HC Deb 02 April 1947 vol 435 cc2031-3
48. Mr. Chetwynd

asked the Minister of Defence how many of the estimated total of 20,000 deserters at large in the United Kingdom on 22nd January, 1947, have surrendered voluntarily between that date and 31st March, 1947; how many have been sentenced; and what steps will be taken to deal with deserters still at large.

49. Mr. Austin

asked the Minister of Defence if he is now in a position to make a full statement on the response to his recent appeal to deserters, together with a survey of the factors that contributed to its failure.

Mr. Alexander

The final returns have not yet come in and may be appreciably increased by eleventh hour surrenders. The latest firm figures available show that since 22nd January the number of deserters who have surrendered voluntarily in the United Kingdom is:

Army 1,158
Royal Navy 227
Royal Air Force 230
During that period 549 deserting soldiers, 112 sailors and 25 airmen have been apprehended in the United Kingdom. In addition, a number of men have given themselves up or have been apprehended abroad during the period. Precise figures of these are not yet available. Of the men who surrendered voluntarily in the United Kingdom 720 soldiers, 203 sailors and 45 airmen have already been sentenced. The instructions for dealing especially quickly and leniently with deserters who surrendered voluntarily before the end of March have been withdrawn and any deserters who now surrender will be dealt with on their merits.

Mr. Chetwynd

In view of the somewhat disappointing result of this appeal, does my right hon. Friend now intend to pursue more vigorous methods of rounding up deserters, or would he consider extending the period of clemency for another month or two months?

Mr. Alexander

To the last part of the supplementary question I think the answer must be, "No, Sir." In regard to the first part, I would rather wait, before talking about failure, until we get the final figures. I have four or five days' returns to come in before they are complete. At any rate, I am satisfied that it has been worth while to get somewhere near 1,600 to 1,700 men voluntarily to decide for themselves to make good for the future.

Mr. Austin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's policy on the question of deserters is both harsh and inconclusive, and is likely to lead to a trail, over the years, of many broken lives? Will he take into consideration the feelings of the families of the men concerned and reconsider his decision?

Mr. Alexander

I have tried to explain before that that may be the view of some of the families concerned, but it is by no means the view of (a) families who have lost men in the war, (b) many of the men who have been compelled to serve longer because other men deserted their duties, and (c) of many other families who have had sons who served faithfully and well right through, and therefore do not wish special treatment to be given to deserters.

Mr. Carmichael

Will the Minister give some indication of the percentage of deserters who have returned voluntarily to the Forces?

Mr. Alexander

It is rather difficult to assess the percentage of actual deserters. There were about 20,000 men absent, but I cannot say that every one was a deliberate deserter. Some may have been missing for various other reasons. I cannot give the exact figure, but, taking 20,000, it means that we have recovered voluntarily about 7½ to 8 per cent., but that figure may be increased slightly when I get the final returns.

Mr. Lipson

Will the Minister investigate with the Ministry of Food the fact that it is apparently quite easy for a person to go to a food office, change his name, and be registered under an assumed name, and to what extent that practice has made it difficult to trace these deserters?

Mr. Alexander

I have put the point to my right hon. Friend, and no doubt other Members will do so.

Mr. Sydney Silverman

While giving due weight to the considerations my right hon. Friend has mentioned, may I ask if it is not reasonably clear now that the number of people who have actually deserted is very small? Will he not consider this, in view of the fact that it is now two years since the end of the war, and reconsider whether a complete amnesty of all these offences might not now be granted?

Mr. Alexander

I would like to make it clear, and I am sure all my hon. Friends will realise that it is fundamental, that we must maintain the discipline of organised manpower. It is not only the deserters but those who have served in the Forces who deserve consideration; there cannot be a repetition of amnesty. The Government made a fairly generous offer, many men have got off much more leniently in consequence, and they have had a long period in which to surrender. I think we have done our best, and we must leave it there.

Major Guy Lloyd

Is there to be any period of leniency granted to those who deserted the Government last night?

Mr. Austin

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter on the Adjournment.

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