HC Deb 01 August 1952 vol 504 cc2038-52

8.20 p.m.

Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

We are coming to the last lap of our series of Adjournments. To look round the House is to me reminiscent of the days 40 odd years ago when I started to take part in Socialist propaganda and addressed three men and a dog. Today only the dog is missing. I raise the question of the National Service of a constituent of mine because I feel that it is not only of importance for this National Service man and his parents but is important for all parents who have sons serving in Her Majesty's Forces.

Gunner Shillingford was called to National Service in March, 1950. After a very few months' service he collapsed on the parade ground at Oswestry. After a few days he was sent home on 48 hours leave. His parents, alarmed at his condition, decided that he ought to see his own doctor. His doctor was horrified that he had been allowed to travel and said that he was to be put to bed immediately. He had a week at home, two weeks in a hospital with a bleeding lung, and then went to Chester hospital from which he was sent to a sanatorium in Surrey and then to Colchester.

This was his first initiation into the field of National Service. Gray's Camp at Colchester has a very bad name with National Service men and, while in the military hospital, this lad was scared by some of the stories told to him by fellow patients who had been in this notorious Gray's Camp. So eventually when he left hospital he went absent without leave. Thereafter he went absent without leave several times because his mother was very ill and he was anxious to go and see her. He was given several periods of detention ranging up to 48 days. He served one period of 28 days for refusing to undergo an operation. This he refused, on the advice of his father, who was a very fine soldier in the Sherwood Foresters in the 1914–18 war and who served in the Worcestershires as a volunteer in the last war. On one occasion the boy was given 48 days' detention for two days' absence.

Most of his offences took place after his two years service had expired and he was kept on to cover the periods of detention he had suffered. The father wrote to his son's commanding officer outlining the boy's background, his difficulties and his mental development. The C.O. had the lad brought in front of him and told him, "It would be better for you if you were dead."

After this sympathetic treatment by his commanding officer the lad went absent without leave again, sleeping in fields, eating grass and begging coppers to buy food. His father heard about it, searched the countryside, found him and handed him over to the police to be sent back to his unit. This lad was eventually taken under military escort to Brierley Hill Police Station under a charge of defrauding the Post Office Savings Department. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment which he is now serving. I have been in communication with the Under-Secretary for several months and there has not been one spark of understanding or human feeling displayed by the War Office "wallahs" during the whole of the time.

This youth was mainly illiterate. He could not read or write properly before he went into the Army. He had never had regular employment owing to ill health. He was at some racing stables for six months. He occasionally drove a lorry for his father, but owing to his ill health he bad never had regular employment.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Would my hon. Friend allow me to put this question, as he may have the information? In what sort of medical category was he supposed to be when he went into the Army?

Mr. Simmons

Probably the Under-Secretary will tell us that. This lad was called up for National Service. Within a few months his physical condition was such that he collapsed on parade. He was sent home on leave as fit. His own doctor was horrified by his treatment, and this attitude was justified by what subsequently transpired. For months and months he was in and out of hospital coughing and spitting blood. The Army medicos did not understand the case, so the easiest way out was an operation. The operation was refused and he was given detention. The man worried about his mother who was ill and he went absent on leave again and again.

There must have been some reason for this lad's conduct—some psychological reason. Did the Army care? No. They had got their talons on this fragment of humanity, physically ill, mentally confused and terribly unhappy, and they concentrated on punishing him when they ought to have been trying to understand him. That is the gravamen of my charge against the War Office, that they never tried to understand this lad. How do the glowing reports of the new Army, with comforts for the men, bedside reading lamps, and kindly understanding officers, square up with sordid tale of inhuman disregard for the feelings of a young National Service man? Is there an Army Welfare Service with trained welfare officers, or is that only for the crack regiments?

Does the fact that the War Office can now get cheap conscripts by compulsion make them feel that they can treat men as they used to treat the pre-1914 soldiers, as the dregs of humanity? Where was the Army Legal Aid Service? This lad was sent, under military escort, within three miles of his home to face a police court charge. His father learnt of it from the evening newspaper. The lad was afforded no legal assistance. The officer who accompanied him acted as a hostile witness.

What a picture. Imagine this youth, uneducated, bemused, alone, standing a tragic figure in the dock, feeling that the whole world was against him, and the officer in whose care he was placed, like Peter denying him, like Pilate washing his hands of him. Imagine the feelings of this fine soldier, his father, reading in the evening paper that his son had been sent down for four months without a word having been said about his background, his mentality or of any other mitigating circumstances.

I know that the United-Secretary will shelter behind red tape. The War Office did not want to communicate with his family for fear of causing trouble with the family. But youths who are in trouble need their families more than ever. That is what families are for. They all come together when there is trouble. They stand together and fight shoulder to shoulder against the trouble which assails them.

The Army authorities have some responsibility for separating this lad from his family, knowing he was uneducated, illiterate and ill and, having separated him from his family, for abdicating their position of responsibility for protecting and caring for him. I know that I shall be told that he did not apply for legal aid. What lack of imagination. They know lie was going to the police court to face a charge. It ought to have been the duty of the Army to supply legal aid—never mind about his having to apply for it. In any case, if the Army could not help him they might have refrained from ganging up against him.

I wonder how the recruiting figures would react if these cases became publicised as they ought to be as long as they go on. I do not apologise for speaking with some heat and bitterness. I was a private soldier. I never reached any higher rank. I am the eternal private. I think his thoughts and feel his feelings. I have never got above myself. I gladly identify myself with the bottom dog every time.

The lad serving four months in prison is not the guilty party. The guilty men are the unimaginative brutes who still have far too much say in the War Office, the commanding officers who fail to understand the minds and entirely ignore the souls of the youths whose mental and spiritual as well as physical welfare should be their sacred trust.

This indictment goes wider than the case of Gunner Shillingford. It concerns the youth of this nation which is now conscripted for military service. Gunner Shillingford is but one of many. His treatment, if widely known, would cause many parents much mental anguish. What is the answer of the War Office to anxious parents of such boys as Gunner Shillingford?

8.33 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) has raised this case tonight. Our constituencies are next door to each other. Many of his constituents have relatives living in my constituency and many of my constituents have relatives living in his. We are in an area where there is very strong family feeling and my hon. Friend, who has his roots in the Black Country, is quite right to express some of the indignation which is shared not only by him and by Gunner Shillingsford's family but by Shillingsford's trade union colleagues. A national executive member of a very important trade union came to see me about this case.

I do not go all the way with my hon. Friend. I do not think that Shillingsford was sentenced to detention for refusing to undergo an operation. I think that that is a mistake of fact. Likewise, I do not think that Shillingsford was awarded 42 days' detention merely for two days' absence. There must have been a more serious charge than that. What I am sure about is that this poor boy—and I use that word in a compassionate sense—is a victim of a machine which he does not understand.

The Army authorities and those who have the honour to hold Her Majesty's Commission have enormous powers for good and for evil. Sometimes, unfortunately, those powers for good are riot used even when they are readily to hand. Conversely, the powers to oppress an individual can only too easily be put into operation.

I have gone into this case with very great care. I am going to pass over the period of Shillingsford's service up to the time when he was handed over to the civil police, except to tell my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) that this lad's medical category was Grade I. It is one of the complaints of his parents that he was given a high medical grade against the weight of the evidence of those who knew him—for instance, of the family doctor, who was surprised that this rather under-developed boy should pass in such a high medical category. But not only was this boy under-developed physically, he was also under-developed mentally. The evidence I have is that he could not read and write when he went into the Army, and it may be that it is to the Army's credit that in the two years and four months which he spent in the Army he managed to write quite a simple letter home.

It is clear that he has not been a very satisfactory soldier. He has been arraigned on a number of occasions for military offences of some gravity, and no doubt the Under-Secretary of State will tell us more about that later. But in July an escort arrived late one evening at Brierley Hill police station. It is important to remember that the police authorities here have behaved with complete propriety and, I may say, with great humanity. If the Army authorities, his commanding officer and those responsible for him, had behaved half as kindly as the superintendent at Brierley Hill behaved, then I am quite sure that my hon. Friend would not have raised this case tonight.

The facts are that this boy, having learned to read and write, put his new art to such use as to forge a Post Office savings account, so it was alleged, and of that charge he was subsequently convicted. The summons was served on him, and it is a requirement of King's Regulations—and on this occasion I have used the copy of King's Regulations which is in the Library, and which I hope is up to date—

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

Queen's Regulations.

Mr. Wigg

I am sorry; old habits die hard.

I invite the attention of the Under-Secretary to paragraph 598 of Queen's Regulations which lays down certain procedure. It is required that in the Standing Orders of every unit attention shall be drawn to the fact that if a soldier receives a summons from a civil court he will at once make that information available to his commanding officer.

In this case, as I understand, Shilling-ford was undergoing detention when the summons was received, and it was, therefore, the duty of those who had him in their custody to ensure that certain things were done. They did the first thing; they sent an escort with Shilling-ford, but with no explanation of the charges which were pending at all, and delivered him to the Brierley Hill police station. There, the civil police did all they could—a senior officer was brought out of bed late at night—for the lad's comfort, but it never occurred to those who had sent the escort to communicate with his family and to make any preparations for defence at all.

It is a requirement of the next paragraph of Queen's Regulations, paragraph 599, that when a soldier is charged with an offence before a civil court near the station where his unit is quartered, an officer will be detailed from the unit to attend and watch the proceedings. The paragraph goes on to say: An officer having personal knowledge of the case will be detailed for this duty if any such officer is available. The first question which I put to the Under-Secretary is this. Were efforts made to secure the attendance of an officer who knew Gunner Shillingford? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State is listening to that point. I ask the specific question: was an effort made to ensure that an officer who knew Shilling-ford attended at the civil court? Because whether an effort was made or not, such an officer did not attend. An officer turned up the next day at the civil court and said he knew nothing about Shilling-ford at all. He proceeded, as was his duty, to inform the court of the charge which had been made against this man.

I should be hopelessly out of order if I got involved in what took place in the court, but I may say this. It did not seem to occur to anyone—certainly not to the military authorities—that it was a duty to make any effort at all to inform this boy of his rights as regards legal aid. No effort was made. The boy did not know what his rights were. The officer who attended him felt no responsibility at all for the boy. The magistrates' clerk did not conceive it to be his duty. Forthwith, the magistrates heard the case and the boy was sentenced to four months' imprisonment, and, of course, he is serving that sentence at the present time.

When the case came to me I took a rather different course. I wrote to the Home Secretary and asked him to look into it on the basis of the information which had been supplied to me, because I was less concerned with reform of the Army than I was with trying to help the boy. I am trying to reform the Army in another place. That is a rather more formidable job than trying to help this man.

What I want to ask the Under-Secretary of State is this. Did the PostmasterGeneral—and, after all, it was the Postmaster-General who initiated the summons—inform the military authorities that this charge was pending? Or was it that the summons was just served in the ordinary way? Was any notification made to any higher formation that this charge was pending? Did any senior officer know of the fact that Shillingford was to be brought forward on a charge of this serious nature? What I also want to know, if the hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to tell us, is, at what point the machinery broke down, because I am quite sure that he will agree that even if all the rules were fulfilled—and I do not think they were—there was a very great lack of kindness and humanity in dealing with this very difficult case.

I have tried to put a fairly moderate statement on the matter, but, like my hon. Friend, I feel very strongly about this case. As I read the papers on it I could not help casting my mind back to answers that were given me earlier this week by the Secretary of State for War dealing with another case. I refer to the case of what the Secretary of State for War called "jubilations" at Sandhurst, which I described as a "disorder."

On that occasion we had a number of very well educated young men—60 per cent. of them came from public schools —who damaged public property worth, according to the Secretary of State, £60, although the information I have is that it was over £200 worth; and five people found themselves in hospital, one of them for as long as 14 days. I eventually dragged out of the Secretary of State for War the fact that no disciplinary action of any kind had been taken against the men who had damaged public property and who had caused damage to limb: no action of any kind whatever.

When we contrast the action of the Secretary of State for War and very senior officers indeed in dealing with the cadets at Sandhurst, and what happened to this poor boy—physically ill, mentally a borderline case, fetched before a civil court, handed over to the civil police—one cannot help feeling that the Army has got very little to its credit.

I share my hon. Friend's feelings of compassion for and sympathy with not only the boy but also his family, because Mr. Shillingford was a distinguished soldier in the First World War. He served his country in a humble capacity; but, after all, the dirty work is done by the private soldiers. Now the Under-Secretary of State has a chance of saying that although Private Shillingford has served only in the ranks—like his father —he is going to use his influence with the Home Secretary to put right the very great wrong that the Army has perpetrated against this poor lad.

8.45 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I should like to make a very brief intervention, because I know that the House will want to hear the fullest possible explanation from the Under-Secretary. This case illuminates one aspect of our National Service arrangements which has caused me considerable disquiet for some time. It is this. When a young man is called up for National Service no regard seems to be paid by the persons responsible for the medical examination of the potential recruit to medical reports that have been or can be provided by the recruit's private medical practitioner.

How does it come about that subnormal men—definitely subnormal, as in this case—come to be serving in the Services at all? We recently had reports of a really terrible case, which happened to be in the Royal Air Force, where an obviously subnormal man had been subjected to the most diabolical treatment at the hands of a non-commissioned officer.

Cases have been brought to my notice of my own constituents, although there is no time to go into details, where no regard whatever has been paid to medical evidence provided by the recruit to show that the man should never have been in the Services at all. This seems to be one more case where a man, obviously unfit for any kind of National Service, has been brought into the Services, and has caused immense trouble to the authorities and immense heart-ache to his relatives.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will perhaps pay some attention to what I regard as a very serious defect in the present arrangements, as a result of which subnormal men are brought into the Services with the kind of consequences to which my hon. Friends have just referred.

8.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

It is clear that the three hon. Gentlemen who have been speaking on this unhappy question tonight must have felt strongly about it to have been impelled to stay here until the curtain is literally closing on the Parliamentary scene for the Summer Recess.

The case is a complicated and, as I have said, unhappy one, but I am sad that the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) should have used what I think was rather intemperate language about the way in which Gunner Shillingford has been treated. I agree with him—we have been in correspondence for some time—that it is a difficult case. Nobody will deny that. But he really painted the picture unfairly blackly in the words that he used tonight. Let me just elaborate on that a little bit to show why I think his castigation of the War Office and the Army authorities in general was unfair.

This man, a National Service man, was called up in March, 1950. May I at this point say to the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) that the medical examination of these men who are coming into the Services is not an Army responsibility? It is carried through by the Ministry of Labour. It is true that when they come into the Service we examine them afresh, but the original reception—which, if the hon. and gallant Member wishes to probe further, he should take up with the Ministry of Labour—is not a War Office responsibility.

Gunner Shillingford has had, since he came into the Army, a chequered career, including periods of absence without leave, periods of detention which resulted from those periods of absence without leave, interspersed, as the hon. Member for Brierley Hill said, with a number of visits to hospital.

Mr. Simmons

For long stages.

Mr. Hutchison

That is perfectly true; but, particularly, the absences without leave were becoming more frequent, and working to a climax towards the finish. We were most anxious that at these hospitals, and, indeed, this was so throughout, there should be a thorough examination of this man in order to make sure what he was suffering from. Time and again in his own interests he was implored to allow what is known as bronchoscopy, which is the method of being able to diagnose whether there is incipient T.B. or not, and he refused. The hon. Member for Brierley Hill at one time wrote a most helpful letter on this subject. He wrote to Mr. Shillingford, the father, saying, I am sure the War Office want to help your son"— His words tonight do not seem to ring very true when set alongside those helpful and far-sighted words— by giving him a medical examination to find out if he is fit to continue to serve or should be discharged, but if he keeps going away it makes things very difficult for those who want to help. How true. I appreciated that letter very much, and it is in very flagrant contrast to the words he used tonight.

Let me come to 1952, because it was really in 1952 that the problem became acute. Late in 1951, this soldier had gone absent. There was a further period of absence early in 1952—the second one dating from 29th January to 12th February—and the period would have been longer than 12th February if it had not been that a medical certificate was sent stating that he was ill at home on that date. Although he did not come back to his unit until 26th February, the period was cut down to 12th February so as to be as fair as possible to this soldier. His period of absence without leave therefore ended on 12th February. He was, as has been stated, sentenced to 28 days' detention.

The next dates which I would ask the House to notice are those from 13th to 30th April and 7th to 10th June, when it was again alleged that he was absent without leave. For the first of these periods he was awarded 28 days' further detention. For the second period, he was tried by district court-martial on 30th June and sentenced to 42 days' detention because his absence without leave had been going on at an increasing tempo. It was contended by the defending officer at the district court martial that the prosecution had failed to show how long he had been absent, and the proceedings were quashed by the Judge Advocate General on 14th July.

Mr. Wigg

The proceedings were quashed after he had been convicted by a civil court.

Mr. Hutchison

That is true.

Mr. Wigg

Did the Under-Secretary make representation to the civil authorities? Did he draw attention of the Home Secretary to the fact that the court-martial proceedings had been quashed, because it might well be that the civil court in awarding him four months' imprisonment would have been influenced by the evidence of the officer that he had been given 42 days' detention.

Mr. Hutchison

My hon. Friend who is here is interested in the civil aspect of this case. I myself have no jurisdiction and no knowledge of that side of the matter. He has listened carefully, and what has been said in the debate will be noted by him and account taken of it. I wanted to bring this forward because this is another example, as I think, of considerate and understanding treatment. This period of 42 days did not result solely from two days' absence at all, but followed very much longer periods. As the hon. Member for Brierley Hill was corrected by his hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) about the other little error he made in his accusation about 28 days for refusing an operation, we will let that pass.

The case came up before the civil court. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dudley did not let me know the detailed points that he has brought up tonight, because it is impossible to answer "off the cuff" the details which he has mentioned. All I can tell him—this answers one of his questions—is that the officer sent with Gunner Shillingford was an officer of his own regiment, and I think I can safely say that, being in the same regiment, he knew Gunner Shilling-ford.

Mr. Simmons

The officer said in the court that he did not know Gunner Shillingford. He said that Gunner Shillingford was always absent without leave, and therefore nobody at all knew him.

Mr. Hutchison

There again I have to submit to the House that what happened in the civil court is not my responsibility. I did not know that the civil court proceedings had revealed that.

The other point was how the summons was served on this man and whether the Postmaster-General had carried it out properly. All I can tell the hon. Member here and now—the matter will be gone into—is that I have no knowledge of any irregularity in the matter of the serving of the summons as compared with other cases of a similar type.

No one who has listened to the catalogue that I have had to read, and which the hon. Members have outlined, can feel anything but sympathy for a man who has fallen into a tangle of troubles of this kind. Whether he has fallen into them or they have been imposed upon him is a matter for consideration. Something has gone wrong. The question which is really exercising hon. Members opposite is whether it is we in the War Office who have gone wrong or whether it is the man himself. I submit to them that there are two main considerations that we have to hear in our minds in considering this, and indeed similar cases, for when there are 450,000 men in the Army we are bound to get these problem cases cropping up all the time. But do not let us pretend that, because one case has gone off the rails, the whole Army system is bad.

The two considerations that we have to bear in mind are how best the case can be treated from the point of view of the Army and how it can best be treated from the man's point of view. I believe that in the light of both considerations we acted properly. I believe that if we allow a man who becomes a nuisance, not perhaps a calculating nuisance but a nuisance, to get his way and his release, we are pointing the finger to the premium that can be put on a nuisance value, and we start at once to undermine the whole of the Army discipline and system.

I know that the hon. Member opposite does not think very much of the Army anyhow, but I ask him for one moment to look at it dispassionately and to think what the effect would be if, as soon as a man said, "I want to be quit of the Army; I am going to make a nuisance of myself," he was allowed to be quit of the Army. He would be followed by hundreds of others. I believe that from the Army's point of view we had to refuse to be put into the position of giving release because the man himself wanted it, and wanted it for that reason only.

Now about the man himself. As I have said, this question of the health of the man is all-important. We wanted to get him put right. We wanted him to have this diagnosis. At home he may not get it. I believe his chances of being cured were very much better in the Army than at his home.

I have left myself perhaps too little time, or I have been left too little time, but I want to say that the 42 days' detention now having been quashed—this is the note on which I wish to end—the man's period of service with the Colours is at an end, and he will, forthwith, be released from his liability to any further service with the Colours. We are perhaps, therefore, only holding a postmortem on something which has happened, because Gunner Shillingford will no longer be serving with the Colours.

There remains only, then, the question of his part-time service, and that we shall have to go into. I should have liked to answer certain of the other questions, but there is, I am afraid, little enough time. However, perhaps the final answer that I have given is really what hon. Members opposite were seeking to hear from me.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine o'Clock till Tuesday, 14th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.