HC Deb 22 January 1947 vol 432 cc213-5
47. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

asked the Minister of Defence whether he will make an announcement arising from the review by the Service Departments of the problem of deserters.

48. Mr. Wilkes

asked the Minister of Defence whether he will now consider proposals for a general or selective amnesty for the 13,176, 1,500 and 392 deserters for a period of more than one year from the Army, R.N. and R.A.F., respectively, in view of the fact that police reports indicate that these deserters are responsible for the increasing gang war fare and hooliganism, as well as the general increase in the number of crimes of violence.

Mr. Alexander

I will, with permission, make a statement at the end of Questions in reply to these Questions.


Mr. Alexander

The following is the statement in reply to Questions Nos. 47 and 48. There is a considerable number of deserters in the United Kingdom amounting to nearly 20,000 men. So long as these men remain in a state of desertion, they are not only committing an offence against military law, for which they are liable to arrest, but since they have no civilian status, they are dependent for food and clothing either upon private charity or upon breaches of the law relating to rationing and control of commodities and are in many cases leading an underground existence. The Government have already announced that there can be no amnesty to these men, since this would give them preferential treatment over those who are complying with their military obligations, but it is to the advantage and wellbeing of the men themselves and of the nation as a whole that they should take steps now which will enable them eventually to resume normal lives as free citizens.

Those who are now deserters are strongly recommended to surrender at once. Those who surrender voluntarily by 31st March, 1947, will have this fact arid any other mitigating circumstances taken into account when their cases are determined. Those who surrender (other than men who entered on regular engagements) and have had previous service are reminded that they will have their previous service restored for the purpose of the release scheme if they serve satisfactorily for a further twelve months. Surrender will eventually lead to the rehabilitation of each man and in due course to his restoration to normal civil life. Subject to special rules as regards War Gratuity, he will also obtain those benefits to which his completed term of service entitles him.

The general public is reminded of the penalties to which a person is liable if convicted of the offence of concealing a deserter. The maximum penalty is six months' imprisonment or a fine of £30. The Government earnestly request the cooperation of everyone, especially relatives, friends and employers of the men concerned, in securing that these men surrender or are traced, and in ending the social evils which result from the existence in the community of numbers of persons without any recognised civil status.

Mr. Churchill

Will the Minister of Defence emphasise very strongly the important effect of mitigation of a voluntary surrender before 31st March, 1947?

Mr. Alexander

I think the paragraph which I have quoted emphasises that, but we will certainly underline it for publication.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Can the Minister say whether any special machinery will be set up to deal with the particular cases of those who voluntarily surrender so that there is no undue delay in arriving at what, I hope, will be a satisfactory decision in each case?

Mr. Alexander

I will certainly discuss the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend with the Service Ministers concerned, but they must administer the machinery.

Mr. Gallacher

While the Minister is issuing this appeal, which I hope will have a good effect, will he consider, at the same time, setting up a commission for the purpose of going into the whole character of courts-martial and sentences imposed by courts-martial in view of the appalling stories given in this House?

Mr. Stephen

May I ask the Minister whether this only applies to deserters in this country, or whether it will apply to deserters, say, in Italy and other countries as well?

Mr. Alexander

It is because it applies to some men abroad that we have put the date as far back as 31st March, which will give them some ten or 11 weeks.

Mr. Logan

In view of the anxiety felt in many quarters, will the Minister make a broadcast in regard to this concession?

Mr. Alexander

I will consider that, but I am not in favour of broadcasting every two or three minutes.

Air-Commodore Harvey

In the event of men surrendering, will the Minister ensure that the methods of defence in any court-martial that takes place will be equal in respect of the three Services— that is, a good defence?

Mr. Alexander

I should have thought that there was no doubt about that, but I will look specially at the point.

Mr. Rankin

In the case of those men who have already surrendered, will the Minister be prepared to indicate the type of sentence which has already been passed in those particular cases?

Mr. Alexander

They vary tremendously according to the circumstances.

Mr. Berry

Docs the Minister think that it is any inducement to men to surrender in view of the recent brutal sentence passed on a man by a naval court-martial after he had served in the Army?

Mr. Alexander

I am not familiar with all the details of that particular case, but I have a recollection that the sentence was very much reduced on review by the Admiralty.