HC Deb 18 June 1954 vol 528 cc2553-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. R. Allan.]

3.56 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I wish to take advantage of the Adjournment to raise the case of Private Edward George Whiten who was a National Service man attached to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I wish to acknowledge that I have had from the Under-Secretary of State for War a number of letters upon this case and I appreciate the thoroughness with which he has gone into it and the manner in which he has replied. If I am raising the case on the Adjournment it is, first, to make a plea on behalf of the victim of this tragedy and, secondly, to make a plea that more human consideration should be shown to the parents of men who are stricken down with disease when on service.

I can summarise very briefly the facts which I think are undisputed on both sides. Private Edward Whiten was a National Service man who was posted overseas in September, 1953. The place to which he was going was expected to be Korea, but in Japan he began to show some symptoms of disease and he was reported on 5th January of this year to be in the Army hospital there. On 22nd January the report came that he was in Netley Hospital near Southampton. Two months later he was examined by a leading consultant neurologist and was found to be suffering from torsion dystonia, an incurable disease. He was recommended for discharge from the Army on 29th March and was allowed to go to his home. The medical board has since met on the question of pension and has declined a pension on the ground that the disease did not arise from military service and had not been aggravated by it.

These concrete facts are the milestones of a very tragic story. I am making the plea that this story indicates that the War Office should give more human consideration to the parents of men who may suffer in this way. Torsion dystonia is not only an incurable disease but a very distressing one. I saw this boy yesterday. He was lying in his bed and was the victim of continuous contortions.

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. R. Allan.]

Mr. Brockway

I was saying that I saw this boy yesterday, lying in his bed in the front room of a council house and subject to almost continuous contortions. His arms were flung from one side to the other, his body was in continual movement, his head back on the pillow with his mouth open and he had difficulties of speech so great that one could hardly understand what he said. His stepfather, an honest-to-goodness working man, was there and his mother, a woman of extraordinary serenity and calm which indicated that she had found something of the secrets of the depth of human experience.

The first point I want to put to the representative of the War Office is that when a man who has been serving in the Forces reaches that stage of terrible tragedy, either the War Office or the regiment ought to send some communication to the parents expressing sympathy and regret about what has happened, but not a letter has been received by the parents either from the regiment or from the War Office about the terrible condition of that boy.

The second point I want to make is in reference to the failure of the War Office or the regiment to inform the parents, until a long period had passed, of the nature of the disease. From Japan the only information the parents had of the illness of the boy was this card I hold in my hand. Army form A2042a. It is a printed card bearing the regimental number and name of the boy, his company and battalion and just the printed word "sick" and the name of the doctor in the R.A.M.C. That was the only information the parents had from Japan of the illness.

They were naturally concerned and the mother wrote to the commanding officer, while the stepfather got in touch with the local Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Family Association. Not one further word came to the parents until 14 days after this boy had reached the hospital at Netley, in Southampton. The explanation of the War Office is that the boy was not seriously or dangerously ill and that he could have written himself or that nurses, Red Cross workers, or the padre in the hospital ward could have written for him.

I think it very doubtful indeed whether the boy was in a physical condition in hospital in Japan to write himself. He had written continuously to his parents; he had written from every port on the way to Japan. I find it difficult to believe that he would not have written in hospital if he had been able to do so. Yesterday it was pathetic to listen to his denials that he was able to write, trying to express himself, the obvious urgency in his mind.

The very fact that this boy was flown home suggests that in the hospital in Japan he was not in the condition in which he could write to his parents. In his letter to me, the Minister says that air evacuation is quite common for cases which are not serious, but which require either further treatment or convalescence in the United Kingdom. It was obvious that the illness must have been of such a character, even while Whiten was in hospital in Japan, that further treatment was necessary.

More than that, there is the evidence about the boy's condition when he arrived at the hospital at Netley. Can hon. Members imagine those parents going to that hospital, only having had the card to say that he was sick, and then at the hospital being warned for the first time that they must face a shock, and then seeing two orderlies bringing the boy down the corridor? The stepfather used the phrase that even while they were bringing him they "had to drag him," the contortions of his body being so great, and one orderly fell. That was the first knowledge the parents had that the boy was in such a condition. I say that if within three days of his arrival at Netley he was in that condition, the assumption is very great that he was not able to write at least for the later period of time that he was in hospital in Japan.

The other point I wish to raise is about the delay at Netley in calling in a consultant neurologist to examine this case. Whiten reached Netley on 22nd January, and it was not until 22nd March that the consultant neurologist was called in to examine him. I suggest that there was inexcusable delay, and that some regret for it should be expressed by the War Office.

I do not wish only to be critical of what has taken place. My greatest plea, and I hope the Minister will be able to hear my words, is that the boy should now be treated with some generosity. I think it very likely that the disease from which he suffers was inherent and did not arise from his Army service. I think that possible in view of the nature of the disease. But I plead with the Minister that, even if the pension which is ordinarily decided by a tribunal is not granted to this boy, in view of the experience which I have described, an ex gratia payment should be made to him.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, may I ask whether he can tell the House if this lad showed any symptoms of this disease in adolescence, or before he was examined?

Mr. Brockway

I understand not. I understand that previous to his service in the Army he had a clean health record and was passed Al when he joined the Army.

This case is going to appeal. The British Legion are representing the boy at the further hearing. But my appeal to the Minister is that, whatever may be the decision, in view of the circumstances which I have described the War Office has a moral responsibility to grant some payment to Whiten.

The last point I wish to raise is related to this. Two months ago Whiten's brother was called up for Army service. I wrote to the Minister and he immediately responded to my request that this boy should have a special examination in view of what had happened to his brother.

Then one Sunday morning, after the brother had been taken into the Army, the parents received a card identical with the one which they received in the case of Edward Whiten, Army form A2042a, Hospital Re-direction Card, Number, Name, Company, and "In hospital." One can imagine the shock that was to the parents.

I am not complaining because when I rang up the hospital at Oxford I found that the boy was under a week's observation there as a result of the suggestions which I had made to the Minister. But what I am suggesting is that, in view of the record which I have described in the case of the elder brother, someone in the regiment or in the War Office should have had sufficient imagination to understand the shock and the distress which the parents would suffer when they saw an identical card about the younger boy.

Though I am raising this matter on only one case, I am hoping that my plea will be heard by the War Office, and that some means can be found in the War Office and in the regiment to show more consideration for parents whose sons may become the victims of the kind of disease which I have described.

4.12 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I remember that when I was a subaltern 10 or 15 of my platoon were killed in one period of 10 days. After my day's work, one of my duties, so it seemed to me, was to write a letter to the next-of-kin whose name was in the book found on the boy's body.

I am bound to say that I do not see how the vast machinery of the Armed Forces can catch up with all individual cases like this, at least not through the War Office. Everybody knows how slow the War Office is, perhaps inevitably. But good is done when an hon. Member like the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) raises a painful case like this, because it may serve to remind all officers, padres, nurses and doctors of their duty, apart from their daily task, to think of the parents at home, and, when they can, to write a sympathetic letter to them.

As soon as I heard of this case—when the hon. Gentleman let me know about it—I saw to it that the British Legion put in an appeal. The machinery for that is now proceeding, and we shall represent the boy at the appeal tribunal. To that extent, the question of whether he will get a pension, or whether the case will be recognised as one attributable to or aggravated by war service, is sub judice.

It only remains for me to add my own personal sorrow at hearing of such a sad case, if one can share with the parents the very real grief which it must have been for them.

4.14 p.m.

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

I think that the most convenient way of replying to the points made by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) in connection with this unhappy case is, first, to outline the measures and the system which the Army authorities have for informing next-of-kin when any soldier is admitted to hospital. In all battle casualties and in all cases of soldiers being seriously or dangerously ill, or whenever a soldier loses a limb or an eye, notification to the next-of-kin is automatic. Notification to the next-of-kin is also sent if it is felt that the soldier is incapable at that time of making a decision as to whether or not he should write himself. With the exception of those categories of casualties, in all other cases the soldier is left to decide for himself whether or not he wishes to inform his next-of-kin.

It does not need a very lively imagination to think of a great number of cases in which a soldier would prefer that his next-of-kin was not informed, and for us, under such circumstances, to decide that, nevertheless, we were going to inform the next-of-kin would almost enter into the realm of interference in a mild way with the liberty of the subject.

When a soldier is not in those serious categories of illness or casualty which I have outlined, he is, as soon as he is admitted to hospital, asked whether he wants his next-of-kin to be informed and whether he proposes to do it himself. If he is in a weak, tired condition in which he is not able or does not want to do it himself, it is done for him.

As soon as he has made his decision, the card which the hon. Member had in his hand is sent by the authorities. It is, of course, a brief card, because on a card of that kind notifying admission to hospital it is not possible to go into the surrounding circumstances in the way the soldier would want to go into them if he himself decided to write.

The card having been sent by the authorities, the soldier is left, with help from the nursing staff, Red Cross visitors or padres, who did, in fact, visit this soldier while he was in hospital in Japan, to write if he wishes. Whether it be done by them or him, the details and the way in which he wishes to break the news is left to him. If he states that he is unwilling that information should be sent to his next-of-kin, he is asked to sign a refusal book. That is the procedure which was carefully and faithfully followed in the case of Private Whiten.

I have searched my mind in connection not only with this case but many others also, as to whether there is anything seriously wrong with the system. On the question of the commanding officer of the unit writing, it is possible that he may sometimes do so, but this man, unfortunately, fell, so to speak, between two stools, because the unit which he would have joined in Korea would quite possibly have written if all this had developed in Korea, but he went into hospital in Japan.

Mr. Brockway

Might I suggest that something should be done in a case like that when the commanding officer of the man's regiment is elsewhere? Surely someone should write from Japan in a case like this when a man is on the way to a regiment in Korea.

Mr. Hutchison

I have informed the hon. Gentleman that while the man was in hospital he could have taken advantage of the good offices of the nursing staff if he did not himself wish to write and wanted someone else to do it. There were also the padre and Red Cross visitors. In the normal course of events, they are only too willing to carry out such a task.

Let us now look at the man's history. Except for some very minor details, the hon. Gentleman has outlined the story faithfully and correctly. The man enlisted in May, 1952, as a Regular and not as a National Service man. Until he was posted abroad, which was more than a year later, his medical documents showed no serious sickness or admission to hospital. He was posted to Korea in September, 1953, and he arrived in Japan on 11th December of that year. He reported sick on 21st December. He was admitted to hospital suffering from a nervous complaint which, at that time, was not adjudged to be serious.

I am not a medical man, but I have inquired carefully into the symptoms at that stage. I am given to understand that the symptoms do not in 99 cases out of 100 turn out to be torsion dystonia, happily. It is a rare complaint and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to diagnose in the very early stages. Certain organic changes have to take place before that type of tic can be accurately diagnosed.

Dr. H. Morgan (Warrington)

No diagnosis was made in that case?

Mr. Hutchison

A diagnosis was available at a very early stage of the illness. The soldier was admitted to hospital suffering from a nervous complaint, which, at that stage, was not considered serious. It was considered to be a complaint which would benefit from psychiatric treatment, so he was sent home to the headquarters of our psychiatric treatment at Netley Hospital. He was sent home by air on 13th January for treatment and further observation.

Meantime, the parents had been informed of his entry into hospital, but the soldier himself had not written, nor had the various agents, to which I have already referred, written either. A letter from the stepfather was received by the unit in Korea, but, since the man had not arrived, no one was able to answer the letter, and no letter was received at the hospital.

The welfare organisations of Great Britain had been trying to find out about this on behalf of the parents, and they received a signal from Japan about his evacuation and informed the parents. Private Whiten arrived in this country and was taken to Netley Hospital on 23rd January, and his parents were informed at once.

Mr. Brockway

The communication which informed the parents from the welfare organisation was received 14 days after the boy was back in this country.

Mr. Hutchison

I shall have to check up on that point. The welfare organisation was inquiring from the unit in Korea, and eventually the news came back by means of this signal, and they informed the parents, perhaps at that time. I do not know; I shall look into it.

The parents, as I said, were notified of the change of hospital, and, later, a specialist diagnosed torsion dystonia. I have already referred to the difficulty of earlier diagnosis of that complaint. During the time he was at Netley, his parents had every facility to see him, including free rail warrants and concessional travel vouchers, and so on. The parents saw the specialist, and I understand that they were satisfied with the treatment and consideration which they received. During February and March, various treatments were tried, and then the parents decided to take the soldier home and nurse him themselves; otherwise, the treatment would have been continued, either by the military or the National Health Service authorities. He was discharged from the Army by a medical board on 29th March, and was taken home on Friday, 2nd April.

The question of a pension is one for the Ministry of Pensions; it is not the responsibility of the War Office, but it is under consideration at the present time. I myself hope, speaking personally, that it will be determined successfully, but there are no funds available in the War Office for an ex gratia payment in a case of this kind. The parents have been visited by a welfare officer of the Ministry of Pensions, and have also been visited by a representative of S.S.A.F.A. and the British Red Cross Society, which has supplied certain nursing equipment to help them. The welfare officer of the Ministry of Pensions is available to advise on the use of such facilities as are available under the National Health Service.

Finally, on the question of Private Whiten's brother being called up, he was sent for a thorough medical examination, probably at the request of the hon. Member. Here, I must go back for a moment to the system once again. The hospital redirection card was sent, and I think there might have been a little more imagination used by somebody. It would be better if the card had stated that this was only a routine inspection. I should like to agree there.

I do not know whether machinery can be evolved for similar circumstances, for this is a very special case. The brother was examined by the same neurologist who, I am glad to say, can find nothing wrong, neurologically or otherwise, with the brother, who has been discharged from hospital with a clean bill of health. All I can say is that if the brother comes under orders to go overseas, he can apply for retention in this country, and I will undertake that such an application will be considered sympathetically at that time in the light of all the circumstances then ruling.

I was as moved as was anybody else in listening to the hon. Member's description of this boy's suffering and I should like to add my sympathy for the parents in the anxieties which they have endured and my tribute to them for the brave way in which they are bearing their distress. This is one of those sad cases which life occasionally throws up of a young man being attacked by a dangerous disease, but upon my conscience, looking back over the story, I cannot see what more we could have done or that the disease could have been avoided.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I knew nothing about this matter before the debate started, but I have listened to the debate. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider looking into the question of the cards which apparently are sent, for there appears to be a certain degree of what one might almost call brutal frankness and abruptness in them. I quite realise the difficulties of large organisations involving millions of men which have to get their business done quickly and as briefly as possible, but would my hon. Friend consider looking at the question of this card? I have not had the advantage of seeing it.

Would he consider whether some other form cannot be devised so that the machinery which he has described—and on the face of it I do not see much flaw in that machinery—can follow the same fundamental course but, at the same time, this abrupt language can be modified?

Mr. Hutchison

I will look into that, but it should be remembered that this card is only part of the system. The card is brusque; it ends, I think, by saying that the man is not seriously ill. On the other hand, not long ago in the House we had a complaint following a case in which an attempt had been made on the card to say more than that. It was the case of a lad who was described in the card as suffering from multiple injuries. In fact, he had dislocated a finger and bruised another. They were multiple injuries, because there was a number of them, but it was misleading.

Bearing in mind the difficulty of saying on the card something which might involve a long story, I will look further into the matter.

4.29 p.m.

Dr. H. Morgan (Warrington)

I am sorry that I am so late in intervening in the debate, but I wanted first to hear the whole case.

It is clear from the debate, I think, that the Under-Secretary of State has scope for a revision of the whole system dealing with these cases, and I hope it will be reviewed with the aid of those people who know something about this problem. I know of men who deal with nothing else but this sort of case and I do not think they have ever been called in by the War Office. Unfortunately, official Departments have a tendency to live in their own little surroundings and never to leave them.

Torsion dystonia is a very special form of nervous disease associated with war service. I think the whole system linking the War Office with the military hospitals and the military hospitals with the psychologists and psychiatrists—which requires very special and sympathetic handling—could do with a thorough review by the Department, and I hope that, taking this case as a basis, the hon. Member will look into the matter to see whether he can review the whole system and do something for cases of this sort.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.