HC Deb 02 February 1948 vol 446 cc1599-610

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

11.4 p.m.

Air-Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

I should like to apologise to the House for not taking advantage of the Adjournment Motion when I ballotted for it last December. The fact was that I was going into hospital on the following day and I went out of the Chamber for an hour, end in the meantime the House adjourned and Members got a holiday.

I wish to raise the question of the large number of deserters because it is a running sore in some respects. In the autumn of last year there were approximately 21,000 deserters in the United Kingdom. On 22nd January, 1947, the Minister of Defence said the number of deserters was then nearly 20,000, and I am concerned that the figures seem to have increased in the months of 1947. I am not certain how that figure is arrived at, but an explanation would be very welcome. When the Minister of Defence made that statement, he said that those who were deserters were strongly recommended to surrender at once. Those who surrendered voluntarily by 31st March would have that fact and any other mitigating circumstance taken into account when their cases were determined. The response was fairly good, and quite a number came in. I think about 1,615 responded to the Minister's invitation to surrender.

Going back to 1946, on 7th March, before we had a Minister of Defence, the Home Secretary said that the number of deserters was 18,753. On 19th November, 1946, the then Secretary of State for War, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), said it was 15,000 odd. I find it very difficult to reconcile these varying figures in such a short space of time. I asked the Minister of Defence last November how many deserters from the three Services, who had deserted before VJ Day, were still at large_ and how many had deserted since and were still at large. I felt that it was very necessary to differentiate between those who deserted during the war, and those who deserted since the end of the war. If the number has gone up since the end of the war, it opens up the question of discipline, and points to something being wrong in that respect. This is a situation which ought not to be allowed to continue. I can understand that there were a large number of deserters before the war; but before the war they could not do very much harm. There was plenty of food and of most other things, but now with so much scarcity, there is much more scope for the deserters. These men are living without identity cards, ration cards, or clothing coupons, and this in itself, makes the identity card for the rest of us completely valueless when one gets 22,000 people without cards at all. Many must be living on crime. There is no doubt about that. There was an article in "The Times" two weeks ago stating that 9 per cent. of the crime in London in 1946 was attributable to deserters. I do not know how "The Times" obtained these figures, but I believe most of the figures in "The Times," and that was what they gave.

I know one deserter who has been in crime for about a year, and is reputed to have had about 4'250,000 in precious stones. He does not go in for any other articles, such as furs, for instance. He was arrested in Berkshire, and the only charge preferred against him was for having a false identity card, in respect of which he received one month's imprisonment. He was living next door to a police inspector in Hendon, and his children played with the inspector's children for over 12 months. Only yesterday or the day before another deserter confessed to having beaten up a schoolmistress at Roedean. I am dead against a general amnesty. I do not believe that one can do that, because there are millions who have served their country faithfully, and it would be wrong to let those off completely who have deserted. We are, as time goes on, more lenient with the Germans, and because of that we have to review the problem in the light of the present situation. I would like to offer to the Minister of Defence one or two suggestions. In the first place, I imagine a great number of deserters came from Eire, and I believe several thousands have already gone back. They are a dead loss anyhow. They will not come back. They should be formally discharged without any claim to their gratuity at a future date. By law, the deserter must, in the ordinary way, be dealt with by court martial, except in the Royal Navy, where the captain of a ship, destroyer, or cruiser, has powers to award 90 days' detention to the deserter, subject to confirmation by warrant by the Admiralty. As far as the R.A.F. is concerned, I should like to see Section 12 of the Air Force Act, which deals with deserters, and Paragraph 1129 of King's Regulations, modified to permit—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not permitted to deal with legislation.>

Air-Commodore Harvey

I quite appreciate that, Sir, and was not intending to pursue the point further. I mention it because I think there is an argument for increasing the powers of commanding officers to deal with cases. A station commander in the R.A.F. now has powers to allot up to 28 days' detention. In many cases such punishment would be enough. If it is not enough, however, the case can go to the Air Officer Commanding the Group, who has larger powers to deal with cases summarily; usually such an officer is of the rank of Air Vice-Marshal. In compassionate cases, it may not be necessary even to award 28 days' detention. When there are no extenuating circumstances at all, the case should be remanded to a court martial. A directive should go out from the Air Ministry, the War Office and the Admiralty to ensure uniformity of punishment for deserters, no matter to which Service they belong, so that they may be treated fairly.

When a deserter surrenders voluntarily, as the result of an appeal the Minister has made or may make, I suggest he should be discharged after undergoing his punishment. He is no good to the Service; he is a "bad hat" with a cloud over him, and the Service would be well shut of him. His gratuity should be paid or withheld at the discretion of the authorities, and be dependent on the merits of the case. The longer the time of desertion, the more crimes the man has probably committed, but in the case of a man who surrenders voluntarily the petty crimes of having lived without an identity card or without a ration book ought to be brushed aside. A man will be the more deterred from surrendering if he knows he must be tried by court martial for some things and for petty offences by a civil court.

Many desc[...]ters Wave strong reasons for having deserted; not great numbers of them, but a number. These reasons may have been family troubles, for instance. I have a letter—it is anonymous, of course—from a deserter. I shall not bore the House by reading the whole of it, but I propose to read a paragraph to show how a man may have what seems to him to be a good reason—as distinct, that is, from a criminal one—for deserting. The writer says: I am a deserter. I am quite willing to go into the coal mines or to any other job the Government would like to send me to, if they will dishonourably discharge me from the Forces. I have been a deserter for several years, not because I want to be a deserter, but because I have no other way out. I was forced to desert through the medical men. Before the war my complaint got serious. I had to wear special irons and boots. My complaint is deformity of both feet. He goes on to talk of conscientious objectors being given special treatment, and so on. There is a case of a man who probably had reasons for deserting the Forces. They are not all "bad hats."

If the Minister were to stretch a little more the appeal he made last year he might pull in 3,000 or 4,000 more of these men, who are roaming the countryside, getting themselves into trouble, and making themselves a great nuisance to the community. I know the Minister has a very kind heart, and that he would like to get some more of these men to surrender. I hope, therefore, that he will review the position, while at the same time maintaining discipline in the Services.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Austin (Stretford)

I am glad that the hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) has raised this matter. I have enumerated various arguments over the past year, and have initiated two Debates, and have asked many Questions on the subject, without, I regret to say, receiving any satisfaction from the Minister. I hope that, whereas he has hardened his heart to a Member on the back benches on his own side, he may be magnanimous towards one on the Opposition benches.

I will not weary the House by repeating the argument I have used previously, but it is obvious from what has been said that the number of deserters is increasing, and if that is a fact it means in effect that the treatment so far meted out is not succeeding. It is my contention that if the Minister wants to deal fairly with this matter, he must accord treatment that will achieve some sort of solution, and that is not happening at the moment. I welcome the suggestion made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the discretion be left with the Commanding Officer either to punish the man or to forgive him for the offence. There seems to be some doubt whether the Commanding Officer has the discretion, but if I may refer the hon. and gallant Gentleman to the Debate I last initiated on this count, I referred then to the King's Regulations which provide for the C.O.'s competence in this matter. I do think that is the most reasonable solution. Indeed, after the last war, somewhere about 1924, the then Secretary of State for War, Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, had to fall back on this solution of allowing the matter to be left to the Commanding Officer. It seems to me that if we are not to see an increase in crime—and we have had about 9 per cent. of indictable crime laid to the door of deserters in the Metropolitan Area alone—something of this kind ought to be done. The hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite quoted a letter. I could show the Minister a file of letters of the most heartrending character from men and their relatives who have written to me in the past.

I have appealed to the Minister from almost every conceivable aspect. I have pointed out that an amnesty or partial amnesty—and I am only asking for a partial amnesty—has been granted in various other countries in the world. I have appealed to him on grounds of military efficiency, on grounds of discipline, and of reason and common sense and on grounds of sentiment. I hope tonight he will have some message of hope for those men who are deserters, very often through no fault of their own. Without taking up any more time, I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the whole question. If his brief is already prepared and he will not give way, I appeal to him to think it over. The question is a running sore and something will have to be done if we are to arrive at a reasonable solution.

11.18 p.m.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

am glad to have the opportunity of clearing up some of the points which have been referred to from time to tune in these Debates and in Questions with regard to deserters. It is an unfortunate and distressing business to have this number of deserters, but I want to say at once that the figures which have had to be given from time to time can easily be quite misleading in the minds of the public as to what is the true volume of the trouble. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) quoted figures given in the early part of last year and compared them with the figures of deserters outstanding in October last. The fact is that the figures given in January related entirely to men who had deserted in this country. When we came to deal with further Questions during the course of the year, we felt it right to give the total for the whole world.

It is not true, if I may say so to my hon. Friend on this side, that the net figures of deserters are increasing. They are certainly not decreasing at the rate I would like them to decrease, but nevertheless, broadly speaking, they are decreasing. The figure for deserters throughout the world was 23,000 in January, 1947, and at 31st December, 1947, was just over 20,100, so that there has been a decrease over the year of round about 3,000. It is true, of course, that during the first quarter of 1947, because of the offer of leniency we got a considerable increase above the normal flow of surrenders over the period of ten weeks during the currency of the Government's special appeal. But I would say to the hon. and gallant Member who raised this subject tonight, that we got nearly 2,500 during that period altogether, and there was a net reduction in the total of deserters of about 3,000 over the year.

It is obvious that while we have the continuing problem of desertion from the Forces—and large numbers of these men return only a comparatively short time after they have been put off the absence-without-leave list, and posted as deserters—one of the reasons why I cannot yield to the "sweet reasonableness" of the hon. Member who has just spoken is because of the effect on discipline. One has to remember that in the present circumstances under which we have to continue National Service, we cannot appear so lenient as some countries, who have no continuing National Service army. In the case of the United States—apart from special treatment for conscientious objectors—the general principle that has been followed there is the same as we are following here.

We are often pressed about this question of numbers, and, in that connection, I would add one other point. It is almost impossible to have constant dissection of figures in order to discuss particular aspects of the problem of deserters. The numbers may actually be much less than the figures which we return. Every month now, the Army alone deal with about 60 cases of men who have deserted, but who have enlisted again in another unit, sometimes twice, or even on three occasions. There are also the men who join another arm of the Services. I recall the case brought to my notice recently of a man who had joined six units under six different names, having deserted each time. So it will be seen that the recorded total over the whole of the units may very easily be much larger than is actually the case. I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Member opposite for having reminded us that, in the case of Southern Ireland, there is a large block of men who have returned to Eire; and it has to be remembered that we have no further jurisdiction over them. It is considered by some that it would be possible for us to write them off altogether, so that they would have no further claim upon us, with no rights in future to gratuity. But the Service Departments have to consider how that affects everyone else in the deserters' list—men who have not the same cover of domicile as applies to those whose homes are in that particular area. That is the difficulty, and while I do not say that I would not accept such a scheme, I have some doubt whether it could be made effective.

I was asked about the possibility of greater latitude being accorded in the summary treatment of offenders who surrender, more on the lines allowed in the Royal Navy. The code of discipline of the Royal Navy has always been somewhat different from that of the Army and the Royal Air Force, and for reasons which have grown up with the respective Services. There is the obvious difference of the practicability of making arrangements sufficiently frequently for general courts martial. There is moreover always the argument to be made that a single code of discipline should, so far as is possible, be applied in each of the three Services. It is true, as the hon. and gallant Member has pointed out, that there is something of the same kind in regard to summary jurisdiction in the Army and the R.A.F. But the station officer and the Commanding Officer in those two Services have less latitude in regard to the extent to which they can punish. From the inquiries I have made—and I have made inquiries about it specifically—I am afraid that this proposal is not looked upon very favourably. It would give rise to a number of difficulties. And I am bound to say—though I hope it will not be out of order for me to do so on an Adjournment Motion—that to put his proposal into effect would require legislation. It would not be possible to get over Section 46 (2) of the Army and Air Force Acts, without amending legislation; and I am not certain that all hon. Members would be willing to increase the powers of Commanding Officers in the Army and the Royal Air Force.

Air—Commodore Harvey

May I say that I do not think the right hon. Gentleman has appreciated that if the cases were dealt with summarily, the men involved would be freed from being kept under close arrest, probably in cells, for three or perhaps six months.

Mr. Alexander

I agree that that is a point of substance, but there are two matters which I would mention. One is that those who surrender, except in some very few cases in which, perhaps, papers had to be brought from long distances, and cases coming from widely scattered areas, have had their cases dealt with in very quick time. In the great majority of cases, these men have not been under detention, and their family and dependants' allowances were immediately restored on their surrender. They were put under open arrest and dealt with as quickly as possible. But I do not rule out entirely consideration of the suggestion which has been put forward, and there is no reason why any hon. Member should not raise this question of summary jurisdiction when we are dealing with the annual Estimates of the Army and Royal Air Force. But I cannot be forthcoming tonight and say that this point is one which I think the Service Departments will look upon with favour.

Let me say, with regard to leniency, that, generally speaking, there is an amazing amount for which we have never been given sufficient credit; but I am anxious that the sympathy which hon. Members show for deserters should not be used so as to deter their surrender. The fact is that a great number of men who have surrendered and have been sentenced have not served any of their sentence. The sentence has been immediately suspended. A great many others have been sentenced more heavily on the ground of the circumstances involved in individual cases. It may have been that there were less grounds for compassion. But of the 2,500 who surrendered in response to my appeal, a comparatively small number have served as much as six months; and even those sentences have been under constant review, with the possibility of their being suspended altogether. When I look at what has been done in that connection, I say that it would be unfair to those who have served their sentences after surrender, or who are rehabilitating themselves after surrender, to go further in the direction of leniency. It would have a deleterious effect on the discipline of the serving Forces. I am sure the Govern ment would not adopt the suggestion that we should encourage any further leniency in that connection, and I could not recommend such a course to the Government.

I would point out, however, one special thing on the point that some deserters have stated that they did not want to come back as it meant going on serving a long time after. From about August we did not insist upon a man serving in the Army for twelve months after he had surrendered. A deserter used to be required to serve 12 months' good conduct before he had his previous time restored to him in settling what should be his age and service group for release. That concession has been made to induce them to come back. I hope that many will take advantage of that.

I hope that members will not be misled by the kind of reports one gets in the papers given by individual cases which suggest that deserters generally were being very badly and harshly dealt with. All these cases, which are examined by the District Commanding Officer, are immediately dealt with sympathetically if they are compassionate cases. I hope very much that regard will be paid to the facts I have put before the House tonight. If any man who is now a deserter really wants to make good and have his conscience clear, and without any chance of interference in future in his civilian life, he can come back and be leniently treated and come out again and face life, as he ought to face it, as a good and decent citizen.

The extent to which these men engage in crime is overestimated. I have had the figures looked up so far as one can measure them from the Metropolitan returns. In the Metropolitan Police District, of the total number of persons arrested for indictable crimes, in 1944, deserters accounted for only 7 per cent. and in 1945 for 5.7 per cent. While precisely parallel statistics are not available for 1946, I am informed that of those convicted—and therefore I agree that it is not as comprehensive as the case of those arrested—only 4.7 per cent. were deserters. We cannot compare the general population with the kind of population we have in the Armed Forces, knowing that we had to call up during the War all classes of citizens, including some who were criminals already or who had criminal tendencies. When hon. Members take account of that they will find that there is nothing like so serious a contribution to crime by the deserter as has been suggested.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-six Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.