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World War I: Pardons

Volume 685: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 16 August I announced that the Government planned to seek parliamentary approval for a statutory pardon for service personnel executed for a range of disciplinary offences during the First World War. I am now taking this opportunity to confirm these plans to the House and to provide some further information on our intentions.

I have reviewed carefully the case for granting pardons and concluded that although this is a difficult issue it is right to recognise the exceptional circumstances that gave rise to these executions and to show compassion to the families who have had to live with the associated stigma over the years.

Given the paucity of records for the courts martial of those executed, I have taken the view that it would not be appropriate or fair to consider individual pardons under the Royal Prerogative but that a statutory pardon for all members of the group should be introduced. This approach removes the risk of individual cases failing to meet the criteria for a pardon under the prerogative simply because of lack of evidence.

It is the Government's intention to introduce an amendment to the current Armed Forces Bill during the Lords Committee stage to give effect to this. Rather than naming individuals, the amendment will pardon all those executed following conviction by court martial for a range of offences likely to have been strongly influenced by the stresses associated with this terrible war; this will include desertion, cowardice, mutiny and comparable offences committed during the period of hostilities from 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918. Over 300 individuals from the UK, her dominions and colonies were executed under the Army Act 1881. We will also seek pardons for those similarly executed under the provisions of the Indian Army Act 1911, records of whose identities we have not been able to locate. We consider that it would not be appropriate to include in the pardon all capital offences and specifically the offences of murder and treason will be excluded.

In each case, the effect of the pardon will be to recognise that execution was not a fate that the individual deserved but resulted from the particular discipline and penalties considered to be necessary at the time for the successful prosecution of the war. We intend that the amendment should so far as possible remove the particular dishonour that execution brought to the individuals and their families. However, the pardon should not be seen as casting doubt on either the procedures and processes of the time or the judgment of those who took these very difficult decisions.

The pardon would apply to those sentences of execution confirmed and carried out but convictions would not be quashed. The amendment will not create any right to compensation and the Royal Prerogative of Mercy will remain unaffected.

As the amendment would affect the cases of personnel who were serving in the Armed Forces of a number of dominions and colonies, we are consulting with the Governments of those states or their successors on our plans. We are expecting to receive their responses shortly but I can confirm that our decision has already been welcomed by one of those principally affected. I anticipate the Government's proposal will also be warmly welcomed by the public at large and particularly by the families concerned.