HC Deb 01 December 1955 vol 546 cc2657-64

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Williams (Don Valley)

This is the first time in twenty-five or thirty years that I have raised in the House a matter on the Motion for Adjournment. I do so now only because I think that the War Office and the Secretary of State have been most unreasonable and lacking in humanity, and have acted without regard to the best interests of the nation and National Service men in particular.

The case that I want to raise concerns a National Service man who joined the R.A.F. on 16th February, 1954, as a volunteer for three years' service. I want to emphasise the fact that he volunteered for service. Unfortunately, after six days he was discharged as unfit, with ear trouble, but after a few weeks he was sent for by the Army and was sent to Sheffield. He visited Sheffield Barracks, which is some sixteen miles from home, on no fewer than six occasions. Finally he was sent to a specialist at a Sheffield hospital, but all this time his ear continued to discharge.

Nevertheless, this young man was called up by the Army for service in August, 1954. His medical category was so low that his service was restricted to temperate climates. He constantly complained of pain in his ear which got worse rather than better. But with the usual generosity of the Army, so far as I can make out, he was called up in August and was sent to Germany in January, 1955. To add to his trouble with his ear, he picked up, in Germany, some sort of skin disease which apparently baffled all the medical authorities within the Army.

He told me that he suffered agony, especially with his ear, week after week, but the medical officers in the Army could make no progress towards solving his problem. In these circumstances, what use could this young man be to the Army, racked as he was all the time with pain and anxiety, and deteriorating rather than improving?

I brought these facts to the notice of the Secretary of State for War early this summer, and I suggested that this young man might be released on medical grounds so that he could seek outside medical treatment. I thought that if he consulted a civilian specialist he might avoid further deterioration, and that it might be possible to secure a cure for his trouble. But that was not to be.

I received the following letter from the Secretary of State for War on 22nd July: Dear Williams … Driver Newman has been admitted to hospital and given a thorough examination. His medical category remains unchanged as a result. This restricts his service to temperate climates only. I would draw attention to that last sentence. There is no doubt about his medical category or his restricted service.

The letter goes on: The ear and skin conditions of which Driver Newman complains are neither serious nor disabling and there are at present no medical grounds for his discharge from the Army, nor is there any need for him to be released to receive medical attention. It should be remembered that the ear troubled has persisted since 16th February, 1954, and that the letter I received was dated 22nd July, 1955. From the latest medical examinations in hospital, there had apparently been no improvement to date. However, the Minister said in his letter … nor is there any need for him to be released to receive medical attention. I have been in the House for thirty-three years and have received all kinds of letters from all sorts of Ministers, but never have I received a letter showing less human sympathy than that one. If that is the sort of humane interest that the Secretary of State for War shows in the men for whom he, at the top, is responsible, what can one expect from the lower orders?

It is a scandal that a young man who volunteered for service in the R.A.F. in February, 1954, but who, unfortunately, had a physical disability and who was later called up by the Army, should be treated in this fashion. Probably because I put down two Questions to the Secretary of State for War in July, the medical officer saw this soldier no fewer than five times in August. He was in hospital in September, on 25th October, and, finally, before my Questions could be answered, he was in hospital on 15th November.

In reply to a Question, the Under-Secretary of State for War said that by this time the skin disease had cleared up and that the ear trouble had been dis- posed of. The point I wish to emphasise is that despite the fact that this young man was discharged from the Royal Air Force because of ear trouble, the Army called him up and he was kept in the Service. What kind of a soldier he has been during his service, I cannot imagine. He has been racked with pain and filled with anxiety about his physical future.

I cannot believe that it was right for the Minister to detain this man all these months. It may be that in the past month or two there has been an improvement in his physical condition, but that is no justification for the Secretary of State for War keeping him in the Army and declaring that there is no need for him to be released in order to receive medical attention.

For seventeen months the Army medical authorities tried to treat this man's disability, but they all failed and the pain continued. I have raised this matter tonight because, if it proves anything at all, it proves, to me, at all events, that the Secretary of State for War is unfit to be in charge of young men called up for National Service. I wish to protest as violently as I can against the treatment meted out to this young man.

11.40 p.m.

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

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Don Valley (Mr. T. Williams) has made some very strong accusations against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, against the Army and against the War Office. He said that they are lacking in humanity and are unfit to carry out their duties. In order to put this case in its proper perspective, I cannot help feeling that it would be useful if I were to start by giving a full account of the events which have taken place in chronological order and so clear up a number of misapprehensions on questions of fact.

Driver Newman came before a medical board of the Ministry of Labour in December, 1953, preparatory to call-up. On that occasion he told the board that he had had recurrent skin trouble and he also said that he had never suffered from any discharge or running from the ears. After communicating with Driver Newman's own doctor, the board placed him in Grade 1 on 6th January, 1954, and he was then called up for the Royal Air Force. As the right hon. Gentleman said, shortly afterwards he was discharged, and I understand that the reason for that was that he had contracted ear trouble. That is a matter for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air, but my information is that he was discharged because he had contracted ear trouble. I would point out that the Royal Air Force and the Army have different standards of fitness in certain respects.

Driver Newman was given a further medical examination, again by the Ministry of Labour, in May, 1954. He was examined in particular by an ear specialist, and this time he was placed in Grade 3. That was in June, 1954. In July, 1954, he was given yet another examination by the Ministry of Labour and the grading was confirmed, and he was graded as fit for any form of service in temperate climates only. On 16th September he joined the Army. He was given further routine medical examinations on 21st September and on 20th November. There were found to be no significant changes in his state of health, although he was given a new pair of spectacles.

Quite clearly during these months, in the course of 1954, Driver Newman was examined extremely carefully by a number of different boards of the Ministry of Labour and also by Army medical authorities, and the conclusion reached was that he was fit for any form of service in temperate climates only.

He then proceeded to do his training. He qualified as a driver and he was posted to Germany on 18th January, 1955. On 27th January he reported sick. He was found to have a slight discharge in both ears which was cleared up in a few days. He had two further medical sick reports. I am giving every single detail of this man's health. On 23rd February he reported sick when he sustained an injury to his big toe while playing football. On 7th March he reported sick with an ingrowing toe-nail. On 15th March he had slight pain in his ear. That is the first we had heard of that since he joined the, Army, and that trouble was cleared up in two or three days by means of glycerine ear-drops.

On 28th March he again reported sick, this time with sinusitis which yielded very speedily to inhalations. Finally, on 6th April, he was admitted to a medical reception station because of an irritant skin rash, aggravated by scratching. He remained at the station under treatment for nine days during which he was off duty. On 27th April he again had slight ear trouble for a day or so, which was again cured by ear drops.

That is the history of the case up to the time when the right hon. Gentleman wrote to my right hon. Friend on 24th June, to which my right hon. Friend replied on 22nd July in the terms which have already been read to us. As a result of and entirely because of the right hon. Member's inquiry, Driver Newman was admitted to hospital on 5th July for a thorough examination by an ear specialist and by a medical specialist. He was discharged on 7th July with his medical category unchanged. On 9th September he was re-examined by two fresh specialists and their opinions agreed with those given at the earlier examination. Again on 7th November he was seen by his unit medical officer. That was as a result of a Question placed on the Order Paper by the right hon. Gentleman, who wanted the very latest up-to-date information. On 7th November, there was no sign of the previous skin trouble. There was little activity in his ears, but he was suffering from a mild attack this time of ringworm of the groin.

On 21st November, after the right hon. Gentleman had postponed his Question, a further examination took place in order that we should have an even more up-to-date report. This time there was no evidence of active disease of the ears. Driver Newman's skin was perfectly clear. The ringworm of the groin had yielded to treatment, and so had the sinusitis, the ingrowing toe-nail and also the injury to his big toe.

To sum up, Driver Newman has at different times suffered from two principal afflictions. First of all, he suffered from mild chronic otitis externa. This is a mild chronic inflammation of the external ear canal leading from the ear drum to the outer ear. It is not a serious condition and carries no danger to life, health or hearing. It is an inconvenience rather than a disability. He has also suffered from an allergic skin condition which is said to appear every summer. It appeared this April but responded well to treatment and has not re-appeared.

In spite of what the right hon. Member for Don Valley has said, neither these two conditions is in any way baffling, and neither is likely to give rise to much trouble, provided that Driver Newman remains in a temperate climate. And, as I have said, he has been restricted to service in a temperate climate. Furthermore, there is no reason whatever to say that his condition is deteriorating or that he remains uncured and uncared for. Therefore, I think it fair to say that when the right hon. Member talked about agony and said, as he did just now, that Driver Newman was racked with pain all the time, when he suggested, as he did in the House last week, that Driver Newman had been in the hands of the doctors from the day he was called up, that he has been continuously in hospital, I can only say that he is guilty of a gross exaggeration.

Mr. Williams

But I think the hon. Gentleman is misquoting me. I never said Driver Newman was in hospital all the time. What I did say was that he had been intermittently in hospital but that all the time he had been in pain and that he had complained to his medical officer so frequently that he was just weary and tired of complaining when nothing happened, until my Questions appeared on the Order Paper.

Mr. Maclean

What the right hon. Member said, and I was careful to note it down, was that he was "racked with pain all the time," "in agony" and "in the hands of the doctors from the day he was called up." The right hon. Member cannot dispute that.

As to the question of not getting treatment, the facts I have given the House already make it perfectly clear that whenever he reported sick, whether it was for ringworm, urticaria, ingrowing toenails, sinusitis, or trouble with the ears, he was given prompt treatment and the condition in each case cleared up within a very few days. That is why I say the right hon. Member has been guilty of gross exaggeration.

Mr. Williams

Of course I am not accepting the statement of the hon. Gentleman. He must bear in mind what I stated tonight, and I do not withdraw a word, that at the end of 17 months the Army authorities agreed that the condition had not improved and that his medical category remained the same.

Mr. Maclean

I really think it would be better if the right hon. Member would let me conclude what I have to say as we have not much more time. The fact remains that during the whole of the 17 months, or the year and some months, Driver Newman has been in the Army, he has been in hospital for medical treatment for nine days only—in April for treatment of skin trouble and his condition certainly has improved. We agree that he suffers, or is apt to suffer, from these two mild disorders. That is why he has been restricted to temperate climates. There is no question of sending him abroad. The right hon. Member said that his category had not changed. What has not changed is this restriction, but he is certainly better in the sense that his ear trouble has cleared up and he has had no skin disease since April.

At present Driver Newman is employed in Germany in the Royal Army Service Corps as a petrol issuer and motor transport storeman and he is doing a useful job. He takes part in all the normal unit activities as a perfectly normal soldier. His disabilities are of a minor nature and have not interfered with his military service. He is not expected to become worse, but merely to remain within the normal standard required for retention in the Army. He is able to do a useful job and, with his limitations, he is able to free a fitter man for more exacting tasks in more trying climates.

I really cannot help feeling a little surprised that the right hon. Member should have seen fit to take the line he has in this case. It seems quite unreasonable that he should suggest in the light of all this evidence that Driver Newman is not fit for service. It is quite clear as my right hon. Friend informed the right hon. Member in his letter of 24th July, that he is fit for service within those limitations. Secondly, it seems that the right hon. Member has no grounds whatever for suggesting that the Army or my right hon. Friend has been in any way remiss in the handling of this case from the very start, nor for that matter has the Ministry of Labour.

Everything that has happened has shown that Driver Newman was quite rightly called up for service in the Army within the grade in which he was placed, his health is not deteriorating but, on the contrary, that there has been an improvement and there is every prospect that he will complete his service in the Army and at the end of his time will have done a very useful job.

Mr. Williams

He was discharged by the R.A.F. in six days, was he not?

Mr. Maclean

Yes. I have already explained that the R.A.F., owing to the different nature of the duties required of men called up for that Service, have in certain respects rather different standards from those that we have, but that has nothing to do with this case. He may not be fit for service in the R.A.F., but we consider him fit for service in the Army, and he has been shown to be fit. The fact remains that he has spent only nine days under treatment in hospital during the whole of his time in the Army. The other two days he spent in hospital he was being investigated or examined as a result of the right hon. Gentleman's inquiries.

These are the only two occasions when Driver Newman was off duty. The other times when he reported sick his illness was so slight that it yielded to treatment and was cleared up in a couple of days, and he was able to lead a normal life while receiving treatment. That really does not justify the right hon. Gentleman in saying that he was constantly racked with pain all the time, that he has been in the hands of the doctor from the day he was called up, and less still does it justify him in suggesting that my right hon. Friend does not always regard these cases, as I try to do myself, as sympathetically as possible. We do not want men in the Army who are not fit to do a job, and when it is so we are only too glad to release them.

The right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his remarks that it was 25 years since he raised a question on the Adjournment.

Mr. Williams

Even more than that.

Mr. Maclean

Well I really think that after so long a lapse of time he might have found a better case to take up.

Mr. Williams

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman in the last moments that, having met this boy in my own house and having listened to his own story, it is very difficult to believe all that the hon. Gentleman has said.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.