees reported. Service under the National Service Act in peacetime, the effect of which they did not have to consider, emphasises the importance of the principle which we think no one would dispute, namely, that in the matter of legal safeguards, citizens should be no worse off when they are in the Forces than in civil life unless considerations of discipline or other circumstances make such a disadvantage inevitable. The point was made that, after all, people went into the voluntary Forces of their own free will and in joining up they accepted any imperfections there were in the systems of those Forces, but now there was a different situation in which men were compelled to go into the Army and the Air Force and it was surely important, in the question of legal safeguards, that as citizens they should find themselves no worse off in the Forces than they were in civil life, unless there were major considerations of discipline or other things in the Armed Forces which outweighed that consideration.

There are two other points I want to emphasise. The first is that when we are considering the point made by the Minister of Defence in relation to the Navy we should bear in mind that the bulk of the Service men are in the Army and the Air Force. Of the citizens who are involved numerically the vast majority of them are in the Army and the Air Force and the systems of those Forces were considered by this Committee. The second point is that the vast majority of the National Service men who are compelled to go into the Armed Forces go into the Army and the Air Force. Thirdly, both those Services are straining today to get recruits and one of the points which has to be considered in regard to this Report, as in regard to all reforms of administration in the Armed Forces, is its relation to the attractiveness of the Service in obtaining recruits. That is a point we are constantly considering in relation to the Armed Forces.

I want to consider three major recommendations of the Lewis Committee, to which the Minister of Defence referred in his reply this afternoon and which have now been put on the shelf, put into the pigeon hole, pending a new Report from a new Committee on the Navy. First of all, there is the important point of the right of appeal, the right of appeal of a Service man convicted by a court martial. What does the Lewis Committee have to say on that point? In paragraph 143 of the Report of the Lewis Committee unanimously say this: We have come to the clear conclusion that a right of appeal on a question of law ought to be granted against conviction by court martial whenever the accused has pleaded 'Not guilty'; and that such right of appeal should, in cases of conviction after some date to be announced, take the place of the present system of review of the proceedings by the Judge Advocate General. I want to know, does the Minister of Defence, do the Government, accepts that recommendation or not? If the Minister accepts that important recommendation that there should be estab- lished a right of appeal against conviction by court martial, what is the reason for any further delay in carrying it into effect in the Army and the Air Force? If the Government do not accept this recommendation, made unanimously by the Lewis Committee, what are the reasons why they reject this unanimous, clear conclusion of this very distinguished Committee?

It seems to me that there is no question of bringing the Navy into consideration at all. We should have a clear answer whether the Government accept that recommendation or whether they reject it, and, if they reject it, what are the reasons? The second important question, and the second important recommendation which is to be shelved, is the appointment of civilian judge presidents of courts martial. That is referred to in a number of paragraphs on page 42 of the Lewis Committee's report, and I will give one or two brief extracts. In paragraph 194 the Committee say: Today there is a tendency, which is certain to increase, for the prosecution and the defence to be conducted by legally qualified persons, resulting in disputes on law and procedure upon which it is unfair to ask a lay court to adjudicate. Later on they say in regard to this recommendation that there should be civilian, legally qualified judge presidents in courts martial. They say, in paragraph 196: These changes"— that is, the carrying out of the recommendations— will go far towards relieving the ordinary officer of responsibility for deciding disputed questions of law, for which he seldom has the necessary knowledge and experience, and at the same time render the existing procedure of confirmation and automatic review of conviction with all its demands upon time and labour unnecessary. I have had a little experience of courts martial, not in the dock, but through having acted as defending counsel, and I can vouch from personal experience in the Army for the importance of that recommendation—that there should be legally qualified persons as presidents of the courts, particularly where there are legally qualified persons conducting prosecution and defence. Does the Minister of Defence and do the Government accept that recommendation or not? If they accept that recommendation now, what is the reason for any further delay in the Army and Air Force in carrying it into effect? If that recommendation is right, why should it not be immediately carried into effect, without prejudice to what may be done in any other respect—in the Navy, for instance? If the Government do not accept that recommendation I think we are entitled to know the reason why the Minister of Defence will not accept that unanimous recommendation of the Lewis Committee that there should be civilian judge presidents of courts martial.

The third point is the recommendation of the Lewis Committee about the unanimity of the findings at a court martial. That is referred to on page 27 of the Report. In paragraph 123 the Committee unanimously say: We have heard no convincing argument as to why the salutary rule that the verdicts of juries must be unanimous should not be applied in the case of courts martial. We do not consider, once this necessity is realised, that any greater difficulty should be experienced in securing unanimity in courts martial than in the civil courts. That again is a clear and categorical recommendation by the Lewis Committee that immediately could be carried into effect, by laying down that there must be, as in civil courts, unanimous verdicts by the members of the courts martial. Again I ask, Does the Minister of Defence accept this recommendation or not? Surely, we are entitled to know? We are entitled to know whether these major recommendations have been accepted by the Government, apart from the question of when they are to be implemented. We should know whether they are accepted, or whether they have been rejected for some reasons the Government have in mind.

We are to have further delay. Already, in fact, we have had 10 years' delay, since the Report of the Select Committee in 1938, though it would seem that the whole situation has changed as the result of the introduction of National Service, and particularly of National Service in peace time. We have had a delay of virtually over 10 years in reform of the administration of justice in the Army and Air Force. It is a noteworthy point that in the past, as in the case of the Lewis Committee in 1946, these committees have been set up to inquire into the Army and into the Air Force together, but not into the Navy as well. The Lewis Committee was set up specifically to inquire into the court martial system of the Army and Air Force. If the question of naval courts martial was to be introduced, why in 1946 was the committee not set up to inquire into courts martial in all three Services? If now nothing can be done unless it is done in all three Services at the same time, then that must have been obvious and equally true in 1946.

In the case of the Oliver Committee before the war and the Lewis Committee in 1946 that point was never raised. The Army and the Air Force were brought under review, and the Committee were asked to inquire into the systems there and to make recommendations. Any person of any common sense would suppose that immediately the recommendations had been made they would be accepted or rejected, and if accepted would be implemented. I can think of no argument—and certainly there was no argument whatever produced by the Minister of Defence this afternoon in reply to questions—to show why, because there has not been a committee inquiring into the Navy and making recommendations on the Navy, further injustices, which is virtually what they are, or further maladministration are to go in the Army and the Air Force because the Navy was not brought in and there was no co-ordination previously to bring in the Navy.

If the Government accept the recommendations of the Lewis Committee, the postponement of the implementation means that there is going to be further maladministration of justice in the Army and the Air Force in order that the Navy should have recommendations at the same time. That seems to me an extraordinary situation, and I think that I am not exaggerating when I say that the answers given by the Minister of Defence to those questions this afternoon astonished Members of the House, certainly those Members who had read the Lewis Report and followed up this matter of inquiries into courts martial procedure previously. It seems to me—although this is purely a matter of speculation—that there are some people who have said that there must not be any reforms carried out in the Army and the Air Force unless they are simultaneously carried out in the Navy because the Army and the Air Force must never get a little bit ahead of the Navy in administration; or, put in another way, that the Admiralty is dictating to the other two Services if and when any reforms in their systems of administration are to be permitted to be carried out. Otherwise, I can think of no explanation of this situation.

Here we have one more committee set up to inquire into courts martial, another period of delay, and we do not even know now whether within the lifetime of this Parliament these reforms will be carried out. We may be faced with the situation of having another committee set up and a further lot of recommendations, and so we may go on from year to year. I would like to bring the House back to the original point which I made and the quotation which I gave from the report of the Lewis Committee. This is a vitally important question which takes on an entirely new aspect when the State is conscripting men to go into the Armed Forces, and they are entitled to ask why they do not get the same rights and the same treatment in the Armed Forces as they would get as citizens outside on these unanimous recommendations of the Lewis Committee, on the question of unanimity of findings, the appointment of civil judge presidents and the other recommendations that have been made. The men in the Army and the Air Force are entitled to ask the Minister of Defence for these long overdue reforms to be immediately implemented, and if they are not to be the Government should provide good and sufficient reasons for rejecting them.

9.34 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Brown Mr William Brown , Rugby

This Debate is on the subject of the reform of courts martial procedure in the Forces. I have had very little to do with the Armed Forces, but I have spent a lifetime connected with the Civil Service, and the similarity between the Debate we are having now and the kind of answer I used to get from His Majesty's Treasury over and over again is too remarkable to be incidental. It was my experience that whenever I wanted to get anything done in one grade of the Civil Service, the Treasury would explain that that could not possibly be done until dome other grade had been dealt with; but when the organisation representing the other grade went along the Treasury explained, equally convincingly, that nothing could be done with them until my grade had been dealt with. The net result was that nothing got done for very long periods of time.

I hold one or two very strong views about this, which I want to put very directly to the Minister of Defence. If we go back to the day when the Lewis Committee was appointed in 1946, the Admiralty must have held that there was something in the conditions of naval Service which so differentiated the requirements of justice in the naval Service from the requirements of justice in the Army and Air Force as to make it desirable to exclude the Navy from the scope of the Lewis Committee's investigation. If they did not hold that view they had no right to exclude the Navy from the Lewis Committee's investigation. If they did hold that view, then they must now abide by the logic of the view they then held, because if it be the case that conditions in the Navy are so different from what they are in the Army and the Air Force as to make it desirable to keep the Navy outside the scope of the Lewis Committee, then by no logic or reason whatever can it be urged that the application of the findings of the Lewis Committee to the Army and the Air Force should be withheld or delayed because of some hypothetical contingent possible effect upon the Navy as distinct from the other two Services.

If we allow this to go by, I see very clearly what will happen later on. When we get the report of the new committee on the Navy, the other two Service Ministers will discover—because there is a magnificent lack of co-ordination between the three of them: a lack of coordination that mounts almost to the level of genius—that there is something in the report of the committee on the Navy which requires further investigation by another committee on the Army and the Air Force before the recommendations can be applied. And I can see this going on merrily for years and years and years. In fact, I see no reason why it should end.

I beg the Minister of Defence to realise that there is strong feeling in the House on this subject of avoiding by all possible means the unwitting infliction of injustice within the Armed Forces. The more true it is that the Navy, the Army and the Air Force are disciplined Services as distinct from ordinary civilian employment, the more intense and thorough we should be in ensuring that the men in those Services not only get justice, but also have every appearance of securing justice.

Now, that is the problem with which the Lewis Committee dealt when producing its recommendations, and I can see nothing whatever in the position of the Admiralty which justifies them, two years after the appointment of a committee from which they themselves excluded the naval service in the first instance, now using the naval service as a reason why nothing should be done, or saying that whatever is done should be delayed in respect of the other two military Services of the Crown. I do beg my old friend the Minister of Defence not to take over into the Defence area of the administration of this country the sordid, indefensible, time-wasting, delaying, irritating, annoying injustice of His Majesty's Treasury, which I have spent most of my life trying to fight.

9.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

There is one question to which we should get an answer now. Is it or is it not the fact that the Army and Air Force court martial can be reformed without the naval court martial being reformed? If the answer to that question is "No," then what on earth was the point of setting up a committee from which the Navy was excluded, because ex hypothesi nothing can be done with its report. If, on the other hand, the answer is "Yes" and the Army and Air Force can be reformed without reforming the Navy, then why in the world not do it now when we have the report? That seems to me to be a question which should he answered. Or is it just another occasion of the sheer inertia with which the Forces resist any sort of change that has been too much for a not very strong Minister?

9.42 p.m.

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

The House is very fortunate to have this opportunity to express its view so soon after the statement of the Minister of Defence, and we are indebted to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) for the way in which he has expressed the deep concern that is felt and the great disappointment at the announcement of my right hon. Friend. The Lewis Committee was appointed because of the profound disquiet that existed throughout the country about conditions in courts martial in the Army and Royal Air Force, and we now have the report of the Com- mittee, which included four very distinguished Members of this House, that sat for 18 months and took a great deal of evidence. It is a report containing some very important recommendations, and I agree that the House is entitled to know the decision of His Majesty's Government with regard to these recommendations.

I appreciate that the recommendations are of such a far-reaching character that it is not unnatural that the Government should want to consider whether they should be applied to the Navy as well as to the Army and the Royal Air Force. I can well understand that there may be conditions in the Navy which do not make all the recommendations of the Committee appropriate as they stand. For example, it may be more difficult to get a civilian president for a naval court martial than to get a civilian president for a military court martial.

I urge the Minister of Defence to announce the views of the Government on these recommendations in so far as they apply to the Army and the Royal Air Force. I think it is reasonable that there should be another committee to consider whether they should be applied to the Navy, and I imagine that the Pilcher Committee will report whether or not these recommendations should be applied to the Navy. I imagine that if they are to be applied to the Navy the necessary steps will be taken so that there may be a co-ordinated system, and that if necessary there will be a common Bill to deal with the three Services. If there are reasons why these recommendations should not be made applicable to the Navy, I hope the Government will proceed to implement the recommendations of the Lewis Committee with regard to the Army and the Royal Air Force.

I suggest that at the very least the House is entitled to know what are the views of the Government on these recommendations in so far as they affect the Army and the Royal Air Force. I also ask why it is necessary, as the Minister of Defence announced after Questions today, that the terms of reference for the Pilcher Committee should be identical with those of the remit to the Lewis Committee. I should have thought it would be better that the new committee, in the light of the overhaul of court martial conditions in the Army and Royal Air Force, should be asked to consider how far similar reforms can be introduced in the Navy. I ask the Minister of Defence to confirm the assurance, which I understood him to give in answer to a supplementary question I put this afternoon, that he will see that this committee gets to work and reports expeditiously, and that it will not be used as a mere time-wasting expedient but is appointed on the definite understanding that it reports within a definite and limited period of time.

9.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Plymouth, Devonport

I want to add one small point by way of support of the protest that has been made by my hon. Friends and others who have spoken, because this is a point which casts peculiar light on the further delay which is proposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler), who raised this matter, referred to the injustice which is done to hundreds of airmen by the continued delay, but there is also serious injustice done in the Navy. When this Committee was appointed, those who were concerned in the matter raised the question in the House, and asked the Admiralty why they had not appointed a committee at the same time to go into these matters and why discussion and examination was not taking place. We were told by the Admiralty at that time that they were going to take account of the findings of the Lewis Committee, and therefore it could be assumed that there would be some examination going on inside the Admiralty at the same time and that they would be prepared to act when the moment arrived for the Lewis Committee to report.

I raised the matter again on the Naval Estimates in 1946, but I did not get any explicit answer then. However, the assumption was that the Navy was going to take into account the general views expressed by this Committee, and certainly there was no indication given to us at that time that there was to be any special procedure such as that proposed now, namely, that there should be a subsequent inquiry made on behalf of the Navy, further lengthening the whole procedure. I hope the Minister of Defence will realise the widespread feeling that exists on all sides of the House on this question, and that he will decide to change his mind and go ahead in the manner suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.

9.49 p.m.

Photo of Mr Terence Donovan Mr Terence Donovan , Leicester East

I speak with some diffidence on this subject, firstly, because I did not know that this Debate was going to occur, and, therefore, anything I say is certain to be rather disjointed and disconnected; and secondly, because I have always felt it is difficult for someone, who has served on a committee which makes recommendations, to acquiesce in a decision to shelve the committee's recommendations. Again, for causes which I could not help, I was not here when the Minister of Defence made his announcement today.

I should be particularly sorry if the recommendations to set up the court martial appeal court were to be deferred until the new Committee reports. What is to happen supposing that the new Committee decides that for the Navy there should be no appeal court? So far as the Army and Navy are concerned—I am relying upon my recollection of the evidence that was given before the Lewis Committee—Service opinion was practically unanimous in the view that some appeal court should be constituted. In fact, there is a species of appeal court now. All the papers go for review to the Judge Advocate General, but he acts as an appeal court in secret. All that we shall be doing in setting up the courts martial appeal court is to bring the appeal proceedings into the light of day. That we surely ought to do, and why should that depend upon what the view of the Navy may be?

Furthermore, as the Minister of Defence and the Secretary of State for War will recollect, halfway through our proceedings we sent an interim series of recommendations to the Secretary of State for War and the Secretary of State for Air. Among those recommendations was one that the Judge Advocate General should cease to retire with the court when the court was considering its findings. That was a unanimous recommendation. There was some delay in its acceptance and in its implementation by both those Services. There are strong rumours to the effect—which I would like the Minister of Defence either to confirm or to deny—that the delay was because the Admiralty were in strong opposition to that proposal, which opposition was, however, eventually overborne.

There is today a strong feeling among persons interested in this matter that it is the Admiralty, the most conservative of institutions, who are in opposition to the recommendations of the Lewis Committee and who would prefer, if they could achieve it, that nothing whatever should be changed in the Navy in the matter of judicial proceedings. I know that anyone who served on this Committee ought to try to rid himself of the feeling that all the recommendations of his colleagues and himself ought to be implemented. But there remains a strong suspicion that the Navy are reactionary in the matter of legal reform.

I say nothing more about the other recommendations, but I feel that the recommendation we made as to the setting up of a court martial appeal court ought not to be delayed until the further report from the Pilcher Committee is obtained. Let no one think that the inquiry by the Pilcher Committee will be a short and easy one. We had an idea of that sort when we started the inquiry into the Army and Air Force. It was not right. A lot of work went into our report and a lot of time was consumed in the investigations which preceded it, and that certainly will be so in the inquiry into the Navy. Whether that be right or wrong, however, I can conceive no ground of reason upon which the court martial appeal court should be denied to the Army and the Air Force because of some view which the Admiralty may form in regard to the Navy.

After all, if the three Services should be treated alike, why was not the Navy included in the terms of reference of the Lewis Committee? That was not done because—and I believe this to be sound—there were fundamental differences in the traditions and conditions of service in the Navy which would make it wrong automatically to apply the same forms of justice and the same legal procedure to the Navy as obtain in the other two Services. But that all emphasises that there is no logic, no reason and, I believe, no justice, in delaying the granting of the court martial appeal court to the Army and the Royal Air Force.

Photo of Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller , Daventry

I do not propose tonight to express any opinion on the recommendations made by the Lewis Committee because this is not the occasion to debate those recom- mendations. We have not as yet had any opportunity of doing so. I should have hoped that we would have had a proper opportunity. The occasion for this Debate, which I am glad the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) has raised, is the announcement of the Minister of Defence today which means, that, whether the Government accept one or all of the recommendations of the Lewis Committee, no effect will be given to those recommendations for an indefinite and, almost certainly, prolonged period.

I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman's announcement was received with astonishment throughout the whole House, and also with dismay. I myself was a little astonished that we were not told by the Secretary of State for War to what extent the recommendations of the Lewis Committee were accepted as suitable for the Army, and by the Secretary of State for Air as to what extent they were acceptable to the Air Force. No information of that kind has been given to us. It may be that they are not allowed to tell us, and it may be that the reason the right hon. Gentleman made the announcement, and not the Secretary of State for War or the Secretary of State for Air, was because he is the gentleman who is taking this course of preventing any changes being made in the court martial systems as recommended by the Lewis Committee.

We are told that this has now to wait until another court martial committee has considered the problem of the Navy and reported. Why did not the right hon. Gentleman, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, appoint his own committee? If it occurred to him in 1946—and it should have done—that the terms of reference of the Lewis Committee were widened to include consideration of the naval system, why did he not take steps to see to it then? That Committee appointed on 4th November, 1946, worked hard I have no doubt, and reported on 13th April, 1948. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War will remember that I have pressed him more than once for publication of that report, always without any success. It was not until January, 1949, that this report was presented to Parliament. We ought to be told what was happening between April, 1948, and January, 1949. Was this report only being considered by the Army and the Air Force, or were the Admiralty, brought into consultation as soon as this report was presented?

Now we are told that any implementation has to be postponed until this new Committee has reported. I think the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) put in a simple form the relevant questions which demand answers. We ought to be told to what extent these recommendations are accepted by the Air Force and the Army as desirable for those Services. We ought to be given an opportunity of debating the report as it applies to those Services. We ought to be told, as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton has said, whether in the view of the Government it is possible to apply those changes before applying similar changes, if they are desirable, to the Navy.

In my opinion, the right hon. Gentleman has given no satisfactory explanation of the postponement of the announcement of the decision of the Government as to these recommendations for the Army and the Air Force. It may well be that the right hon. Gentleman, sitting there at ease, is saying to himself, "Thank God we have a Navy," and thinking that it will save him a lot of trouble in defending the rejection of some of these provisions. If one considers the possibility that the new Committee may take as long in presenting its report as the Lewis Committee, though it may work equally hard, if one considers that there may be quite as long a period after the signing of that report before it is presented to Parliament, then, indeed, it makes the prospect of implementation of any of these recommendations remote indeed, and not likely to occur in the course of this Parliament.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

Photo of Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller , Daventry

This is not the first occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman has found himself without support in any section of the House. On another occasion he gave way to the opinion expressed by the House. The best advice I can give him tonight is to think again and not to use the Navy as a pretext for dodging the issues raised by the Lewis Committee.

10.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I recognise at once, of course, the position taken up by a large number of Members of the House on the importance of this question of the administration of justice in the Services. I am well aware that hon. Members, both since they have been Members and, some of them, before they were Members, have taken a very keen interest in this matter and have worked zealously for reforms of the character which they desire. I recognise, too, that the Lewis Committee, which sat from November, 1946, until April, 1948, did quite a remarkable job and I should like to join with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Swingler) and other hon. Members in paying a tribute to the work which the Lewis Committee carried out.

I must repel the idea, which seems to be abroad in the House, that in some way or other I personally am responsible for the basis upon which the Lewis Committee was set up and for the absence at that time of terms of reference which would include all three Services. That certainly was not so. When the announcement was made in the House I was not then the Minister of Defence, and I had no part in or responsibility for the setting up of the Committee at that time with terms of reference confined only to the Army and the Air Force.

Photo of Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller , Daventry

Could not the right hon. Gentleman at that time have set up a committee to consider the problem in relation to the Navy?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I dare say such a committee might have been set up at that time. I am about to explain why, I think, the decision was taken at that time although it was not taken by me.

Photo of Mr William Brown Mr William Brown , Rugby

Mr. W. J. Brown rose——

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I have listened carefully to every Member who has spoken and I hope the House will give me a reasonable opportunity of stating my own case, but I am quite prepared to give way.

Photo of Mr William Brown Mr William Brown , Rugby

I want to put this very direct question to the Minister if he will allow it. Was the Minister, then First Lord of the Admiralty, consulted in 1946 whether the Navy should be within or outwith the scope of the operations of the Lewis Committee and. if he was, what reply did he give?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

It would be difficult to say exactly how that was dealt with then because in that particular year I was absent from London for most of the time. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I was actually absent from London, in India and in charge, for a large part of the time, of the British Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in the Autumn of 1946. I do not recollect exactly how this matter was handled but I will say this: there is no doubt that it was in the minds of those dealing with the matter at that time that there were different circumstances in the Navy. In fact, the House knows, especially the legal Members—I refer especially to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Leicester (Mr. Donovan)—that the very existence of the separate Naval Discipline Act, which has been maintained for such a large number of years on a separate basis, is evidence of the different circumstances in the Navy.

I would also say in defence of the Navy position, about which I know something, having been in the First Lord's chair for nearly nine years, that in regard to the administration of justice, through courts martial or otherwise, in the Royal Navy, there were singularly few complaints compared with those which arose in regard to the other Services largely, I think, because in the Navy there was a much higher percentage of cases dealt with on a summary basis, instead of being the subject of long delays which often occurred in setting up courts martial in the other Services.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

Is that not a case for dealing with the other Services?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

Perhaps the hon. and learned Member will allow me to continue. The criticisms were mainly directed at the system in the Army and the Royal Air Force at that time. I am giving the reasons why I think the Committee was not set up on a three-fold basis in 1946. Certainly on the basis of the report of the Oliver Committee, it was not at all certain in 1946 that the Report would make such fundamental recommendations and changes as are covered by the three main questions which were referred to tonight by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. Looking at the matter now, I think it might possibly have been better to have covered all three Services in setting up the Committee of Inquiry in 1946. But there was very little criticism which I heard at the time of the way in which the Committee was set up then. Now, from the point of view of the Minister of Defence, the situation as it now exists has to be dealt with by the Government on the basis of getting the largest amount of agreement and co-relation between the three Services on this important question of justice in the Services, and the recommendations of the Lewis Committee on these three major questions must now be examined from the point of view of whether they should also apply in the Navy.

May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford that there is no reason why the Pilcher Committee, which I announced this afternoon, should take anything like the same period of time to examine this matter as the Lewis Committee. I think my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) asked why there should be completely similar terms of reference. I gave no such answer on terms of reference this afternoon. I said there would be a similar composition and equal authority as the Lewis Committee but certainly the terms of reference can and, I believe, will be drawn up with the legal advice we get so as to eliminate much of the work which would otherwise fall to the Pilcher Committee on the basis that the work has been covered by the Lewis Committee in respect of the other Services. In fact many of the recommendations of the Lewis Committee have been put into operation, or are about to be put into operation, by administrative action by the Army and the Royal Air Force, and some were already in existence in the case of the Royal Navy before the Lewis Committee was appointed, and others are now being applied administratively by the Royal Navy. This may well mean that the questions left for the Pilcher Committee to consider will be of a more limited character, so that there is no reason at all why there should be any such prolonged delay or period of waiting before putting the final decisions into operation, as suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller).

Photo of Sir Eric Fletcher Sir Eric Fletcher , Islington East

Could my right hon. Friend give any indication of the date when he expects to receive the report of the Pilcher Committee?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

That would be exceedingly difficult. I am certain that any hon. Member with long experience of these legal matters will agree that it is exceedingly difficult for a Minister to commit a learned judge who is to undertake the conduct of a committee like this to a date. I am quite certain in my mind that it need not be a prolonged period. I believe that Mr. Justice Pilcher has perhaps not to devote quite so much time to circuit work as Mr. Justice Lewis had perforce to give at the time the other committee was working. That would probably be helpful in saving time in regard to this committee.

Then it was suggested by one hon. Member that this step might lead to such delay that reform, when finally decided upon by the Government, on consideration of the reports, would not be applied in the lifetime of this Parliament. That is quite out of the question. I wish to assure the House that the report of the Pilcher Committee will be expedited in every possible way, subject to the proper consideration of these important matters as they apply to the Royal Navy, and that when the report is received urgent consideration will be given to it by the Government; decisions will be taken and there will be no delay in putting them into operation.

I would say, however, that many of the other recommendations which so much affect the ordinary life of those who are subject to justice in the Services, and which were brought out by the Lewis Committee, either have been or are being put into operation now by administrative action.

Photo of Sir Toby Low Sir Toby Low , Blackpool North

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would clear up a point of doubt which is in my mind? Is he intending to tell the House that 10 months after the receipt of this Report with regard to the Army and Air Force, he has not yet settled the terms of reference for the naval Committee? Has he yet to settle the terms of reference?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I did not say that. I have not the terms of reference before me tonight, but in regard to the setting up of a Committee of this kind I am sure the hon. Member would agree that those terms of reference should be drawn up with the help of our legal advisers. That has certainly been done in this connection.

I beg my hon. Friends especially to remember one thing. It is apparently assumed—I do not want to enter into a debate on the merits of each one of the main points which have been under discussion—that the Government ought to say here and now that they accept in principle every one of these main recommendations. That was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) in a question he put to me this afternoon. It has been strongly hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. In fact, it is not the case that the issues are so clear cut as that in the case of every one of these recommendations.

Take, for example, the difficulties that might arise and upon which, of course, a decision must be taken at the political level with regard to unanimity. A good many problems of administration arise in connection with the effect of that kind of alteration within the Services. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said that he had had a good deal of experience of courts martial, I presume as a prosecuting or defending officer. He will know quite well that if we had a system operating in which we required, in accordance with the Lewis Committee's recommendation, complete unanimity in each court martial. either for finding a man innocent or guilty, this might lead to a series of reconstituted courts martial in a particular case, and, especially in war time, if there was no unanimity at two or even three succeeding trials, tremendous administrative difficulties would be created. That is the sort of point which has to be considered very carefully indeed.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Stafford

The right hon. Gentleman is now producing arguments against the major recommendations of the Lewis Committee. There may be arguments which may be produced by the Minister about the difficulties of implementing some of those recommendations, but surely it is possible for the right hon. Gentleman and the Service Ministers to say whether they regard those recommendations in relation to the Army and Air Force as desirable or not, without first finding out whether they are desirable in the Navy. I cannot understand why it should be necessary to find out whether the reforms are desirable in the Navy in order to decide if they are desirable in the Army. It should be possible for the Minister to say that the Government accept these recommendations in principle although it may take time to put them into effect.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

In the view of the Government it is essential that the Pilcher Committee should examine these points without being told in advance that the Government have accepted them in respect of the other Services. If they were told that, it would settle the matter very largely for the Pilcher Committee before they sit. That Committee should look at this matter from the point of view of the Royal Navy without there having been a definite commitment beforehand by the Government on these points.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Stafford

The Minister himself said this afternoon that the situation in the Navy was different. We accept that the circumstances in the Navy are different and that that Service is governed by a different Act. Surely, that means that it is possible for the Pilcher Committee to inquire independently into the particular and different circumstances in the Navy without being at all prejudiced by the fact that the Government have decided that in the Army certain principles and reforms are necessary.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

If the Pilcher Committee have to go over the work of the other Committee to see whether its decisions are right, why should the job of the Pilcher Committee be any shorter than that of the Lewis Committee?

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

The job of the Pilcher Committee will be shorter because it will deal with a more limited field of inquiry than that dealt with by the Lewis Committee.

In reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford, I would say that on such matters as the court of appeal, civilian presidents of courts martial and the question of unanimity, it is obvious that if we were to say as a Government that we had decided in favour of those three items as recommended by the Lewis Committee before the matter is referred to the Pilcher Committee, then the inquiry by the Pilcher Committee in the case of the Navy would be prejudiced in advance.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Stafford

I would draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that he said in his reply this afternoon that, owing to the wide differences between the circumstances of life and service in the Navy and the other two Services, it was considered advisable to confine the remit of the Lewis Committee to the other two Services. That was the reason he produced this afternoon why the Lewis Committee inquired only into the Army and Air Force. I cannot understand how he can now produce the argument that proposals for the Army and Air Force cannot be accepted because that would prejudice what a Committee might decide to do about the Navy, where he says that there are such wide differences of circumstances and conditions of service.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

My hon. Friend may disagree with my view on the matter. He is perfectly entitled to do that, but it would obviously create prejudice in advance in the consideration of the fundamental principles which are to be inquired into by the Pilcher Committee in respect of the Navy. It is essential in my view that, as far as possible, the principles of the administration of justice for the Services shall be common to all three. I am very anxious that it should be so and it is because of the situation which has arisen that I am doing my level best to see that we can have, as nearly as possible, a common basis of administration of justice in the Services.

Photo of Mr Terence Donovan Mr Terence Donovan , Leicester East

May I interrupt to put a point of substance? I am obliged to my right hon. Friend, who has been very long-suffering this evening. The administration of justice in the Army and Air Force falls to a great extent on the legally qualified staff of the Judge Advocate General's Department. They have to send out the Judge Advocates, they have to review all the proceedings of courts martial. Those people have no security of tenure at all at the present moment. Their future is quite uncertain. It is most important that we get good people with some prospects in that Department. If the recommendations of the Lewis Committee were adopted, they would have that security and those prospects because there would be set out an establishment for the Department. Without that, those people will drift away from the Judge Advocate-General's Department and until they get some security of tenure we shall not get the right people in the Department. I submit that makes it most important that the Pilcher Committee should report without delay.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

I can assure the hon. and learned Member for East Leicester that the report of that Committee will be expedited as much as possible. What is more, I shall do my level best to see that the decisions of the Government are reached in time to get what legislation may be required in the course of this Parliament. I want hon. Members to understand that that is the outlook of my Service colleagues and myself on the matter and that we hope to see that the timetable I have referred to is achieved.

Photo of Mr Ian Orr-Ewing Mr Ian Orr-Ewing , Weston-Super-Mare

May I ask a question on procedure? Suppose the Pilcher Committee reports on certain recommendations and those recommendations would appear to prejudice what has already been found acceptable in the Lewis Committee's Report. Are we to understand that the Lewis Committee will re-examine the position in the light of what the Pilcher Committee has done and that then the Government will reconsider the reconsiderations of the Lewis Committee? That might very well occur.

Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

The Government are perfectly clear as to their intentions on the procedure. When the Pilcher Committee's recommendations are received the Government will review them, together with those which remain outstanding on the Lewis Committee, and they will come to decisions as to what is to be done. That is the procedure which will be followed. I can assure hon. Members, therefore, that they need not be anxious about it. I sympathise with them in what they have said about the delays which have taken place. I regret those delays very much. I wish that an agreement could have been reached earlier, in the course of the last few months, but as a result of the procedure now adopted we shall reach a position where we can come to a common decision on behalf of the three Services.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-four Minutes past Ten o'Clock.