HC Deb 29 March 1950 vol 473 cc394-8
47. Mr. Keenan

asked the Minister of Defence if he will give the number of deserters and absentees from the Services at the end of the year 1945, not yet accounted for; and what consideration is being given to further efforts to terminate the desertion and absenteeism.

48. Mr. F. Longden

asked the Minister of Defence if, in view of the length of time that has elapsed since the end of the last war and the deprivation of the men involved, he now will reconsider the question of granting an amnesty to the remaining 15,000 deserters.

49. Air-Commodore Harvey

asked the Minister of Defence how many deserters from the Armed Forces are still at large.

51. Mr. Deedes

asked the Minister of Defence what is the latest estimate by his Department of the numbers of deserters from the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively; and how many of these relate to the period since the end of hostilities.

52 and 53. Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

asked the Minister of Defence (1) how many deserters from the Services have been at large since the end of the last war and since March, 1947, respectively;

(2) whether he will now reconsider the question of an amnesty for deserters.

54. Mr. Hector Hughes

asked the Minister of Defence how many members of His Majesty's Forces on 31st December, 1945, and on 31st December, 1949, respectively, were absent from their units; how many of those, though not proved to be dead, were then and are now unaccounted for; and how many have, and how many have not been traced to civil life, and have been convicted of criminal offences.

57. Mr. Rhys Davies

asked the Minister of Defence what is the number of deserters from the Second World War; and whether he will favourably consider granting an amnesty to this latter group.

59. Wing-Commander Hulbert

asked the Minister of Defence the approximate number of deserters from the three Services at present at liberty; and how many of these have been absent for a period exceeding twelve months.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Shinwell)

There are nominally 19,477 deserters from the Armed Forces; 1,267 from the Navy, 13,844 from the Army and 4,366 from the R.A.F. Most of these have been absent more than 12 months. About 5,000 of them deserted since the end of 1945. There has been a reduction of about 5,000 in the total number outstanding since the war including a decrease of 2,000 during the currency of the Government's original offer of leniency from January to March, 1947. Since then, however, the figures have declined slowly, recoveries by surrender or arrest having been almost counterbalanced by fresh desertions which continue at the rate of about 200 a month.

The nominal total of a little under 19,500 is, however, greatly inflated for a number of reasons. For example, over 10,000 of the men came from the Irish Republic and most of these have probably found their way back to their former homes. Many deserted abroad. The total undoubtedly includes a substantial number of multiple desertions. Taking these factors into account there are perhaps not more than 7,000 or 8,000 deserters at large in this country at the present time; the true figure may well be smaller.

The question of an amnesty for these men has been considered on a number of occasions since the war and my predecessor explained to the House at length the considerations on which this step has hitherto been rejected. I cannot, today, add anything to those statements.

Mr. Keenan

From the figures which my right hon. Friend has given is it not clear that there must be some thousands who deserted before the end of 1945, and who are still at large? Is my right hon. Friend aware that his predecessor promised lenient treatment if the deserters surrendered, and that the harsh treatment and sentences administered to those who did surrender does not encourage the rest to do so?

Mr. Shinwell

I cannot agree that in the circumstances the sentences imposed were either harsh or vindictive. In fact, the actual sentences served, in probably all cases-there may be some exceptions—are quite unlike the sentences imposed. Sentences are imposed—it is a matter for the courts-martial; it is not in my hands—but in very few cases are the actual sentences served. I am looking into this matter with a view to informing hon. Members of the actual facts.

Mr. Rhys Davies

Has it not been the custom in the past, at the end of every war, for the Government to grant amnesties in cases like these? Why is it not the policy of His Majesty's present Government to follow suit?

Mr. Shinwell

It is perfectly true that in 1922 the then Government granted an amnesty which applied to the deserters in the First World War, but there was no National Service problem at that time. The presence of the National Service element in the Forces undoubtedly causes some complications.

Wing-Commander Hulbert

Is the Minister considering making any further offer of leniency to these men? I understood him to say that the sentences passed were the responsibility of the courts-martial. Is it not a fact that the Army Council reviews all sentences?

Mr. Shinwell

The courts-martial operate within the policy laid down by the Army Council, the Air Council and I think the Board of Admiralty. I am not quite sure about the latter point, but I think I am right about it. On the subject of leniency, I think that what is required is that the facts should be placed before hon. Members so that they should know exactly what is the position. That I am proposing to do.

Mr. Eden

If I heard the figure aright, the current one is the most disturbing in the sense that there should be desertions on this scale. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us any information about it, and can he say whether he or any of the Service Departments have any explanation of why it should now be running at so high a level?

Mr. Shinwell

I only discovered this overall figure myself in the course of inquiries for the purpose of replying to these Questions. I must confess that I am very much disturbed about the rate, but it is true to say that many of these desertions are not desertions in the ordinary sense but rather in the nature of absences without leave—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—which are due to a variety of reasons. Men are absent for a very short while, but the rate is, nevertheless, excessive.

Mr. Eden

Is the right hon. Gentleman sure he is right on that point? My impression is that absence without leave cannot be tantamount to desertion, except after a certain period. That being so, I think the figures want some explanation.

Mr. Shinwell

I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will look into it. When I spoke about absences without leave I meant that they did evolve into actual desertions.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Can the Minister give an assurance that he has not closed his mind entirely to the possibility of bringing to an end at an early date this miserable hangover from the Second World War, and will he bear in mind the precedent that the Government have already decided that even in the case of Nazi war criminals, no further prosecutions are to be undertaken?

Mr. Shinwell

I must say to my hon. and gallant Friend, and to hon. Members generally, that this matter is very controversial. There are arguments on both sides, but I do not close my mind to some solution. I think that perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend had better leave it with me.

Air-Commodore Harvey

Will the right hon. Gentleman set up an inquiry covering all three Services, to ascertain why there are 200 desertions a month?

Mr. Shinwell

There will be an inquiry, and I will conduct it myself.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that, at least apparently, 7,000 men have been unaccounted for for a period of years is contrary to good order, and would he consider setting up a committee to devise means whereby these men could be accounted for and restored to good citizenship?

Mr. Shinwell

So far as we are concerned, we are very anxious to impose good order, but apparently there has not been a satisfactory response.

Mr. Martin Lindsay

Is the Minister aware that a very large number of these long-term deserters have provided themselves with false identity cards, and will he therefore tell his right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General that it is quite ridiculous to attach such importance, as he did earlier today, to these documents?

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