Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200. So there will not be very much flexibility, in other words, for a captain of a ship as to how to deal with a particular matter?
  (Commodore Bryant) There will be discretion, but there will be broad guidelines within which he can operate.

  201. Let us take the case of drunkenness. It does seem to me that it all depends on circumstances. You might have a midshipman or sub-lieutenant being drunk on board ship which is a very serious matter. Being drunk on watch is something which could possibly disqualify someone from serving in the Navy. Being drunk ashore, I imagine that most admirals at one time when they were midshipmen were drunk ashore; maybe you were once drunk ashore, I do not know. That seems to be a very different order of situation. It may depend on what you mean by "drunk" of course. It seems to me very difficult to capture these important distinctions in a rigid codified document. The extent to which you are now going to be limiting the discretion of the chain of command you may make it much less easy to manage the Navy in the way that traditionally and successfully it has been done.
  (Mr Miller) In a sense, you are describing the very reason why we do not want to define these things too closely. If you take, for example, drunkenness ashore, being drunk ashore in the vicinity of a public house is one thing; being drunk ashore, say, during a Remembrance Service is another. They raise different issues, which is why we have to leave the commanding officers with discretion.

  202. And a private party on private premises is again quite different. For all these things that might just be a talking-to the next morning. I am simply saying, we do not want to reduce the flexibility. I would like your comment on all of this.
  (Commodore Bryant) You will know we have always had these tests with regard to ratings; and we are merely transferring them now to officers as well. The definition of "drunkenness" has clearly been laid down for a very long time under section 28. It is basically an inability to perform any duty which he might reasonably be called upon to perform. If he is officer of the watch it is very different from being asleep in his bunk on a Saturday night, when the only duty he might be called upon to perform is putting the fire out. That, frankly, is the practical test I have always applied to ships' companies: can he put the fire out?

Mr Randall

  203. With regard to punishments on summary dealing, is there an accepted list? For example, you mentioned stopping pay—would there be a ceiling on that which is laid down?
  (Commodore Bryant) Yes.

  204. So there are only certain things?
  (Commodore Bryant) There is already a very clear sentencing guidance on summary proceedings.


  205. It is interesting for the Committee to explore the delicate balance between maintaining the discretion, which (from comments I have heard) is considered to be one of the strengths of the UK's Armed Forces, alongside very clear and consistent rules and guidelines as to how disciplinary matters should be dealt with. Hearing some of the lists and comments, I do wonder what Members of Parliament would say if such rules of conduct were applied to them, but I will not ask you to comment on that! Can we now move to clause 18, Mr Miller?
  (Mr Miller) I hope we can dispose of this clause quite quickly. I will just explain that, under clause 17, arrangements would be made for junior naval officers to be dealt with summarily. There is though at present in the Naval Discipline Act a provision which allows junior officers to be dealt with by a so-called naval disciplinary court while on active service, rather than by a full court-martial. This power does not seem to have been used in living memory—certainly not for a very long time. Given that we are introducing summary trials to these officers, it seems appropriate to remove the power from the Naval Discipline Act.

  206. Clause 19: Membership of courts-martial?
  (Mr Miller) This basically is to pick up the recommendation of the Committee in the context of the last Bill in order to allow warrant officers to serve on court-martials. They would be enabled to do so in cases where the accused was of lower rank than themselves. There will be some restrictions. For example, the president of the court-martial will continue to be an officer; and we would not allow warrant officers to become a majority of the court, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, this is to give effect to the view of this Committee's predecessor, that we should allow warrant officers to serve on courts-martial.

Mr Davies

  207. I am broadly in favour of this. Clearly warrant officers are people with considerable judgment and experience, otherwise they would not be warrant officers: but there is this curious anomaly that a warrant officer is then promoted to sub-lieutenant senior rating—it goes warrant officer, sub-lieutenant and then lieutenant; he can serve on the court-martial, but when he gets promoted to sub-lieutenant he cannot serve on a court-martial, but if he gets promoted to lieutenant he can serve again. It does not seem to make any sense at all, does it?
  (Mr Miller) This was done so that warrant officers promoted to the officer ranks were treated in exactly the same way as their peers who enter the officer corps directly. Any officer would be excluded from serving on the court-martial until he reached the rank of lieutenant. We are simply proposing those promoted from the junior ranks, warrant officer and below, are treated in the same way as their peers.

  208. In seeking bureaucratic uniformity you have produced a bureaucratic anomaly. It is nonsense, is it not?
  (Mr Miller) I would not regard this as an issue of bureaucratic uniformity; it is an issue of equality of treatment.

  209. Why do you not just take it out? Why do you not just say that warrant officers, once they have served, once they have been eligible to serve on a court-martial, can continue to be eligible if they are subsequently promoted into higher ranks?
  (Mr Miller) With your permission, Chairman, I would like to take the point away, if I may, noting the views of the Committee.

  Mr Davies: Otherwise I may well be inspired to produce an amendment of my own when we come to debate the clauses, clause by clause, and I am sure you would be better at drafting an amendment of that kind that I would be.

Mr Randall

  210. Presumably it is possible that a warrant officer serving on a court-martial could be promoted during the course of that court-martial and become ineligible? Or are his promotion chances damned because he is sitting on a court-martial?
  (Commodore Bryant) Part of the promotion procedure would be an initial officer training course at Dartmouth which he would have to go through. He would be unlikely to be sitting on a court-martial whilst he was doing that. I have to say, a commission of an ex-warrant officer in the Navy is a very rare beast. We have probably only got three or four of them because they would be promoted from the lower deck and extracted much earlier than that.

Mr Davies

  211. The law should be drafted in such a way that it cannot be made an ass of. The law should be drafted, therefore, in such a way that it could not provide even for individual subsequent cases to be able to produce sentences.
  (Mr Miller) We will take it away and reconsider our position.


  212. Can I clarify what period of training warrant officers would receive before they served on a court-martial?
  (Commodore Bryant) They would receive, in their initial officer training, a broad overview of the disciplinary system, of which most are well versed anyway taking it from an officer's point of view. Before anyone sits on the board of a court-martial and this would include a warrant officer they get a detailed briefing, including training publications which they must read and become familiar with the procedure of a court-martial—and that includes the sort of decisions they might have to take, and things they might have to take account of. They will also receive a briefing by the judge advocate of the court-martial, again on procedure and how to make the right decisions and the order in which they are taken.

  213. Are we talking of a period of a week, two weeks or three weeks additional training?
  (Commodore Bryant) In general officer training terms, a warrant officer would probably have no more than a week, I would imagine, but he would of course draw on all his previous experience of the Service. The amount of training that different sorts of officers get will vary depending on their role. The supply and secretariat officers, for instance, will receive more legal training than those in the welfare branch.

Mr Davies

  214. Can I just make my position clear on this, and it may well be colleagues agree with this. I would much prefer to resolve this anomaly personally in the direction of saying, where a sub-lieutenant has been promoted from warrant officer status, promoted from the ranks, he would be able to serve as a sub-lieutenant on a court-martial, rather than say that all sub-lieutenants (which is another way of resolving the anomaly logically) would be able to serve. I do feel with sub-lieutenants who come in as midshipmen, as officer cadets in most cases, and then have been promoted to sub-lieutenant, they do not have very long in the Navy; they probably do not have great maturity because they are not very old; they certainly do not know the Navy as thoroughly as a warrant officer would do; and there may be some understandable hesitation to put such a young person in a situation in which he or she can actually determine the future career of a non-commissioned sailor. That would be my preference. That is how I certainly will draft my amendment if I get to the point where I have to do it instead of you.
  (Mr Miller) Thank you. I have taken the feeling of the Committee on this, that you would prefer to see us recognise a warrant officer promoted to commissioned rank, recognising his background and experience—rather than give the weight we have given at the moment to treating all of the officer corps equally.

Ms Taylor

  215. I would actually prefer to hear why it is thought appropriate that we do not use them in court-martials, and then hear why it might be feasible to do as suggested previously?
  (Mr Miller) Because, as Mr Davies said, they are very young, very junior and, by comparison certainly with the warrant officer, very much lacking in experience.

  216. Did I mishear? Did you say you are going to come with a level of justification for maybe using sub-lieutenants?
  (Mr Miller) No, I said I had gathered from this discussion that the Committee felt that we should give much more weight to a warrant officer's experience when he was promoted to an officer, rather than the line we had taken up until now which was the desire to treat all officers equally.

Mr Crausby

  217. I would like to know why it is important to treat them all the same?
  (Mr Miller) This is precisely the point I was intent on taking away, reflecting the views of the Committee on it.


  218. You will come back to us on this.
  (Mr Miller) We will come back, yes.

  219. Can we move on to clause 20: Eligibility of warrant officers for membership of summary appeal courts.
  (Mr Miller) This clause, Chairman, is really a supplementary, an extension of the previous clause. The new Summary Appeal Courts were created under changes to the Service discipline Acts made in the Armed Forces Discipline Act. Warrant officers are not yet eligible to be members of these courts either. When this was discussed during the debate on the Armed Forces Discipline Bill, we undertook to consider whether the warrant officers should be allowed to sit on the Summary Appeal Courts. It was made clear that we wanted to wait and see both how the new courts themselves bed down, and how well inclusion of warrant officers as members of courts-martial work. We see no reason to assume from the beginning that neither of these two changes will work. Rather than trouble the House by having to come back with primary legislation, or wait for five years, this is a power which would enable us to extend the right of warrant officers to sit on courts to the Summary Appeal Courts.

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