Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1000 - 1003)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 (Morning sitting)



  1000. I accept the point you make, particularly given our impression just talking to members of the Parachute Regiment who have recently returned from Sierra Leone about the fierce loyalty that develops amongst members of a platoon. Can I pick up on the incidence of absence without leave for under 18s, and the issue of statistics? I understand that it certainly used to be the case that there was a regular punishment return completed which analysed the numbers of offences and types of offences, and that that used to include absence without leave. Is that correct? If so, does it still continue, and, in that case, is it possible say on an annual basis to compile the absence without leave statistics? Would there be a distinction between those for under-18s and those for over-18s?
  (Mr Miller) It would probably be possible to extract the information about the total numbers of absence without leave from the punishment returns, give or take slight problems over matters of timing. The question is do you count the offence from the point at which the individual goes absent or the point at which he is brought to trial. Given that sort of problem, however, we could no doubt extract some sort of figure. I would not, though, expect to be able to distinguish between the under 18s and the over 18s.
  (Brigadier Cottam) As I mentioned earlier, certainly in the case of the Army, there is the Office for Standards of Casework, and it is in the Army that there is more absence admittedly than in the other Services—perhaps because of the nature of our duties. That Office will, however, give us a much better feel—really total visibility—of both the cases that we are handling in order to handle them administratively more swiftly which would drive down delay and, at the same time, to give us the sort of visibility that I sense from your questions you would wish us to have. But we will not have that to the extent you wish in the very short term. It will take a while for us to achieve just the position that we would also like to have.

  Chairman: One of the things I would just say, picking up on the counselling point, is that we were all impressed when we were in Cyprus talking to members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers about the efforts they were making to prevent, to deal with, good morale and prevent people either being inclined to go absent without leave or commit other offences. I must admit it surprised me somewhat but I was also impressed by the fact that the regimental Sergeant Major, who I confess as a member of the public I had always seen as a somewhat intimidating person, had nevertheless innovatively taken on the role of regularly trying to sit down and chat to members of the battalion and identify what really perhaps encouraged them at times to think of staying out longer than they were supposed to, and the battalion had then looked at how it could deal with that and prevent absence and other possible disciplinary measures in the first place by adopting friendly personnel policies, if you like. I was very impressed by the efforts of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who we met, to try and deal with the temptations that are inevitably present in somewhere like Cyprus for individuals to stay out longer than they are supposed to.

Mr Randall

  1001. Not having a Service background, can I understand this, absence without leave is basically not coming back—extending unauthorised leave rather than leaving with a view not to coming back at all. That would be desertion, would it?
  (Mr Miller) Yes. Desertion is leaving without intending to come back. Is there still a time limit to absence without leave?
  (Brigadier Cottam) The distinction generally made is the burden of proof resting on whether or not the soldier, in the case of the Army, has shown a definite intention not to return. That might be related to time but it might also be related to what they have, in fact, gone and done—perhaps found themselves employment, moved to another country or whatever—so it is not simply a matter of calculation in time in order to make that distinction. In general, absent without leave is being absent from your place of duty when you should have been there and knew you should have been there in whatever circumstances arise.

  1002. When we heard from At Ease, one of the statements made rather provocatively by the Slovenian defence minister accused our youngsters of "running away". Absence without leave might be that they just decided they were not coming back on a Sunday but possibly a Monday or Tuesday, and the implication that there was mass desertion by under-18s would be totally out of order?
  (Mr Miller) If I may say so, I thought this Committee made it fairly clear what they thought of that part of the evidence! A pretty high proportion of absent without leave cases in all three Services are individuals who frankly missed the last train and are only an hour or two adrift, or something like that.


  1003. Are there any final points you want to make Mr Miller or Brigadier Cottam?
  (Mr Miller) No, thank you very much.

  Chairman: Then thank you very much indeed for all the assistance you have given us and for the very useful evidence that we have been able to take from you, and thank you very much for the work that you and your staff and personnel do all the year round.

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