HC Deb 17 March 1953 vol 512 cc2079-85
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 short statement on the question of deserters.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said on 2nd March that consideration was being given to the detailed arrangements whereby those who deserted from the Armed Forces between 3rd September. 1939, and 15th August, 1945, and established their claim to benefit from the concession announced by the Prime Minister on 23rd February would not be prosecuted for certain criminal offences consequential on desertion.

The offences which Her Majesty's Government have in mind are the offences which such a deserter might be said to be under a special temptation to commit in order to furnish himself with the documents necessary to enable him to be absorbed into civil life, in particular making false statements in order to obtain ration books and National Insurance cards, altering or defacing such documents, or falsely representing to be the person to whom such documents were issued. These are offences for which prosecutions can be taken in England and Wales only by the Ministry of Food or the Ministry of National Insurance, by the Director of Public Prosecutions or by the police; and, in Scotland, under direction of the Lord Advocate.

My right hon. Friends the Minister of Food and the Minister of National Insurance tell me that, while it will be necessary to consider the circumstances of each case, their officers do not propose to prosecute persons who have established their claim to benefit from the concession announced by the Prime Minister for offences of the kind I have referred to unless in exceptional circumstances the public interest so requires. So far as the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police are concerned, it rarely falls to them in practice to prosecute in cases of this nature, but they have informed me that where such cases come to their notice they likewise will not, unless in exceptional circumstances, prosecute the person concerned for an offence which was no more than consequential on the desertion, such as irregularly obtaining or possessing a ration book or insurance card, and was not part of some other criminal offence not directly connected with the desertion.

As regards Scotland, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate authorises me to say that he is giving directions for a similar course to be followed. In this way the Prime Minister's statement will be most effectively implemented. Legislation for this purpose is not necessary, and indeed legislation would not avoid the necessity for consideration of each case. It would moreover be difficult to frame legislation which would cover with certainty all the cases which it is intended should benefit.

The House will remember that there was no such legislation after the First World War.

Mr. Ede

I think the House will be grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for making this statement. It appears to carry out what was suggested in the statement made by the Prime Minister a few days ago and I am sure we all sincerely hope that as large a number of men as possible, who are for the moment living as outlaws, will take advantage of this very generous concession and manage to rehabilitate themselves as citizens and lead their lives where they will not be under constant dread of arrest and possible punishment.

Mr. C. Davies

I am sure that all of us will agree with the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his sentiments. However, is the Home Secretary, and are his colleagues the Law Officers of the Crown, fully satisfied that legislation is not needed? I ask that question for this reason: this is a very wide and very proper amnesty. If it is an amnesty then it comes like the exercise of a dispensing power which can only be exercised by Act of Parliament.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised that point. The Law Officers, and I myself, have considered it carefully and we do not think there is either a dispensing or suspending of laws, or of the execution of laws within the meaning of the Bill of Rights. I think that, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman examines my statement meticulously, he will fully understand why. I should like to say how grateful I am to both right hon. Gentlemen for what they have said.

Mr. Woodburn

Could I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman a question about which I am not clear? Of course I understand these people are not being prosecuted for offences, but many of them will have been living and working under names different from their own, they will have insurance cards and will have contracted benefits in names different from their own. Will they be under any penalty of loss of benefits for which they have paid over a number of years?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I do not think there will be any question of losing benefit. May I take the matter in two stages because the false name is an important point in itself. Both Ministries concerned say that if a person entitled to the concession has been living under a false name, there need be no public disclosure of his true identity when he obtains his ration book or insurance card. Then, on the question of benefit, the only way in which his benefit can be adversely affected is if he has failed to pay his contributions. Of course, if he has failed to pay, one cannot do anything about it; but, apart from that, as I understand the position, his position will not be adversely affected.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Is the Home Secretary aware that while the statement he has made adds just a little definition to what the Prime Minister apparently had in mind when he talked about consequential offences arising from desertion, nevertheless it is still the position that a person applying for a certificate of protection under this amnesty is no wiser now than he was before? Each case, as the Home Secretary has pointed out, will have to be judged on its merits, there is still no general rule and, therefore, no man knows what he is committing himself to if and when he applies for a certificate of protection.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I hope it will be quite clear to anyone outside the House that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is speaking entirely for himself. To any ordinary person it will be quite clear from my statement that, in the normal position which is contemplated of a deserter in respect of consequential offences, there will not be a prosecution. From his legal experience the hon. and gallant Gentleman should know that it is obviously necessary to except the case I have mentioned where somebody has got involved in other serious offences. This is an important matter because it is a serious human problem; and I hope that for the sake of a debating point, we shall not try to cast a cloud over the position of the ordinary person, who is protected.

Brigadier Clarke

Quite apart from prosecutions, does my right hon. and learned Friend appreciate that many of these deserters have been leading a double life and have no wish to have their past deeds disclosed to people living next door? If they give themselves up, they should be permitted some sort of secrecy. Has the Home Secretary any scheme to ensure that the whole of their misdeeds are not broadcast to people living next door or in the same street?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

My hon. and gallant Friend cannot have been paying a great deal of attention to the last answer but one—but I do not blame him for that. What I tried to make clear in reply to the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) was that, if a person who is entitled to these concessions has been living under a false name, there need be no public disclosure of his true identity when he obtains a ration book or insurance card. That is the assurance I have had from the two Ministries, and I think it meets the point mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend.

Mr. Slater

What consideration is being given to those who deserted during action and who are now serving penalties in the form of imprisonment in civilian prisons?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

That is a different point, and I should like notice of it. I am dealing with the concession mentioned by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Slater

The reason for my asking the question is that my attention has been drawn to the particular case, about which I have informed the Secretary of State for War, of a young man who deserted during action and is now serving three years in Liverpool prison. Concessions are being made in respect of those who have been on the desertion list for a considerable time, yet in the kind of case which I have mentioned no consideration is given at all

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

One would need to have the facts of the particular case before commenting on it, but I shall mention to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War the case to which the hon. Member has referred.

Mr. McGovern

Is the Home Secretary aware that there are men who have deserted who may have difficulty psychologically in understanding the concession? A deserter who has been working all the time in the building trade has been to see me at the House, and he will not believe that there is no trick behind the statements that there will be no prosecution. If I had the utmost difficulty in convincing this man that there is no trick, there must be others in the country who have not declared themselves because they are similarly afraid.

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

The object of my statement was to try to deal with that state of mind, and I hope that it will have been to some extent successful. If any hon. Member who thinks that there is any way in which he can help will either have a word with me privately or put down a Question, I shall be very pleased to consider it.

Mr. Usborne

Supposing a deserter, having lived for a number of years under a false name, now gives himself up and decides to change his address and to live a new life, and has in the past incurred debts, to say, his landlady and to tradesmen, is there any method by which those people can now collect what is due to them?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

It would be a little beyond my province to go into questions of civil debt. It is difficult to generalise, but if the hon. Member has a particular case in mind and will write to me about it, I will do my best to help him.

Mr. Janner

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been very generous in the statement he has made today and I think the country will appreciate that it is a generous gesture. On the other hand, there are cases, for example, of people who have gone into business, who are directors of companies, and so on, who will, in consequence of their having deserted, be placed in a difficult position because of the offences they have committed, offences arising, as the Home Secretary said with regard to the other cases, directly out of the position in which they found themselves. One example is the offences in respect of the Registration of Business Names Act. These men may find themselves in a very serious position if they give themselves up, and if people try to avoid paying debts that are due to them, and so on. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be good enough to see whether anything can be done in respect of this type of case?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

I will certainly look into that. I am grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning it.

Mr. Carmichael

In common with other Members, I am grateful for the Home Secretary's statement. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made the point about consulting the Minister of National Insurance and the Minister of Labour. If these deserters revert to their proper names, will their insurance continue? Will they be credited with their insurance during the intervening period?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe

There is no difficulty about the insurance continuing. As I have said, the point of difficulty arises when they have not paid contributions, in which case one cannot do anything about it. here they have paid their insurance, it w I carry on.

Mr. Carmichael

If they have been working during the whole period under an assumed name arid now revert to their correct name on the insurance register, do the benefits that would have accrued under the false name continue under the proper name?

Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe