HC Deb 09 November 1955 vol 545 cc1963-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

9.13 p.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

I wish to bring to the attention of the House the case of Mrs. Herta Alvine Howells, wife of Frederick Howells, a civil servant, of 11, James's Way, New Donnington, Shropshire. Investigations into this case were begun by my predecessor, and I have followed them up as the present Member for the constituency.

Mrs. Howells was a part-time nurse at the Wellington Cottage Hospital until 27th October, 1954. Before proceeding further with the case of Mrs. Howells, I should like to make one point clear concerning Miss George, the matron of the hospital, to whom I referred in a supplementary Question last week. People in the area of The Wrekin thought that the matron was in some way implicated in this case. I should like to say that Matron George, is extremely well-thought of as matron. She is extremely competent and is held in the highest respect by everybody in the area. In all this matter concerning Mrs. Howells, Miss George did everything in her power to remedy the situation and acted from the highest motives possible in the nursing profession. She was interested in the care of the patients, and that, after all, is the first call upon her.

I must now, therefore, give a resumé of Mrs. Howell's career, but it is only fair to the House to state what documents I am bringing forward as evidence in this case, which I hope will be accepted by the House. I have here a solemn declaration in accordance with the Declarations Act, 1835, signed on 4th November in Wellington by Mrs. Howells. Therefore, as the Member, I am obliged to base my case on this document and on inquiries which I have made from local people.

Mrs. Howells is Austrian by birth. She trained as a nurse in Austria, in Gräz, between 1925 and 1927. In 1935, or thereabouts, she went into private nursing in Cairo and was employed by the Royal Family in Egypt. In 1938, she married a staff sergeant in the Royal Air Force, and is therefore a British subject. She held an appointment at a hospital in Shifnal early in 1947 and had some difference of opinion with the authority there, left, and was taken on the staff of the Wellington Cottage Hospital on 11th September, 1947. She was wise in that, when she was taken on, she explained to the matron exactly why she had left her previous post.

The next points are ones of character more than anything else. Mrs. Howells is a sensitive person and is, like many Continental people, more sensitive than those of these islands. There is one undisputed fact, and that is that nobody to whom I have spoken has questioned her nursing ability. I would like to quote a statement written by Mrs. Joan Bertha Lucas of Wellington, who was Nurse Bootle when Mrs. Howells was at that hospital. She says in this signed document: As to character, I think she is a person with decided opinions, who speaks her own mind. She is not by nature aggressive but would certainly stand up for herself if occasion arose. Personally, I found her a pleasant and helpful colleague. Therefore, from 1947 until 1949 to 1950, I am unable to find any criticisms of Mrs. Howells' nursing; on the contrary, I have presented to you, Mr. Speaker, not only a petition testifying to her nursing, but a great number of letters also applauded her nursing ability. Unfortunately, this state of affairs did not last, because there arrived at the hospital another sister, Sister Beech, and from then on it was obvious that the situation as regards the staff in that hospital began to deteriorate rapidly.

This sworn document reads as follows: After the arrival of Sister Beech, who soon adopted a hostile attitude towards me and made constant adverse remarks to patients and staff about me. She took great pains to bring to the notice of the staff that actually foreigners were only allowed to take domestic form jobs. Junior staff were told not to take orders from or assist me in any way, and that actually Mrs. Howells was to be known in the hospital as a nobody.

That situation could not have been very pleasant, but I gather that the real trouble occurred during the time when Matron George was not on duty, which was on each Wednesday. Mrs. Howells states: On Matron's day off, at lunch-time, as Sister Beech dished out the food, she would make remarks about Belsen and the damn Germans"— I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker— who never gave the people sufficient meat, and then, having selected the worse possible portion, she would literally throw the plate across the table to Mrs. Howells. I was very disturbed about this situation in the hospital, and I therefore thought it my duty to go and see the matron on Sunday evening last. I put to her certain questions. The matron said that it was very difficult for her, in these circumstances, to give the answers which I really wanted. I am convinced that during the time that the matron was on duty she managed to make the staff carry out their various tasks.

The real problem in the hospital—and this is rather an extraordinary thing to have to say—concerned the sewing machine. A sewing machine in a hospital is a very valuable instrument, and if inexperienced nurses use it, they are apt to damage it, which of course causes delay in the various hospital repair work which has to be done. Therefore, as Mrs. Howells was extremely useful in this work, the matron gave her authority to remove the foot of the sewing machine. That is the part under which one runs the cloth, the metal part through which the needle works, and by removing the foot one is able to put the machine out of action.

Round about July, 1954, both Matron George and Mrs. Howells were on holiday, and the hospital secretary wrote to Mrs. Howells in the following terms: I understand the foot of the sewing machine cannot be found, and if you have removed this from the Hospital, I shall be glad if you will return it forthwith, or, in case you have put it in a place of safety within the Hospital, ring up Sister Smith and tell her where it is. You have been previously warned by Matron not to remove the foot, and I hereby notify you that should it reoccur, I shall take immediate disciplinary action. That was completely wrong because matron had already authorised Mrs. Howells to remove the foot. Thereafter, the situation began to deteriorate even more. Mrs. Howells replied to that letter and was eventually called before the secretary, Mr. Palser, and without any real warning Mrs. Howells was summarily dismissed with seven days' notice. I think this was probably due to the fact that she took advice from Dr. Pooler, who advised her to make an official complaint concerning her treatment in the hospital and all she had been through. When asked about this the matron said, "You were dismissed because you went for advice to Dr. Pooler and, as Mr. Palser is secretary of the hospital, you have been summarily dismissed." This is a pretty sad state of affairs in one of our most respected hospitals in The Wrekin division.

Hon. Members should also know that from time to time Mrs. Howells did her best to make proper complaints to the matron about the treatment which she was receiving. I asked the matron this question: "Matron, was it possible for people to gang up against Mrs. Howells?" She replied that she did not think it was possible. I put another question to Matron George: "If Sister Beech were not in that hospital, would you and Mrs. Howells still be there?" She replied, "Mr. Yates, you know that I cannot answer that question." I could answer it very easily, for I believe that Mrs. Howells has been dismissed wrongly.

Like the previous Member for the constituency, I have done my best with the authorities to try to settle the matter in the interests of the hospital, the staff and Mrs. Howells, but at every turn we have received no co-operation at all; that is why I have raised the matter on the Adjournment.

It would not have been quite so serious had the following situation not occurred on 13th January, 1955, when Mrs. Howells went to make an appeal to the Shropshire Management Committee. This is a quasi-judicial committee set up to hear appeals when someone has been dismissed. She attended this committee at 11.30 a.m. on 13th January. She was received by the chairman and she noticed that in the room were also Matron George and Mr. Palser, the hospital secretary from Wellington, as well as the committee to whom she was making her appeal against wrongful dismissal.

The chairman of the committee, as far as I can make out, first delivered a short harangue on Mrs. Howells' past, going back about 15 years, and then asked whether she would like to state her case, asking her to be brief. I discover that she was allowed about five minutes in which to explain to the committee the circumstances of those tragic events. She said, "Mr. Chairman, I cannot state my case in five minutes, and if you cannot hear me now or on another appointed day, I will not waste your time but will take my case elsewhere." The chairman replied, "This is all we can do for you; take your case elsewhere." She said, "Good morning."

I do not know much about these quasi-judicial committees. In fact, I have experience of only one, in the Canal Zone, when the general said to the staff captain, concerning myself, "Why do I ask him whether he is guilty or not guilty, because he is guilty?" This quasi-judicial committee which was invited to investigate Mrs. Howell's complaint did not do the job properly. For the chairman of a committee first to deliver a harangue and then not to allow a person properly to state her case is a grave injustice, and as it is a grave injustice I have brought the matter to the attention of the House.

The position is that Mrs. Howells is now unemployed and, obviously, cannot get references. The question is what can I or the Ministry do to alleviate the present situation. There are three alternatives. I think that Mrs. Howells should be entitled to an apology and reinstatement. If that cannot be done, she should be allowed another chance and be transferred to another hospital within the area. If that cannot be done, she should at least be provided with a reasonable form of reference from the Minister concerned.

I will not detain the House longer. The case is tragic and it is the more tragic because of the question which I put to the matron concerning whether she and Mrs. Howell would still be there if Sister Beech were not there. That is the most important question in the whole matter, and I can only beg the Parliamentary Secretary in the same terms as the people who have petitioned to deal with this matter equitably in order to expunge a terrible situation which arose at that com- mittee when Mrs. Howells was not given a fair hearing. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to set up a committee of inquiry for which we have petitioned.

9.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith)

As the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates) has said, his predecessor, Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas, raised this case with my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend is continuing the inquiries. It is a sad and unhappy case, but I certainly cannot accept a very large proportion of some of the very ill-founded allegations which my hon. Friend has made this evening. I very much regret that he should have expressed some of those opinions, because, quite frankly, it is no wish of mine or of my right hon. Friend to say anything that would prejudice the chance of Mrs. Howells obtaining future employment.

The fact remains, however, that very grave allegations have been made in the House tonight against the hospital management committee of one of our hospitals, against the responsible members who certainly carried out an inquiry —with which I shall later deal—in a manner far different from that which the hon. Member expressed this evening. Further, there have been allegations against a sister of the hospital whose name has never been previously mentioned in correspondence with the hon. Member for The Wrekin and with his predecessor. The allegations previously have always been against the matron and it is significant how a switch has been made this evening.

The hon. Member began his speech with great commendation—

Mr. W. Yates

I never made allegations against the matron in any of my correspondence, and I hope that my predecessor did not.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

I do say there have been allegations in that case, and that includes various documents which we have received regarding Mrs. Howells's complaint from the hon. Member and from his predecessor. We now have allegations against a sister of the hospital whose name has been mentioned for the first time in representations to us. If, therefore, in reply to these very grave allegations inevitably I must mention matters in Mrs. Howells's career which do not wholly reflect credit on her, it is the hon. Member's responsibility because of the manner in which the case has been raised.

First, there is no complaint, nor has there ever been—and in this I agree with the hon. Member—about Mrs. Howells's technical efficiency or her technical qualifications as a nurse, but nursing entails something more than medical knowledge and skill. It is essentially a job in which one works as a member of a team, and in which co-operation amongst all members of the staff is absolutely essential. The tradition of our nursing profession is one not only of skill but of tolerance, kindliness and consideration.

I may further point out that we, at the Ministry, are as anxious as any one to retain in the nursing service every pair of skilled hands that we can. So, too, are our hospital management committees; and, above all, the matrons of the hospitals who, in many cases short of staff, are tremendously anxious to retain every qualified person they can. I would go so far as to say that they have to be provoked pretty far before they will lose, by dismissal, a skilled pair of hands from their staff.

Generally, the matron of a hospital is responsible for her nursing staff, and has the power to dismiss certain grades. The normal practice is that she reports her action to the appropriate committee of the hospital management committee. That committee, having confidence in its matron, normally accepts her action, knowing—and this is the important point —that if the member of the staff so dismissed is aggrieved she has a right of appeal to the hospital management committee itself.

Prior to her dismissal, Mrs. Howells received several warnings from the matron. She was dismissed on 19th October, 1954, for disobedience, for lack of co-operation, and for creating an unpleasant atmosphere amongst the staff. She exercised her right of appeal, and was given a hearing by the staffing committee of the hospital management committee. That appeal was originally to have been heard on 11th November, but, due to the fact that Mrs. Howells was ill, it was postponed and her appeal was heard on 13th January, 1955. The delay, therefore, was not the fault of the hospital management committee—unavoidable though it was.

At the hearing she was given the opportunity of submitting evidence, and she did, in fact, submit a written statement to the hospital management committee regarding the complaint about her dismissal. She appeared personally before the committee. Here I must tell the hon. Member that the minutes of evidence of responsible members of his constituency on that hospital committee are entirely and absolutely at variance with the statement which he has made in regard to the conduct of that inquiry. All members of the committee had had a written statement from Mrs. Howells. The chairman is recorded as having asked Mrs. Howells if she had any further comments which she wished to add to that statement.

The report is that the lady immediately plunged into a tirade of abuse against the matron and the staff. It was in the course of that tirade of abuse—

Mr. Yates

I saw the matron of the hospital on Sunday evening. I laid out the terms, and described this judicial committee to her at the time and she did not disagree with me.

Miss Hornsby-Smith

If I may say so, I think that it was extremely unfair of the hon. Member, at a time when he knew that he had put down this subject for debate on the Adjournment, at a time when he knew that my right hon. Friend was having the matter investigated, to go privately and to cross-examine the matron, who, at the time, knew that it was before the Ministry and was to come before the House, and would, therefore, have to be extremely careful not to, shall I say, make any statement while the case was under further inquiry. Quite obviously, the matron could say very little, and I do not think that the hon. Member is justified in drawing conclusions from matron's reticence at that stage. I think that he placed matron in an extremely invidious position.

The fact remains that the members of that committee are responsible members of the area. I cannot for one moment believe that a responsible committee of that nature, anxious, as all our hospital management committees are, to retain skilled staff, could or would have behaved in either their individual or their corporate capacity in the manner set out by the hon. Gentleman. Certainly the time given is at variance with the estimate given by the hon. Member.

I will go this far, however. We have been told that because the additional comments from Mrs. Howells were a long tirade of abuse against matron and other members of the staff, the chairman cut that tirade short after she had been going for several minutes, and in fact the very attitude of the lady and the very extremity of her abuse convinced the committee more than anything else possibly could that the complaints made about her had not been unfounded.

I regret having to add further to this, but the hon. Member has taken this case a good way. A petition was presented to the House yesterday. We are desperately anxious to increase our nursing staff but, in justice, we must uphold the standard of discipline which the matron has responsibility for enforcing, and I am desirous that there should be no question of doubt in hon. Members' minds that this decision was in fact fair. In view of the very serious charges that the hon. Member has made about the conduct of this case, I feel that I must point out with regret that this is by no means the first occasion —he mentioned one—upon which Mrs. Howells has been dismissed or has been asked to resign her post.

Prior to the appointed day she was employed at the Royal Salop Infirmary for eight months, from 11th September, 1939, to 6th May, 1940. She was asked to resign on the grounds of causing unrest among the staff and patients. For six months, from 27th November, 1943, to 11th May, 1944, she was employed at Cronkruagh Sanatorium, Ramsay, Isle of of Man, where, the report states, she caused a great deal of friction with the patients and staff and was dismissed by the medical superintendent for a breach of discipline. Her record from St. Anne's Hospital, Redhill, reports her as aggressive with the other staff.

Later she was employed at Wrekin Lodge Hospital, and the matron states that she was extremely difficult, that she was unpopular with the staff, and that on 3rd September, 1947, an incident occured which culminated in her being suspended and ultimately dismissed. She was extremely insolent to the matron about the admission of an old lady who had been admitted at the request of the medical officer for observation during the afternoon and night, as the doctor was reluctant to certify an old lady in the last days of her life, a policy and a principle which have often been put forward by hon. Members.

Nurse Howells objected to nursing the old lady and informed matron that she did not come to the hospital for mental nursing. Matron quite rightly said that if she refused to nurse the patient she must leave, and suspended her, but informed her that she had the right of appeal to the committee and informed her also of the date and time of the next meeting. She did not appear before the committee, and it was decided to dismiss her.

In relation to her more recent dismissal from the Wellington Cottage Hospital, may I outline a few of the instances of Mrs. Howells' difficult behaviour prior to her dismissal? She refused to dine with any of the other staff in the staff dining room and took her meals alone. She was domineering in so far as she carried out certain duties such as dressings in defiance of the matron, who had deputed these duties to the sister in charge. In the out-patients' department it was the duty of Sister Smith, the senior sister, under the matron's guidance and at the written request of general practitioners, to administer physiotherapy to patients referred by general practitioners. In spite of this instruction—a very important and proper one from the point of view of the patient—Nurse Howells would interfere and carry out the treatment herself, despite the fact that she had no knowledge as to what the general practitioner required to be carried out in such cases.

I was very reluctant to recount this unhappy record of a qualified nurse, whose skill is not denied, but who has allowed her temperament to offset the skill she undoubtedly possesses, but I am most anxious that it should be established beyond doubt that there is no basis whatever for the claim of racial discrimination, that there has been a proper inquiry and that it has been after several warnings that matron finally had to come to the conclusion that she had to resort to dismissal.

It is, as I said, a very sad case. Here we have a nurse of acknowledged qualifications and skill who, time and again, has had to relinquish her employment through her resentment of authority and her persistent action, which, I think, is at the root of all this trouble, in interpreting every rebuke or criticism as a question of racial prejudice. On that issue—and I feel very strongly indeed about any suggestion of racial prejudice in our hospitals—I repudiate absolutely and entirely that there has been any racial prejudice in this matter at all.

It is nonsense to suggest that foreign staff are employed only in domestic service, for there is probably no profession or trade in this country which so completely lacks racial discrimination as does our nursing service. There is hardly a country in the world which does not have its nationals in our hospitals. In a London hospital which I recently visited, there were 32 different nationalities. Hundreds and hundreds of foreign nurses are doing splendid work in our hospitals, and it is completely unfounded to suggest that there was racial prejudice in this matter.

I have taken some time on this case because, not unnaturally, the reactions in any case affecting a nurse attract wide publicity, but grave allegations have been made against the staff of the hospital, and these I repudiate. I regret more than I can say that I have had to disclose as much of Nurse Howells' record as I have done, but I felt it important that the three items—a nurse not getting a fair hearing, unfair dismissal, and racial discrimination—should be repudiated in this House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Ten o'clock.