HC Deb 19 December 1947 vol 445 cc2094-107

2.46 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

The subject which I have the opportunity of raising this afternoon is one which I intended to bring forward in August last, before we left for the Summer Recess, but owing to the absence at that time of the Secretary of State for War on duty overseas, I was not able to do so.

The subject concerns deserters, but I need not touch on more than one particular aspect of desertion. To illustrate my point, I will give a particular case from my own constituency. There was a private soldier in a Highland Regiment, whose name I will not mention, because he is dead, and the parents would not wish undue publicity. It is the principle that matters. This man was tried by a court martial during the war for desertion. He was found guilty and sentenced, and, under the existing regulations, if a man is found guilty of desertion, he forfeits his right to pension and gratuity, unless he can do six months' exemplary service, and thereby regain those privileges. In this case, the boy did three months of the necessary six months' exemplary service, and was then killed in action in Normandy. When the question of his gratuity arose, his parents were informed, very curtly, that, as their son was a deserter and had not carried out six months' exemplary service, they were not entitled to his gratuity. It seems almost impossible to believe that such a statement could be put forward by a Government Department. What it amounts to is that, in the opinion of the Treasury—and it is purely a Treasury matter——

Mr. Glenvil Hall


Colonel Gomme-Duncan

The right hon. Gentleman says "No," but if the Treasury does not deal with the money, I do not know who does. Ultimately, we know that it is "F" branch in the War Office which makes this decision, and "F" branch is an offshoot of the Treasury. I have served long enough at the War Office to know what "F" branch is like. The point is this: In the opinion—to save argument I will say—of those competent to decide, six months' exemplary service in barracks at home is of greater importance than a man laying down his life for his country. That is the effect of this decision. I am sorry that the Financial Secretary has gone out. The responsibility is still that of his Department, because it is a matter of the pay warrant. In the interests of justice and fair human decency, I want him to put this man back upon what we might call the roll of honour.

At the moment, the family of this man feel it very keenly that the slur of deserter has been put upon their son. I hold no brief for deserters, but this fellow was not the type of deserter who is now hiding in thousands in London and other big cities. He had his opportunity to redeem himself completely and he took it. He went out to Normandy and was killed in face of the enemy. I beg that this matter may be given proper consideration. The former Secretary of State for War said he had given instructions that the Treasury should be immediately approached. He was hoping that the point which I raised would be met immediately. That was in August last.

I am not trying to intimidate the Minister in any way or to make it awkward for him, by recalling what happened. The point I have in mind could be very quickly settled. It could have been settled long before December. I want it to be clearly established that the Government admit that a great mistake has been made and that a man who has died for his country in war, has done as much as a man who has carried out six months' exemplary service in barracks at home. After all, that is the real test of this matter. If I may put it this way, I want it to be laid down that, while restrictions such as forfeiture of service and rights relating to pension and gratuity are no doubt justified, where a man is unable, because of his death in action, to complete the necessary six months, it shall be automatically agreed that he has redeemed himself and shall be entitled to restoration of all his rights under the regulations. His family would at least know that their son, in this case having made the supreme sacrifice, no longer had the slur of deserter upon him.

2.54 p.m.

Mr. Austin (Stratford)

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) on raising this matter and on doing so in such moving and human terms. It is a very real problem. It appears that some restitution ought to be made by the War Office to the memory of this man who tried to redeem himself, and to his family, who must be suffering a great deal of distress because of the stigma still attached to the name of the dead man. That man is still listed as a deserter.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

Might I interrupt my hon. Friend on that point? The man is not listed as a deserter. The case which has been raised by the hon. and gallant Member opposite is of a man who has purged his sentence, because he did punishment, and then died on active service.

Mr. Austin

Do I understand that he is not officially and technically regarded as a deserter?

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Perhaps I might say that this is a case of suspended sentence. The man is still regarded as a deserter and that is the reason his parents are not given the gratuity. I am afraid that the slur is still there.

Mr. Stewart

I will deal with the point later.

Mr. Austin

I hope that the Financial Secretary will try to clarify the matter. It appears from his interjection that he is sympathetic and does not think that a man who has died for his country should still have the slur of deserter attached to him. It seems to be indicated that in my hon. Friend's Department and in the Service Departments generally, a certain amount of human understanding and feeling must be lacking. Nobody denies that disciplinary considerations must be borne in mind at all times, but when I look at the general subject of deserters, I feel that some committee ought to be set up by the Service Departments, under the chairmanship of the Minister of Defence or somebody whom he cares to nominate, to look anew into the whole question from every possible aspect.

I hope the House will not object to my broaching the general subject of deserters. It is one upon which I have been most anxious for over a year. I have approached the Minister of Defence about it on numerous occasions. Perhaps it is not altogether inappropriate that the Under-Secretary of State for War is present today. In the main, because of the numbers in that Service, the deserters come mostly from the Army. I hope later to quote from King's Regulations and the Army Act on this matter. The main objections on the general subject seem to he, as far as I can summarise them, that any relaxation of treatment to men listed as deserters would be unfair to men who are serving and unfair to the country at large, and that such a relaxation of treatment would be resented. I submit that if that is the view of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence or of the Under-Secretary, it shows that those Ministers do not correctly read the reaction of the public at large.

I have already alluded to the disciplinary considerations. Nobody can deny that we should maintain discipline. For that reason I have never yet asked for a complete amnesty. In view of the considerations which arise out of the Minister's objections, I would like to break the matter down into detail, quite briefly. If there is an objection on the ground that the discipline and morale of serving men would be affected, I would reply that discipline and morale can never be maintained simply by penal methods. Obviously, with the present figure of 690 desertions per month, the figure which was given me by the Minister of Defence, the problem has not yet been solved by the punitive and harsh outlook which we have known in the past.

Secondly, if the argument is advanced that to grant relaxation now would be unfair to those who have already been punished for desertion, I say that it is fantastic. The parallel would be for those hon. Members who are engaged in Committee upon the Criminal Justice Bill to argue that abolition of the death penalty would be unfair to those who have already been hanged. Soldiers who are already serving their sentences, or carrying out their full-time obligations in the Forces, are, I am sure, cognisant of the hardship which is caused to men who are deserters and who have sometimes been forced to become deserters through no fault of their own. There is no ill-feeling or vindictiveness among the men. They would be very happy and relieved if their wartime mates and colleagues were given less severe sentences or treatment.

A third reason which is advanced is that relaxation of treatment of deserters would be unfair to men who have not yet finished their time of service. I am not asking for that kind of thing. I am only asking that deserters should be allowed to return to the Service and fulfil their obligation upon the age and service basis and not be made to stand their trial and then be sent to prison, as a pre-condition of completion of service. If it is said that on moral grounds deserters should not receive preferential treatment over other offenders, there is every moral ground why no chance should be lost of getting men back to a normal life instead of a life of crime. There is a great opportunity here for the Government to make some gesture to this body of men who, after all, comprise a very small minority of the numbers who served in the Forces. Indeed, there is a moral obligation on the Government to make this gesture.

When I raised this matter in an Adjournment Debate in May, I mentioned that Canada had granted a complete amnesty to "hostilities only" personnel. I have since written to the authorities in Canada—I have not yet had a reply—inquiring as to the effect of that amnesty on current discipline, and any other considerations they might offer. I have since learned that an amnesty has been granted to personnel in South Africa and India. I am not asking for an amnesty, but a relaxation. If there were a relaxation we should surely avoid the difficulties which are bound to be created as time goes on? Men who are living by their wits are bound to be forced into a life of crime. I referred earlier to the Report of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and the fact that 9 per cent. of indictable crime could be traced to deserters. No mention was made of the amount of crime not traced to anybody because the criminal offenders have not been detected.

Here is the solution I suggest. I recently asked the Minister of Defence whether a sentence of imprisonment imposed on a man could be suspended subject to his good behaviour if he fulfils his obligations under the age and service scheme, but when the Minister of Defence categorically replied, "No," I went back to some researches I had earlier made into King's Regulations. I must again refer to them. King's Regulations 636–640 would allow ample discretion to be used by the competent military authority to do away with a trial and to allow a man back into the Service to fulfil his military obligations. Having to stand trial is a deterrent to most men who might at the moment be "on the run." Section 73 (1) of the Army Act says: Where a soldier signs a confession that he has been guilty of desertion or fraudulent enlistment, a competent military authority may, by the order dispensing with his trial by a court-martial, or by any subsequent order, award the same forfeitures and the same deductions from pay (if any) as a court-martial could award for the said offence, or as are consequential upon conviction by a court-martial for the said offence, except such of them as may be mentioned in the order. It will be noticed that the operative word is "may" not "shall" and therefore it would be within the discretion of the competent military authority to impose either forfeitures or other penalties on the man or not. My researches lead me to believe that this was the method used after the last war when Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, then Secretary of State for War, referred to this method and to King's Regulations. I believe that this is the only way in which we can solve the problem of deserters. I hope that my words will lead to further inquiries in the Service Departments, particularly the War Office, which is in the main concerned with the problem of deserters. I ask that at this Christmas season of good will towards all men, those of us who are going home to our Christmas table should spare a thought for some of the men who may have to creep stealthily home to rejoin their loved ones. It may be that these grounds of sentiment are not those calculated to appeal to my hon. Friend, but this is a really vital problem. I hope to press this matter again, and I hope that my hon. Friend, although he cannot reply to me on this issue and must deal with that raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth, will have the matter investigated in his Department, possibly in co-operation with other Departments, so that ultimately some radical solution may be arrived at.

3.5 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Austin) has ranged over the whole field of the treatment of deserters and he will appreciate that if I am to do justice to the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan), I can only make a few brief remarks on the general position he has disclosed. On that, I should not accept his general view that the War Office or the Service Departments generally have been inclined to take a harsh and unyielding view of this problem. Indeed, at various times successive concessions have been made with regard to the treatment of deserters.

When there is the actual question of trial and imposition of penalty, a genuine attempt is made to consider the circumstances that led to the desertion for, as we know, a deserter may be a person who has no sense of his obligation to the community and has no intention of performing his duty if he can avoid it, or he may be somebody driven by circumstances, perhaps of extreme domestic hardship, to forget the strict letter of his obligation to the State. So we attempt, in procedure of trial and court martial and in the consideration of sentence, to discriminate between the different types of deserter. There is, further, the procedure for the periodic review of sentence, for the suspending and remission of sentence, all of which are aimed at trying to get a humane and just solution to this problem and, on the question of laying down the conditions under which forfeited service may be restored, there have also been successive concessions.

Therefore, I would not accept my hon. Friend's apparent suggestion that the Service Departments have been harsh and unyielding over this question, and although my hon. Friend is correct in saying that discipline cannot be maintained solely by punitive measures, we must also accept the position that it cannot be maintained at all without the help of punitive measures, and that there must normally be some penalty for the crime of desertion, although we have endeavoured to mitigate that penalty and to moderate it in view of the circumstances Which may have led to desertion, in the case of each individual. For the rest, I will bring my hon. Friend's observations on the question of desertion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence.

Now if I may take up the problem raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Perth, there was, if he will allow me to say so, one small inaccuracy in his statement of the position. He referred on several occasions to a period of six months. It should have been 12 months. If I may describe the position by example, it will be clear to the House, I think. In order to get a gratuity at all, a man must have at least six months reckonable service within the relevant period, that is to say, the period from the beginning of the war to August, 1946. Let us suppose that a man serves for two years, then deserts, is caught, is tried, is sentenced, serves his sentence or, possibly, has some part of it suspended or remitted and comes out again to begin his service afresh. His two years' service prior to the desertion is forfeited and, when he comes out, he has no reckonable service to his credit. If he then does less than six months service, he is not entitled to any war gratuity. If he does more than six months, but less than 12 months, he will be entitled to gratuity for such service as he rendered after he came out, but he will not have had his forfeited service restored. In order to get his forfeited service restored, he must have 12 months' service after he has served his sentence, or detention. It is not balancing up with the man who has been killed or a man serving six months in barracks at home; it is 12 months.

The hon. and gallant Member mentioned a particular case which was the subject of Question and answer in the House, on which naturally he said he did not wish to mention the name of the person involved. The case is well known to him, and to me. Regret has already been expressed for the unfortunate manner in which the information was conveyed to the parents, and on behalf of the War Office I wish to repeat and emphasise that regret. I wish to turn to the way in which the War Office approached the question, following representations made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman arising from this case. We were sufficiently impressed with the arguments adduced by the hon. and gallant Gentleman to feel that we ought to consult with the other Service Departments on the matter, but I am obliged to tell the House that after consultation and after the most careful consideration of the issues involved, we felt it would not be right to press for this further concession.

My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was quite correct in saying that this problem should not be laid at his door. It was felt by the Service Departments that we could not put responsibility on the Treasury for a case of this kind. Few Government Departments would not secretly like to lay responsibility for this, that, or the other complaint at the door of the Treasury, but I am bound to say that in this case it was a decision reached after full consideration by the three Service Departments.

Let us consider the difficulties involved. We were being asked to say that forfeited service—service done before the crime of desertion was committed—should be restored in the event of the death of the man in a way attributable to his war service, if the death occurred before he had had time to do the 12 months' exemplary service and get his previous service restored. We were asked to do that so that the previous service might count for gratuity. If we were to make this concession, the result would be that in certain cases a gratuity would become payable to the heirs of the Service man, which is not at present payable.

Major Tufton Beamish (Lewes)

Does the hon. Gentleman draw a distinction between killed in action, or died of wounds received in action, and death on active service? There is a distinction.

Mr. Stewart

We considered whether a distinction should properly be drawn, and came to the conclusion that one of the reasons against the concession would be the extreme difficulty in drawing a line between death caused by the enemy, or by wounds, and death on active service. At all events, it is the experience of the Ministry of Pensions that this question of the degree of attributability of death is one of the most vexed and difficult questions. I will return to that point in a moment.

What we are saying is that we do not feel that this service ought to be restored for the purposes of gratuity. We are not attempting to pronounce any moral judgment on a man who may be killed in those circumstances. What we were obliged to say in the particular case to which the hon. and gallant Member has referred, was that, in fact, this man had been a deserter, had been sentenced, that the sentence had been suspended and that not long after that he was killed. It was not for the War Office, or, in my view, for anyone to pronounce any moral judgment on that man or upon others in a similar position. We were only stating the inevitable facts as they had occurred. The decision to grant the concession which is now asked for would not alter the moral situation. It would not be any fresh judgment on the guilt or merit of any particular man; it would be solely a decision on a financial matter as to the circumstances in which certain service could be counted for the purposes of gratuity.

I said that I would mention the obstacles and difficulties which we would come up against if we tried to grant this concession. It is suggested that we should say that if a man is killed in action against the enemy, or dies of wounds, and death is directly attributable to his active service, we ought then to restore the forfeited service. But what of the position of a man who is seriously injured in action against the enemy, and is invalided out of the Service before he can complete the 12 months' exemplary service? Are we to say, "If you had been wounded and subsequently died, your heirs would have got a gratuity, but as you were wounded and invalided out before the 12 months were completed, you do not get that gratuity"? If we did that we should be creating an even greater anomaly than that which exists at present. We must notice that throughout this matter, and in all similar matters, the problem is the vexed one of where to draw the line, of what rules or regulations to make which will create the minimum number of anomalies.

I would admit that the regulation, as it stands at present, is bound to give rise to a certain number of cases which we cannot but look at with distress and regret, but it is my contention that if we altered the regulation in the way suggested, the number of such cases would not be decreased but increased. We should, for example, as I said, have the case of the man invalided out of the Service who might, after he had come out after serving a sentence for desertion, have served honorably and creditably, and been wounded and invalided out of the Service, being for that reason unable to complete the 12 months.

There is the point to which I have referred in reply to an intervention, that if we say that service is to be restored when death is directly caused by active service, as in the case of being killed on the battlefield or dying from wounds, but that we shall not restore it where the man simply dies during the period of service, we open the door to all those difficult arguments about the degree of attributability of death to war service. That, in my view, is likely to give us even more arguable cases and even more distressing situations than are likely to arise at the present time.

Then, further, let us consider the position of the man who comes out, after serving his sentence for desertion, and does not have an exemplary record to begin with, and, possibly goes on for 12 months or more with a record chequered with offences of several kinds. Then he has, say, three months' good service, and at the end of that three months he is killed. Are we to say that, in that case, the gratuity is to be restored? There is also the case of men who have never had an opportunity of completing six months' service, because they were killed in the first six months of their service. Such cases are not very common, but we must remember that the total number of men with whom we are dealing in this problem is not very great.

There has been from time to time pressure that we should grant a gratuity where a man was killed before he had had time to complete six months' service at all. If we grant that concession, it seems to me the case for granting the other concession is made a great deal stronger. There are some unhappy cases where, in the opinion of the Service Department, the man is a deserter, but where his relatives are strongly convinced that, as he has never since appeared, he has, in fact, been killed. All those cases would be again re-opened if these concessions were made. Moreover, we are, in any case, only able to grant those concessions in cases where the matter is taken up by the relatives, or brought to our notice, and we could not hope to deal with the whole of the problem. We did consider all the obstacles and difficulties, and we came to the conclusion that, in the first place, we have not been unreasonable about this question of restoring forfeited service. We had, indeed, already mitigated the circumstances under which forfeited service may he restored, on more than one occasion. We were being asked to make a further mitigation which would create more anomalies and injustices than it would cure. It was also a concession which would not benefit the Service man himself.

The final consideration that weighed with us was that the primary purpose of a gratuity is to enable an ex-Service man to resettle himself in civilian life. Since this is a concession asked in cases where a Service man has been killed, it cannot he said that he would benefit, and the gratuity would not serve the primary purpose for which gratuities were intended. It could only be a payment to a family. We were being asked, therefore, to pay to the heirs of a Service man an award to which he was not, in fact, entitled at the time of death, and in doing so, to open the door to any number of conflicting claims and actually to increase the number of anomalies and injustices that might arise. I would ask the hon. and gallant Gentleman therefore to believe that it was not hurriedly but after the most careful consideration of all the issues involved that we came, with genuine regret, to the conclusion that it would not be wise or just, or in the public interest, to make this concession.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

This is really a very disturbing reply. I ask the Minister whether he realises that this slur of desertion—apart from the actual cash—still exists, in writing, from the War Office? Does he still wish this slur of desertion to stay on with the lad, and his family, apart from the money? Secondly, I ask whether this is not an action which is in compliance with the principle of administrative convenience as opposed to justice? It seems to me that it is.

Mr. Stewart

On that last point of administrative convenience as opposed to justice, I would say that we are being asked here not for strict justice, but for a concession of clemency and mercy. I think that should be remembered. Indeed, there is every reason why we should be asked. The claim cannot be put forward as one of strict justice and nothing more. We are being asked to go further along the path of concession and compassion. We should be glad to do so if we believed that it would result in fairer treatment all round.

I think that there is something more in it than administrative convenience. What is involved is the soundness of administrative principle, the desire to see, that we proceed on solid principles and not in a casual manner which might lead to favouritism. On the point of the slur, I am not quite clear. If it were said in the letter that this man was a deserter; then I would agree, but it is, perhaps, a question of the grammar and the mere tense of the verb. It is true that the man was a deserter. Nothing can alter that fact. But we certainly admit that this man returned to service when the sentence was suspended, served honourably, and died in the service of his country. I will very gladly consider any action that we might take which might make that more clear to the parents. I am sorry that we cannot make the financial concession. I believe that the reasons we cannot make it are sound. I will certainly look into the matter to see if there is any action we might take which would remove any suggestion from the minds of the parents that we are not fully appreciative of the ultimate high service rendered by this man to his country.