HC Deb 03 November 1944 vol 404 cc1210-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pym.]

5.2 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Duckworth (Shrewsbury)

I am very much obliged to the First Lord of the Admiralty for coming to the House this evening to deal with this case, which I have felt it my duty to raise, concerning one of my constituents, Able Seaman L. C. Hall, who was sentenced in July of this year to 42 days' detention, and reduced to second class, in rather exceptional circumstances which seem to me to give rise to many questions and considerations. I shall presently state all the facts as inlay as I can. But I must say at the outset that this case does not concern simply one individual. It raises a serious matter of principle, which is how any man serving in the Royal Navy should be treated, under certain regrettable circumstances which may lie outside his control. Therefore, I say that this case does concern every man and officer serving in the Royal Navy, and I make no apology for bringing it to the attention of the House. I feel sure that the First Lord will welcome this opportunity of making some further statement, for I really do not think that he did himself justice, or that he did justice to my constituent, in the answers which he gave on 4th October to the Questions I put on that occasion. I think the House was wholly dissatisfied with the replies which he gave when he said, first of all, that he did not agree that a question of principle was involved; but, later on, when he was pressed by other Members he seemed to retreat from that position. He said later: I say, frankly, that I am glad this case has been brought to my notice because I want to advise the people concerned to be careful about these cases and consider them as sympathetically as possible."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th October, 1944; Vol. 403, c. 915.] I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will go very much further than he did then and that he will say frankly that a mistake was made in this case and that some redress will be made. I suggest that the sentence imposed on this able seaman should be expunged. I hope in any case that the right hon. Gentleman will see that cases of this kind shall be dealt with in a different way in the future. I must now give the facts to the House. I know very well that it is difficult to obtain accurately every detail in such a case, and no doubt the First Lord will correct me if I am mistaken in any detail.

The facts are these: Able Seaman Hall, who is aged 22, comes from a well-known family in my constituency, a family which has three sons serving in the Forces at the present time. This able seaman joined the Royal Navy through his own choice in July, 1941. He served in various ships and, so far as I know, had an excellent record. He latterly served in a certain battleship and was in action in the Mediterranean. He did, I believe, spend one period in hospital in Gibraltar. His ship came home in May of this year, and I have been informed that this able seaman was under the ship's doctor at the time it arrived in this country. There seems to me some little matter of doubt on this point. In the reply which my right hon. Friend gave on 4th October he denied that was the case but the reply he gave was very carefully worded. He said: From the entries in this rating's medical history it appears that he was not under the ship's doctor when he deserted from his ship."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th October, 1944; Vol. 403, c. 914.] I have consulted a naval officer on this point, and he tells me that that does not in itself constitute any proof that this man was not under the ship's doctor. He tells me that his sheet may quite probably not have been written up. I should like to know if he attended the sick bay and whether he was, at any time previous to leaving the ship, examined by the ship's doctor.

After the ship had arrived in this country on 16th May, Able Seaman Hall was reported absent, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. After that there is a blank period of about 10 days. But he arrived home at Shrewsbury on Saturday, 27th May. When he arrived there there is no question that he was in a very curious state of mind and health. He had apparently been dazed and stunned, and could give no coherent account of himself. That is the evidence that has been given to me by his parents, who saw him when he arrived home. He appeared to be suffering from loss of memory, and he appeared to be a different person from the boy who had left his home. He seemed to be shocked and living in a dazed condition, and his only inclination was to be always sleeping. His father very properly notified the fact of his arrival to the police that same evening, 27th May. He was also immediately attended by the local naval surgeon on 28th May. Under that doctor's orders he was put to bed and remained in bed and he remained in this state, so far as I understand, for a period of nearly 20 days. He was then moved, under the doctor's orders, to the Royal Salop Infirmary. This was about 18th June. There he was examined by one of the infirmary doctors, Dr. Stoat, whom I have personally seen and whose evidence I have here in writing. Dr. Stoat gave the opinion that Able Seaman Hall seemed slow in understanding questions and answered in a dazed manner. His mother stated he constantly complained of giddiness and kept on dropping off to sleep. I considered that he was suffering either from encephalitis lethargica or from an anxiety neurosis, and I admitted him at once to hospital. As an in-patient we came to the con- clusion that he was suffering from a neurosis and on the advice of Dr. Hughes, the consulting medical specialist to the Hospital, he was transferred to a special Service hospital dealing with such cases. I understand that he was, in fact, transferred to a Service hospital in Birmingham where he remained again for a matter of a week or two when he was finally removed to the Royal Naval Hospital at Barrow Gurney where he was treated again.

Finally, this able seaman was taken back to Devonport in July. That was two months after the time he left his ship. He was, I understand, then examined by a naval psychiatrist, who reported that he was responsible for his actions. It was after all that that he was finally sentenced, on a charge of deserting his ship, to 42 days' detention and reduced to second class.

Those are the facts, as they have been given to me. I think that this is an astonishing case, and that there can be no justification for the treatment that this able seaman has received. I am not concerned to argue primarily whether Able Seaman Hall was responsible for his actions and for leaving his ship at the time; although it seems that the evidence is very strong, in fact overwhelming, that he was not. But surely this was either a medical and mental case or it was not. No doubt the First Lord will tell me that cases of this sort are very difficult to deal with. That may be so, but in a case of this kind there were two courses open. Either he should have been accepted as a mental case, and treated, as he was, and finally sent back to duty, or he should have been immediately taken back to his ship, and disciplinary action should have been taken against him, if the evidence pointed that way. I ask the House to note that the evidence on which this seaman was sentenced was obtained weeks after he left his ship, and weeks after he had been treated as a mental case, when there was every reason to suppose that he had, by that time, recovered. If it was thought necessary, even then, to take disciplinary action, I should like to know why no evidence was asked for or taken from the doctors who first saw him when he arrived at his home.

In my opinion, all the evidence which has been put in my possession points to the fact that this was a genuine medical case, that Able Seaman Hall was suffering from a temporary mental and nervous breakdown due to his war service, due, in all probability, to utter exhaustion and overstrain. In those circumstances, surely, he should have been treated with sympathy and with understanding. There can be no justification for the sentence he has served. I go so far as to say that there has been a definite miscarriage of justice, and that nothing could be more calculated to break the heart and the spirit of a boy, who has served his country with courage and with gallantry, and who has always been a credit to his family. I ask the First Lord to take into account the great distress which has been caused to this boy's father and mother. They have three sons serving in the war, and they are proud of the part they are playing. This is no case of a man whose nerve fails in face of danger, of a man who deserts in the face of the enemy. This boy has been in action, and has sailed on many dangerous seas, and I say that he has deserved well of his country. I think that we should take those facts into account where there is any doubt, and I beg the First Lord to take a different view of this case this evening, and to vindicate the good name and record of my constituent.

5.14 p.m.

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. A. V. Alexander)

I assure my hon. Friend that I make no complaint at all about his raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am not surprised when in any case of this kind, when a Member deals with the matter on behalf of a constituent, he speaks quite strongly. I hope my hon. Friend will not think I have any grievance about that, but may I say that, when he says that he thought I was retreating the other day at Question Time, I think perhaps he misjudged me a little. I gave him what were the right and proper answers upon the known medical evidence which was put to me in the case, but I thought it was right to assure the House, as I think the House would expect to be assured, that, in any circumstances, we would take any possible step, in dealing with such matters in general, to see that cases were treated sympathetically. That was not retreating.

On the categorical table of events in the case which my hon. Friend has put I have no comment to offer. They fit in entirely with my own record of the case, but when he suggests that the naval authorities, before taking action later, did not consult the doctors who saw the man in his home town, that is not the fact at all. When I was answering the Question of my hon. Friend a month ago, I had the evidence and opinions of the local doctors supplied to me by the naval authorities, and the actual records of their examinations and opinions went to the hospital—

Mr. Duckworth

Was the evidence of Dr. Stokes sent forward?

Mr. Alexander

All I can say is—I do not remember the name offhand—that what my hon. Friend has said as to the opinion of Dr. Stokes accorded exactly with the entry in the papers of the man as he went to the different places for treatment, and especially that he was suffering from anxiety neurosis. Really, there is no dispute between us upon these medical facts. Whilst it is right for hon. Members always to be jealous of the rights of individuals in the Services, and to take special care that no injustice is done, I ask the House to remember that we often have problems which do not centre round one individual alone, and that unless general procedure and action are most carefully thought out and laid down we may get a serious deterioration in morale.

These anxiety neurosis cases are very difficult to deal with. Sometimes it may be just a plain case of malingering; in other cases a man may really become anxiety neurotic not because he is not responsible for his actions when he breaks his ship or station but because of his growing anxiety as to what will be the consequences of his act. There is a third class of case in which anxiety neurosis is the most definite evidence of the beginning of mental deterioration. Cases may arise in all three of these categories. It is not surprising, therefore, that, in this war, with all the strains and difficulties which officers and men have to face, the Admiralty should have taken, what was, of course, the proper step at the beginning of the War of securing the services of some of the best psychiatrists and specialists who could possibly be obtained. I can assure my hon. Friend, from the inquiries I have made since he raised the matter in the House, that he can be satisfied that these eminent psychiatrists, in treating these cases, want to do no injustice to the man. They consider the individual case in the light of the experience that can be brought to bear upon the particular circumstances.

Mr. Duckworth

I fully agree with all that, but in that case, should not this man have been examined by the local psychiatrist as soon as he arrived home?

Mr. Alexander

When he arrived home his parents—with wham I have every sympathy in the circumstances—took the right and proper course of going direct to the police, because their son was absent without leave and in the condition which has been described, and the parents having gone to the police, the man was immediately examined by the local Admiralty medical man.

Mr. Duckworth

He is not a mental expert?

Mr. Alexander

If it is suggested that it is possible to have in every small or medium-sided town in the country, a special mental expert to examine men who break leave, I think my hon. Friend will agree that it is a proposition I could hardly carry out.

Mr. Duckworth

The man could have been moved.

Mr. Alexander

I think my hon. Friend will admit, if he will look at the facts which he has so faithfully put to me, that, as a result of the medical officer's opinion, the man was sent to the special hospital described by my hon. Friend and then on to the Royal Naval Hospital. When he was returned to duty the question arose of dealing with the offence which lay against him on the charge sheet—that he was absent without leave. The commodore of the barracks took right and proper action by asking for a medical view upon the man before he was brought up to be dealt with for this offence. The opinion was given that he was responsible for his actions at the time he broke leave and that there was no reason why punishment for breaking leave should not be proceeded with.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

For what was the man treated when in hospital?

Mr. Alexander

He was treated for anxiety neurosis.

Mr. Bellenger

A mental disease?

Mr. Alexander

Certainly, and I have described how often we have to find out in which of the categories it is considered that a particular case lies. The medical officer who gave the expert opinion with knowledge of the man's medical history formed a judgment upon the evidence before him. It is impossible for us to be able to say to a medical officer appointed specially for the purpose what opinion he shall give. He must give his best professional opinion. That opinion was given and acted upon in due course by the commodore of the barracks. May I add, to show how difficult the position is, that we had for some considerable time an epidemic of leave-breaking. In a large number of cases there was the question of men suffering from loss of memory or developing the first signs of mental deterioration. By examining carefully each case, with the advice of the psychiatrist, and giving genuine consideration to the man who was a genuine case, and punishing the others, the leave-breaking was Very largely reduced.

Mr. Hubert Beaumont (Batley and Morley)

Is the medical evidence, therefore; that, if the man had not absented himself without leave, he would not have suffered from the trouble for which he was treated in the hospital?

Mr. Alexander

The hon. Gentleman is asking me, of course, to prove too much, and I certainly could not say that myself, as a layman, in the House. I am giving what was the judgment of the professional man upon the spot, who had both the medical history of the man previous to his breaking ship, the medical history during his absence from his ship, and the contact with the man when he returned. All three factors were taken into account, and I may add that he has been examined again in the last two or three days, and no evidence of disease has been found there at all, and none of the usual signs of nervous breakdown. I know my hon. Friend will say, "Yes, but that is because he has had die treatment," but it has to be taken in connection with the action which was instituted after his return to the barracks on the basis of all the medical evidence in the previous stages of the case.

I do submit to the House that, in all the circumstances, it is not quite justifi- able to say that this is a grave miscarriage of justice. These anxiety cases are very difficult to judge. The evidence says that the man arrived in Shrewsbury in a dazed condition, and so on; he was absent from his ship 10 or 11 days, but that may have been simply because of the means of transit he took to get there. He may not have wanted to go through the railway station, he may have walked or hitch-hiked, but the curious thing is that he arrived at his home town in all the great expanse of this country and arrived at the right house and went straight there. You have to take all these things into consideration when you are weighing up the facts.

Mr. Beaumont

Is not that evidence in his favour? If he wanted to avoid being taken, surely he would not go first of all to the place where they would be most likely to search for him?

Mr. Alexander

He was not there until 10 or 11 days after he was absent—my hon. Friend should remember that. I am dealing with the point of whether he was responsible or not responsible, at the time he broke ship. What I am suggesting is that although there were signs, as far as the doctor could judge, of loss of memory, his loss of memory did not prevent him from going straight to the town and straight to the address where he wanted to get, in order to meet his family. Having said all that, I say that I must not sit in judgment on the individual circumstances on the medical side; I must leave it for the rules and regulations of the Service, necessary to maintain discipline and morale, to be carried through with sympathy and with proper consultation, with the highest medical authority we can get. We submit that in this case that is actually what has happened. At every stage the proper medical steps have been taken, the proper medical advice has been accepted, the executive officer responsible for disciplinary action has taken no step at all without having consulted the medical authority. I assure my hon. Friend that I still do not withdraw my other remark to him at Question time, a month ago. Knowing, from the very facts I have now given to the House, the variety of circumstances which have to be covered in these cases, and how difficult it is perhaps sometimes to avoid an injustice, I still do not withdraw what I said about asking everybody concerned to treat these cases as sympathetically as possible and, in fact, almost within two or three days of the matter having been raised by my hon. Friend in the House, such an instruction was sent by me to all concerned. On that, I rest.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes alter Five o'Clock, till Tuesday next, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.