HC Deb 11 March 1948 vol 448 cc1552-66

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

9.41 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Chamberlain (Norwood)

In raising tonight this subject of the widow of ex-Inspector Syme, I am recalling a very long story, great agitation and a great struggle by this man in defence of what he considered to be his rights, and at the same time, I must gay, a long story of official ineptitude and prejudice. The story as it unfolded itself would be impossible in these days, particularly when one bears in mind the fact that the final act of suspension and dismissal of Syme was definitely and directly due to the fact that he proposed to appeal to his Member of Parliament in regard to this case. In these more democratic and enlightened days in this country, that could not possibly happen, as we know it has been established that all those with grievances, including members of His Majesty's Forces, are at all times able to bring those grievances to the notice of their Member of Parliament. But that is what happened in the Syme case, and that was the reason for his final dismissal.

I have not the time nor the desire to review this whole case. It would involve a great deal of time, and bring in a long succession of Ministers, including Home Secretaries, among whom would be the Home Secretary of 1910, now the Leader of the Opposition. A great number of people in high places were involved, and in general I am bound to say, after having reviewed the case again recently, that it seems to do them little credit. I would be content to leave this story in the limbo of forgotten things, but today there is in Newcastle-on-Tyne an old lady who is nearly 79 years of age, who is ill and destitute. It is for that reason that I cannot possibly allow this state of affairs to go by without bringing it to the attention of this House.

On 12th February I asked the Home Secretary: whether he will consider the grant of some more generous ex gratia payment to the widow of ex-Inspector Syme, in addition to the nominal sum of £100 which was paid to her on Mr. Syme's death. The reply of the Home Secretary to this was: The grant to Mr. Syme was an exceptional ex gratia payment, and I do not know of any new circumstances which would justify reconsideration of the matter. As a supplementary question, I then asked: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mrs. Syme is now nearly 79 years of age, ill and I understand in straitened circumstances? Is he not aware that many of us feel that justice was never done in this case. The Home Secretary answered: This case received very favourable consideration from one of my predecessors, and I cannot review it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1948; Vol. 447, c. 556.]

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

Did he say which?

Mr. Chamberlain

He did not say which. I now say to the Under-Secretary of State that in the facts which I have brought to the attention of the House are the new circumstances for which the Home Secretary asked, if there was to be reconsideration of this matter. The Under-Secretary of State should not hide behind any decision of his predecessors in this matter. It might be said that there are thousands of old ladies in straitened circumstances who are ill and dependent upon a meagre pension, but there are not thousands, or hundreds, or scores of old ladies who have suffered as this one has, for nearly 40 years. She has had the anguish of seeing her husband degraded, dismissed and victimised by overbearing officialdom. She saw him sent to Broad-moor, wrongfully, in the view of many of us, and unjustly. She saw him finish his days fighting vainly against officialdom for the justice which he never received.

I appreciate that the Home Secretary could take his stand on the legalistic point and on the absence of any legal obligation to do anything in the matter. On the contrary, he could take the human view and he could bear in mind the suffering which has been borne through all these years both by Syme, and by his widow, and of the fact that upon Syme's death a mere £100 ex gratia payment was awarded to her. The Home Secretary could point to the findings of the 1924 Commission and to the pension of £72 which was latterly awarded to Syme. On the other hand, he could decide to help this old lady for a short time only, in the nature of things. He could give her bodily help in the way of more generous treatment than was made to her upon her husband's death and he could give her mental relief by placing on record what all of us who have studied the case are confident is the fact, that if Syme was unwise in some of his actions and rather rash in his attitude at times, he was more sinned against than sinning.

In my view, the 1924 report proves that Syme was the victim of bullying, bumble-dom and bias. Of all the many reports I have studied, I have never known one in which the conclusions reached were more at variance with the evidence. After heaping criticism after criticism upon the officials and others who were connected with the case, the report finishes astonishingly by saying: In our opinion the awards of 20th December, 1909, and 29th January, 1910, were rightly made. Those were the judgments which fell upon Syme—reprimand, caution, transfer to another station, reduction in rank and final dismissal. The report further added, about ex-Inspector Syme: Wrong was not done to him. In the view of those who have carefully studied the report that is a most astonishing verdict in view of the evidence which is set forth in detail in the pages of that report. I could refer to a large number of points in that report. I am not going to do so, but I will refer to one or two. For instance, in the body of the report there is reference to the report of Chief Inspector Sherrington, the report which led to Syme's removal to another station. On that the Commission said that: … the report was quite unreasonable. A little later on it states in regard to Syme's action in defending the constables, which was the beginning of all this trouble, that it was perfectly correct. It makes that clear on page 6. Here is another thing which I took from this astonishing report. Superintendent Isaacs was requested by the Assistant Commissioner to examine certain witnesses whose names had been put up by Mr. Syme. This Superintendent Isaacs did without Mr. Syme being present, and in the 1924 report the Commissioners say that: The procedure adopted was, in our opinion, exceedingly unsatisfactory. A little later it says that this procedure was: … contrary to the plainest principles of justice. As a result of that report by Superintendent Isaacs, Syme was suspended. In regard to the whole matter of Syme's transfer and suspension, the Commission says—I quote from the body of the 1924 report: There was much in the proceedings connected with his transfer and with his suspension to which Mr. Syme could justly take exception. Right through the pages of this astonishing report—the Talbot report of 1924—there is case after case of misjudgment on the part of superior officers, of the wrong kind of action taken and of oppressive and unjust action. I have quoted some and I could give the Under-Secretary many more references in that report. The astonishing thing is that at the end the report gives as its findings that: The awards made were correct "— and— wrong was not done to him In my opinion, and I say it quite bluntly and frankly, that was an absolute travesty of justice. Syme appealed to the Home Secretary, in 1910, after his dismissal. The Home Secretary, who was the present Leader of the Opposition, wrote a critical minute on the handling of the case. This was read at the Talbot Commission in 1924, but strangely enough there was no reference to it in their report. It is, however, interesting to note that there was this most critical minute on the handling of the case. I would also add that the Home Secretary of that day offered at that time, just after the dismissal in April, 1910, to reinstate Mr. Syme as a station sergeant. Syme refused that. He could have accepted that and the matter could have been in a certain way smoothed over, but I think it shows the strong and dogged nature of the man that he refused to accept reinstatement at a lower grade. He considered that his right was to be reinstated as an inspector, and that shows very clearly the nature of the man—sometimes strong-headed, but certainly with a very strong sense of grievance and also, I think, a very strong sense of what is justice and injustice.

After the 1924 report, Syme approached the Home Secretary of the day, Mr. Arthur Henderson, for redress, but he got no reply to his request, in the light, I suppose, of the findings of that report. A little later, in 1931 it is to the credit of the second Labour Government that they gave him a small pension although it was, strangely enough, a medical pension and, as far as I can understand, it was virtually an infringement of the statute that a man who had never been ill in his life and certainly had not been dismissed or got rid of because of ill-health should be awarded a medical pension. He was, at last, given a small pension, but no provision was made for his wife. The only provision eventually made for Mrs. Syme was the ex gratia payment of £100 on the death of Mr. Syme some years later. So he died, leaving behind him this sorry story which, in my view, was a travesty of justice, and also leaving behind him a widow who is now bowed with poverty, grief and illness.

I think that, in these circumstances, we have a right to look to the Home Secretary to do something of a reasonably generous nature. Here is this old lady, here is the story of the suffering of her husband, the story of her own sufferings, not only bodily but mentally, which have gone on for nearly 40 years. I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary to make a gesture which will ease her bodily pain and discomfort, and, indeed, the penury in which she now finds herself, and I am also asking that he will make some kind of declaration to show that, if Syme was in many ways unwise, wilful and strong-headed, he was, in his day, greatly sinned against. If some such gesture and move were made by the Home Secretary, I think it would be very much in keeping with what we in this country, particularly nowadays, pride ourselves upon; that is, that in this country there still breathes the spirit of freedom, of justice and of humanity. In that way, I put forward to the under Secretary my strong appeal for this old lady.

9.57 P.m.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I had a long association with Inspector John Syme. I remember him away back in the years before the first world war—tall, fine, handsome he was, and a clean man, very gentle in his manner, very clean in his character. During the years in which I saw him, the pressure of injustice wore down that strong body and practically destroyed the mind and soul of that fine man. There was no question that there was an injustice, or that, injustice having been done, and having been endorsed by the Home Secretary operating at the time, it became impossible to get any succeeding Home Secretary to reverse that decision and do justice to Inspector John Syme. The House should make no mistake at all about it. Everybody understood that a gross injustice had been done. An inspector was deliberately victimised because he was concerned for the welfare of the policemen serving under him. In the years following the first world war, his case was taken up by the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean), and he made a fight of it year after year. He kept on pressing this case again and again, and it was because of his action, and the actions of a few of his friends, that this committee was appointed in 1924. Always, whatever committee was appointed or however the matter—

It being Ten o'Clock the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Gallacher

—however the matter was discussed, there was always the reluctance to make a decision that would reflect upon the Home Secretary who had been responsible at the time and the high officials associated with the case. That was the big difficulty. And so the fight went on, led by the hon. Member for Govan until 1929 when, during the time of the Labour Government, the feeling had become so terrific that, by 1931, something had to be done. Not only was a pension made to John Syme, but he was given a lump sum payment. Members should take note of two points. If John Syme had been treated justly, if he deserved dismissal from the Police Force, he would never have been offered reinstatement. The offer of reinstatement was in itself an admission that injustice had been done to this man and that he was a fit person to wear uniform and represent the police.

In 1931, because feeling was so strong, the lump sum payment and pension were given and the Government "made a twist," as the hon. Member for Norwood has said. Through a breach of the regulations or the law, a small pension was provided for Syme. I would like to know why it was, if there had not been an injustice, that the Home Secretary in 1931, after consulting all the legal advisers, which I am quite certain the Home Secretary responsible in the first instance had done, agreed to make this payment to Syme and to give him this illegal pension. Syme was persuaded to sign a paper. After signing it, he found that he had been taken advantage of, that his character and name were not going to be cleared, and that the pension which should have gone with his position of inspector was being denied to him. Because of these events he started campaigning again. I had much association with him and I know what he suffered and how his health was dragged down. I know only too well what his wife and the mother of his family had to suffer also.

I would like hon. Members to try to picture for a moment what happened and visualise John Syme going to the Home Office, coming to Parliament, making a disturbance, being thrown into gaol, going on hunger strike and being liberated after a short time, then back into gaol and on to a hunger strike again. Let us think of the sufferings of that wife and mother at home while John Syme was trying to do these things, perhaps in the wrong way. In later years he was not allowed in the precincts of this House, but I often talked to him outside, when he was accompanied most of the time by a very kind and good hearted C.I.D. man, in whom John Syme recognised a great friend in his latter days when he was in bad condition. I would like to impress upon the Under-Secretary and his right hon. Friend that it will be difficult to find anywhere such a long period of suffering which, over 40 years, became more intense as each year went by. It will be difficult to find anywhere a woman who had to endure such a long period of agony and almost impossible pain, as a result of the palpable injustice which had been done to her husband.

I know the Under-Secretary will tell me that everything has been tried, and all has been done, but nothing can alter the fact that an injustice was done to Inspector John Syme nearly 40 years ago, and as a result of that injustice, whatever may have been offered or given to him in 1931, this woman spent a lifetime of almost unbearable suffering, she was loyal all the time to her husband and endured terrible privations, hardships and suffering. Now she is 79 years of age, in ill health, and cannot have so many years to live. Surely the least the Government could do, and the Home Office representing the Government, is to make a kindly gesture to this old woman. That would not cost the country much in money, but I am certain it would reflect very great credit on the Home Office, even at this late hour, if they made the gesture for which the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) has appealed. I wish to join in this appeal with all my heart on behalf of this woman who has suffered so much through an injustice done to her husband.

10.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Younger)

The case which has been raised tonight is a very tragic one, and one which, from origins which might have been small and trivial, has grown to great dimensions. It has attracted sympathy for nearly 40 years and, as one may judge from what my hon. Friends have said, still attracts considerable sympathy today. One thing is quite certain—we cannot deal with this case on a legal basis. That is not only because of findings which have been made by various inquiring bodies in the past, but also because in so far as any question of payment pursuant to legal obligations is concerned, I think the law was stretched to its full length, and perhaps even a little beyond it, in the payment made in 1931.

I do not propose to argue this case at all on the question of legal claims for compensation. I do not think that is the issue. Nor do I want to reopen the facts of the original disciplinary action taken, or of the original grievance. I do not want at this very late date to revive unnecessarily, old controversies, particularly because what we have to deal with is not payment to ex-Inspector Syme. After all, so long as it was the case of Mr. Syme, it was possible to argue whether or not he was at fault, and so on. We are now dealing with his widow, and there can be no question that she was in no way at fault. Yet she suffered from the events which flowed from this unhappy incident in 1909.

I did not intend to recapitulate this case, but, as I cannot quite accept all the implications of the case as given by the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) and the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher), I must spend a moment in stating briefly what happened. The original incident was in 1909, and resulted in the inspector being ordered to be transferred from one station to another. I think it is now agreed, and it was so found by the very responsible judicial body which was appointed to inquire into this case in 1924, that the handling of the disciplinary case at that stage was very injudicious and very unfortunate and left a sense of grievance which gave rise to the whole of the rest of the case. As a result of Inspector Syme's reactions to those orders, and as a result of his sense of grievance, he made certain other allegations which led to further disciplinary proceedings, and he was dismissed early in 19ro. From that time until his death in February, 1945, he never ceased to agitate and to claim, a claim in which he had the support of many people, including many of his colleagues, that he had been wronged.

I can skip the intervening years between 1910 and the inquiry of 1924. All I will say is that in the course of his agitation Inspector Syme got himself into a good deal of trouble and was several times in prison. In 1924 a High Court judge, a county court judge, and a King's Counsel, Mr. Rayner Goddard, who is now the Lord Chief Justice, were appointed to inquire into the case, and the report they made is the one to which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) has referred in somewhat disparaging terms. I think that perhaps he slightly misreads the conclusions. I will not go into the evidence, but I must say that I think it is only reasonable that successive Home Secretaries, having appointed a body of that standing, with absolutely no interest in the matter, consisting of persons of high judicial training and knowledge, should have stood, as a matter of law, upon the findings of that tribunal.

Mr. Chamberlain

Will my hon. Friend, in the course of his remarks, make clear in what way I misinterpreted the findings?

Mr. Younger

When my hon. Friend said that the evidence, to some of which he subsequently referred, was in conflict with the conclusions, he was suggesting that having cast certain aspersions on the other police officers involved, superiors of Inspector Syme, it was then inconsistent, if I understood my hon. Friend aright, to conclude that no wrong was done. I admit it is a rather fine point, but if I may interpret the conclusion as I read it, it is that while certain reports were made which should not have been made, while there was injudicious handling of the case, while the original case against the inspector which gave rise to all the trouble was an unfounded complaint, nevertheless as a result of subsequent events and the subsequent allegations made by the inspector, and never substantiated, it was right and indeed inevitable that in the subsequent disciplinary proceedings the action should have been taken which was taken. That is rather a subtle distinction in a way. It is saying that while the original complaint was false, nevertheless subsequent actions by the inspector rendered it inevitable that at later disciplinary proceedings in 1910 he should have been punished as he was punished.

It should also be borne in mind that the tribunal did not really sit as a court of morals. What it was deciding was whether there was any legal claim for compensation, and it was that to which it referred in its conclusions. It was not called upon to decide precisely the moral implications of everything done either by the inspector or by his superior officers, or by the Assistant Commissioner of Police. It had to decide whether or not there was such a wrong, in the legal sense, done to the man as would give rise to a claim for compensation. I am making it clear that I am not dealing with the case now on the basis of legal claim for compensation, or putting up any legal difficulties, but it is only fair, in view of the comments which the hon. Member for Norwood saw fit to make upon the evidence of this very distinguished and impartial tribunal, that I should try to make clear what I believe to have been the reason for their deciding as they did.

Mr. Chamberlain

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, may I put this to him? He has said that this was a matter with regard to liability to compensation. While I quite agree that in the first part of the conclusions the finding is: In our opinion it is impossible to say that by this wrong was done to Mr. Syme for which he could claim compensation. If my hon. Friend will look a little lower down, he will see that the finding is: We, therefore, having examined the circumstances connected with the dismissal of Mr. Syme from the Police Force, report to your Lordships that wrong was not done to him. That is what I wanted to bring to the attention of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Younger

As I say, I take all this to he legal language, and when they said "wrong," no judgment of morals was being made, only that no wrong for which he could make a claim, no wrong in law, had been done to him. That in any case was the finding in 1924. In 1931 the matter was taken up again, further inquiries were made by the then Home Secretary and some of his colleagues, and eventually the decision was taken to pay him a pension. That pension was paid on the basis on which it would have been paid had he retired at the date when he was actually dismissed, had he retired at that date in the rank of inspector and on the grounds of ill health. From that time onwards the pension appropriate to that rank, together with pensions increases in conformity with the Pensions (Increase) Acts, were paid to him till his death, and the arrears of pension between 1910 and 1931 were also paid to him in a lump sum.

When that was announced in the House of Commons on 21st May, 1931, the then Home Secretary, Mr. Clynes, made one or two remarks which I should quote in view of what has been said by my hon. Friend. He said, firstly, as regards Mr. Syme: There has never been any question as to Mr. Syme's sincerity. It is acknowledged that while in the Police Service he discharged his duties in a conscientious manner, and no stigma of any kind attaches in this settlement to him. And then he added: It must not be thought that this settlement involves any reflection upon those who in the course of years have been concerned in the handling of the case."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 21st May, 1931; Vol. 252, c. 2175.] I think it is right that that should go on record now in view of the very strong words used by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood when he talked about the action having done little credit to those in high places, and about official ineptitude, prejudice and so on.

Mr. Stokes

May I ask a question on this, because this is a matter which has been before the House for a very long time? If it was thought right to grant the ex-Inspector a pension, was no provision of any kind then forthcoming for the widow?

Mr. Younger

I was coming to that. It is a rather curious thing, perhaps, that no provision appears even to have been mentioned, let alone decided upon at that time, but I think the basis of it would probably be this: that he was granted the pension to which he would have been entitled had he retired on the date on which he was dismissed, and at that time there was no provision for pensions for widows of police officers. Therefore, on that basis, there would be no provision made, and I think that is probably the reason for it.

It only remains to state that, after this payment had been made, Inspector Syme's agitation continued. He died in 1945 and, upon an application from members of the family, the then Home Secretary decided to make a payment from non-official funds—an ex gratia payment—of £100 to the widow. As I say, there was no pensions scheme for widows upon which she could have legal claim and there was no power in the Home Secretary to pay a regular pension under any legal provision at all. He was only able to make an ex gratia payment out of funds which are at his disposal for purposes.

I think what I have said makes it clear that ever since 1931, at least, this case has been dealt with by the Home Office not upon a legal basis at all, but simply on the basis of the recognition of the tragic results of injudicious handling of a disciplinary case many years before; recognition of the suffering which was caused and recognition, also, of the great public sympathy which was felt for Syme, both by many Members of this House and also by his own colleagues in the Police Force. Now, we must feel a special sympathy for the widow who had certainly no responsibility in any errors which her husband may have committed but who, nevertheless, bore the consequences equally with him. She stood by her husband throughout all the years when he was in and out of prison, and I am informed that she has been uniformly helpful to everybody throughout the case whether, if I may so describe it, they appeared to be on the side of her husband or whether they did not, and everybody has the highest praise for the way she has behaved throughout this long and trying period.

In view of the judicial report of 1924, I think it would have been difficult for any Home Secretary to deal much more generously with this case than the Home Secretary did in 1931, because, after all, if a case falls outside any legal provision for payment of money, the Home Secretary has to be exceedingly careful in the way he administers funds which may be in his complete discretion; they are public funds and they are not meant to be readily or easily dispersed. In particular, I think one should say it would not be right for a Home Secretary to try to circumvent the provisions which have been made by Parliament, for instance, in respect of the rate for regular pensions, if he were to use funds to increase the rate decided by Parliament, except in special circumstances.

It was, therefore, felt in 1945 that the ex gratia payment was a highly exceptional payment and it was felt that after the lapse, then, of some 35 years the case was closed. I do not want to appear in any way unsympathetic, but I think I should say that, although no contributory pension was payable to police widows throughout most of the period to which I have referred, Mrs. Syme is, of course, in precisely the same position as persons of her age who are widows of police officers retiring before 1918. As we all know—we discussed it only about a fortnight ago in this House on the Police Pensions Bill—there was no provision then and, therefore, she is in the same position as the widows of a number—now I think a small number—of police officers who left the Force before 1918. She has at her age such assistance as she can get through the non-contributory pension to which she is now entitled—[Interruption]—at the age of 70.

Since 1945, no further information has reached my right hon. Friend about the circumstances of Mrs. Syme and, having already made the one exceptional ex gratia payment, I think the House will realise that my right hon. Friend can hardly be expected to make any commitment here tonight in respect of any further ex gratia payment on no evidence and no information at all. In the absence of any information as to the circumstances which would distinguish this lady's condition from that of all the other police widows to whom I have referred, who, unfortunately, also get no pension, I think it would be wrong for me to give any commitment on his behalf tonight.

I am sorry there is nothing further I can say on that. I hope I have put the matter in perspective. I hope that I have shown that, whatever the arguments may be about the original rights and wrongs of this case, there is no reflection whatever on the late Inspector Syme, that there is a recognition of the great suffering of his wife while he was alive, that sympathy has been shown since 1931, and that exceptional payments have been made in this altogether exceptional case. That is all that I am in a position to say tonight.

Mr. Chamberlain

While expressing appreciation of the kind way in which my hon. Friend has spoken, may I ask him if, in the event of my putting before the Home Secretary detailed information as to the present condition of Mrs. Syme, these and all other relevant facts will be sympathetically considered?

Mr. Younger

Of course, I will undertake to put any information which is supplied before my right hon. Friend, and he will certainly consider it.

Mr. Stokes

Before my hon. Friend finally resumes his seat, would he enlighten the House a little more by telling us how many widows there are in this category? He says there are several whose husbands died before provision was made for pensions to the widows of policemen. Is the number a large number?

Mr. Younger

I am afraid that without notice I could not say what the number is tonight. It was recognised during the discussion on the Police Pensions Bill that this number is very small. It is hoped to do something in new regulations for them. But I am afraid—I do not want to mislead the House in any way—that what could be done would probably bring those getting nothing, up to the level of what they would have got had their husbands been insured. Because this particular widow is already over 70, and is already, on my information, receiving the normal 26s., it is very doubtful, to say the least of it, whether any new regulations could, in fact, improve for her the position she is now in.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes past Ten o'Clock.