HC Deb 24 January 1956 vol 548 cc14-8
22 and 23. Mr. E. Fletcher

asked the Secretary of State for War (1) why the parents of John White, who was injured in Cyprus and flown home to the Oxford Military Hospital, were not notified of his injuries immediately;

(2) whether he is aware that John White, of Twyford House, Hurlock Street, who was called up in June, 1955, and wounded in Cyprus in December, 1955, suffered from tuberculosis as a child, could not walk until he was eight years old, and suffered from epileptic fits since the age of 15 years; and what medical report was received about him before he was called up and sent to Cyprus.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Antony Head)

Private White was not injured and the question of telling his parents did not arise. When he was examined before call-up he denied having suffered from tuberculosis, and there is at present no evidence of that disease. I am told that he is not suffering from epilepsy. The Ministry of Labour and National Service provided us with full medical records when he was examined before call-up.

Mr. Fletcher

Is it not obvious to the Minister from his reply that the right hon. Gentleman has been ill-informed about this matter? Is it not a fact that the lad was suffering from tuberculosis and epilepsy, that he should not have been called up and should not have been sent to Cyprus? Will the Minister tell us what steps have been taken to ensure that, when a casualty occurs, the parents of the injured lad are notified by his Department before they read about it in the Press?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have a statement signed by the man himself to say that he had never suffered from tuberculosis. As regards the wounding, the man said that a bomb exploded near him and that he was hit in the leg. His leg was carefully examined and no scars were found. I think, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

26. Mr. Hunter

asked the Secretary of State for War whether, in view of the wounding of Drummer Boy T. Wright of the Leicestershire Regiment in Cyprus, he will now reconsider his previous decision and issue instructions to remove Band Boy T. Groves of the Middlesex Regiment and the other boy soldiers of sixteen years of age now serving in Cyprus.

Mr. Head

This man is a bandsman, not a drummer boy.

Mr. Hunter

Is the Secretary of State aware that on 20th December he informed the House that these boys run no risks in Cyprus and that he had received no protests from their parents? In view of the wounding of Boy Wright, which is causing great distress to Mr. and Mrs. Groves, cannot he act with some humanity? Is he not ashamed to make these replies for the generals at the War Office?

Mr. Head

I say again that this man is a bandsman and not a drummer boy. [An HON. MEMBER: "How old is he?"] Over seventeen and a half. Secondly, as I told hon. Members—I have not deceived them in any way—the bandsman does normal duties. These boys do not go on operations. I would point out to hon. Members that we have band boys in Malaya and Kenya as well as in Cyprus, where there are families with young children aged five and six.

Mr. M. Stewart

Could the right hon. Gentleman say if it is his policy now to send boy soldiers to Cyprus, and what useful purpose is served by their being there at this juncture?

Mr. Head

A boy joins his band and, under the existing system, he remains with that band and accompanies the unit overseas, and always has done so. The purpose served is that he remains with the band for his musical training. The boys are not sent abroad unless there are adequate facilities for education and for their general supervision. This is in the terms of service on which they enlist.

Mr. Beswick

Is the Secretary of State aware that anyone going to a theatre of this kind is on operational service when he walks down the street? Does not the right hon. Gentleman also think that the original answer which he gave to my hon. Friend was as disgraceful as the one he gave before the Recess, when he justified sending the boys to Cyprus on the ground that one boy in the First World War, having been killed, was awarded the V.C.?

Mr. Head

No, Sir, the point I made was that there were a lot of boys who were only too keen to serve. These boys are non-operational. Hon. Members are wrong in thinking that being in Cyprus is necessarily the same as being in the middle of a war. There are a large number of families with children in Cyprus, and I do not think that the risks to a boy there are any greater than those involved in crossing a road or Piccadilly Circus.

32. Mr. Gough

asked the Secretary of State for War at what time the next-of-kin were informed of the death of Captain Lane; and for what reason the Press were notified at least four hours before this step had been taken.

Mr. Head

Captain Lane's next-of-kin, his wife, was with him in Cyprus and was informed before details of her husband's death were released to the Press at about 11.30 a.m. on 19th January.

Mr. Gough

Will my right hon. Friend agree that Captain Lane's mother and sister-in-law were in this country and that they were not so informed, and that the Press waited for two or three hours before calling upon them and were surprised and horrified to find that they had no knowledge of Captain Lane's death?

Mr. Head

Yes, Sir, I would agree, but all soldiers notify my Department of their next-of-kin, and my Department's responsibility is to inform the next-of-kin. It so happens that we had a telegram from Cyprus asking us to inform Captain Lane's mother, and my Department immediately tried to telephone her but she was not on the telephone, and we sent a telegram. I regret that she heard the news from the Press before the telegram reached her. However, we cannot cover all the family and must confine ourselves to the next-of-kin.

Mr. Beswick

Bearing in mind the sad case of Captain Lane, does the right hon. Gentleman wish to retract an answer which he gave to a previous question in which I suggested that there was some danger in walking down a street in Cyprus, whether it is an officer or a bandsman who is concerned?

Mr. Head

I much regret the death of Captain Lane. I would point out that a great many people are run over in the street. I am not prepared to accept that a boy on non-operational duties in Cyprus is running a risk which is too great and is against the conscience of my Department.

Mr. Gaitskell

Does not the Secretary of State for War think, on reflection, that his remark that this man's death was comparable to being run over in the street was a very unfortunate thing to suggest? Will he not take the opportunity to make it clear that he realises that our troops are running serious risks in Cyprus at present?

Mr. Head

It comes very ill from the right hon. Gentleman to suggest a lack of sympathy with our troops in the risks which they are running. I never said what the right hon. Gentleman put into my mouth. What I was saying was that the number of deaths caused by traffic accidents and the casualties in Cyprus were comparable. The right hon. Gentleman will see the record. The second point that I would make to him is that nobody, I hope, feels more strongly than I do about the risks which our troops are running. What I was saying was that the risk to a boy in Cyprus who is not on operations can be exaggerated when one reads reports in the newspapers, for our total casualties are comparatively small. All I was doing was asking the House to keep a sense of proportion about the dangers to a boy in these circumstances.