I should be grateful if the House would bear with me for a short while as I tell the simple, unvarnished tale of what happened to a constituent of mine during the last few hours of his National Service. Ex-Private William Stally, late of the 1st Battalion the Queen's Own Buffs, who lives on the Downham Estate in my constituency, is one of the many thousands of young men who have been called up for two years' military service on the nation's behalf. So often in dealing with the Services we use statistics. It is as well, perhaps, that we should keep reminding ourselves that each one of those statistics represents one of our citizens who is compulsorily in uniform.
I do not suppose that my constituent would claim to have been any keener on performing his military duties than many other conscripts, though he had been active earlier as a naval cadet at Bromley, but he went quite cheerfully and adapted himself to Army ways. In fact, he did quite well, as throughout the whole of his service, and, indeed, until the very eve of his release, he did not have a single black mark against him; and that is not a bad record, I should have thought.
That is not only my opinion. On his release he was given the following testimonial by the Army authorities:
Military conduct very good. Private Stally has been a very useful member of his rifle company and has shown that he has qualities of determination and willingness. He is a hard worker, has a sense of humour, and is popular with his fellow soldiers. I am sure that he could be an asset to a prospective employer.
I wonder how many of the right hon. Gentlemen who have held the office of Minister of Defence during the last ten years could hope to get a better report.
Moreover, during his twelve months of service in Germany he won a silver mug for shooting, the best testimony perhaps, to a good soldier.
At last, Private Stally reached the end of his two years' service and was eagerly looking forward to his return to civilian life, where he had a job awaiting him, the same job that he had held from the time he left school until he was called up—again evidence, I should have thought, of a stable and solid character.
Private Stally was due for release on 28th September last, and at that time he was serving at Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe, Kent. The afternoon before, he, in company with about 20 other members of his platoon who were also due for release, were asked to surrender all their Army kit and uniforms and change into civilian clothes. He and the others must then have thought that for all practical purposes their Army careers were over. I should like to emphasise that whatever happened that evening to Stally and his comrades happened to men dressed as civilians. There was no question of disgracing the Queen's uniform in any way. Psychologically, no doubt, all these young men, most of them in their twentieth year, felt released and free from the routine and discipline of Army life. However, actual physical release from the camp was not to take place until the following morning, so that Stally and his comrades did what everyone expected them to do and that was to go out to celebrate, and they were allowed to do so.
The House perhaps will not be surprised to hear that my constituent and his fellow soldiers celebrated in the traditional Army way by going out and having a few drinks. I would emphasise that no trouble of any kind occurred in the town and they returned to camp about 11 o'clock, some of them perhaps a little drunk and all of them, to quote their own words "very merry" and in a mood in which they wanted the celebration party to go on. One or two were very drunk and they were put to bed by the others. While this was happening, Private Stally and others were letting off fireworks and skylarking around the sports field. They were just letting off steam.
All the evidence which I have been able to gather from Private Stally and his colleagues indicates that on this occasion there was little or nothing to choose between them. Their behaviour was all more or less the same, but Private Stally, for some reason, was picked out from the others and taken to the guard room. He naturally took a rather poor view of being singled out and he made, he freely admits,
some nasty remarks to the sergeant in charge of the guard room.
His Army comrades were rather surprised and incensed at the treatment meted out to him. Accordingly, they all went along to the guard room and suggested that they, too, should be detained. The sergeant, who appears on this occasion to have acted quite sensibly, told them to go away and said that Private Stally was being simply kept there for the night to cool off and that he would be released next morning.
Private Stally, hearing the rumpus going on, managed to have conversation with his comrades through the window and he gathered that he was simply there for the night to cool off. But the following morning Private Stally had a great surprise, for he was then put on a number of charges—being drunk, disobeying a superior officer's orders, resisting arrest, and swearing at a superior officer, which seems to me a rather formidable indictment arising out of a not uncommon occurrence of a soldier being slightly drunk, and this when he was literally in the last hour or so of his National Service.
As invariably happens, of course, on these occasions, Private Stally was given advice on what to do. He was told that the best thing for him to do was to plead guilty to drunkenness. He realised, as he frankly admitted to me, that he was a little drunk. He was certainly merry and he certainly got a little involved with the authorities. He therefore pleaded guilty to drunkenness. He expected that he might get a short sentence, but he was shocked and overwhelmed when he was given 28 days' detention. To serve it he was sent to Colchester Detention Centre, where he was not permitted to receive clothes, money, cigarettes or any other article. In fact, he was treated as a criminal. I should have thought that the whole House would agree that that was a very poor ending to a young man's military service to the nation.
My information is that these celebrations occur on every occasion when a National Serviceman gets demobilised. There is no evidence that what happened on this particular evening was any worse than what had happened on numerous other occasions. I am told that in accordance with normal custom the men concerned had to contribute to such damage as had been caused and that on this occasion this worked out at 2s. per head, which is regarded by those who know as a comparatively small sum. I believe that young men at the older universities used to do rather better than that.
When this matter was first brought to my attention by Private Stally's father, who is also a constituent of mine, the House was not sitting, so I wrote immediately to the Secretary of State for War. That was on 4th October last, when I was attending the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool. I stated fully all the facts and pleaded with the Minister to look into the matter at once with a view to early remission of the sentence and Private Stally's return to civilian life. To this letter I received just a formal acknowledgement.
A few days later I received a long letter from one of Private Stally's comrades who had been with him throughout the evening in question and, as this statement seemed to give additional information as to what had occurred, I at once sent a copy of that letter to the Secretary of State, so that he could be kept full informed of the information in my possession.
It was not until the 30th October, that is, 26 days later, that I received even an interim reply from the Under-Secretary, saying that the matter was being investigated. At this time, to use a classic phrase, my patience was exhausted, and I then took steps to get the matter raised on the Adjournment, and with the kind permission of Mr. Speaker I have been allowed to do so this evening.
By this time, Private Stally had completed his sentence, as he was granted a few days' remission for good conduct, but both he and his friends and his former comrades in the Army feel deeply aggrieved at the sentence which was imposed upon him, because they regard it as one of excessive severity. As he is one of many thousands of young men who are called into service in this way, I think that the Army authorities should be called upon to account for this sentence and asked to justify it.
When the Under-Secretary replies, I hope that he will deal with the general point that arises as to the profound effect which sentences like this must have on National Service men generally and upon those close to them. The Government are about to take power to keep these young men in the Army for a further six months, after which I imagine they will be more anxious than ever to celebrate the end, or at least the adjournment, of their Service days. When they do so, I hope that the authorities will have a little more human understanding and sympathy than they manifested in the case of Private Stally.
The Under-Secretary should, I think, also justify, if he can, the long delay in dealing with my original complaint. All hon. Members know that a Question in the House, or the use of other Parliamentary procedure, brings more or less immediate action. Although there are occasions when an hon. Member may wonder whether it would be in the best interest of his constituent to raise a matter quietly in correspondence with the Minister concerned, he will be very discouraged indeed if he receives the kind of treatment that I have received in this case. It will certainly be a lesson to me.
But, above all, there can be no excuse for neglecting a matter which I and my constituent made clear we regarded as serious and important and, moreover, as an injustice which to ordinary men and women appears to be one of those distinctions between "they" and "us" which often makes so difficult the relations between the Service authorities and the members of the community.
I hope, therefore, that tonight the Under-Secretary will be able not only to make suitable apologies for the neglect in dealing with the matter, but to explain why that excessive sentence was imposed in the first instance.
Two main points arise out of what the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) has said. The first is the question whether the sentence which was imposed on Mr. Stally by the Army authorities was unduly severe, whether any injustice was done him having regard to the nature of the offence which he committed. The second point, which is closely connected in this instance with the first, is whether once the hon. Gentleman had made representations about Mr. Stally's sentence to my right hon. Friend, those representations were properly handled bearing in mind that while the inquiries were going on —I think that this is the point of the hon. Gentleman's last remark—Private Stally was undergoing the sentence of detention about which the hon. Gentleman had originally complained.
I shall do my best this evening to satisfy the House on both points, but I must first be allowed to fill in a little of the background which led up to the incident in question. The events, or the climate in which the events occurred, were not quite as represented by the hon. Gentleman.
The unit of the Queen's Own Buffs at Shorncliffe, of which Private Stally, as he then was, was a member, consisted of a number of National Service men who had been left behind when the main body of the battalion went to Kenya, and a number of recruits who had joined the regiment and were awaiting the battalion's return before joining it. The National Service men had been leaving the unit and were being discharged from the Army at the rate of 35 to 40 a month as their release dates fell due.
When a batch was due to go out, their custom, very naturally, was to have a party on the evening before they were due to leave the Army. We all know what these parties are like. The hon. Gentleman fairly described the atmosphere. But these parties had been getting steadily rowdier. I have had a long talk with the commanding officer about all this, and he tells me that he thinks the men had been feeling a little frustrated at being left behind in England and that this frustration came out on the last evening and began to show itself as the parties went on in rather more extreme behaviour even than one might expect on such occasions. I do not make too much of this, but the fact was that as the parties went on the atmosphere deteriorated. A certain amount of damage had been done to barrack property after previous parties, but when confronted with their conduct next day, the men concerned, as the hon. Gentleman said, showed a reasonable attitude and proved amenable to making good any damage that they had done.
On 28th September a further batch of National Service men were due for release, and on the 27th their farewell party was due to be held. The commanding officer had reason to believe that this party might be rowdier than usual. Three weeks previously he had had complaints from the civil police in the town about thunderflashes or other fireworks having been let off on the occasion of the previous party, and he was anticipating trouble. He told the sergeant-major to speak to the men and warn them against rowdiness that evening, and this was done. He also told the permanent staff on duty to be available when the men returned from the party to barracks in case there should be trouble, but he made it clear that they were not to interfere with the normal course of events—only if the release party got out of hand.
At about half-past ten, the sergeant-major saw a party of about twenty of the National Service men coming back from the town. The hon. Member said that they were a bit drunken. I was going to use the colloquialism that they were a bit "lit up". The sergeant-major warned them that they should go to bed immediately. He made no threats, but merely suggested to them that the party was over and that they had better go to bed. I think this conduct was extremely sensible, as the hon. Member said.
Later on, at about five to eleven, the sergeant-major heard thunder flashes and fireworks exploding from the direction of the barrack room which the party of soldiers had entered. He went there to investigate and he ordered the men to go to bed. Private Stally, whom he found there, started being truculent and was noticeably druuk. He swore at the sergeant-major.
About a quarter of an hour later, a further disturbance began in the same block. The sergeant-major went back, taking two other n.c.o.s with him, and found Private Stally leaning against the door and in the act of throwing another thunderflash. Private Stally again started swearing and threatened the corporal, as a result of which the sergeant-major ordered the corporal to place him under close arrest. Private Stally, however, ran out of the building and was lost in the darkness.
A few minutes later there was an explosion from outside the next barrack block. This was where the young regular soldiers were quartered and the commanding officer had given orders, in anticipation of trouble, that the door giving access to the block should be temporarily locked. When the sergeant-major went round, Private Stally was apparently trying to gain entrance through a window above this door. He threw a thunderflash at the sergeant-major who arrested him, and the n.c.o. then escorted him to the guard room.
A little later, the sergeant-major found another soldier, who had also been ordered to go to bed and who was subsequently punished in the same way as Private Stally, roaming round the barracks asking his friends to come and help him to "do up" the Regular soldiers. He ordered him into close arrest, but the soldier ran away. Soon after half past twelve, there was a further row in the Regular soldiers' quarters and the same soldier was found there, having knocked down the door and started a fight with a young Regular soldier. He, too, was placed under close arrest.
I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Member, but the statement which he is now making does not coincide with the information supplied to me, not only by Private Stally, but by many of his comrades, to the effect that at no time had the sergeant-major disclosed that Private Stally was under arrest. He asserted that he was simply being kept in the guard room to "cool off".
What I have discovered is corroborated by the statement made at the time by the n.c.o. on the spot and by the conversation which I have had with the commanding officer. These offences were the subject of charges which Private Stally had the opportunity to answer the following morning and which, to the best of my knowledge and information, he did not deny. Therefore, as a result of the findings of the charges, the hon. Member can be assured that the information which I have given is correct.
The commanding officer had to deal with the two soldiers the next day and, having heard the charges and having had them proved to his satisfaction, he awarded the soldiers 28 days' detention. He fully realised the significance of what he was doing. He knew then that the men were due for release that day. He therefore consulted with his district commander before he made the award, and was supported in the action which he proposed to take.
He believed—and I must uphold his judgment—that, against the background which I have described, the behaviour of the soldiers went beyond mere rather drunken horseplay and argued a deliberate defiance of authority which was maintained in the face of repeated warnings, both in the early hours of that day and during the course of the evening. The commanding officer was responsible, as men in his position in the Army are, for maintaining discipline in his unit for the benefit of all ranks in that unit. He had to think of his duty to his own n.c.os. whose orders had been disregarded. He had to think of the young Regular soldiers and what might happen to them at future parties in the light of what had happened that evening. As I have said, he sought confirmation of his own judgment, and, having got it, he acted with his eyes open, and I cannot feel that in the circumstances he was wrong.
The testimonial to Private Stally, which the hon. Gentleman quoted at the beginning, was subsequently written by this same commanding officer. I see nothing inconsistent with his having given that and the way in which, in the fulfilment of his duty, he punished this one single, but, in all the circumstances, extremely serious, lapse.
I come now to the point about the delay in replying to the hon. Gentleman's representations. I say "replying" because I want to emphasise that it is the delay in replying to him which is material. Following the receipt of his letter, the investigation for which the hon. Gentleman asked was set on foot. The case was raised with District Head-quarters and Eastern Command. I must emphasise, as I have already said, that they already knew about the circumstances, from the commanding officer having referred the case to the district commander.
I must, and I do, accept the blame for the hon. Gentleman not having had a reply to his second letter. That was discourteous and wrong, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my apology, but this oversight on my part does not mean that during the period in question the matter was not being expeditiously investigated.
What the hon. Gentleman has said gives the impression that we were quietly sitting on this affair while the soldier was undergoing detention, and that we left things until it was too late to do him any good. That is emphatically not the case. Neither I nor my right hon. Friend can possibly intervene in circumstances like this without taking the fullest and most careful advice.
This inevitably necessitates a full investigation and report, and this process is bound to take time. But although it took time for the facts to be assembled on paper, the essential point is that the issues were known to those responsible at the Command headquarters even before the inquiry began. They knew that the matter had been raised on representation by the hon. Gentleman, and had there been any question of injustice or irregularity, action to remedy it would not have awaited the process of assembling the details on paper, but would have been taken at once.
I quite accept that this explanation cannot be fully satisfactory from the hon. Gentleman's point of view. Nothing can now remove—or at any rate it will be very hard to remove—from his mind the possibility of a doubt, however remote, that had I seen this case personally at an earlier stage the answer for his constituent might have been different, and he might not have had to do his 24 days in Colchester.
I accept that it is up to me as the Minister responsible to handle these matters in such a way that we not only treat people justly—and I have said that we believe we did do justice in this case —but that we avoid the slightest appearance of having failed to treat anybody justly in the minutest particular.
In this case I believe that we have done the first of those things. Where I think we have failed is over the second, and I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that I have made certain alterations in our internal arrangements to try to ensure that a sequence of events so unsatisfactory as I fear this must be for the hon. Gentleman will not occur again.
I emphasise, in conclusion, that this case was properly looked at and reviewed, and that in my view the authorities acted justly in view of the circumstances of the offence and its gravity, and indeed, that no other course than the one they pursued was open to them.