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Volume 416: debated on Thursday 12 April 1945

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asked the Secretary of State for War, in view of the fact that punishments awarded by Service authorities are more severe than those imposed for equivalent offences by civilian courts and that the routine treatment of prisoners in detention camps is harsher than in civilian prisons, if he will set up an inquiry into these matters in general as a preliminary to more humane treatment of Service offenders and in order to allay the disquiet in the country.

By the expression "equivalent offences" I assume that my hon. Friend refers to offences which, when committed in England by civilians, are punishable by the law of this country. Under Section 41 of the Army Act the more serious offences, viz., treason, murder, manslaughter, treason-felony and rape, if committed by a person subject to military law, are triable by a civil count in all cases where the offence is committed in this country, and in cases where the offence is committed in British territory overseas if there is a competent court within reach, unless the accused is on active service at the time.In the case of the less serious offences the maximum punishment which can be awarded in any particular case by a court martial is, generally speaking, the same as that which can be awarded by a civil court for the same offence. If the suggestion is that the general run of sentences awarded by courts-martial shows greater severity than the general run of sentences awarded by civil courts, I am unable to accept this suggestion, in the absence of instances to support it. Sentences awarded by courts-martial are subject to review after confirmation, and in practice are often mitigated or commuted, if the original sentence appears to have been too severe: In general, courts-martial, in the matter of awarding sentences have to take into account the effect on the discipline of the Army, and it is laid down in the Manual of Military Law (Chapter 5, para. 78) that the proper amount of punishment to be inflicted is the least amount by which discipline can efficiently be maintained.As regards the routine treatment of soldiers under sentence in detention barracks, the rules for military detention barracks and military prisons are based upon the rules for civil prisons. The former are in no way more harsh than the latter, and in some respects they are more lenient. If the suggestion is that in the application of the rules there is greater harshness in military establishments, I must point out that the Committee of Inquiry into Detention Barracks which reported in 1943 (Cmd. 6484) were satisfied that there was not then nor had been for some time past any violence or physical ill-treatment practised upon men in detention (para. 20 of Report). Whether the forthcoming inquiry into the conduct of Stakehill Detention Barracks will justify another more general inquiry it is too early to judge, and I have nothing to add at present to what I said on this subject on 27th November.