§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ *LORD THRING
My Lords, when I put a question in this House the other day to the Under Secretary of State for War (Lord Harris), my noble Friend administered to me a rebuke for intruding the matter of Army discipline upon the attention of the House before making myself thoroughly acquainted with the subject. Now, I may say that in the position I had the honour to hold during various Administrations under successive Ministers of War the subject of military discipline was continually under my consideration. I prepared the existing Code of Law and every document connected with that law. "The Manual of Military Law," which is the text book of the Army, was written under my superintendence, and several chapters by my own hand. Further, General Elles, now Adjutant General in India, then Colonel Elles, was deputed to assist me, and initiated me into every detail of military life and military discipline. I trust, therefore, your Lordships will pardon me if I take an interest in a subject which has been my study for many years. Now, with respect to the existing state of the law relating to military punishments, I wish to point out that the Order of 1887, which was brought forward and formulated by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, the true friend of the soldier, has removed a great many grievances of the soldier, and, as has been well said by a distinguished officer, it has effected a complete revolution in military discipline of a beneficent character. It diminished crime in the Army by 18 per cent immediately; it reduced the number of military prisoners in one year from 1,127 to 727. Has not the time come, I ask, when this beneficent system, which is now only a General Order, should be embodied in a Statute, and that the soldier should not be left to the caprice of a Court Martial? There is only one possible objection that I can conceive to embodying this reform in a Statute. We are often told that it is desirable to keep over the head of the soldier the possibility of an extreme punishment even for trivial offences by way of making an 1542 example in cases where general insubordination prevails; but what was the meaning of making an example? I have been behind the military curtain, and I say that, when a regiment becomes disorganized and gets out of discipline, it is either from the undue laxity or the unjust severity of its incompetent colonel, and the example which ought to be made in such a case is to discharge the colonel, and not to unduly punish the private soldier. I should not insist so much on this point if it were not that the Bill before the House seems to afford little hope that the Government intend to make further progress in this line of legislation. On the contrary, there is a clause in it which I hope has crept in without the sanction of the Under Secretary—a clause utterly and absolutely antagonistic to the whole spirit of the Order of 1887. The present Code discriminates between offences against military discipline and offences of an immoral, dishonest, and shameful character. Yet it is proposed to take men guilty of such merely military offences as breaking out of barracks and so forth, and degrade them among criminals and felons of the worst description. Then there is another point—the effect of the military law upon recruits. In 1883, 3,711 men deserted; of those 2,106 deserted during the first year of their service—that was two thirds. In 1884 there were about three-fourths. In 1885 about two-fifths. These figures show that the severity of the military law operates against the successful recruiting for the Army. Another point is that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the ignorance of officers in the law which they have to administer. They are not taught that law. Instead of making the officer acquainted with the principles of the law he has to administer, the whole examination is taken up with questions which encourage him to learn by rote a few technical details utterly useless for practical purposes. It may be objected that the officers care nothing for the law; they say—"Confound the lawyers; the less we have of them the better;" and I agree with their condemnation of law as opposed to common sense, but I will undertake to say that any man who has seen any number of Courts Martial must be aware that of all technical tribunals in the world a Court Martial is the most 1543 addicted to technicalities, and officers entangle themselves in legal cobwebs, which would be swept away in a moment by a magistrate of any experience, Young officers, although men of great ability and willing to learn, have not the means of learning the principle of the law which they have to administer, and the examiners have not the skill to elicit such knowledge as they have. It has been stated that it is not the province of your Lordships' House to consider questions of discipline. Is it conceivable that if it is the duty of the House to pass a Bill of this description, which menaces with imprisonment, with penal servitude, and with death thousands and thousands of our countrymen, we ought not to look into this Act and scan every word of it? Is it conceivable that we are not to look to the administration of this most Draconian Code and to see wherever possible that justice is tempered with mercy?
*THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (Lord HARRIS)
My Lords, I wish, at the outset, to observe that I thoroughly agree that it is not only perfectly justifiable, but eminently desirable, that a noble Lord who has had such wide experience in military law as has my noble Friend opposite should express his views upon a Bill of this character. The general tenour of the noble Lord's remarks, as I understand, is to justify the leniency which has crept into military punishments since 1887, and to ask the military authorities to consider whether, as time passes, it would not be possible and wise to extend that leniency still further. The noble Lord will quite understand that on a question of military discipline of this kind, and on such short notice, I am hardly able to give an answer offhand as to the extent to which the military authorities, from the experience they have gained in two years, would be justified in extending that more lenient system of dealing with military offences. The military authorities are satisfied with the experience they have gained up to the present time, and it is only reasonable to suppose that they will be prepared, if they find that that experience tends in the same direction in future, to meet the good behaviour on the part of the soldier by a proportionate relaxation of the bonds which surround him. The noble Lord asks whether it is not time 1544 that the advantages gained by the General Order of 1887 should be made law by an Act of Parliament. I do not see any advantage in that, because I am under the impression that all Courts Martial undergo very careful scrutiny both from the Judge Advocate General and also from the office of the Adjutant General. I think the soldier has ample security against an unfair or excessive sentence in the close scrutiny which is given to all Court Martial sentences. The noble Lord objects to Clause 4 in the Bill because it sends men dismissed from the Army to a civil prison, where they have to consort with felons. Although this is a change in the Act of 1881, it is a return to the principles of the Act of 1847. The noble Lord must remember that a soldier who has been dismissed with ignominy is only subjected to that extreme penalty after a series of the very worst offences—after having shown himself a thoroughly bad character. Such a man is not worth keeping in the Army; and the object is to free from military prisons those men who are not worthy of returning to the Army. That is the object of the Amendment, and I trust that the noble Lord will see that it is a desirable change to keep from the society of soldiers men who at the close of their sentence are not thought worth returning to the Army. As to military education, I would point out to the noble Lord that it is somewhat difficult in the course of an officer's career to make him both a first-rate lawyer and a first-rate soldier. The officer's time is limited. The object of the education given to the officer before entering the Army and afterwards is to make him, first of all, a first-rate soldier, and then as good a lawyer as time will permit. Military law is included in the syllabus at Sandhurst and Woolwich, and it is also included in the examinations for promotion. These facts show the anxiety on the part of the military authorities to give officers every opportunity of obtaining experience in legal matters. I am inclined to think that an officer of the present day has so much to learn that it is not always found easy to attend lectures on legal subjects such as the noble Lord referred to. All these suggestions, however, which the noble Lord has made, will receive the very closest attention from the military authorities, and I am certain 1545 also from my right hon. Friend, Mr. Stanhope.
§ *LORD NAPIER OF MAGDALA
The noble Lord has dealt very severely with Courts Martial. I think there are very few officers who have had more Courts Martial pass through their hands than I have, except those connected with the headquarters of the Department, and I must say that a Court Martial is a very fair Court. It is conducted with great solemnity. Before a man is sentenced by Court Martial his character—that is, his defaulter's sheet is placed before the members of the Court—they judge not merely by the crime, but they judge by the accumulation of crime. A man receives, in the first instance, a very gentle punishment. The officers are very tender and gentle to offenders, who are at first warned and reprimanded; and anyone looking at the regimental books can see how careful officers are to deal gently with men for their first offences. If the soldier repeats his offence after being warned he is punished slightly, and heavy punishment only comes after repeated offences. I do not know at this moment whether Courts Martial in this country are attended by the Deputy Judge Advocate General, but until recently every Court Martial in India, where it was possible, was attended by a gentleman who had studied the law particularly. But military laws are very simple; the facts constituting the offence are generally very simple ones, and there are eye-witnesses inmost cases. Besides, the sentence passed is reviewed by several authorities, and finally by the Judge Advocate General, who, if the sentence is considered too severe, may see his way to make a recommendation to mercy. Soldiers are much better educated now than they were fifty or sixty or even forty years ago; His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief has been able to lighten their punishments; much more clemency is extended to them than formerly. I venture to think that the noble Lord has taken a very severe view of Courts Martial. In my own opinion they are considerate and just Courts, always inclined, if possible, to mercy. I have myself never been a severe man towards soldiers. Forty years of my life were spent in India in the endeavour to ameliorate the condition of soldiers; but at one time mild punishment 1546 led to a large increase of crime. Crimes of violence and insubordination increased to such a degree that in one year no fewer than 250 of these offences had to be dealt with. I was then compelled to make very severe examples, and in the following year the number of crimes was reduced to 35. I hold that the whole tenour of military administration is one of careful watching, warning, and guiding the soldier, and punishing him only when milder measures fail.
§ Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow.