§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I desire, with your Lordships' permission, to put a Question to the Leader of the House of which I have given him private notice. Your Lordships may remember that upon a recent occasion in this House we discussed the treatment of conscientious objectors who are imprisoned for acts of insubordination in connection with the Military Service Act; and my noble friend the Leader of the House, speaking at the end of the debate, indicated to your Lordships that he would confer with the Home Office, and would, at a later date, be in a position to make a statement as to the decision of the Government in respect of these prisoners. I desire to ask my noble friend whether he is now in a position to make that statement?
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON)
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Marquess for giving me the opportunity of redeeming my engagement on the occasion to which he refers. He has stated quite correctly what happened in the course of that debate. At the close of the proceedings I undertook to confer with the Home Secretary, and, of course, with the Secretary of State for War, upon the matter, and to see whether there were any mitigations of prison discipline in the case of these men which the Government might be able to introduce. No time was lost in pursuing the matter. I had the conference which I promised with my two right hon. colleagues, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and the Secretary of State for War, and the conclusions at which we arrived were as follows.
The noble Lords who were present at the debate will recall that one of the points made on that occasion was the suggestion that there were a certain number of men at the present moment serving in the Army who claimed absolute exemption, and who would have been given it by the, Tribunals acting in their statutory capacity had the Tribunals been aware that they had power 54 to give absolute exemption. That was the point which was especially made by the noble Marquess on my right (Lord Lansdowne). On the other hand, I think I am correct in saving that when the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, spoke rather later in the debate be said that, although there might be such instances, he believed they were very few in number. I believe that to be the case; but the fact that they are very few does not, I think, dispense us from looking into such cases as there may be, however small the number. Accordingly, it was agreed between us that a letter should be written by the War Office to the Local Government Board on the following lines—
It having been represented that there are at the present moment serving in the Army a certain number of men who would have been given absolute exemption by the Tribunals had such Tribunals been aware that they had power to give absolute exemption, the Army Council would be grateful if the Local Government Hoard could see their way to circularising Tribunals asking whether such has been the case, and, if so, that the names of any men who would have received absolute exemption may be forwarded to the War Office for their consideration.
It is obvious that some little time must elapse before we can obtain the information which is here sought for, but that, I hope noble Lords will agree, is the best method by which to proceed.
The next, point that was raised, specifically referred to just now by the noble Marquess, was that of prison treatment. A decision was arrived at a little while ago—I think it was referred to by the Secretary of State for War in the discussion here—to grant the mitigation of treatment provided by Prison Rule 243A to men who had served a period of twelve months imprisonment with hard labour or had earned the marks for a twelve months sentence, which means ordinarily ten months actual imprisonment; and the Home Secretary made a direction that this Rule should apply whether the twelve months were a continuous sentence or an aggregate of shorter sentences.
When reference is made to a Regulation under a number, probably few of your Lordships' House are accurately aware of what it means. Therefore, I must 55 ask your permission to read to you what the application of this Prison Rule 243A to the men in question means. The treatment is as follows. They may as far as practicable be allowed to wear their own clothing. They may be relieved from cell cleaning if on payment of a small sum, fixed by the Commissioners, it is possible to procure for them the services of another prisoner to clean and to arrange their furniture and utensils. They may be employed on the lighter forms of labour, and thus be allowed facilities for earning by industry such remission as the Rules allow. They may be permitted to exercise in the forenoon and afternoon of each day, and to associate and converse during these periods of exercise, so long as they behave in an orderly manner. They may be permitted to have supplied to them at their own expense such books, not bearing on current events, as are not, in the opinion of the Commissioners, of an objectionable kind. Finally, by good conduct and industry they may earn the privilege of a letter and reply on private matters once a fortnight, and of being visited once a month by not more than three friends or relations at one time, for a period of a quarter of an hour, during such times as may be appointed.
The next question—this again, I believe was raised by the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne—was as to the repeated trials. Perhaps I had better explain to your Lordships exactly what happens in respect of these trials, because it did not appear to me that the matter was fully understood by the House, and the changes that have taken place in the procedure in the last few months have, I think, not been apprehended by the public. I certainly was not fully cognisant of the case myself. What has happened is as follows. At one time the Army Council made a practice of mitigating long sentences passed by Courts-Martial on soldiers who committed offences against discipline on the grounds of conscience, by reducing the ordinary sentence of two years to 112 days. But the only result of this clemency proved to be that upon release, the soldier again refused to obey orders or committed other military offences, and was again tried by Court-Martial and sentenced again to imprisonment. That is the source of the feeling as to repeated trials upon which the noble Marquess relied. To avoid these repeated trials it was decided to leave the sentence awarded in the first instance to run its course, so that the offender might not 56 several times pass through the extra severity of the first months of successive sentences of imprisonment, as laid down by the Prison Rules. In either case the prisoners, after completing one year's sentence, whether continuous or not, will now be entitled to the special indulgences which I read out just now under Regulation 243A.
The last question which was raised in the debate here was as to the treatment of persons imprisoned when on medical grounds there was reason to think that they might fairly be released. Upon that matter we had a good deal of discussion, and the most suitable plan for dealing with the case appeared to us to be the following, which I will ask your Lordships' permission to narrate. The Home Office will submit from time to time to the War Office the names of soldiers who are serving sentences of imprisonment in civil prisons for offences against discipline on the grounds of conscience, and who are reported upon by prison medical officers as being in a poor state of health, and who are for this reason recommended for release from prison. On receipt of those names, the ordinary machinery of transferring soldiers to the Reserve can be set in motion by the branches concerned, and the men in question will then be transferred to one of the Reserve classes, where they will draw neither pay nor allowances—no one would, of course, contend that in those circumstances they should be in receipt of pay—and whence they could be recalled to the Colours by the military authorities as and when required. Details of this procedure are in course of being worked out. Those are the points to which special attention was drawn in the discussion to which I have referred, and I have stated the mitigations which His Majesty's Government propose to carry out.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, it would be out of order to comment upon the interesting statement which has just been made by the Leader of the House, but I should like to ask him to clear up one point which he did not make quite plain to me. He told us, I think, that he had instituted inquiries as to the cases of certain men who were serving in the Army and who there was reason to believe might have obtained unconditional exemption if at the time the Tribunals had understood the precise meaning of the Military Service 57 Act. My question is this Does that inquiry apply also to men who are actually undergoing imprisonment and who would not have been undergoing imprisonment if the Tribunals had been aware of the true construction of the Military Service Act?
§ LORD COURTNEY OF PENWITH
My Lords, I was not aware that this conversation was about to take place, and before the noble Earl answers the noble Marquess's question I should like to ask whether the letter about which the noble Earl spoke has been written, and, if so, what procedure will probably be taken upon its receipt by the Local Government Board. Have the Local Government Board the power of calling upon the different Local Tribunals to confer together again and to re-consider each case and to report upon it? Considering that originally the Local Tribunals apparently proceeded in the cases under discussion under a false apprehension, their then view of the cases would not be such as could now be recalled with precision and certainty in respect to individual points taken. I should like to know what the process is—whether the Tribunals will be called upon to reconsider the cases; how they will know who are the doubtful persons upon whom they would have passed different reports and as to whom they would have come to different conclusions had they understood how the law really stood; and further, what time would be expected to elapse before the result will be reached which is aimed at in the circular.
With respect to the relaxations promised under 243A, I may say at once that I consider some of these relaxations of the highest possible value. I refer especially to the opportunities given to those who would come under its mitigating influence of conversation and exercise together. I understand that in some cases, which have come peculiarly within my knowledge, the isolation of solitary confinement which in these cases has now endured for many months and is accentuated through the very sensitive conscientious view of their situation taken by the prisoners themselves—has become a matter of great anxiety, not merely with regard to their bodily health, but in regard to their health generally. Therefore the relaxation which would be possible by allowing human intercourse between the prisoners during 58 the very short periods of exercise would be of extreme value. I will not add anything more with respect, to the communication made by the noble Earl, except to say that I am sure we all feel very grateful to him for having taken up the matter in the way he has done.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My Lords, in reply to the two questions that have been put to me, the procedure as regards the communication to the Tribunals will, I Understand, go through four stages. In the first place, there is the letter to be issued by the War Office.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
My noble friend the Secretary of State for War and myself have only just arrived at a conclusion upon the matter, with the aid of the Home Secretary. I do not know whether the letter has been already issued from the War Office, but my noble friend behind me (Lord Derby) gives an engagement that if it has not been so issued it shall proceed without delay. The letter, as I think I explained, is from the War Office to the Local Government Board asking them to circularise the Tribunals. That is stage number two. Then in this letter the Tribunals are asked to forward to us the names of any men in this position who would have received absolute exemption. That is stage number three. As I believe I remarked before, the number of these cases is not likely to be large; therefore I do not imagine that any delay will occur. The names will then come back from the Tribunals, through the Local Government Board, to the War Office, or to the War Office direct. It will then be for the War Office to consider the matter and to decide upon what action they ought to take. Those are the four stages through which the process will go. With regard to what my noble friend Lord Lansdowne said, I should not like to pledge myself absolutely definitely upon the point, but I think the letter will apply to all the cases that occurred between the two dates—I think they were January, 1916, and May, 1916—
§ THE MARQUESS OP SALISBURY
My Lords. I should like to put one more question to my noble friend. Am I correct in understanding that there will be no mitigation at all for the persons who are in prison, under twelve months—either in one sentence or in more than one sentence aggregating twelve months hard labour or if the prisoner has behaved well, under ten months hard labour? Is that so?
§ VISCOUNT BRYCE
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether, as this matter is a little complicated and not very easy to follow, it is intended to issue any Paper which will contain the statement, perhaps a little amplified, which the noble Earl has given us this afternoon, in order that those who are interested may have an opportunity of understanding it thoroughly in case it should be thought desirable to put any further question regarding it on a more appropriate occasion.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Does the noble Viscount not remember that under the new procedure which we inaugurated so happily this session, the Official Reports of our Proceedings now appear verbatim in the morning? Therefore a full statement of what has passed this afternoon will be in the hands of noble Lords and others to-morrow morning. In these circumstances I hardly think it necessary to issue special Papers.