HC Deb 01 April 1953 vol 513 cc1213-7
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a further statement about deserters applying for the benefit of the Coronation amnesty.

In the statement on this subject which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made in the House on 23rd February last he said that there would be no more prosecutions for desertion of members of the Armed Forces who had deserted from the Services between 3rd September, 1939, and 15th of August, 1945; that is to say, from the outbreak of war with Germany until the end of hostilities with Japan.

In spite of that statement, which received wide publicity at the time, over 400 men—many of them from the Republic of Ireland—who deserted at times outside those limiting dates, have mistakenly claimed the benefit of the amnesty in the belief that they were entitled to the concession. This belief may well have arisen from a genuine misunderstanding based on faulty or incomplete versions of my right hon. Friend's statement which they may have heard or read.

Her Majesty's Government have carefully considered how these mistaken claims should be dealt with, and have decided on the following steps.

Army and Air Force deserters who have, before today's date, lodged mistaken claims to benefit by the amnesty will be required to sign a confession of desertion in the prescribed form; an Order under Section 73 of the Army and Air Force Act will then be made dispensing with trial by court-martial. Corresponding treatment will be given to naval deserters in a similar position.

Among those who have confessed their desertion in the belief that they were covered by the amnesty are a limited number of men with a liability for service under the 1948 National Service Act. Such men will be required to complete their period of whole-time National Service. All other categories will be trans- ferred to the appropriate unpaid Reserve, and will be given suitable certificates.

Written instructions in the sense of this decision will be sent to individual applicants by the Service authorities. Applicants will be warned that, unless they comply with the instructions, they remain liable to prosecution for desertion.

After today, men in civil life who claim the benefit of the amnesty, but who deserted before 3rd September, 1939, or after 15th August, 1945, will remain liable to arrest and prosecution for desertion.

As regards criminal offences consequential on desertion, such as irregularly obtaining or possessing a ration book or insurance card, I am in a position to say that the responsible authorities referred to in my statement on 17th March have informed the Government that, save in exceptional circumstances, it is not their intention to prosecute where a mistaken claim has been made up to the time of this statement. From today on, men who report themselves for desertion outside the war-time period will be liable to prosecution for the "consequential" offences also.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) has mentioned the possibility of a claim being made by men who deserted before 3rd September, 1939, but who subsequently served under an assumed name during the war. No claim of this kind has yet emerged; but it would clearly not be covered by the terms of the amnesty. If, however, a confession of guilt were to be received from any man in this position, I can give an assurance that it would be considered on its merits, and the fact that the man had given satisfactory service in the Armed Forces after his pre-war desertion would certainly be taken into consideration in deciding on his treatment.

Lieut-Colonel Lipton

In view of the incredible complexity in which the Government now find themselves as a result of this continued series of statements made from time to time, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman please consider the publication, in leaflet or pamphlet form, of a simple statement which would incorporate all the complicated announcements which have been made from time to time? If the Government are now to insist on this spurious sort of amnesty, will they at least take the trouble to ensure that the people most concerned get to know what it is all about?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I do not accept the premise of the hon, and gallant Gentleman, and, with all good will, I say that it is very dangerous to apply one's personal standards to the general intelligence of the country. I want to point out that the effect of what I have said is that the benefit of the doubt has been given to everyone who has made application on the assumption that they have made an honest and bona fide mistake. On that basis, they are allowed—those who have applied up to date—to share the favourable position previously announced. I will, however, certainly consider what the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said about the issuing of a statement, because it is the desire of Her Majesty's Government to help those concerned in every way we can.

Mr. Shinwell

While we welcome the modification of the original scheme upon which the Government have now decided, is there not something anomalous in the position that men who deserted during hostilities are to be treated more favourably than men who deserted after 1945? Surely that is an anomalous position. [Interruption.] I should have thought, since the Prime Minister has interjected, that it was a much more serious offence to have deserted during hostilities than to have deserted in peace-time. While I am not asking the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Government to agree that all deserters should come within the amnesty, because, obviously, that would be going much too far, could the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree to take certain dates between 1945 and the beginning of the 1947 National Service Act, and reconsider the position?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I should like to assure the right hon. Gentleman that we did consider this very carefully. We considered practically every permutation and combination that could be thought out. After doing so, we felt that it was important to give the opportunity of wiping the slate clean to those who had served during the war-time period; and that has been announced to the House. After I had added the details, as I did on 17th March, the House felt that it was a reasonable way of dealing with the problem. What we have done today is to say that we will give the benefit of the doubt to those who have applied by mistake. Again, I believe that, on reflection, the House will think that it is only reasonable to reflect the generosity which we all want to go out from this House.

Mr. R. Bell

Does not the giving of the benefit of the doubt to mistaken applications, while welcome in itself, place the man who has understood the announcement correctly at a disadvantage as compared with the man who has made a mistake, inasmuch as the former now gets a free pardon, whereas the latter remains liable to detection and punishment? Would not my right hon. and learned Friend consider whether the fixing of a certain date does not inevitably lead to cases of injustice and hardship, and could he not consider the possibility of a partial remission of punishment for those who deserted after 15th August and within a limited time after that?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

After 18 years in this House, I have never known any provision announced in the House which could not be attacked by taking up a hard case just on the borderline. I would, however, point out to my hon. Friend that there is another and overriding principle which, I think, justifies the action I have announced to the House. It is that the House should not be party to anyone being punished through a mistake. Therefore, I am prepared to see some people who did not make a mistake get away with it rather than that anyone should be punished because he had make a mistake.

Mr. Logan

While I agree that the concessions which have been made are generous, I wish to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman about a case which I put to the War Office three weeks ago. I did not want to raise it on the Floor of the House, thinking that it would be better to do it through the Department. It is the case of a soldier who, having served his full time in Italy, got married, and, because he did not come to Liverpool for disembarkation, was sentenced to 83 days' imprisonment by court-martial. I suppose that is a case on the lines of the concession which has been made for desertion, because it was a case of desertion. The soldier's wife, an Italian lady and a very nice person, is anxious for the concession to apply to her husband and I think that, as a matter of equity, the War Office ought to be able to concede it.

The details of this case are now in the War Office and I want to know whether it is possible to grant this concession to a man who has served the whole of his time and who only stayed away to get married, which I suppose anyone else might do. Will the War Office look into this particular case again, because this man's 83 days' imprisonment expires on 24th April? May I have an answer?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the War Office are looking into this case, and that he will hear from them.

Mr. W. R. Williams

On a point of order. Some of us on this side of the House are not very happy about the reference of the Home Secretary to the mental equipment of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut-Colonel Lipton) and feel that an opportunity ought to be given to the right hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw what I regard as a very obnoxious reference. There are many of us on this side who consider that the mental equipment of my hon. and gallant Friend is in no way inferior to the mental equipment of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Speaker

This is not a matter for me. I heard nothing said that was out of order.

Mr. Renton

Can my right hon. and learned Friend say what proportion of the men covered by the amnesty as now drafted are believed to be living outside the United Kingdom, and whether steps will be taken through diplomatic channels to bring the terms of the amnesty to their notice?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I can only proceed on the information that we have to date, but I should think that just under a half are probably resident in the Republic of Ireland. I ask the House to accept that figure with reserve, however, because it is based on the preliminary figures given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.