HC Deb 13 March 1956 vol 550 cc282-93

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

6.21 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)

I am glad to have the chance of drawing attention to scandalous incompetence by the War Office which has resulted in serious injustice to a particularly public-spirited Army officer.

Captain Allison had a remarkable career during the war. After joining the Territorials in 1936, he volunteered in June, 1940, for the Commandos. As a commando he participated in bomb disposal and minesweeping and he served in the Channel on a Dutch trawler manned by a Polish crew. In 1941, he took part in the Lofoten Islands operation. In 1942, he was a battle-school instructor. In 1943, he was a parachute instructor. He broke his ankles when parachuting but, nevertheless, he took part in the crossing of the Rhine as a despatcher, which is a very hazardous operation, as the Under-Secretary of State for War will know. On that occasion, his aircraft force-landed in Holland.

It would be hard to surpass this officer's career for courage and adventurousness. If I may say so, it compares in adventurousness even with the career of the Under-Secretary himself. One would have hoped that, as a result of that, the hon. Gentleman might have treated this case more in the spirit of a fellow ex-Service man with a sense of justice and less in the spirit of a Minister in charge of a bureaucracy which has plainly made a serious error of justice and of judgment. But that was not to be.

This is the story in brief, and I do not think that the facts are in dispute. In 1952, Captain Allison was a secondary school teacher with good prospects, but he answered an appeal advertised in the Press for ex-Service officers to rejoin the Royal Army Educational Corps. In October, 1952, he was interviewed by a selection board. The spokesman of the board, a Major Barratt, invited him to ask questions of the board.

My constituent asked two. First, he asked, "What rank will I have if a rejoin?" The answer was, "You will have the rank of captain." The second and the important question was, "Will my previous service in the rank of captain count towards increments of pay?" That service amounted to two years. Major Barratt, on behalf of the board, replied, "Your previous paid service in the rank of captain will count towards increments of pay." Major Barratt repeated this several times during the early part of 1953.

My constituent, after careful financial calculations—for he has a wife and four children—decided to accept, and he rejoined as an officer of the Royal Army Educational Corps on 1st January, 1953. I ask the Minister to note that date. He reported for duty and at the end of the first month he received his pay cheque, which showed no payment of the increments to which he was entitled, that is 2s. 6d. each for two years. It should have been 34s., but instead he was paid 29s. He immediately wrote to his agents, Messrs. Glyn Mills. who asked the War Office for a decision on this point.

The War Office decision came on form F.2.B.2 on 1st January, 1954, nearly 11 months after my constituent's application through his agents. The answer from the War Office said that as his previous service was not in the Royal Army Educational Corps he was not entitled to increments. This was directly contrary to the statement made by his selection board, on which he based his decision to join the R.A.E.C. My constituent, therefore, took this matter up with his commanding officer. On the commanding officer's advice he took it up by appeal to the Army Council. He appealed to the Army Council in March, 1954, and the reply from the Army Council came in February, 1955. That is another 11 months; and when it came, the decision merely confirmed the wrong decision previously taken by the Department concerned in the War Office.

My constituent, still keeping to the proper channels in every way, decided to petition Her Majesty and, with the help of the relevant Department of the War Office, he framed his petition and sent it forward in February, 1955. He has not yet had a reply to the petition. These are the plain facts and I do not think that the Minister will dispute them.

I should like to make two major points. The first, on the substance of the issue, is that on every count of common fairness and straight dealing Captain Allison should have been paid those increments. It was on that basis that he accepted the job. He had good prospects where he was and, without doubt, he would have been a headmaster by now. If in any private firm a person makes an undertaking like that and plainly states what the salary is to be, that salary is paid. It is not decided afterwards to pay a man a smaller salary when he has thrown up one job to come to the firm, when he has changed his house—and that means a great deal in these days—and when he has uprooted himself and his family.

In any private firm such conduct would be against the law, let alone the fact that the victim's trade union would be on the employer in a moment. In any case, the victim could leave the firm, which is not so easy in the case of the Army. Why should not the same ordinary decent feeling as is shown by a private employer towards his employees be shown by the War Office towards this officer? Captain Allison has now been underpaid a sum of £334 8s. and I submit, on behalf of my constituent, that that amount should be paid to him.

The second point is that, quite apart from the merits of the case, the delays on the part of the War Office have been shocking and unforgivable. First, it took this Department, F.2 B.2, more than 10 months from February, 1953, to January, 1954, to reach a decision, as it happened the wrong decision. Secondly, it took the Army Council 11 months from March, 1954, to February, 1955, to confirm this wrong decision. Thirdly, the petition to Her Majesty which, presumably, went through the War Office—I would like to know that—was sent in February, 1955, and no reply has yet been received.

I would emphasise that this officer has acted with perfect propriety from the beginning. He has gone through the proper channels with the advice of his commanding officer in every respect. In the most moderate terms he has set out his case to me. The strongest sentence in that case was as follows: I feel, too, that the dilatory attitude of the War Office is a poor return for the efforts I have made to be of service in the past and hope to make in the future. I think that for an ex-commando this must be a record of moderate language in all the circumstances.

I am not content to see people who are patient, who are public-spirited, and who go through the proper channels being pushed against the wall when other people and other groups in the community, who throw their weight about more, get a long way further. Quite apart from the delay that this officer has experienced, I would draw the attention of the Minister to the delay that I have experienced as a result of the dilatoriness of the War Office. I wrote to the Minister on 1st November, 1955, and in my letter I said: I would be most grateful if you would look into this case personally. Unless speedy action is taken by the War Office, I propose to raise the matter in the House. On 28th February this year the Minister said, in reply to a Question I put on the Order Paper: This officer is claiming more pay than the Regulations prescribe on the ground that he was led to believe that he would receive a higher rate of pay on joining the Royal Army Educational Corps. I hope that a decision on this claim will be reached shortly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1956; Vol. 549, c. 103.] What is "shortly"? So far, it has taken the War Office three years to reach a decision on this case and the Minister now tells me that a decision will be reached shortly. Yet nothing has happened. There has been no event since 1st January, 1953. If the situation had been changing, if there had been some new factor, it would have been different. But nothing has changed. There has simply been this interminable delay on the part of the War Office, and also delay by the Minister personally in dealing with this matter when I put it to him in November last year. It seems to me to be a perfectly plain case of injustice which any right-thinking person would decide in five minutes without further consideration.

There is only one satisfactory end to this case which I now request from the Minister, namely, a full apology from him and the payment of £334 8s. to my constituent.

6.38 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I should like to underline the case which has been made with great restraint by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew). Whatever the ultimate decision may be, it is clear that there has been unpardonable delay; unpardonable until one realises that the reason for this delay is that the real bosses in the War Office are not the soldiers but the gentlemen who hold the key to the cash box, that is to say, the finance elements in the War Office.

I have not the slightest doubt that when Major Barrett was asked this question he looked at the regulations to see what was the scale of pay, realised the service of this officer, and gave a decision in good faith. As the chairman of the selection board, he was speaking on behalf of the War Office and interpreting the regulations to this officer, who, subsequently, made up his mind to come into the Service on the basis of that answer. It seems to me beyond dispute that the officer would not have come into the Service had he not received that answer. Therefore, apart from any niceties of the interpretation of regulations, or what the finance branches of the War Office may say, it seems to me that the Army and the Minister, as spokesman for the Army, are committed to the payment of 34s. a day to that officer from the day he was commissioned.

I should have thought that was beyond any shadow of doubt and it is not much good for the Minister to say—if I may anticipate his reply—" Here are the regulations. We cannot brush them aside." Of course he can, if he wants to do so. There is provision in the Royal Warrant for the issue of 'special rates of pay in such circumstances. It has been done before and it can be done again.

I think the hon. Gentleman will admit that Captain Allison is not the first officer who has received this kind of rough treatment. There are other officers of the R.A.E.C. who have suffered similarly. I have no doubt that this is one of the worries of the Minister and of the finance branch of the War Office. They are afraid to say "Yes" to Captain Allison, particularly now that this matter has been publicly ventilated, and they have been doing some sums to find out how much they have let themselves in for.

The Government introduced recently a new Pay Code to help to attract people to the Army and to stay in it. One way of keeping people in the Army is to have contented officers and other ranks. This means that authority, which has the last word, must behave with restraint and must stand by its mistakes when its subordinates make mistakes. My hon. Friend was right in saying that any firm engaged in private business which made such a mistake would have the best of a bad job and would pay up. Although this is the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour, I hope that when the hon. Gentleman replies he will say that this Adjournment was not necessary and that he has acceded to my hon. Friend's demand. I hope the Minister will say that he has agreed as a special case, under the special provisions of the Royal Warrant which permit him to do so, immediately to authorise the payment of 34s. a day which this officer was promised, and without which he would certainly not have accepted a commission in the R. A. E.C.

There is another important point for the future. Would the hon. Gentleman please give instructions to the chairmen of selection boards that when interviewing officers, particularly officers with previous service who come forward as applicants for regular commissions, "off the cuff" interpretations should not be given? There ought to be a warning to chairmen of selection boards, or perhaps the hon. Gentleman will consider issuing a pamphlet so that officers in the position of Captain Allison are not exposed to this kind of mistake.

I hope, also, that the hon. Gentleman will do his best to see that, where mistakes are made, it does not take three years before they are considered. My hon. Friend is right in saying that he hopes the Minister will start by explaining how it comes about that an officer who has sought to behave in a way one would expect an officer with such a record to behave, is treated with such scant courtesy. This is a genuine complaint, and we want to hear fully from the Minister why it has taken so long to deal with this matter.

6.40 p.m.

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

I am always glad, whenever possible, to accept advice from the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), and perhaps I may therefore begin by explaining the delay, which I should like to say, straight away, I do regret. The reason why there has been such delay is that this is a complicated case, as I think I shall show in the course of my remarks, and that it has needed very careful consideration indeed.

The other point is that we are the first to admit that this is a borderline case, and we have given it particularly sympathetic and careful consideration in an effort to make absolutely certain that no factors that might have counted in Captain Allison's favour have been overlooked. Incidentally, the reason why there was some delay in answering some of the letters of the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) was given by me in my letter to him of 11th January, in which I explained that what had held up my reply in that particular letter was the need to make further inquiries of Captain Allison himself and to wait, as we did for some weeks, until he had provided that information.

Having said that, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Woolwich, East for raising this matter in the House, and thus giving me a chance of putting the War Office point of view; and I hope that when I have finished my remarks he will agree that there is a War Office point of view, that the case is not quite as clear as he has made out, and that there are considerable arguments on both sides.

Before going any further, I think it would be only right for me to remind the House that, as the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, Captain Allison has now submitted a petition to Her Majesty.

Mr. Mayhew

Captain Allison submitted the petition to Her Majesty in February of last year. I think the hon. Gentleman's word "now" is quite wrong.

Mr. Maclean

He has submitted a petition to Her Majesty the Queen. Therefore, no final decision has yet been taken, and the case is still open. As I have said, the reason for the delay is that we were unwilling to take a final decision unfavourable to Captain Allison, which I think I shall be able to show we could quite easily have done. I am sure the hon. Member would not wish me to take a snap decision, which could quite easily have come down on the side against his constituent.

Perhaps I may give a few instances of the difficulties which we have had to encounter in this case. Captain Allison claims that he joined the R.A.E.C., having given up his job as a schoolmaster in civil life after being advised that his rate of pay would be 34s. a day. Now, there is absolutely no question, and I do not think the hon. Member disputes this, about what his correct entitlement was. Captain Allison's correct entitlement was 29s. a day, and about that there is no doubt whatever. The whole argument turns on whether Captain Allison was, as he himself suggests and as the hon. Member has suggested today, induced to take a commission in the Army on the basis of wrong information, and whether, having done so, he then suffered material loss as a result of that decision. Perhaps I may outline the regulations which govern Captain Allison's pay and pay in the Royal Army Educational Corps generally.

The rules are set out in Regulation 130 of the Pay Warrant, 1950, which states that …non-Regular commissioned service during a national emergency shall reckon towards increment of pay, and previous periods of service in a paid rank shall count towards increment in the same or lower rank, with a number of exceptions. These exceptions, which as far as this case is concerned are the essence of the case, include the Royal Army Educational Corps and a number of other technical corps. For officers in these corps, the only previous service which they may count towards increment of pay is service in the arm concerned. So it is that an officer joining the Royal Army Educational Corps after a break in his service cannot count his previous commissioned service in the Army if the previous service had been completed in any arm other than the R.A.E.C.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Dudley suggests, that the Pay Warrant gives discretion to the Army Council to make exceptions from this rule, but in practice the only exceptions which have been allowed have been made in favour of officers who transferred into the Royal Army Educational Corps direct from some other arm without a break in service in circumstances which would have involved them in an immediate loss of pay if the provisions of the Pay Warrant had been strictly applied. I think that that was probably the case with the hon. Member for Dudley himself, and that, if he had continued, then the Army Council could have made an exception in his case.

Therefore, in considering Captain Allison's history, what we need to determine is whether his previous time in the Army can be reckoned towards increment to determine his starting pay in his new appointment. The hon. Gentleman has given some account of Captain Allison's history. As he said, Captain Allison served in the Territorial Army in the Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry before the war, was transferred to the Reserve, was recalled in February, 1940, to the Active List and served with distinction, as the hon. Member has told us, until the end of 1945, when he was released.

Captain Allison then had four years and 234 days in the rank of acting or temporary captain, and none of that service was with the R.A.E.C. On 23rd June, 1952, he applied for a Regular commission in the R.A.E.C., but was not eligible because he did not possess a university degree. In August, 1952, he accordingly amended his application to one for a short service commission, which was granted and on 23rd October, 1952, he appeared before a War Office interviewing board, which is the interviewing board on which so much depends. His application was approved, and he subsequently reported for duty on 1st January, 1953. Therefore, as far as the regulations of the Pay Warrant are concerned, it is quite clear that they applied without any question at all to Captain Allison. He does not qualify, nor does he qualify for the exception which I mentioned a few moments ago of unbroken service.

Thus, it is quite clear that when he joined, he was not entitled to a rate of pay higher than 29s. a day, and was not entitled to 34s. a day. Therefore, the only part of his claim which is open to discussion is, first, whether or not he was misled into believing that he would get more pay, and, secondly, whether he suffered a material loss as the result of this misinformation, if such misinformation there was. If both those points could be clearly established, then there would certainly be a case for giving him a higher rate of pay, notwithstanding the Regulations.

First of all, the interview board in October, 1952: Captain Allison says that he asked certain questions and was given certain answers. He says that in answer to his inquiry about previous service, he was told that his previous embodied service would count towards pay and he was further told that as he had held the paid rank of captain for more than four years, he would be paid at the rate of 34s. a day. This assertion has been carefully investigated and it has taken a certain amount of time to get the people together and to get them to search their minds for this conversation with this one particular officer.

We have been trying to find ways in which we could help Captain Allison, if it were possible. As a result of these careful investigations, including the inquiries made of Major Barratt, who was the officer who, according to Captain Allison, gave him the information, we have failed to establish definitely whether Captain Allison asked those questions and what answers were given to him. We have been unable to obtain confirmation of his claim that he asked those questions.

Although in a case of this kind the onus of proof must necessarily rest with the claimant, we would not reject his claim simply because he has not been able to prove and we have not been able to confirm what he was told at the interview. We would not reject it on those grounds alone.

Mr. Wigg

Has the Under-Secretary inquired from Major Barratt whether Major Barratt himself was aware of the conditions of Article 130 of the Royal Warrant? If Major Barratt's regiment was other than the R.A.E.C., it is quite likely that like Captain Allison he did not know of the existence of that regulation.

Mr. Maclean

I will certainly look into that. It is certainly true that at that time there was doubt among officers about how these rather complicated Regulations applied. We do not exclude the possibility that Captain Allison was misled, but we have not been able to find proof that he was.

Mr. Mayhew

I am sure that the Under-Secretary is not challenging that the officer himself was under the impression that he had been told, because from correspondence with his Army agents, immediately at the beginning of 1953, it is perfectly clear that he himself was under the impression of having been told.

Mr. Maclean

No, I am not challenging that he is under that impression, but I think that the hon. Member would agree that in cases of this kind it is necessary to have more confirmation in addition to the unsupported claim of one party. That is the point.

Mr. Mayhew

The Under-Secretary will agree that there are one or two other cases similar to Captain Allison's and it would be a strange coincidence if they all wrongly got this impression from their selection boards.

Mr. Wigg

It is beyond dispute that other officers were troubled by the same doubt and if Major Barratt was not a member of the R.A.E.C., or did not know of the existence of this particular regulation, there seems to be a strong supposition that, in fact, Captain Allison asked the question and got the impression which he says he got.

Mr. Maclean

I think that that is possible, but my point is that we have tried—and it is one of the reasons that the matter has taken so long—to find definite proof to satisfy ourselves on that point—and we have gone out of our way to do it—but, unfortunately for Captain Allison, that definite confirmation of his statement has not been forthcoming.

That fact in itself, however, would not have been enough to cause us to reject his claim entirely. We have also felt obliged to go into the question of the financial loss which he claims that he sustained as a result of the misleading information which he alleges he was given on this occasion. The hon. Member for Woolwich, East will agree that that is also relevant. Captain Allison pleads damnification, that is to say, he claims that because he was misinformed he took action which has caused him loss.

We have been into that matter very carefully indeed and that, again, has been the reason for the delay, which I admit and which I regret, but which has been necessary in order to collect detailed information on this subject as well. Captain Allison's rate of pay when he joined was 29s. a day. That gave him an annual income of £943. In May, 1953, when he moved into married quarters, he became entitled only to a lower rate of marriage allowance at 15s. 6d. a day and his annual income then fell to £891, from which he paid an annual rental of £100.

Captain Allison has been good enough to provide us with details of his income in civil life. His salary as a full-time teacher was £650 a year. He then received fees as a part-time evening instructor at the rate of £40 a year. He received wages as an assistant at Hinksey Baths at the rate of £39 6s. 11d. He received fees for swimming lessons at Hinksey Baths at the rate of £25 a year. He also received, in return for part-time instruction given to a spastic child, another £40 a year he received £20 a year from a firm of motor delivery and transport agents and £10 a year for part-time agricultural work.

Taking all these additions, his total annual income was £824 6s. 11d. a year, from which he paid an annual rental of £75. That compares with an annual income of £943, later falling to £891, less £100, which he received in the Army. In addition to that, Captain Allison also claims that he undertook certain financial commitments, as a result of the information which he was given, including the acquiring of a house on a mortgage. He did all this under the impression that his rate of pay—I am sorry to go into so much detail, but I wanted to make this—

It being Seven o'clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for undertaking Private Business), further Proceeding stood postponed.