Clause 8 — Desertion

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 22nd May 2006.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 6:00 pm, 22nd May 2006

I thank Mr. Howarth for his kind words. I must say that when I walked into the Chamber and saw the massed ranks of the socialist Campaign group of Labour Members ready to do battle, for a split second I felt like deserting my own post—but my commanding officer sitting on my left, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, stiffened my resolve, as he would then have had to respond to the debate.

The debate has been very informative. The speech that I will pick out is that of the hon. Member for Newark, which was incredibly well informed and orotund; the argument moved on much further following his contribution. It has been a debate about definitions, and I am anxious to clear up the misunderstandings over the changes that we have made to the offence of desertion.

Clause 8 preserves the offence of desertion, but makes two important changes to the existing offence. I shall describe them in a moment. Under the clause, a serviceman deserts by absenting himself with the intention of never returning to duty, or by absenting himself in order to avoid relevant service. "Relevant service" is defined as

"actions or operations against an enemy...operations outside the British Islands for the protection of life or property; or...military occupations of a foreign country or territory".

The definition essentially reflects the definition of active service in the current service discipline Acts. Those are the most critical and potentially hazardous duties for service personnel, so the offence is all the more serious when the intention or effect of the serviceman's actions is to avoid that relevant service.

Amendment No. 8 seeks to redefine "relevant service" to exclude operations outside the British Islands for the protection of property or military occupation of a foreign country or territory. Amendment No. 9 seeks to reduce the maximum sentence for desertion to two years' imprisonment in all cases—equivalent to the maximum sentence for absence without leave, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Newark.

I listened to the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend John McDonnell, and I think that they were put honestly and coherently, but, frankly, I disagree with him. Under existing provisions, the definition of desertion refers to going absent with the intention of never returning to duty, going absent to avoid any service overseas, or going absent to avoid service when before an enemy. All those attract a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

That definition includes going absent to avoid a posting to Germany, training in Canada or a detachment to Cyprus, as well as the types of relevant service that I have described, simply because it involves service overseas. Under the existing law, if a soldier avoids a short posting to Germany with his unit because he is having trouble with his girlfriend and wants to sort things out, he is in theory guilty of desertion—carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment—even if he intends to return to duty.

Our first change is to restrict the offence to exclude that unfairness. It will not cover any service overseas, only relevant service. Our second change is to reduce the current maximum sentence of life imprisonment to a maximum of two years, except when desertion is to avoid relevant service. Under the current law, the maximum is life imprisonment in all cases.

Members will appreciate that the operations involved in "relevant service" are of the greatest importance. When such operations are involved, every member of the forces must have complete confidence in the other members of his unit, not least because the operations are dangerous and demanding. Those who avoid such service increase the danger to their colleagues, and damage morale. In a disciplined fighting force, that is totally unacceptable.

Even in the days of compulsory military service, the law reflected the particular seriousness of avoiding such service. It is, if anything, even more serious in a professional volunteer armed force for there to be a distinction between types of dangerous service of the kind proposed by my hon. Friend.

I hope that I have explained to my hon. Friend what we are trying to do in clause 8. I hope he will accept that the scope and definition of the offence is new but far less severe than it was before, and that the true position is the reverse of what he has asserted.