HC Deb 28 July 1955 vol 544 cc1437-50

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

We know that this is the last debate before the long Summer Recess and, in case I forget to do so at the end of my speech, I wish you now, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and also Mr. Speaker and officials of the House a very happy holiday. That goes, too, for the Under-Secretary of State for Air. I hope that he will believe that I am sincere despite what I intend to say. I shall still mean it whatever the hon. Gentleman says in reply to my speech.

Before I get to the case of Aircraftman Thaine, which I wish to raise today, I should like to make some brief comment about another and relevant case. I am sorry that we are having this long Summer Recess, because I have many cases that I want to raise about what I submit are too many blunders in the treatment of National Service men. I can only say that, probably refreshed after the summer holiday, I propose to return and to do my best with these cases when Parliament reassembles.

There is a case of two very well-known jockeys who are twins and who were considered for National Service. They were called to a medical examination several months ago. One of the twins was rejected on the ground that he was under weight. The other was accepted. Two months ago the one who was accepted was called up for service. He was accepted despite the fact that the brother who was rejected said that he—that is the one who was rejected—was much fitter. The one who was accepted had had a very bad fall from a horse at Ascot and in consequence has the permanent disability of one shoulder being two inches lower than the other. He was called up two months ago and did nothing but sweep floors until two days ago, when he was discharged.

It is fantastic when it is recalled that the reason for rejecting the fitter twin was that he was under weight whereas at that time the one who was accepted was much lighter in weight, and still is today. The rejected brother weighs seven stone and the one who was accepted weighs well below seven stone. I hope that when we return after the Summer Recess I shall be able to take up that case and indicate that here is an injustice and something wrong with the call-up and that there has been a waste of public money.

I should like to deal with the case of Aircraftman Thaine from two aspects, the first educational and the second physical. Before registration, this man was studying for a course in electrical engineering and in due time he hoped to sit the City and Guilds examinations. I have a written, signed statement from his father that when the son was due for registration the father made contact with the Air Ministry and was informed that if he were called up, every opportunity would be given to this young man to follow his studies. Because of that assurance, the question of applying for deferment on the advice of the father was rejected by the son and he did not send forward his application. There is evidence to indicate that this was so, because after the young man was called up he went to the R.A.F. camp at Melksham in Wiltshire and, through fees paid by the Royal Air Force, he attended for some time at the Bath Technical School.

He completed three years' study in May of this year when he should have sat his first examination, with the second stage in June, but in March he was informed that he was to be considered as on embarkation leave and ultimately he was sent away to Iraq. He arrived in Iraq on 30th April, a matter of days before he was due to sit for his examination.

On this news becoming available, his father made every representation that was possible so that he should have the opportunity to continue in that sphere with his education. I can appreciate the point that the Air Force cannot be wrong purely on the basis of seeing men get the opportunity to pursue educational studies, but it seems that in many cases this is done. I have a letter here from the father, and I quote from what he wrote to the officer commanding at Melksham: With reference to that part of your letter which states that if consideration is given to individuals on educational grounds there would not be sufficient Service men to fulfil overseas duties, I would reply that it is a fact that certain men taking the same course and wishing to go on overseas have had home postings. The father is prepared to give the Service details of those men to substantiate that point.

What makes it particularly difficult to appreciate is the policy that is being followed in these very unsettled matters. As the father writes: On Saturday, April 16th "— within a few days of all this happening— in an interview with Max Robertson on television, Mr. Billy Knight there is no use keeping it quiet; thousands know of it— the well-known junior tennis player, was asked how he managed to play tennis whilst serving in the R.A.F.: he replied that he was conveniently posted near London and was able to get off at 3 p.m. each day and weekends in order to practise and play. Asked how the R.A.F. would react should he be chosen for the Davis Cup Team, he again replied that he thought he would get time off to play. The father rightly asks, as many people are asking: I should like to know on what grounds one man is conveniently posted and facilities granted that he may pursue that pastime when my son's application and my personal appeal on educational grounds are rejected. I should like the Minister to give some sort of explanation which will help this father and others to understand how it is that there is this difference of treatment. Is not it a fact that the problems that this country has to settle, which are largely on the economic side, are such that in peace-time every consideration should be given to the question of those who want to fit themselves to play a big part in the future activities of this country and in its efforts to live?

That is only a sideline from my main point. It is not as if this young man was fit enough to go into the Service at all. I believe that if he had received the care and attention which a well-known cricketer has had, he would not have been in the Forces and would have been able to continue his educational pursuits.

I agree that the condition of this young man worsened, by virtue of an accident, between the time he had his medical examination under the Ministry of Labour and the time he was called up for the Royal Air Force. As we know by the case of the cricketer, the period between a medical examination and call-up may be a few days or even a month or two or even three. This man has been in the Forces for 11 months and, if the Minister does not admit it now, time will show that he should not have been in the Royal Air Force at all, especially when we know what has happened in other cases.

Before giving briefly the physical history of this man, I want to quote an extract from a letter written by his father on 10th July to the Officer in Charge of Special Enquiries, Royal Air Force, Adastral House, London: I have now had an opportunity of seeing my son since his return from Iraq, and I am appalled at his physical condition with regard to his feet and limp. I would point out that in my opinion his present condition is due to neglect on the part of the Royal Air Force in so much as they have failed to administer medical treatment at the time it was necessary. Now for a brief history of the matter from the time of the man's first accident. On 25th October, 1953, this young man fractured his right leg in two places. In January, 1954, he had his first medical examination and was deferred for three months. In April, 1954, he had his second medical examination and was deferred for two months. In June, 1954, he had a third medical examination and was passed A.1, although he pointed out that he suffered from a limp.

In the meantime, between this last medical examination and being passed A.1 and being called up for the Royal Air Force, on 18th July, 1954, he crushed his foot in an accident, and two toes were broken. On 16th August, a month later, he enlisted at Cardington. On 24th August, eight days later, he reported sick with foot and toe. Then on 18th April, 1955, he reported sick with foot and toe, plus sprained ankle. On 26th April, 1955, he reported sick again with foot and toe. On 30th April he arrived in Iraq. In May, whilst in Iraq, he reported sick seven times. On 26th May he was seen by a specialist and on the following day he was admitted to hospital. On 21st June he left Iraq in a hospital 'plane for England and on 22nd June he was admitted to the hospital in Swindon.

I have not the time to give a report of the sufferings of this young man while in the Forces. For instance, he got into trouble for not placing his left foot on the ground while in the front support position on the parade ground. He complained that it was too painful. Having been in the Forces, I can appreciate that some people to whom complaints are made do not express the utmost sympathy. From the signed report I have, I understand that he got into a state of mind where, when he was pulled up for limping on the parade ground, he was told that he would be reported or put on a charge if he did not report sick.

I could give a lot of other evidence to indicate that there seemed to be little sympathy given to this young man and, when the case comes to a conclusion, I do not think it will be found that he was making excuses without reason.

What concerns me is the attitude of the Minister, and that is one of the reasons for raising this today. I put a Question on the Order Paper in June, asking about this case. Either by coincidence or not, it seems that some special attention was given to this young man in Iraq. As a consequence—and this may be a coincidence—it was decided to bring him back to England.

I put a second Question to the Minister, asking what had happened, and pointing out this man's trouble with his feet. By the way, he has a stiff joint in one of his toes. This seemed to be the cause for a well-known cricketer getting out. He has this foot trouble, and many other things; and when the Minister replied to me he got a good deal of fun in doing so. He said that the trouble was not this man's feet, that he had only a slight disability, and that he was suffering from dyspepsia. If that is so, it is rather remarkable that a specialist should have looked at his feet before he got on the plane at Iraq. He went on to say that the specialist saw nothing wrong with his feet or that there was only very slight disability.

We come to the point when the young man went to the R.A.F. hospital at Swindon. It appears, from the information which I have, that the question of dyspepsia, or fear that he had an ulcer, did not materialise. What is more important and alarming to me is that, according to his father, he was examined by a bone specialist. His feet and legs were examined with the following results: one, an operation is recommended on his big toe; one leg is three- quarters of an inch shorter than the other, and, unless he has his boots built up, his back will be affected from uneven weight on his feet.

If the Minister says that is incorrect, I shall have to start all over again, but if what I say is correct, and I have every reason to believe that it is, this is the cause of the limp. Who can doubt it? This young man has had two accidents. His right leg has been fractured in two places, and he has had the trouble of two crushed toes and a crushed foot. I submit that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that, if certain people can get out to carry on with sport, this man should not be in the Services at all.

Therefore, I raise this subject on the Adjournment, because I believe, as a result of the trouble I have taken, and on the testimony and evidence I have got, first, that there is a complaint in connection with the question of educational facilities when compared with others, particularly those engaged in sport, and, secondly, that, on the evidence, this man, who was taken into the Service as grade I, has suffered unduly while in the Forces. He will never be any good at all to the Service. It will cost an awful lot of money and inevitably, in my submission, he will have to be discharged. I hope that some information will be given this afternoon and that, even if justice has been delayed, it will prevail at long last.

4.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) for his kind wishes to me for an enjoyable holiday, which I thoroughly reciprocate. He will not expect me this afternoon to go into the question of the two jockeys.

Mr. Dodds


Mr. Ward

I have no idea who they are, and he did not say the Service to which one of them went, or give any information about him. No doubt the hon. Member will pursue that point after the Recess.

I am glad to have the opportunity of giving the House all the facts that I can about the case of aircraftman Thaine. I shall, in the process, have to disclose a good deal of personal information about this man, and I am naturally sorry to have to make this information public. As the matter has been made one of public interest, I have no choice.

Mr. Dodds

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the point that the father knows all that and so does the airman and that they have asked me to go ahead. That is why I am doing so.

Mr. Ward

Some of the details in the early part of the story have been given by the hon. Gentleman, and I do not differ very materially from him on either the facts or the dates, but, just to keep the story a consecutive one, perhaps he will forgive me if I start at the beginning, as he did.

It is true that the aircraftman injured his leg in a motor cycle accident in 1953 before his National Service. It is also true that in June, 1954, he was examined by the Ministry of Labour and National Service Medical Board and passed Grade I. I have no knowledge, because I am not at the Ministry of Labour and National Service, whether that was the first, second or third medical board that he had, but the fact remains that in June, 1954, he was passed Grade I by the medical board. Very shortly after that he had a further accident, injuring two toes. Therefore, when he joined the Royal Air Force at Cardington on 16th August, he was, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, not in exactly the same physical condition as he had been when he had his medical board.

The aircraftman went to West Kirby on 23rd August for recruit training. The day after he got there he consulted the medical officer about his foot trouble, with the result that he was excused physical training; but he was excused only physical training. The medical officer kept an eye on his progress and saw him on three occasions and examined him. As a result of that, the aircraft-man was judged to be quite fit to carry out combat training and marching, which he did without complaint.

He was posted to Melksham on 27th October for a five-months' trade course consisting mainly of classroom work. He was given a routine examination at Melksham on 7th December and was assessed as fit for service in any part of the world. In March, 1955, he became due for overseas posting, and as a matter of course was medically examined and again found quite fit. He then went on embarkation leave until 18th April, and on that day he reported sick for the first time in nearly six months, complaining—

Mr. Dodds

For five of those six months the man had been doing work which did not call for any great physical standard.

Mr. Ward

That is very likely.

Mr. Dodds

I just want to get the gap of six months covered.

Mr. Ward

What I am saying is that here is a man who is supposed to be a physical wreck, and yet he had not reported sick for nearly six months. He was complaining at that time of foot trouble and a sprained ankle, and his medical documents show that his ankle was strapped up. He was examined again before he went to Innsworth on 20th April. He reported sick again at Inns-worth. He was given treatment, and exercises were recommended, and he attended the physiotherapy department at Innsworth.

Then he went to Iraq, arriving there on 30th April. His documents show that he was seen by the medical officer on 9th, 11th and 12th May. On 9th May he complained of a colicky abdominal pain. He was examined, but no abnormality was noted.

Mr. Dodds

Let us get this into the right perspective. Is it not a fact that a sergeant in charge of manning and disciplinary control saw him walking on the camp and instructed him to report, and that he did report with pains in the head, feet, stomach and legs?

Mr. Ward

I do not know what the sergeant said.

Mr. Dodds

He did not know himself.

Mr. Ward

The facts as I know them are that he reported sick with abdominal pains. He did not say anything about his feet. There was an examination and no abnormality was found, but he was given appropriate medical treatment for two days.

On 11th May, two days later, he complained of weakness in the heat and pains in the feet. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford is probably confusing the two dates. At that time he also complained of abdominal discomfort after meals and slight dizziness. He was given a sedative and medical treatment, and three consecutive stool examinations were recommended by the medical officer. On 12th May he again reported sick and was admitted for observation and investigation of his abdominal complaint. Again, after careful examination, no physical abnormality was found, except constipation, and he was discharged on 20th May and put on a diet for a trial period of one week. During that week he was seen by the medical officer on three days and after that was given a full examination by the medical specialist. The only positive signs were extreme depression and bad breath.

The specialist advised admission to hospital and Thaine was admitted the next day, 27th May. On 9th June the medical specialist reported that Thaine was in a constant state of depression. He was given another very thorough medical examination, including blood tests, X-ray of the chest and lumbar puncture, all of which were negative, and the stomach and intestines were also X-rayed. The medical specialist could find no medical symptoms to account for Thaine's incapacity and he attributed it to the patient's anxiety about himself.

In these circumstances it was decided to send him back to the United Kingdom, where he arrived by air on 23rd June and was admitted to the R.A.F. hospital at Wroughton. There he was thoroughly examined yet again, and again no evidence of organic disease was found. The specialist reported on 28th June that Thaine had functional dyspepsia—and the hon. Member will know that that is dyspepsia caused by anxiety—and that he was now relatively free from symptoms and fit to return to duty in temperate climates.

While Thaine was in hospital at Wroughton, he was examined by the orthopaedic specialist on 26th June and by the principal specialist in orthopaedic surgery on 28th June. I want to make it clear that he did not go into hospital for any reason except his abdominal troubles, but as he was there, and as the matter had been raised, it was not unnatural to ask the orthopaedic specialist to have a look at him. Both surgeons recommended a raising of the sole and the heel of his right shoe.

Mr. Dodds

Was it found that one leg was three-quarters of an inch shorter than the other?

Mr. Ward

The principal specialist advised that a period of treatment at a rehabilitation unit should be tried. It is perfectly true that one leg is a little shorter than the other. I think that three-quarters of an inch is right.

Mr. Dodds

Will the Under-Secretary answer the question about the man's toes? We want to get it sorted out.

Mr. Ward

I want to make my own speech in my own way. If the hon. Gentleman will stop interrupting me, I will get on with it.

Thaine was accordingly sent to the Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Collaton Cross on 1st July. He has been undergoing treatment in the postures class there, doing special foot and leg exercises and having physiotherapy. He will be reviewed again during the next few days. He was measured for special shoe fitments as prescribed by the orthopaedic surgeons. These were ordered on 15th July and Thaine was wearing them by 22nd July. I understand that Thaine has expressed the view that he thinks they will be all right once he gets used to them.

I have given the House a lot of detail because I wish hon. Members to know the medical attention that this airman has had, and how his early return to this country did not arise from any foot or leg trouble. The specialists in Iraq and the United Kingdom concluded quite independently that he was suffering from a mild dyspepsia of nervous origin. I have every hope that when Thaine leaves Collaton Cross he will feel happy about himself. His qualifications make him a valuable member of the Royal Air Force and I trust that his health will not let him down again. Before I go on to the next part of my speech I am prepared to give way to allow the hon. Member to ask a question.

Mr. Dodds

I appreciate that. As I have established, and the Minister has admitted, that one of Thaine's legs is three-quarters of an inch shorter than the other, will the Minister now deal with the point that Thaine has a stiff joint in the big toe for which an operation has been suggested? Is not this exactly the same complaint for which a well-known cricketer was discharged because if he had continued in the Service it would probably have meant that his foot would deteriorate, and the Ministry would have had to pay a pension?

Mr. Ward

I should like to deal with that a little later when I come to the general principles which actuate us in deciding whether or not to keep a man. I think—

Mr. Dodds

I was only asking about Thaine.

Mr. Ward

I will cover that point when I come to it.

I wish to point out next that this airman's affairs have been brought to my notice by the Member representing the constituency in which his father lives, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), who is Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. That was early in June, 1955, at the same time as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford put down his first Question. As the House will remember from what I said earlier, most of the airman's troubles with his health had then already occurred. However, the airman's father's letter to his Member at that time was about the fact that his son's posting to Iraq interfered with his studies for his civilian career. That is the point which the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford first raised today.

In these communications with my hon. Friend no mention was made of any dissatisfaction with the Royal Air Force medical treatment. Indeed, Mr. Thaine said at that time that he had no objection to National Service; in fact, he considered it to be good for any lad, although he qualified this with a reservation about interruption of studies. Moreover, in none of the five letters which Mr. Thaine sent to various Royal Air Force officers between March, 1954, and June, 1955, did he make the slightest complaint about medical treatment. I am, therefore, driven to the conclusion that although Mr. Thaine's original complaints were very real and his original anxiety was very real about his son's education, the later complaints about the airman's fitness for service and his medical treatment are something in the nature of afterthoughts.

Mr. Dodds

After Cowdrey got out, and quite right.

Mr. Ward

Well, let us get that straight. There was no complaint about the medical treatment he was receiving in the Air Force; no complaint at all about having to do his National Service. In fact his father approved of it.

Mr. Dodds

Until Cowdrey came out.

Mr. Ward

That is important.

Returning to Mr. Thaine's actual representations to his Member, I am glad to say that as a result of my hon. Friend's representations we have been able to make arrangements which should screen from overseas postings the majority of those National Service men whose studies for recognised professional and technical examinations can only be continued by part-time attendance at a recognised school in the United Kingdom. I hope that will avoid the anxieties of other fathers in the future.

May I end by explaining briefly, because it is important to do so, the principles which guide Royal Air Force doctors in deciding whether an airman who may be a borderline case—and each case is examined on its merits—is fit to complete his period of National Service? They ask themselves three main questions. The first is whether the airman's condition is likely to be aggravated to a material degree by further service. That was the question which in Cowdrey's case produced a categorical "Yes" from a very eminent civilian orthopaedic specialist as well as from a Service man. There was no doubt that his condition was likely to be aggravated. Therefore, it was only fair to him and to the Service to release him. That does not apply in the case of Thaine.

The second question which the doctors ask themselves is whether a chance exists that an airman will become physically unfit for any form of Royal Air Force service. Once again, that applied to Cowdrey. It was the advice of the finest medical sources that we could find that undoubtedly Cowdrey's condition would become such that he would be physically unfit for any form of Royal Air Force service.

The third question is whether the condition of the airman is likely to need frequent treatment and to result in excessive loss of his usefulness to the Royal Air Force. All these questions are put by the doctors to themselves in the case of every National Service airman whom they consider to be a borderline case. They were certainly put in the case of Thaine.

It may well be that, as a result of further care and treatment, the third question—that is to say, whether his condition is likely to need frequent treatment and to result in excessive loss of his usefulness to the Royal Air Force—is the only one of these three questions which could possibly apply to this airman.

Very serious allegations have been made in this case, and I have naturally made the closest and most conscientious inquiries into them, both in fairness to the airman and to the hon. Member, and, incidentally, in fairness to the Royal Air Force. I am entirely satisfied that there has been no lack of medical care, no injustice, and, generally, no foundation for any anxiety about this particular case or about the care which National Service men generally receive in the Royal Air Force.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned according at ten minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday, 25th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.