HC Deb 12 November 1947 vol 444 cc382-4
54. Air-Commodore Harvey

asked the Minister of Defence how many deserters from the three Services are still at large who deserted prior to V-J Day; and how many have deserted since then and are still at large.

55. Mr. Piratin

asked the Minister of Defence the number of men in the three Services who deserted before V-J Day and how many since, confining the information to those men who have not yet been caught up or surrendered.

Mr. Alexander

I regret that this information is not readily available, and could not be obtained without undue labour.

Air-Commodore Harvey

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that a week or two ago he told me that if I put down a Question he would give me the answer: and will he go into it, because it is an important matter about which we should know, as he indicated that the present rate of desertions was very high?

Mr. Alexander

I said that I would see if the information was available, and, if so, would give it to the hon. and gallant Member. I would have done so with pleasure, but when I came to look into it with the officials I found there were a great number of centres from which quite separate figures would have to be obtained on almost every individual case, and I really cannot see that the labour is worth while

Mr. Piratin

Would not the Minister look into the matter once again, in view of the fact that this point is so important? A number of prisoners deserted after V-J Day, and though what he said obviously could apply to those who deserted during the war, it could not apply with such strength to those who deserted since. Is not some clemency called for in those cases?

Mr. Austin

Surely, on a question of fundamental importance such as this, we cannot assess the merits of the case and the injustice being done to these men unless we have the information made available to the House? May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether some means can be found of obtaining from the Minister of Defence the information for which we are asking?

Air-Commodore Harvey

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that units spend a considerable amount of time filling in returns; and surely the Services must have this information? Will he not look into it and give the information to the House?

Mr. Alexander

The hon. and gallant Member himself has senior Service experience, and he knows quite well that one often finds in a case like this one has to start on an entirely new basis of collecting statistics to obtain this particular information. This would involve examining every one of the 21,000 cases which are spread over the whole world. I consider that the work involved would not be justified.

Mr. Gallacher

Will the Minister consider writing off these deserters as a bad debt, giving them their ration books and trying to get them back into useful civilian life?

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

Are not all desertions notified to the police, published in the "Police Gazette," and struck off as the man surrenders himself; and could not some information be obtained from that?

Mr. Alexander

We should have to put somebody on to examining every one of those records on that basis.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Is it not a fact that these men are practically outlawed at present; are they to be kept in this position permanently; and will the right hon. Gentleman devise some means of bringing them within the pale of productive work?

Mr. Alexander

This argument goes on again and again at Question Time. I have answered it many times. We have made an offer and some thousands of men surrendered. I have given the reasons why we cannot go further. Any man who surrenders voluntarily now will have that taken into account.

Lieut.-Colonel Kingsmill

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that from the card index system which was in force during the war—in which I was proud to share—it is possible to discover the number of absentees and deserters from any unit, certainly as far as the Army is concerned?

Mr. Alexander

I have given the actual figures to hon. Members again and again. There is no difficulty about that.

Air-Commodore Harvey

In view of the reluctance of the right hon. Gentleman to give this information, and of the importance of the matter, I give notice that I shall endeavour to raise this, as well as the other matter, on the Adjournment.