HC Deb 28 April 1948 vol 450 cc566-76

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

12.59 a.m.

Mr. W. D. Griffiths (Manchester, Moss Side)

I regret having to keep the House at such a late hour. I should not do so were it not for the effect of the very good example that has been set to me by the conduct of our Scottish colleagues, and were it not that I believe that this matter is not only of some importance to one of my constituents, but raises some questions of principle which are of national interest. The General Election of 1945, with the victory of the Labour Party, brought into office many of my right hon. Friends who, in the ensuing period, have been instrumental in implementing changes of policy which have brought great benefits to the nation. Among my right hon. Friends concerned I include the Secretary of State for War. However, I hasten to add that I am referring to him as he was—as Minister of Fuel and Power.

The War Office, it seems to me, is distinguished in its unruffled tranquillity in the face of the very many changes of its political chiefs during the past three years. Between Sir James Grigg and the present Secretary of State for War I suppose it would be right to say that one sees yawning chasms of ideological difference. However, the impact of these varying, colourful personalities seems to have produced precious little change in that conservative institution, the British War Office. And today I am a sadder and a wiser man than I was when I felt some exhilaration, in the first days of post-Election rapture, at the departure of Sir James Grigg.

Tonight I wish to raise the case of one of my constituents who has suffered a tragic and irreparable loss by the death of her son, who was a serving soldier. This boy—and he was little more—was a fine, healthy physical specimen, who, until he was recently struck down, had, from his early years, enjoyed physical health. If the House will bear with me, I should like to recite the facts relating to this boy's medical history as I know it. I have said he was a healthy boy and this happy condition prevailed until, when he was 16, so I am informed, he sustained a head injury in an accident in his civilian employment. This injury resulted in mental disorders which made it necessary for him to be detained as an in-patient in a Lancashire mental hospital, where medical opinion certified that he was a schizophrenic—that he suffered from a split personality. As a result of the treatment which he received in this Lancashire civilian mental hospital, he ultimately recovered sufficiently to lead the doctors to believe he had sufficient stability to allow them to discharge him to return to his home and to the care of his parents in the city of Manchester. That was his experience at the age of 16.

At 18, under the National Service Acts, he was called up for service in the Armed Forces. He was posted to the Army, and I would like to ask whoever is to reply for the Government tonight to give the House, if he can, the reasons why a youth who was a schizophrenic, a sufferer from a mental disorder, which is not in doubt, was ever, in the first place, taken into the Service. It must be obvious that a man suffering from a mental ailment of that kind is entirely unsuitable to be submitted to the rigours and hardships entailed in Service life even in days of peace. I have been informed, and I know from my own correspondence, that throughout the period he was in the Service it was repeatedly noted by the boy's mother and family when he came home on leave that he showed what they recognised all too well as being symptoms of the recurrence of his previous mental ailment. His mother did all she could to draw the attention of the responsible authorities, who once he was in the Army were the War Office, to the facts of his medical history and her worries about the symptoms of another onset of his ailment.

Throughout 1947 and 1948, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that a constant stream of letters on this point were sent both to the soldier's commanding officer and to the War Office, directing their attention to the case. For my part, my attention was directly drawn to the case in February, 1947, by the soldier's mother. He was a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. She visited me in February, 1947, related to me the history which I have retailed tonight to the House, and produced documentary evidence as to his condition, to his having been detained as a schizophrenic in a Lancashire mental hospital at the age of 16. This evidence, with a covering letter, I forwarded to the War Office. The result was not that the boy was discharged, even at that stage.

I must say here, that this man's mother approached me on the threshold of the boy's embarkation for service in Palestine. It was that which brought the situation to a head, as it were, with the mother, and which caused her to take action in the way she did. I sent the documents to the War Office. This did not result in the boy's discharge, but simply in a promise that he would be retained for service in the United Kingdom. That was in February, 1947. Despite this, in September, 1947, he was sent to Trieste, and that was at a time when Trieste was a centre of trouble, and was certainly not a station to which any soldier suffering any physical or mental weakness could possibly be sent by anyone desirous of preserving that soldier's welfare. On arrival there, he immediately suffered a mental breakdown, and was returned to the United Kingdom within a matter of weeks. This happened despite my letter to the War Office and despite his mother's letter to his Commanding Officer. In my opinion, it was a complete scandal, a gross administrative blunder, and was a direct contribution to the tragic circumstances which ultimately resulted in this boy's final breakdown and his death.

At this stage, in September, 1947, when this posting took place, I made further representations to the War Office. I received a letter, dated 15th October, 1947, which was signed by the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the present Secretary of State, in which this passage occurs: We are making inquiry into the circumstances in which he"— that is Private Robson— was sent overseas in view of his medical category, and we have also called for an up-to-date medical report on his condition. I will write again and let you know the results as soon as possible. One can well imagine that at that stage I had brought the case very forcibly to the notice of the War Office, and the House can well imagine the great anxiety felt by Private Robson's mother, and by his family. Yet it was not until two months later that I received a further letter from the War Office. It was dated 17th December, 1947, and informed me that a mistake had occurred, that they recognised that Private Robson had in fact been wrongly posted to Trieste, and that this was due, it appears, to the officer responsible for preparing the overseas draft including Private Robson under the impression that his medical category was A.1 (non-tropical), instead of A.1 (Home Service). This must have been due either to that officer misreading his medical category or to some alteration of the medical history sheet.

At this stage, a further medical examination had been called for, and a report obtained. On 17th December, 1947, I was informed that Private Robson was then serving in the United Kingdom, that his medical category had been downgraded to C.1 (Home Service), and that he was still considered fit for service in this category. Now this was several months after the War Office had had documentary evidence that the man had been detained at an early age in a civilian Mental hospital as a schizophrenic, and despite the fact that he had recently had another mental breakdown when having been sent by mistake for service in Trieste.

Turning to more recent events and what I might call the final tragic events in this case, during this year every time this boy had been on leave his mother had noted that his general mental condition showed signs of marked deterioration, which led her to see me again at the end of February, when she told me a pathetic story of his behaviour, which led her to go so far as to say that she felt completely unable to leave this boy in the house with the younger children for fear that he might be led to do something very terrible to them. I was so impressed that on my return to the House within a day or so I wrote once again to the Secretary of State for War emphasising the urgency of the case and threatening, in the event of no action being taken, to seek an opportunity of raising it in the House. On my way to post it I fortunately met the Under-Secretary and handed it to him, and in conversation with him emphasised the extreme urgency of the case.

Eight days passed and I received a letter dated 10th March, in which my hon. Friend informed me that he had called for yet another medical report, and on 25th March, three weeks after the date of my letter to the War Office, I received a full letter from my hon. Friend in which he said, among other things, that he had now received the report and that this confirms, I am pleased to say, that Private Robson is not in need of treatment, that he is capable of, and fit to, continue serving in his present medical category of C.1 (Home Service). Then come some remarks about his worries which are followed by this: Mrs. Robson will, I hope, be reassured that there is no evidence of any psychotic disorder. But on 25th March, Private Robson, who on the authority of the War Office was said "to show no evidence of any psychotic disorder" cast himself from the window of a railway train and was killed, and on 26th March, the day I received this letter, I was also telephoned by a member of the soldier's family informing me of his death.

I want to ask the Under-Secretary how he can possibly reconcile the words of his letter of 21st April, which says that Private Robson was under medical supervision throughout his time in the Army, with the words in the previous letter of 25th March, which says that Private Robson was not in need of any treatment? Here in the last letter of 21st April, 1948, a copy of which was sent to me to forward to my constituent, for the first time we hear that he has been seen by five psychiatrists. Why could not I, or the mother of this boy, who wrote repeatedly to his commanding officer asking that he should have treatment, as I did, be told that he had been seen by a psychiatrist? It was not until 21st April that we heard that he had been seen by five different psychiatrists.

I realise that there have been changes in the War Office during the long period in which we have been dealing with this case, but I do feel that there has been very grave slackness. Grave responsibility rests on somebody (a) for admitting this boy to the Forces, (b) for disregarding medical evidence from mental specialists in the civilian psychiatric ward of a mental hospital testifying to his schizophrenic condition, and (c) for not realising that that was reinforced by his breakdown in Trieste. I hope that, apart from the words of sympathy which have been so generously expressed by the War Office, we can have some further explanation tonight that will do more to satisfy a mother who is anguished by the loss of her son which she feels might well have been avoided if action had been taken earlier.

1.17 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

My hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side (Mr. W. Griffiths) has very rightly raised a case which is both tragic in itself and intro- duces an important question of policy—the policy which the Army should pursue with regard to soldiers who are emotionally unstable. The two major questions which arise are, first, why this young man was admitted into and kept in the Army, and secondly, what treatment and care was given to him while he was in the Army.

As to the first question, it is a fact that this young man when he was a boy of 16 in 1944, spent three months in a mental home where he was suffering from schizophrenia, from which he made a good recovery. According to the account that he gave, consideration was given to the question whether treatment should be given to him, and a decision against that was given and he recovered spontaneously by rest. He appears to have made a good recovery, and when he was called up under the National Service Acts he did not disclose—and one can well understand his point of view in this matter—the fact that he had been in a mental hospital. That fact was not brought to our attention; nor was there anything in his appearance or demeanour when he was called up that would have given us any reason to suppose that some two years previously he had spent three months as a patient suffering from schizophrenia. Therefore, I do not think that any blame can be attached either to the War Office or to any Department of the Government for the fact that he was called up and admitted into the Services under the National Service Acts.

It should also be noticed that during his first months in the Army, which are often the most difficult period for an emotionally unstable man, there was nothing in his behaviour while he was in his unit that would have led us to suppose that he had previously been a mental patient. It was commented on that he was somewhat slow to learn, but that he worked hard and behaved well. He spent those first months, which included three months service abroad, in Germany, and it was not until February, 1947, that we knew, or indeed could have had any way of knowing, that he had previously been in a mental home. That was then drawn to our attention in a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Moss Side who, I should say, has been most persistent and diligent in this matter, as one would expect. I shall hope to show him that we have not neglected his persistence, and that we have given rather more attention to this case than perhaps he has given us credit for. Our attitude has certainly not been one of unruffled tranquillity.

In February, 1947, when this young man was under draft for Palestine, my hon. Friend drew our attention to the fact that he had previously been in a mental home and, in consequence of that, he underwent his first examination by a psychiatrist. My hon. Friend inquired why we did not previously tell him that this young man had been examined by five psychiatrists, but in the correspondence which has passed he will see that we said this young man had been so examined. There are reports in the letters and they refer to the examinations by psychiatrists and I will detail in a few moments the precise dates on which they occurred. On this first question as to why there was any reason why he should not have been called up, I have to say there was no reason. Secondly, when we knew he had been in a mental home, I was asked whether we should have immediately invalided him out of the Army? I must tell my hon. Friend that I have given considerable thought to this problem of whether, when we discover any man has been in a mental home, we ought to regard him as unfit to serve in the Armed Forces. But I do not think it right to make such an automatic rule.

It has to be remembered that many people enter mental homes with the earnest hope that they will be cured of their illness and once a man has been in a mental home and has come out, regarded by the authorities as fit to move about in the world, we should not, I think, regard him as an unstable person. I think the policy we should pursue, if it comes to our notice that anyone serving in the Army has been in a mental home, is that we should not regard him as no longer fit for military service unless good reasons are shown why he should be so regarded. Where men in that position have been regarded by psychiatrists as unfit for military service and have pressed the authorities to say in the Army, it would not be right for us to make this an automatic rule. But if we have a man in the Army of this type we must exercise most diligent care over his condition.

This man's first examination by a psychiatrist occurred in February, 1947, and he was then classified as A 1 (Home Service). Later, he was examined by a psychiatrist in Scottish Command, who also classified him as A 1 (Home Service). In September, by what we are required to admit was a serious administrative error, he was sent to Trieste, where he suffered sensory hysteria. That is a neurotic, and not a psychotic, complaint. That is to say, it was consistent with the judgment I have just mentioned as having been given by the two psychiatrists who had already examined him. He was not suffering from a psychotic disorder, but he was unstable. I should like to tell my hon. Friend that I tried to pursue the responsibility for this error—and it was in my inquiries that delay resulted in writing to my hon. Friend because of the many different aspects which had to be followed—and it was discovered that the officer responsible for this error was then no longer serving in the Army; but I do not seek to palliate that error.

Mr. Griffiths

I will not keep my hon. Friend a moment. I know that time is short, but I would like to say that I remember that the letter sent to this boy's mother on this occasion was signed by a second-lieutenant as drafting officer. Surely this officer would have been responsible to his commanding officer and through him responsibility would have lain with the War Office.

Mr. Stewart

It was not quite such a simple story as that. There was evidently a failure to enter the details on documents and so far as we can discover the person responsible is no longer in the Army. My hon. Friend may be assured that we will pursue very diligently the question of taking precautions to prevent such an error recurring.

When the man returned from Trieste and had the third psychiatric examination in October, 1947, as a result of that, I am obliged to say, the most encouraging report was received. The man described himself on examination as feeling "as fit as a fiddle." It is tragic to recall those words in view of what has happened since.

Mr. Lester Hutchinson (Manchester, Rusholme)

Did the psychiatrist have the previous report, when this man's draft to Palestine was cancelled on the grounds that he was a schizophrenic?

Mr. Stewart

The psychiatrists were aware of the man's previous history. He was then graded C.1 (Home Service) but his trouble was neurotic not psychotic. Following his behaviour on leave, of which his mother complained in February, 1948, there was a fourth psychiatric examination on 15th March, 1948, and the judgment was "no psychotic disorder."

I would particularly draw the attention of the House to the fact that the War Office were faced with four independent reports by Army psychiatrists, all to the effect that the man suffered from no psychotic disorder, although emotionally unstable. I would suggest, therefore, that we did watch this man's career most carefully and we did not, as my hon. Friend suggested, allow the matter to drift and we did not regard it "with unruffled tranquillity." It is tragic, and as far as one can see it was beyond the power of medical science to have foretold that on 22nd March, within a week of the last psychiatric examination, he should begin to behave oddly. The moment that happened the man was put under the care of a psychiatrist on 23rd March and it was arranged to dispatch him to a mental hospital at Banstead. It was on the journey to Banstead in the train that the accident occurred.

I can only express my very profound sympathy with the parents and assure my hon. Friend that the Army psychiatric service did give the best attention to the man. Finally, the responsibility for throwing himself from the train—if that occurred—will be a matter for investigation when the men who were with him are brought before a court-martial.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes past One o'Clock.