HC Deb 28 July 1953 vol 518 cc1094-101

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

115. Lieut.-Colonel LIPTON

To ask the Secretary of State for War what steps he will take, arising from the death of Private Donald Harrison at Moston Hall Military Hospital, to avoid the repetition of similar cases in future.

116, 117 and 118. Mr. LEWIS

To ask the Secretary of State for War (1) if he will appoint an independent committee of inquiry consisting of non-military personnel to investigate the causes and matters affecting the death of the late Private Harrison;

(2) if his attention has been drawn to the evidence produced at a recent court-martial concerning the death of the late Private Harrison; and whether he will make a statement;

(3) if he will now make a further statement on the death of the late Private Harrison.


To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he has now received the typewritten copy of court-martial proceedings at the trial of Lieut.-Colonel Gleave; and whether he will now make a statement thereon.

127. Mr. M. STEWART

To ask the Secretary of State for War what action he proposes to take against the person responsible for the wrong diagnosis and ill-treatment of the late Private Donald Harrison.


To ask the Secretary of State for War if he now has anything to add on the case of Private Harrison and the efficiency of the service to patients at Moston Hall Military Hospital.

At the end of Questions

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to answer Questions Nos. 115, 116, 117, 118, 121, 127 and 128.

Hon. Members will recall that, as soon as the allegations of ill-treatment of Private Harrison were brought to my notice, I ordered an immediate court of inquiry. On receiving the report of the court of inquiry, I had to decide what I should say to the House on the facts presented to me and what action I myself and the responsible authorities ought to take. On 16th June I gave a full and frank reply to the House about this case and I said that the medical specialist and the day sister concerned would be reported to the appropriate professional bodies. About Colonel Gleave I said: … as far as I can ascertain, no thorough inquiry was instituted by the commanding officer although on 18th May he stated that a full inquiry had already been made by himself.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1953; Vol. 516, c. 44.] The commanding officer was subsequently tried by court-martial on charges that he failed to investigate or report the allegations, and that he agreed a statement to the Press that the allegations had been fully inquired into when he knew that they had not. I still believe that the decision that Colonel Gleave should be tried by court-martial was correct and I would point out to the House that, if he had not been tried, he would have had no subsequent opportunity of vindicating his reputation which had been impugned.

It will be realised that the charges against Colonel Gleave were concerned solely with the action which he took after the alleged ill-treatment of Private Harrison; and I would stress that it was never at any time suggested that the commanding officer was himself personally responsible for that treatment. This fact I felt must be made quite clear in my statement to the House because, had I not been specific about the reasons why Colonel Gleave was to be tried, and had I baldly stated that he was to be court-martialled, it might well have appeared by inference that he was alleged to be personally concerned in the treatment of Private Harrison.

Now that Colonel Gleave has been acquitted on the first charge and honourably acquitted on the second, the House will wish to know whether this affects either the evidence or the action taken regarding the treatment of Private Harrison while in hospital. I have now had time to examine the full court-martial proceedings, of which I have placed a copy in the Library, and, in the light of them, to review the court of inquiry's evidence where it concerns Private Harrison's treatment. After having done so, I am still of the opinion that the evidence relating to the medical specialist and the day sister should be placed before the appropriate professional bodies.

I have also reconsidered whether I should institute a further inquiry into all the circumstances of this case. I see no reason to change the view which I previously expressed to the House that this regrettable occurrence did not arise from any fault in the Army medical system itself, but was due to a failure within that system.

Mr. Bellenger

Had the right hon. Gentleman additional evidence to that presented at the court-martial which warranted his casting very serious aspersions on the honour and conduct of this commanding officer, who has now been honourably acquitted by a court-martial? Does he think that the statements which he made in the House before the trial were worthy of his position as head of the Army Council, under which all officers in the Service come for disciplinary purposes?

Mr. Head

My statement to the House and my remarks were based on the court of inquiry and the G.O.C.-in-C.'s comments on the court of inquiry. Had I made no specific references to why Colonel Gleave was being tried, I do not think that the public or the House could have come to any conclusion other than that it was due to his own personal conduct in the treatment of Private Harrison. I attempted to make that clear. I would also point out that the holding of a court-martial is not necessarily a sign of misconduct by an officer; it provides an opportunity for an officer to clear his own conduct.

Mr. Stewart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are aspects of the case which are troubling the public mind a great deal more than the one which he has mentioned? Will he answer these questions? Who was responsible for the most improper disclosure of a medical report on Private Rosser in the course of the court-martial proceedings, and what disciplinary action is he taking against whoever was responsible?

Secondly, is he aware that the late Private Harrison was treated as an hysterical patient despite the fact that the diagnosis that he was an hysterical patient was only provisional, and that treating him in that way involved ill-treatment, and since it is established that Colonel Gleave was not responsible for the treatment, who was, and what action is to be taken?

Thirdly, can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that there will be no unjust treatment of two witnesses at the court-martial? Will he also explain why one of them, who is an expectant mother, is still in the Service?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points. I do not want to dodge anything in the House, nor do I wish to detain it too long. As regards the admissibility of certain documents, I have given the hon. Gentleman a long and full Written reply to his Question and I think that, when he has read it, he will find that it makes it abundantly clear how this arose.

As regards the diagnosis of Private Harrison, as I have already told the House, there was a fault, in my opinion on the evidence presented to me, arising out of the fact that the second thorough and statutory examination after admission was not made. That evidence has been reported to the appropriate professional bodies.

As to the cross-questioning of witnesses for the prosecution, the House will appreciate that in a court-martial it would be improper for the prosecution in any way to institute a state of affairs giving special protection for witnesses for the prosecution. The main case for the defence was concerned with the discrediting of the witnesses against Colonel Gleave. I do not think it was in my power to protect either Nurse Rosser or Private Nicholson in their position as witnesses.

Mr. Strachey

Would not the Secretary of State agree that the most serious consideration which arises is not so much the errors of an officer, medical or otherwise, in the hospital but evidence of a certain lack of common humanity in the application of Army regulations, against which, in themselves, there is nothing, evidence that in military hospitals the situation is not wholly satisfactory, as we have all felt? What action does the right hon. Gentleman propose to take on the wider issue of a greater degree of common humanity in these hospitals?

Mr. Head

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are in the wider aspects many problems with regard to the future of the Army medical service. I can assure him that no one is better aware of that than I and the Government are, and the matter is being considered. With reference to the application of the system, the House will appreciate that, once a diagnosis has been made and those who are acting on it are doing their duty, there is often a tendency to stick to the treatment which has been prescribed despite the fact that circumstances may suggest that it was false. It was due to the fact that this was not spotted earlier that the regrettable occurrence took place.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

Is it not wrong to try to pillory a medical specialist for making what he has admitted was an imperfect diagnosis? Is it not a fact that nearly every doctor has at some time or other made a wrong diagnosis?

Mr. Head

I should be the very first to agree about that, and it would be quite wrong for me to suggest that someone should be seriously taken to account for that type of error. What I am saying about the medical specialist in this case is that there is an examination on admission and it is statutory that another thorough examination should be made after admission, and it is because that thorough examination was never made that I have reported the officer.

Mr. H. Morrison

Arising from this experience, would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that it would be a good rule that when a court-martial is to be held the Secretary of State should not express a judgment on a person or on matters which are likely to be the subject of inquiry at the court-martial?

Mr. Head

My statement included the fact that Colonel Gleave would be court-martialled. I specified these charges because I thought that, if I had not specified them, it would have been assumed that he was being tried for his own personal conduct. I would add to what the right hon. Gentleman said that I said in my statement: … as far as I can ascertain…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1953; Vol. 516, c. 44.] That refers to the fact that the decision to have a court-martial was based on the court of inquiry, and I think those words … as far as I can ascertain.… did remove any suspicion that I was prejudging the case.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if all that this boils down to is the reporting of two medical people to the British Medical Association, it will not remove the very widespread public disquiet that exists over this case? Will he say what he is doing to avoid a repetition of similar cases in future in addition to reporting these two people to a medical committee, and to prevent any suspicion of victimisation will he order the release forthwith from the Army of the two witnesses concerned?

Mr. Head

I have reminded all hospitals that the existing procedure should be strictly adhered to in all cases of admissions. As far as the two individuals are concerned, they are now back in the Army as normal individuals, and I should not like to say anything further about them at the moment.

Mr. Lewis

The Secretary of State will be aware that there is great concern about this matter. Will he set up an independent, non-military committee of inquiry so that the public can be assured that there is no one in the War Office or anywhere else trying to cover up any wrongdoing that there may have been in connection with this case?

Mr. Head

If the hon. Gentleman reads my statement, which is based on the court of inquiry, he will not accuse anyone of trying to cover up anything. Furthermore, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the evidence that there have been mistakes in this case has been reported to the professional bodies, and I suggest that we await their comments on the facts.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

Reverting to the question put by the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton), will the Secretary of State make it clear that there is no question of reporting anyone to the British Medical Association or any body of that type. The body to which their conduct is being reported is not a medical body but a statutory body consisting of the highest authority in the land, both lay and medical.

Mr. Head

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Harold Davies

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when I put a Private Notice Question about this matter it was not with the intention of victimising the commanding officer or anyone else, but merely to try to see that our own National Service boys were guaranteed the maximum efficiency in the medical service if they were in hospital? Is he further aware that my figures show that the number of patients in the hospital has now increased from 150 to 450 and the staffing, apparently, is still the same as when there were only 150 patients there? If that is correct will the right hon. Gentleman endeavour to rectify the position.

Mr. Head

No, Sir, that is not correct. The medical officers and the subordinate nursing staff, consisting of R.A.M.C. and Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps other ranks, are at full strength. There is a deficiency of 18 nursing officers of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, which reflects the world-wide shortage. I am trying to increase recruits for that service, but at the moment I cannot increase it further.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

We cannot carry this further now.

Mr. M. Stewart

On a point of order. May I respectfully draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has not answered the last question I put to him? May we have an assurance that the two witnesses will be properly treated in the future?

Mr. Head

I have only one desire and that is to see that these particular witnesses are perfectly fairly treated.

Mr. Bellenger

In view of the necessity for further exploring this matter, I beg to give notice that I shall raise it again at an early opportunity.