HC Deb 27 November 1953 vol 521 cc728-36

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

3.59 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I wish to raise the case of the dismissal of a constituent of mine from the Territorial Army. He is Mr. R. Parrington of 21, Spekeland Vale, Liverpool, and his Territorial Army unit was the 14th Mixed Signal Regiment A.A., Woolton, Liverpool.

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. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Mr. Irvine

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for War for being here to deal with this matter this afternoon. I have had the advantage of a discussion of the case with him and he was, as he always is, most considerate about it, but he was not able to do what I rather hoped he would do, and I am taking up the case because it seems to me to raise considerations of some importance in principle.

It is the general desire of us all that men should be encouraged to join the Territorial Army in as great numbers as possible. They will not do so if it becomes known that they run any risk of unreasonable or arbitrary dismissal for wrongs which the ordinary reasonable person would agree warranted only a minor penalty. In my view, that is the misfortune which has befallen my constituent Mr. Parrington.

I understand that Mr. Parrington had 17 years' service in the Territorial Army. That was in addition to six years' war service in North Africa, where he served in the Eighth Army. It is a record to be proud of, as everyone will agree, stretching over a considerable period of time—a record worthy of the highest respect. Mr. Parrington was selected this year to represent his unit in lining the route at the Coronation.

It is a curious reflection that if he had not been chosen for that honour, the trouble that he got into would never have occurred. What happened was this. While he was in Chester, between 26th and 29th May, training for his duties in London at the Coronation, he had an altercation with a military policeman. Arising from this incident a charge was made against him in the camp at Chester, and at that stage it was a charge of refusing to obey an order. There was nothing then said about bad language having been used. The matter was considered and it was decided to refer it to his unit in Liverpool.

Mr. Parrington then proceeded to London and, with others, he lined the route at the parades in connection with the Coronation of Her Majesty. He took his place with the rest, and he is a proud and happy man to have been there. He was later charged, as I am informed, on his return to Liverpool, with using obscene language, creating disorder and failing to obey an order, all arising out of this single incident at Chester. He tells me that he understood that he was given the right to elect to be tried by court-martial. On that point there seems to have been a misunderstanding, because I am informed by the War Office that there was in this case no right of election.

The next thing that happened was that he was dismissed from this force, in which he had served for so long. The 17 years' service which he had given and the additional distinguished war service did not weigh in his favour against the alleged offence. I say that that was unreasonable, and that the penalty did not fit the crime. This is the kind of incident which, if it occurred too often and it became too widely known that it could occur, would have a bad effect upon enlistment.

I am told that there had been previous incidents affecting Mr. Parrington, and the Under-Secretary of State has been very courteous and frank about that. But I hope that too much will not be made of these incidents, because they occurred before his selection by his unit to represent it at the Coronation. As a matter of history, I understand that he lost a stripe as a result of trouble which occurred in 1950 at his camp in Felixstowe. But that incident and any other past incidents in his record were not regarded as disqualifying him from the very high honour of representing his unit at the Coronation.

Another point of some importance is that, as I understand, after the latest of these incidents—except for the one with which I am now dealing—he signed on for a further four-year period. That, surely, was the opportunity for his commanding officer or the authorities to represent that, for reasons that could have been then conveniently explained, it was undesirable for him to sign on for a further period, but no such indication was made to Mr. Parrington. No such steps which, in that context, could have been taken conveniently and discreetly, were taken. In my view, it follows that when Mr. Parrington went to represent his unit at the Coronation the position was that any difficulties which had arisen before had been forgiven him, and it was recognised that he was worthy to have this honour in view of the length and distinction of his service.

A commanding officer of a Territorial Army unit possesses—as he must possess—a power of dismissal, but it would be generally agreed to be in the public interest that that power should always be exercised with discretion. In this case it may well be that the commanding officer found himself in a difficulty. I am anxious to see every point of view, because this is a matter of real interest and public concern, and it would be most undesirable if I were to disregard the possibility that the commanding officer found himself in a real difficulty. I concede that he may have thought an admonition too mild a penalty for what occurred. I am not seeking to minimise the importance of what did occur, although I do say that it did not justify the penalty which was imposed.

It may be that the commanding officer thought that admonishment was too mild a penalty, and that to send the case to court-martial would, from the point of view of practical administration, give rise to certain difficulties and inconvenience. We are now told that the accused man had no right to elect to be tried by court-martial, although he thought he was given the opportunity to do so. In the circumstances the commanding officer may have reflected that the only option remaining was the penalty of dismissal. It may be—and I would appreciate it if the Under-Secretary and his Department would consider this aspect—that it would be desirable that a commanding officer, without sending a case for court-martial, should be able to impose a penalty, subject to a right of appeal, intermediary between an admonition and dismissal.

I am told that there is a good deal of interest throughout the Territorial Army and, perhaps, particularly among commanding officers and potential commanding officers, on the point, and I am informed—and the hon. Gentleman may be in a position to corroborate that this general interest exists—that commanding officers of Territorial Army units would, in many instances, welcome the circulation of a statement indicating what they should do and what the right course is for them to follow in cases in which admonition appears too light a penalty and dismissal from the Service far too heavy a one.

Meanwhile, Mr. Parrington has suffered what I will call, with all consideration for the arguments that can be brought forward to support a contrary view, an entirely unreasonable penalty, when the length and the merits of his service are borne in mind. The matter of principle to which I have referred does arise in the case. I hope it can be regarded as a matter of general public interest. I should be glad indeed to hear that the Under-Secretary of State would consider again the possibility of the reinstatement of Mr. Parrington in the Territorial Army, having regard to the considerations I have brought to his attention, and I shall be glad if he has any observations to offer on the wider field of the difficulties and anomalies that this case seems to disclose in the matter of a commanding officer's power to impose a penalty appropriate to the scale of an offence.

4.12 p.m.

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

In this case I want to try to walk delicately, because while I must meet the criticism that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has levelled at the War Department, and, incidentally, at the commanding officer, I am anxious to do the minimum of damage to the reputation of Mr. Parrington. The hon. Gentleman regards this particular case as a matter of principle, and bases his argument on the theory that dismissal was an unreasonable penalty for the misdemeanour which it followed.

Right at the outset I think I should say that a commanding officer of the Territorial Army has at all times, without a misdemeanour being committed—and must always have—the right to dispense with the services of somebody he thinks is no longer of advantage or doing good to his unit, or to the Territorial Army in general. So one must divorce from one's mind the penalty, the action of dismissal, from the seriousness of any particular incident which came before. I can imagine a number of very trivial incidents, each one following upon another, which would certainly have justified me, I should have felt, when I was a commanding officer of a Territorial unit, in saying, "This man is no longer any good to my unit, good chap though he may be."

Before I come to the more detailed side of this particular case, let me just take up this point. The hon. Gentleman in all our discussions of this case has been most reasonable, and I think he feels sincerely that justice has gone off the rails, just as I feel sincerely that it has not. The point about commanding officers of Territorial units having powers intermediate between those of admonition and dismissal seems to be very suitable for him to put before the Select Committee which is revising the Army Act at the present time and dealing with questions very analagous to this. There he would get the suggestion fully considered.

It is perfectly true that this soldier had 17 years' service with the Territorial Army. He enlisted in 1936, was embodied with the Territorial Army when it was called up, and served in the Middle East between 1942 and 1945. He was released in 1946 to go to the Reserve, still a private, and re-enlisted in the Territorial Army a year later, in 1947. He was awarded the 1939–45 Star, the Africa Star and the Territorial Efficiency Medal; the grant of the last medal depends on carrying out a correct number of drills and has no particular relation to conduct, although I do not say there can be anything derogatory in having gained it—very much the reverse. His military conduct was assessed at that time as excellent, but I think, myself, that that was being distinctly generous, because there were already, over the period 1940–44, four entries in his conduct sheet the details of which I do not want to go into here and now.

It was only in 1949 that Parrington attained the rank of corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals, and this promotion depended to a very great extent upon his proficiency as a tradesman. There is no doubt that as a tradesman he was reasonably efficient. In 1950, which is after the period when the hon. Member suggested that some sort of warning or criticism might have taken place when he was signing on again for another period, he was given a further chance; he was promoted temporary sergeant. But, as the hon. Member has indicated, there was an incident, let us call it, at camp which involved the loss of a stripe, and he became a corporal again.

Mr. Irvine

I understood that the signing on occurred after that incident. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that it was before the incident?

Mr. Hutchison

I have not the date here. He signed on again in 1949.

Mr. Irvine

I understand that he signed on again after the incident at Felixstowe in 1950.

Mr. Hutchison

I am not sure that it is important, in any case. In his commanding officer's view, Parrington's conduct, for some reason which the commanding officer cannot explain and which I certainly cannot explain, appeared to deteriorate from that point and he became a constant source of trouble and seemed to group around him others who were not the best of influences in the unit.

We come to the main incident upon which the hon. Member has founded his accusation—the question of the choice for the Coronation. In allocating these duties, which were a form of honour for the Territorial Army, we tried to apportion them in such a way that the different arms and the different services had their fair share and, within those arms and services, each unit and each rank in a unit got its reasonable entitlement. It generally worked out fairly and squarely, but every now and again there was a case where it did not work out quite in the way in which we had intended. This was one of the cases. This unit had an entitlement of one corporal and there was only one corporal who could in fact accept it. I cannot accept the suggestion that there was a tremendous competition among corporals in the unit for this honour of going to the Coronation to help to line the roads when, in fact, there was nobody else but Parrington who could go.

On rehearsal for the Coronation ceremony he was warned that the highest possible standard of conduct would be expected, that they would be very much in the limelight, very much in the public eye, and that the world, in its way, would have its eyes turned upon them. Yet, in spite of that, this incident occurred in which obscene language was used to a sergeant in the Corps of Military Police. It is true that there were no witnesses either one way or the other; the only people who were called as witnesses could not give any corroborative evidence because they had not heard the words clearly. The commanding officer was left to judge between the word of the sergeant of the military police and that of Corporal Parrington, and he chose and believed the word of the sergeant of police, particularly as Parrington had already contradicted himself in connection with this case.

I have told this story, which I was reluctant to tell, because it really was the case of the last straw breaking the camel's back. It was not a case of dismissing this man because he had on this occasion used obscene language, but because there had been a series of incidents all boiling up to the point where the commanding officer said to himself, "I am very sorry, but taking everything into account—17 years' service and service in the Middle East and all the in- cidents that have taken place in the past—I think that on balance I would do better without him."

Nobody likes to get rid of a soldier who has served for 17 years in public service. Apart from that, we are extremely short of N.C.O.'s, and the last thing that a commanding officer of the Territorial Army wants to do is light-heartedly to get rid of any N.C.O. in his unit for whom he could find the least use But there comes a time when a man may no longer be of use to him. In this case, the commanding officer came to that conclusion, and, having examined it all carefully, I am bound to say that I still think that he was right.

Mr. Irvine

Will the hon. Gentleman deal with one point? No one desires to be critical of the commanding officer, but surely he would agree that to select a corporal to represent his unit at the Coronation parade merely because he was the only corporal available and despite what, it is suggested, was a bad record would be a serious error on the part of the commanding officer.

Mr. Hutchison

The commanding officer is not in a position to say yes or no. In the Army on an occasion like this the commanding officer is instructed to send so many rank and file, so many sergeants and so many corporals, and he just has to obey.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Four o'Clock