HC Deb 03 November 1950 vol 480 cc555-64

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

3.56 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Price (Lewisham, West)

I wish to raise with the Admiralty the case of Mr. Alan Butler Light and his pension, which has been the subject of correspondence between that Department and ourselves for the past six or seven months. I very much regret that the right hon. Gentleman who was to have replied to this Debate has been prevented from doing so by an indisposition. I hope that he will soon recover, and I should like to thank the Civil Lord of the Admiralty for so gallantly stepping into the breach.

The history of the case is that Alan Butler Light joined the Navy in 1913 at the age of 19½. He enlisted at the Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport, and served with some distinction for 22 years. He left the Navy in 1935, having qualified for a long service pension. In 1949, on 9th April, Mr. Light became 55 years of age and then qualified, in his view, for what is known as the Greenwich Hospital Age Pension. Having heard nothing about it by September, 1949, he took up the matter with the director of Naval Accounts (Pensions Branch), and received a reply to the effect that although it was agreed that he was in fact 55 years of age and that the date of his birth was in fact 9th April. 1894, the date of birth on his service record was 9th April, 1895. Therefore, the age, as on the service record, that is, 54, would have to be the age taken into account in considering his qualification for that particular pension. He was informed that he would not qualify for the pension for another 12 months.

The first point that exercises one's mind is about the circumstances in which this mistake came to be made. The date of his birth, was, in fact, 9th April, 1894, but it appeared on the records of the service as 9th April, 1895. Mr. Light has answered a questionnaire on this subject, and his mind is quite clear that he gave his age as 19½, that he was not asked and did not give the date of his birth, and that he had in his possession his birth certificate, which was not produced as he was not asked for it. It would appear, therefore, that if there was an error, as undoubtedly there was, the fault was not entirely on the side of Mr. Light, as it could be claimed with justification that there was some negligence on the part of the officer responsible for the enrolment; and that he had been guilty of contributory negligence in not asking for the birth certificate.

The grant of the pension is governed by Regulations, which are Article 1988 and Article 383 of King's Regulations (Admiralty Instructions). I have armed myself with copies of these Regulations. Article 1988 says: The age of all applicants for Naval Pensions shall always be computed from the statement made by them on their first entry into the service, and no certificate of birth or baptism, or no other document, shall be accepted in support of an application to have the statement of age at first entry set aside, except when otherwise directed in Article 383.

It being Four 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. Kenneth Robinson.]

Mr. Price

That is the end of that part of Article 1988. I emphasise the last few words— except when otherwise directed in Article 383. Article 383, however, says: The date of birth given by a man or boy on entering the service, whether this be the true date or not, is to be adhered to for all official purposes, except in respect of the award of Marriage Allowances. When it is considered that the wrong date has been recorded on the Service Certificate of a man or boy through no fault of his own (e.g., through a clerical error) the circumstances may be reported to the Admiralty for special consideration. It is quite clear, therefore, that the Admiralty have the power to ignore the rather strict language of Article 1988 by virtue of Article 383; but in the case of Mr. Light they have chosen not to exercise that power and have advanced certain arguments, with which I will deal.

Part (2) of Article 383 says: To ensure that as far as possible the actual date of birth of every man or boy is recorded, the Recruiting Officers and others authorised to raise recruits will obtain and forward to the final Entry Establishment the birth certificate, when available, of each man or boy recruited. Mr. Light was in possession of his birth certificate when he enlisted. He was not asked for it. It may be—I have tried unsuccessfully to check up—that this article in these precise words was not inforce in 1913. If so, it has been introduced since, and it must have been introduced for a very good reason. I suggest the reason is that at some date subsequent to 1913 the need for such an article was felt and it was therefore inserted.

The arguments advanced by the Admiralty in rejecting this man's claim for the Greenwich Age Pension are, first, the possible advantage to be gained by such a man making a false declaration. They claim it is necessary, therefore, to adhere to an almost cast-iron rule, which is out- lined in Article 1,988, Part (2) of which says that: For the purpose of the award of the Greenwich Hospital Age and Increased Age Pensions, the date of birth given on first entry will also be adhered to unless the age on entry is found to have been over-stated, when the age pensions will not he awarded until the true age of 55 0f 65 years respectively has been reached. In other words, if the man's age has been understated, it will be adhered to to his detriment; if his age has been overstated, it will be ignored, and his true age taken as a basis. Therefore, there is no possibility whatever of any advantage accruing to this man as a result of the mistaken entry on his service record. Thus the first argument advanced by the Admiralty collapses completely.

Their second argument is that this man signed his Service certificate at the time and had an opportunity then, and had ample opportunity subsequently, to correct this error. This argument I accept—it is the weakness in the case; but I advance circumstances which should be taken into consideration in assessing the importance of this factor. First, the average man, when examining his service record, is concerned not so much with details of this kind as with the entries governing his conduct in the Service. He wants to see that he has maintained, and is still maintaining, a good record, which is much more important to him than checking details of this kind. Secondly, if the man overlooked that his date of birth on the service record was inaccurate by a year. he would have been in very good company. It is a mistake which thousands of people have made and are still making.

I am nearly forty. Ever since I was born, or at least as long as I can remember, my mother celebrated her birthday on 5th November. It was not until last June, when my father died, that it was brought out that she had, in fact, been born on 11th November. There are thousands of such cases in this country, and for the Admiralty to hold it against this man in this way is quite unjust.

The fact that the man had an opportunity while serving to correct the record has been held against him, and we find in a letter from the Admiralty these words "while serving." There is nothing whatever in the Regulations which says that such records must be corrected while serving, and these two words have been put in by the Admiralty. I have copies of the Regulations here, and they do not say that the correction must be made while serving. The qualifying phrase "while serving" has been put in by the Admiralty, and has no statutory basis or foundation whatever.

The next point is the one which I regard as most important of all. I have said that, when the man left the Navy in 1935, he qualified for a long-service pension. Ever since 1935, in connection with that long-service pension, four times a year, every quarter, he has had to complete form DNA 623, which he had to send to the Director of Naval Accounts (Pensions Branch), the very man to whom he had to apply for his increased pension.

Ever since 1935, for 15 years and four times a year, this man's correct age has been communicated to the Department concerned on form DNA 623. At no time have the Department noticed the discrepancy between this form and the service record, or, if they have, they have not drawn the man's attention to it, and so now, in 1950, or at least last year, when the man sought to qualify for his increased pension, the fact that his service record is inaccurate is held against him.

Article 1988, which I have quoted, specifically provides that a record of age may be amended at the discretion of the Admiralty via Article 383. Surely, if there is a case which comes within the purpose of that power given to the Admiralty for exercising its discretion, this is such a case. If it is not, and if that discretionary power was not given to the Admiralty for that purpose, I completely fail to understand what sort of case does come within their discretion. If this case is not the sort of case which comes within that discretionary power, was it given merely for window-dressing and is it of no value at all? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give the answer to the question.

This case was brought to my notice by a certain gentleman who has given me his permission to quote his name. He is Lieut-Colonel Gould, who has had many years' experience of fighting pensions cases on behalf of ex-Service men. He knows this man well, as he was, as it were, a superior officer of this man in civil employment for many years. He has fought hundreds, possibly thousands, of such cases, and the last comment which he made to me in connection with this case was: "I must say that, of all the experience I have had in dealing with the complaints of ex-Service men, the way this one has been dealt with has made me feel quite bitter."

In raising this matter on the Motion for the Adjournment, I am using the last weapon at my disposal, but I am also giving the Admiralty the opportunity to remove the feelings of bitterness which exist in the breasts of both Lieut.-Colonel Gould and Mr. Light, and of removing the injustice put upon Mr. Light by the Admiralty 12 months ago.

4.10 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Walter Edwards)

I am very grateful for the manner in which the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. A. Price) has presented this case. I think he has been very fair, and he has certainly given the House a history which we in the Admiralty already possess. This matter has been going on for some time now and no doubt the hon. Gentleman knows that his predecessor also raised this question with the Admiralty. It has, of course, also been raised by the gentleman to whom the hon. Member referred.

I think it is a little unfair to blame the Admiralty for this case. After listening to the hon. Gentleman, one would certainly gain the impression that all this difficulty was due to events which have taken place in the Admiralty. When Mr. Light joined the Royal Navy, in 1913, it was perfectly clear to all who joined the Service at that time that the only date of birth the Admiralty could accept was that given by the person on joining. That has applied ever since, not only in the Royal Navy, but in the other two Services as well.

Mr. Light had a very long career in the Royal Navy. He joined in 1913, re-engaged in 1925 and continued until 1935. He reached what I consider to be a very high and responsible rank in the Service—he became a master-at-arms. I was serving in the Royal Navy during that time that Mr. Light was in the Service, and I knew quite well about the opportunity of inspecting Service certificates. I can assure the House that I carefully looked at mine every time the opportunity arose. I feel that Mr. Light was to a very large extent to blame for not having noticed that there was a wrong age on his Service certificate and for not drawing the attention of the authorities to it.

At the time this rule was introduced it was very common for people to try to join one of the three Services by giving an incorrect age. In many cases the reason for not giving a correct age was not because they wished to benefit the Service, but, possibly, because they thought they might thus obtain some benefit for themselves. I am sure the House will agree that it would have been a hopeless situation if in those days the responsibility had been placed on the Service Departments to go into the question of age and not to accept the age which the person himself gave.

Mr. James Stuart (Moray and Nairn)

Is it not possible that Mr. Light wished to benefit either the Service or his country?

Mr. Edwards

That is possible and I would not deny that for a moment, but the position at that time was that there was a question as between 19½ and 18½ so that, in fact, it did not make any difference.

Mr. H. A. Price

Would the hon. Gentleman explain what advantage the man could have obtained? It has been said that he could obtain an advantage, but no one has said what that advantage is?

Mr. Edwards

I am not saying that Mr. Light could have obtained any advantage from it. What I am saying is that there were a fairly large number of cases in those days in which it was possible for some people to take advantage of it. That is why the regulation was made, and why it is in operation even today. It strikes me as rather strange that a man holding the position held by Mr. Light should not have drawn the attention of his commanding officer or of the Admiralty to the fact that there was an error.

On the other question, of whether a man should be allowed to make an application for an alteration to be made in his age after he leaves the Service, I am assured that it is perfectly understood in K.R. and A.1 that no man is entitled to have his age altered after leaving the Service. Discretionary powers have been exercised in this respect in the past. As stated by the hon. Gentleman, the Admiralty have told him, and others who have been in correspondence with the Admiralty over this particular case, that, where there has been a clerical error and it has been pointed out by the man while he was serving, it can be and, on some occasions has been, rectified.

I think I have cleared up the points which have been raised. As I have said, these regulations have been in operation for quite a long time. We have carefully considered the whole case of Mr. Light, and to me and, I believe, to all right-thinking people, whatever fault there is is due, to a very large extent, to Mr. Light, and there is nothing we can do to help him now. I am sorry to have to give that answer, but this is a matter which affects the three Services and if there is to be an alteration it must apply in all cases.

4.17 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I am sure the House has listened with very great regret indeed to the answer the Civil Lord has just given. A matter of this nature is one which brings great discredit on a great Service, and this is a ruling such as should never have been given at all. He has not given any satisfactory or reasonable explanation as to why this position is being maintained at present. The hon. Gentleman said the man in question had given his age wrongly. He has no evidence whatsoever of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. H. Price) said he gave his age as 19½. The hon. Gentleman does not dispute that?

Mr. W. Edwards

What I say is that the age on the Service certificate is wrong and it was up to Mr. Light himself to draw attention to it.

Commander Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman actually stated that the date of his birth on his Service certificate was given by the man. He never gave the date at all. He gave his age, and his birth certificate was never called for. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West has said ever since 1935, for 15 years, this man's correct age has been confirmed to the Admiralty. The hon. Gentleman has made it perfectly clear that this man could gain nothing whatsoever by giving an incorrect age; yet, simply because, through a clerical error seemingly, his age has been entered wrongly the Admiralty refuses point blank to do the justice to this man that he deserves because of the length of his service and the high position he reached in the Service.

The hon. Gentleman said others might benefit in circumstances such as these. Surely that does not apply to a man who has risen to the rank of master-at-arms in the Service. It is hardly credible that that would arise. The hon. Gentleman may have looked at his own papers very carefully but, after all, a master-at-arms is a very busy person, constantly dealing with others and helping others. It is perfectly likely and probable that he should have overlooked this fact. Will the hon. Gentleman say what advantage this man would have got from not pointing out the mistake if he had seen it?

A scandalous injustice has been done to this man, a great disservice has been done by the Admiralty, and it is bringing the name of the Service into disrepute. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reconsider that decision in the interest of the name of the Service in which he himself has served.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Minutes past Four o'Clock.