HC Deb 24 May 1950 vol 475 cc2057-60
48. Mr. Keenan

asked the Minister of Defence on what terms men who had served in His Majesty's Forces during the war 1939–45 and deserted, could secure their release and return to civilian status.

Mr. Shinwell

As the answer is lengthy I will, with permission, make a statement at the end of Questions


Mr. Shinwell

There are at present nominally about 19,500 deserters from the Armed Forces. As I informed the House on 29th March last this nominal total is greatly inflated and it is doubtful whether there are in fact more than 7,000 or 8,000 deserters at large in this country at the present time. The true figure may well be much smaller.

The way is open to all these men to rehabilitate themselves by surrendering, and I give the assurance that the scale of punishments is neither vindictive nor harsh. Isolated cases are sometimes reported in the Press in which sentences of 18 months or two years' detention are awarded by courts martial. Such cases are not, however, by any means representative. Court martial sentences are often reduced on confirmation or when subsequently reviewed, and are frequently suspended, subject to good behaviour, after a relatively short period served. They are also subject to remissions of one-third for good conduct. A recent analysis has shown that over a period of 15 months some 800 deserters who surrendered were tried by courts martial. The average sentence awarded was a little over six months; the average sentence served was two months 19 days. In addition, during this period nearly 600 deserters were dealt with summarily which, in the majority of cases, means a maximum sentence of 28 days' detention, and in 76 cases the men were not brought to trial at all for various reasons

I submit to the House that, with these facts in mind, it cannot be thought that these men are being forced into lives of crime by fear of the consequences of surrender. In fact, the criminal statistics and the advice of the police authorities both indicate that comparatively few deserters are engaged in crime. I am advised that most of those who are so engaged, and, of course, there are some, had criminal records before they deserted.

Desertion is a serious Service offence. Any action, such as an amnesty would be unfair to those who have already surrendered and been punished, and unfair to those who have served and are serving loyally. Its effect in any future emergency might also be harmful. These objections to an amnesty apply equally to men who deserted during the war and to those who have deserted since. In the view of His Majesty's Government it would be wrong to condone the offence of desertion, and, in so doing, to encourage any tendency on the part of individuals to desert from His Majesty's Forces. His Majesty's Government have accordingly decided against any kind of general amnesty and to maintain the present procedure—which allows the fullest weight to be given to compassionate considerations.

Mr. Keenan

Will the Minister note that I think that what he has said has not given most of us interested in this matter the satisfaction which they hoped for? The question I asked was about the men who had served in the Army during the war. Will he give this question serious consideration for that particular period apart from the other aspects of desertion, because I can assure him that there are cases, very bad cases, where individuals would return if there was a reasonable chance of getting reasonable treatment; and that his predecessor promised reasonable treatment? Even the sentences which he has read out show that the treatment is harsh and will prevent men from serving.

Mr. Shinwell

What I said in my reply applies equally to the men who served during the war as to the men who served after the war, and I must reject the idea which my hon. Friend apparently has, that the actual sentences served are vindictive. All compassionate and other considerations are taken into account, and although the nominal sentences may appear to my hon. Friend to be harsh, the actual sentences served are far from being harsh.

Mr. Chetwynd

Can my right hon. Friend say in the case of long-term deserters, whether these men are automatically discharged from the Service when they have served their sentences, because if they have to go back to the Army that may be a greater deterrent than having to serve their sentences?

Mr. Shinwell

I think that generally speaking, they are dismissed from the Service with a character that is not altogether satisfactory.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore

Is there not a marked difference between the men who deserted during the war and the men who desert during peace time, and should there not be some discrimination in the attitude of the Government and the authorities towards them?

Mr. Shinwell

There are, of course, a great many anomalies in this situation. The Government came to the mature consideration that we cannot discriminate between those who served during the war and those who entered into contractual obligations when the war was over.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Can the Minister amplify what he meant when in the course of his reply he said that these sentences were either reviewed or remitted after a relatively short period; and what does "a relatively short period" mean in that context?

Mr. Shinwell

As I have said, subject to the good behaviour of the man, and there may be other considerations, the sentence is reviewed not long after he has been sentenced. According to the advice I have received, the men have very little of which to complain.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the disparity between the published sentence and the sentence to which he has referred today, influences the families of these men against helping them to surrender; and does he realise the shadow which overhangs the family and try to make these facts known, so as to get the family on his side?

Mr. Shinwell

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right, but obviously I cannot influence courts martial. That would be quite improper. I must leave them to decide. They are sensible people and they take into account suggestions made in the course of Questions and answers in this House, and no doubt that will be an advantage to the men concerned.

Sir Ralph Glyn

Can the Minister say whether any assessment has been made in the figures which he has given of those who deserted during the war and since the war?

Mr. Shinwell

Yes, I have had the figures before me, but I have not got them in mind.

Mr. Hector Hughes

As five years have elapsed since the end of the war and such a large number of men have not given themselves up, is it not obvious that the offers made to these men so far have not been sufficiently attractive, and in order to induce these men to come back into civil life will the Minister reconsider the question of an amnesty?

Mr. Shinwell

I think there is some misunderstanding. My hon. and learned Friend must realise that it is not the Service Departments who are in the dock but the men concerned, and nothing short of a general amnesty covering the Regulars who enter into contractual obligations and also the men who are conscripted would suffice to satisfy the men, and the Government have decided against it.

Mr. Henry Usborne

When a man who is a deserter gives himself up and is properly tried for that crime, is he also asked awkward questions, such as how he got his employment papers, ration cards and other things in the meantime? Are there other offences for which he may be tried at the same time?

Mr. Shinwell

I have some acquaintance with the officers in the Service who are sometimes attached to courts martial, and I think that they are quite well content to deal with matters that concern them without interfering with other matters.