HC Deb 18 March 1952 vol 497 cc2279-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. D. G. Galbraith.]

12.51 a.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

The circumstances surrounding the untimely death of Gunner Douglas Owen at Park Hall camp, Oswestry, have caused considerable public concern and I am very glad to have this opportunity of discussing the matter in the House, although I might have been rather more fortunate in the night that has fallen to my lot.

The training and conditions of service of our National Service men are matters in which we are deeply interested and we want to be completely satisfied they are receiving the maximum care compatible with their normal training. On the facts in my possession I am bound to say at the outset that I am extremely unhappy about this case, and I hope that the Under-Secretary can put my mind at rest.

Gunner Douglas Owen joined the Army on 15th November, 1951, at the age of 20. He was given the usual medical examination and placed in Grade I. On 31st December, 1951, he was undergoing physical training in the camp gymnasium with 29 other trainees. They were apparently engaged in a form of training known as horses and jockeys. At 12.5 Gunner Owen collapsed during training and, according to the available evidence, he was frothing at the mouth. They were the words used by two witnesses at the coroner's inquest. He was then carried to the side of the gymnasium and left there lying on mats.

According to the depositions taken at the inquest, no first-aid was administered, although it appeared that at 12.15 the physical training instructor saw the man lying on the mats, still apparently conscious. I would like the hon. Gentleman to note that point. The physical training instructor states that he sent for medical aid. This was at 12.15. He also reported the matter to the gymnasium officer. It appears from the evidence that the medical officer could not be traced at that time.

At 12.15 p.m. the commanding officer of the camp arrived in the gymnasium on a routine inspection, it was not because he had been sent for. He saw Gunner Owen and came to the conclusion that he was dead. That was 20 minutes after Gunner Owen had collapsed. The Commanding Officer then dismissed the squad and posted guards outside the gymnasium. One of the medical officers heard of the case at 12.40 p.m. and arrived at the gymnasium at 12.45 p.m., exactly 40 minutes after Gunner Owen had first collapsed.

When I asked the Secretary of State for War a Question on this subject on 26th February, the right hon. Gentleman gave the House the impression that Gunner Owen had been taken to hospital immediately. That was not the case, and the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to write me a letter the following day correcting that impression. The man was lying in the gymnasium, alive, for 40 minutes, and physical training continued for 20 minutes while he was lying there. The Minister also gave a very unsatisfactory reply to a supplementary question, when he said: The time involved was three-quarters of an hour. By and large, one is fortunate in a unit if it takes only 10 minutes in sending a man to find the doctor and getting him to the necessary place; it may take longer. In this case, I do not think there was any actual fault, in view of the location of the hospital and the gymnasium. It took three-quarters of an hour: a quarter of an hour would have been better, but, short of having a medical superintendent at every P.T. class, one cannot obviate that possibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1952; Vol. 496, c. 916.]

That is not good enough. Where strenuous training is going on all day it is reasonable that medical attention should be available almost immediately. I would put the following questions, which I think are fair and reasonable, to the Minister. In the first place, I understand there are four doctors on the establishment at Park Hall camp. Why was none of them available within a reasonable time of this man collapsing? There seems to me something radically wrong with the duty roster of that camp. Second, why was no medical orderly available to give first-aid at once?

I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House how many medical orderlies are on the strength of the camp. I understand there was a sergeant medical orderly on duty near the gymnasium at the time, and if he had been' sent for he could have administered first-aid or some respiratory treatment that might have saved this young man's life.

We do not know exactly when Gunner Owen died. I have studied the depositions at the inquest and obtained information from his family, and no one can say exactly when he died. We know that he lived for at least 10 minutes after 12.5 because he was alive when the physical training instructor saw him at 12.15. The third point I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with is this. It appears that the case was reported to the gymnasium officer at 12.15. Why did the officer in charge of the gymnasium not investigate the case himself? He appears to have done little or nothing about it.

On the evidence I have been given I have been forced to the conclusion that this case was dealt with in a lax, slipshod, and almost callous fashion. The old tag about exigencies of the Service does not impress me. This young man is dead. For all we know he might have been alive today if he had received attention. My only consolation is that the result of this debate may result in the avoiding of similar laxity in the future.

I would draw attention to the verdict at the inquest—that Gunner Owen met his death by misadventure, and that the cause of death was asphyxia, aspiration of vomit, and pneumonitis due to carbon pigmentation while doing physical training. The jury added a rider that in their opinion there should be someone present with knowledge of first-aid during physical training. I hope that the jury's rider will be followed up carefully by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend.

1.0 a.m.

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

The facts in this distressing case, with certain exceptions with which I will deal, have been reasonably accurately defined by the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes). I use the word "distressing" not only because of the pain and the irreparable loss that has been caused to Gunner Owen's mother and his other relatives, but also because there is a loss to the Army and, indeed, to the country in his death. He was a keen, enthusiastic soldier of the kind the country can ill afford to lose and, in fact, he was anxious, as I am informed, one day to become a physical training instructor himself.

On the morning in question Gunner Owen had, according to his usual practice, had no breakfast. Thereafter there was the normal training programme until shortly before 12 o'clock. There was then a break, and Gunner Owen consumed a glass of milk and three cream buns. I am not sure how important this is, but I am trying to add a few more facts to what the hon. Gentleman has already outlined.

Gunner Owen then paraded with the rest of the class for physical training in the gymnasium. They started with the exercise of horses and jockeys, which is not particularly strenuous; I have done it myself in this last war, and it is no more strenuous, if as strenuous, as many of the things that a soldier does when he is going through ordinary field training. However, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, so enthusiastic was Gunner Owen about the physical training aspect of things that he did hand stands on his own before the class fell in. I add that as a side issue to show that he was really keen on this form of military training.

Then he collapsed. He was carried to the side of the gymnasium by the physical training instructor in charge of the class, and I would say straightaway that the physical training instructor was not fully qualified in first-aid. The physical training instructor thought that he detected the symptoms of a fit. As has been brought out at the coroner's inquest and at the court of inquiry, there was some evidence of frothing at the mouth. The physical training instructor massaged him and covered him with a blanket and sent for aid.

There are only two points upon which I have no confirmation, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech, and the first is that I cannot find any evidence that anybody said that Gunner Owen was still alive 15 minutes after the time of the collapse, but I am not sure that it is material to the whole matter. I have looked hurriedly at the evidence submitted, and although I admit I may be wrong, I could not find that stated.

Mr. C. Hughes

Could I assist the hon. Gentleman? In the deposition taken at the coroner's inquest, evidence is given by the P.T. instructor who was on duty in charge of the gymnasium, and he says: At 12.15 p.m when I walked through the gymnasium I saw an instructor standing by a man. I passed on. I saw another instructor going down the gymnasium and I realised that there was something wrong. I went to him and found the man lying on the mats and he was going white and frothing at the mouth. He was not coughing at all. My inference is that at 12.15 when this instructor saw him, Gunner Owen was alive.

Mr. Hutchison

The hon. Gentleman may be right, although I am not really sure that it is material.

The next point on which I cannot get corroboration—in fact, I think that on this point the hon. Gentleman is wrong and I am right—is the question of an officer in charge of the gymnasium. There was, in fact, no officer in charge of the gymnasium. There was a bombardier who was in charge of the gymnasium but not a commissioned officer. The only officers who made an appearance on this tragic scene were the commanding officer and later on the medical officer.

Mr. C. Hughes

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but the same witness whom I have just quoted says later on in his evidence: I went to the gymnasium officer and sent for medical aid.

Mr. Hutchison

I think he must have meant the n.c.o. in charge of the gymnasium. Again, I do not think it is very important, but I just wanted to get the facts right. At any rate, the evidence at the inquiry, which I have twice read over very carefuly, shows that there was no other officer there although there was an n.c.o. in charge of the gymnasium to whom this instructor in fact went.

There Gunner Owen was at 12.15—unconscious and covered with a blanket at the side of the gymnasium—and the class continued its work. Meantime, emissaries had been sent to try to get the medical officer. The first point I would like to deal with is the question of the class going on. Was that really a very unreasonable thing to happen?

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Very inhuman.

Mr. Hutchison

Wait a minute. I know the hon. Member's attitude to this, but let him be fair about it. Nobody had yet recognised that there was anything more than an ordinary faint.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

A man was lying unconscious.

Mr. Hutchison

Has not the hon. Member been present at many a military parade at which somebody collapses? Does he seriously suggest that whatever the military parade is called for, it should be abandoned because somebody goes to the ground? Would they not all crowd round and create the very situation which any doctor will say is one to avoid, instead of standing back and giving the man air? One cannot abandon all military activity just because one man falls down.

Mr. C. Hughes

What the hon. Gentleman now asks is, was it not reasonable for them to continue with their training if this man had fainted? If those were the facts, I do not think it would have been unreasonable, provided that they had sent for medical aid. But the hon. Gentleman must remember that when he commenced his speech he said it was generally accepted that this man was in a sort of fit, that he was frothing at the mouth. That is rather different.

Mr. Hutchison

It was only when it was recognised as being serious and when the commanding officer arrived on the scene that he at once dismissed the parade. I do not think, looking at it from a reasonable point of view, that there was anything very much to criticise in all that.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

The man was dead.

Mr. Hutchison

The man was dead, but had they known that then it would have been quite a different thing.

As soon as the tragedy was recognised, the class dispersed. Messengers had been sent for the doctor who was on his rounds. At that particular time there were many troops on leave. Remember the date in question was 31st December. The standard coverage, to use the technical jargon, is that there shall be one medical officer for, approximately, 2,000 troops—which, incidentally, is a more generous allowance than the National Health Service gives for the ordinary civilian—and that coverage was there.

In the morning at 10 o'clock there were two medical officers present who took a sick parade. One of them then went off to be replaced at 2 o'clock in the afternoon by a second medical officer so that the standard allowance, if one may use that term, of officers to men was not gravely interfered with. I think it would have been wiser, and I should myself have been happier about it had both the medical officers been there during the whole time. But, at any rate, there was no grave dereliction of duty in what happened.

Twenty minutes later—to go on painting the picture of this tragedy—the commanding officer arrived. He recognised that Gunner Owen was dead, and then at 12.45 the doctor arrived and corroborated this fact. As my right hon. Friend said, I think quite fairly—and he has been criticised by the hon. Member for his reply—it would have been, of course, a much happier state of affairs if the medical officer had arrived more quickly.

But is it unreasonable to find a delay of 40 minutes from the time of summoning a doctor to the time he arrives? I do not think that it is a very long time. There is another aspect of this matter. I am only a layman, but I have consulted high medical authorities and, while this may be cold comfort, it is very doubtful whether a doctor if he had arrived almost immediately could have saved this man's life. What is certain is that no man, trained in ordinary first-aid, could have done anything to help him. The fact is that what he was suffering from was desperately serious. I do not know, were I in the situation of this boy's mother, whether it would comfort me or not—if one could be comforted in a loss as deep as this—but I think it would comfort me to know that almost nothing that could have happened could have saved him.

This is a tragic case in a million, but that does not invalidate the criticism or the rider to the verdict of the coroner's inquest, or what the hon. Gentleman has advocated, that it would be desirable if physical training could be taken by somebody with a knowledge of first-aid, and instructions have been issued to that end. I cannot answer about the medical orderlies, because I cannot be sure whether their presence or absence would have had any influence at all in a complaint so serious as the one from which the man was suffering. I confess, however, that if a reasonable number of orderlies had been present I do not think that it would have affected the outcome.

Mr. C. Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a message was sent to the hospital, and can he say why no trained medical orderly from the hospital called at the gymnasium in view of the fact that the medical officer was probably on his rounds, or at any rate was not available at the time?

Mr. Hutchison

I am informed that a message was sent to get the doctor as quickly as possible. Emissaries were sent and telephone messages were made to find the doctor. I do not think it is really material whether a medical orderly from the hospital was called for or not, because if he had gone he could have done nothing. I do not think there is anything more to be said.

I would like to end on the same note as I started, and on the same note which impelled the hon. Gentleman to raise this matter. A story like this tugs at one's sympathy and if it is any comfort to the boy's mother and relations I would like to express my deep regret and the sympathy of the War Office that this should ever have happened.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Fourteen Minutes past One o'Clock a.m.