HC Deb 05 April 1955 vol 539 cc1135-42

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

10.13 p.m.

Mr. E. A. Hardy (Salford, East)

I make no apology for raising this very important human question. I could have presented a Petition to this House containing thousands of names of people protesting to the War Office about the treatment meted out to the family of the deceased, Private Laffin. But I preferred to ballot for the Adjournment, because I felt that I should get more satisfaction from telling the War Office what Mr. Laffin's parents think about it than by presenting a Petition.

Like many other hon. Members, I have been called upon from time to time to help in recruiting campaigns for the Territorial Army or the Home Guard or some other service; and I am now faced with the fact that when a Service man died in Germany it cost his relatives £143 15s. to bring his body to this country so that he might be buried in his own land. I think that it is disgraceful.

I felt very keen and very sore at the cool, calculating attitude of the War Office when I had occasion to speak to it with regard to bringing home from Germany the body of this ex-Service man. I was told that the War Office had nothing to do with the repatriation of the bodies of ex-Service men, and that it was the responsibility of an outside organisation.

It is disgraceful for the War Office to say that to a Member of Parliament while it is encouraging people to engage in National Service and discouraging them from being conscientious objectors. Although service in Germany is scheduled as home service, I was told that an outside organisation is responsible for making the necessary arrangements for ex-Service men who die there to be buried in their own country.

I have put down four Questions in connection with this matter and it was not my fault that I did not receive oral replies but had to be satisfied with written ones. After I made several inquiries I found—I was not told; I had to make my own inquiries—that there had been an inquest and a post-mortem. I was told by the War Office that the person concerned had died from natural causes. "Natural causes" can mean many different things.

In view of the unsatisfactory reply which I received in this matter, and the very unfair treatment which has been meted out to the relatives of this ex-Service man, I feel entitled to raise the matter upon the Floor of this House. It has come to my knowledge, unofficially—and we sometimes have to rely upon unofficial information—that this man was forced to go upon a route march on the day that he died; that he fell out, and was made to continue.

I heard unofficially that Colour Sergeant Massey, the man who was responsible for Laffin being forced to continue on the route march, was placed under close arrest. I tried to obtain some confirmation of this statement, which was given to the parents. I contacted the Salford police, who made all the necessary inquiries.

Hon. Members can appreciate how disturbing this kind of thing is to parents. This decision of the War Office has caused consternation in many areas. I have letters—which I do not want to read—from all parts of the country, complaining about the treatment which is meted out to the relatives of soldiers who have either been killed or have died in Trieste, Germany or somewhere else, whereby those parents have been called upon to pay £300 to bring their sons' bodies back to be buried in their own country. That is not playing the game by Englishmen.

I imagine that aeroplanes must be flying every hour of the day from Germany to this country, and I see no necessity for the War Office to be responsible for imposing a £93 transport charge for bringing the body here by B.E.A. It could have done it with its own transport at a much reduced cost.

These are working-class people, called upon to find £143 15s., and they are entitled to an assurance from the War Office that some attention will be given to preventing a repetition of this case. I can say a great deal more about it, but I do not know that it would help. When parents have to pay the cost of these arrangements to British Railways and B.E.A., as well as to the funeral undertakers, they have the right to be satisfied that they are paying £143 15s. to bury their own lad. They should not be deprived of the opportunity of knowing whether it was he or someone else that was in the coffin.

My object in raising this matter is that the War Office shall accept some responsibility, without pushing the matter out to the Record Office at Preston because this soldier happened to be in the Manchester Regiment. I want the War Office to accept responsibility and to make better arrangements. It should not be so cold and heartless as to inform people, whether they be relatives or Members of this House, that it has nothing to do with the matter because an outside organisation is dealing with it. I hope that the War Office will do something to ease the minds of people who sustain these losses. It ought to be more reasonable and gentle in such cases in the future.

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

The hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Hardy) has raised two questions. First of all is the special case of Private Laffin, with which I will deal in detail, and the second is the general question of repatriation of the bodies of soldiers who die abroad.

The hon. Member says that the War Office behaved in a heartless way in this case. I refute that statement very strongly, as indeed it was refuted by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Wyatt) when he held my present appointment, and when the same charge, expressed in almost the same words, was levelled against him by one of his hon. Friends.

The War Office is not heartless. On the contrary, our approach to this whole question is sympathetic. We realise what a tragedy it is bound to be for a soldier's relatives when he dies and is buried overseas. We have given a great deal of careful thought to the whole matter but it has not been possible to find a satisfactory alternative to the existing procedure.

It has been the practice in the fighting Services for a great many years that men who are killed or who die overseas should be buried by their comrades near the place of death in the country where they die. As anyone knows who has attended one, a military funeral is both reverent and impressive. It constitutes a tribute by the Army to the dead comrade. The graves are in the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and again, anyone who has visited a military or war cemetery anywhere overseas knows how beautifully kept they are, and how everything is done to make them the sort of places which the bereaved relations would expect them to be.

During the war, of course, there was no question of repatriating the bodies of soldiers who were killed or who died abroad. That did not arise. After the war, the possibility of repatriating the bodies of all soldiers who died or who were killed overseas was very carefully considered. One thing became clear immediately; the practice could not be confined to any one country or continent. Either we had to bring back the bodies of all soldiers wherever they died—whether it was in the Far East or quite near—or bring back none. Exceptions could not be made. We could not say, "We are going to bring back the bodies of soldiers who die or are killed in Europe but not the bodies of those who die further away."

Quite clearly, to bring back the bodies of all British soldiers, sailors and airmen who die anywhere in the world, even were it desirable—and it is possible to make out a strong case against that as a general practice—would involve a very considerable expenditure of public funds and very considerable administrative difficulties. It was for those reasons and against that background that the decision was taken to adhere to the present procedure.

Perhaps I might say exactly what the present procedure is. When a soldier dies or is killed abroad, the first step is that the next of kin are informed of his death, first by telegram as soon as is humanly possible, secondly by an official letter, and also by a letter from the soldier's commanding officer to his next of kin. Normally, the military authorities then arrange for a military funeral locally. The hon. Member said something about our accepting no responsibility, but in that case—which is the normal case—we accept full response- bility. As I have said, the ceremony is an impressive one, and the graves are well cared for and looked after by the Imperial War Graves Commission.

Mr. Hardy

The reason I said that was because I had in my hand the account, which includes the item, "fee paid to the War Office for the coffin, £12 10s." The War Office even charged for the coffin provided to bring this man home, and it has the money.

Mr. Maclean

If, on the other hand, the relatives wish to have the body brought back, then the procedure is rather different. The military authorities ensure, first of all, that the body is properly coffined, and they hand over the coffin and the documents to the agents appointed by the next of kin. In those circumstances, the War Department does not bear the cost of repatriation, for the reason which I have given.

Although we do not do that, we make every effort to find means of reducing the cost. Once the body is handed over to the agents appointed by the next of kin, however, it ceases to be our responsibility and passes into the control of the private firm appointed by the next of kin. We do our best to advise relatives of soldiers on how they can best make arrangements, but we have no control over the firms in question and we cannot accept responsibility for what they charge.

If it is an ordinary coffin, the coffin is provided free, and in either case—whether the soldier is buried abroad or at home—the next of kin receives the National Insurance death grant of up to £20. If a special coffin is needed for air travel in order to meet the special requirements of the Ministry of Health, or for other reasons, then a special coffin is provided; and that was the case in this instance. But normally it is the responsibility of the War Department to provide a suitable coffin and to ensure—

Mr. Hardy

And to charge for it.

Mr. Maclean

Not to charge for it. Only to charge for it if air travel is necessary and a special coffin is needed to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Health.

Another question which we have considered in order to try to make things easier for the next of kin is that of the attendance of the relatives at funerals overseas. As hon. Members will know, when soldiers die in the United Kingdom, two relatives are allowed to travel to the funeral at public expense. We considered the possibility of extending that arrangement to funerals abroad, but it would not be just a question of extending those facilities to Europe, but all over the world. It would involve air passages to the Far East and remote places, and the charge to public funds would be excessive. We, therefore, had to limit ourselves to doing everything we can to keep down the costs and to give all possible help to relatives who decide to travel out to the funeral.

I should like to mention the details of the specific case of the late Private Laffin. The hon. Member said that in this case we behaved unfairly, but it would have been very unfair indeed if we had made an exception in the case of his constituent whilst not bringing back the bodies of other soldiers who died in other parts of the world. In his Questions and his letter to me, the hon. Member raised only the question of repatriation of the body. He did not give me any indication of the points which he would raise in this Adjournment debate.

So far, in what I have seen, there has been no suggestion whatever of any ill-treatment of Private Laffin, or any suggestion that he was insufficiently or inadequately cared for. If the hon. Member will let me have details, I shall be glad to look into the case. My information is that he died of an acute sudden attack of nephritis, a kidney disease.

He died on 20th February and, on 22nd February, the hon. Member got in touch with my private office. On the same day, the parents were put in touch with the Record Office at Preston, and on the next day the parents asked for repatriation of the body. Two days later, on 25th February, the remains left Berlin by air. All the administrative arrangements had been made by then by the military authorities. I really do not think there is any cause for complaint, especially on the score of promptitude. I do not think arrangements could have been made more quickly or more smoothly.

I have riot been able to add very much to the arguments which have been advanced from this Box under both this Administration and the previous one, and which are as valid now as they were under the previous Administration. We have given much thought to this question and consider it better from every point of view that soldiers who die abroad should be buried where they die, or are killed. If the next of kin desire their bodies to he brought back, we do not feel able to resist their wishes in that respect. For the reasons I have given, we do not pay for the repatriation out of public funds, but, short of that, we do everything in our power to help.

Mr. Hardy

It amounts to this, that people who cannot afford to bring their sons home must have them buried abroad, but people who are well off and can afford to do so can provide the facilities to bring their sons home. Because others are poor, it is a class distinction exercised by the War Office which penalises parents who cannot afford to bring their sons home to be buried in their own country. That is my interpretation of the matter.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.