HC Deb 28 November 1957 vol 578 cc1432-42

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

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

Mr. and Mrs. Brooks live at 61, Kingston-avenue, on the Yew Tree Estate, in the Urban District of Chadderton, in the County of Lancaster, and in the constituency of Oldham, West. They have been a well-respected and contented family, despite the fact that fortune has not treated them kindly.

They had two sons, one aged 22, and the son Colin who was born on 3rd July, 1938, and had reached the age of 18. The elder son was serving in the Forces. Then the father, who had worked regularly, was seized with a serious illness, and for two years has been almost unable to work; so a disproportionate share of the burden of keeping the family fell on the 18-year-old youth.

He, too, had not been fortunate. He was well liked and well respected among his friends; but as a lad he went to a convalescent home in Southport, had a severe fall, and sustained a severe fracture of the hip and knee. Although he made a substantial recovery he became to an extent lame. His foot was permanently turned outward, although he could walk and ride his bicycle. He was, to that limited extent, an incurable cripple and was debarred from taking part in any form of athletic sport or endeavour.

Whether he was suffering from epilepsy at the time he went to Southport or whether the epilepsy was consequent upon the accident no one seems to know. So far as the parents know, it is not a case of idiopathic epilepsy; there was no sign of epilepsy before the accident.

It is fair to say that for someone suffering all these disabilities, the fair treatment for epilepsy is to continue one's normal activity. All the medical authorities say that the most unwise thing to do is to cease from such activities as one is capable of performing. He attended his work regularly and to the best of my information he had no attack of the disease and no fit from the time he was 15 years of age.

He was called upon to register for military service and did so register and then had instructions to report at Manchester, which has its city boundaries actually abutting on the urban boundaries of Chadderton. He was instructed to report in the early hours of 27th May last. The lad had none of those disqualifications for military service of a social character to which reference has been made in other Adjournment debates. I have no wish to introduce personal questions into this at all, but if one looks at those previous debates one finds that attention has been directed to questions of disqualification for military service on apparently slight examination. When one compares them with the circumstances of this case, one can understand why the old adage is remembered in Oldham about there being one law for the rich and one for the comparatively poor.

The lad left his home at 7.30 in the morning of 27th May and returned to his home at 4.30 p.m. in a state of very deep distress. He told his parents that the medical examination had been very exacting. He had gone furnished with a certificate from his own doctor, which said he was unfit for military service, but that certificate referred only to his epilepsy and did not make reference to the fact that he was permanently crippled in the leg, presumably because that was obvious to any observer.

The lad came back in a state of distress. He ate no food at all and told his parents he had had a very rough time. He said he had been sent to hospital for examination. That, I gather, may have been for the X-ray photograph of the chest. He said he had been sent to the Salford Hospital for examination. He ate no food but managed to doze in his chair and at 9 o'clock his mother suggested that he should go to bed. He had a glass of milk and went to bed. Next morning he rose at 9 o'clock, again in a state of distress, and complained again of the medical examination. He said it had upset him very much, but he decided to go to work. He cycled to work and, as far as I know, performed his ordinary duties. He arrived home some time after 12.30. At five minutes to one he was sitting in his chair and said to his parents, Goodbye", and at one o'clock he died.

No doctor could be called in the time. It is fair to say that no doctor had been called the night before. As an epileptic, of course, his parents were acquainted with the fact that he was capable of having seizures. A post mortem examination was performed on Colin Brooks by order of the coroner of Rochdale and it disclosed, as the death certificate records, that death was due to status epilepticus. Status epilepticus is a very acute stage of epilepsy. The medical textbooks say it occurs only after either a number of consecutive fits of epilepsy within a limited time, or after some fairly severe testing experience which has brought about a wholly new condition. I have no wish to put the case higher than I am asked to put it, but from all inquiries we have been able to make he had had no fit since he was 15 years of age and he was now on the verge of being 19. It was two-and-a-half years since the last known epileptic fit.

I do not suggest for a moment that there was anything like physical cruelty, but it is a matter for consideration whether this lad, so obviously crippled, a lad 5 ft. 3½ ins. in height, a lad with a long medical history and with more than one visit to convalescent homes, who had suffered from severe epilepsy and was quite unfit, should have been unnecessarily detained for examination for something like seven hours and sent for an X-ray report on his chest, which had no relevance to his case.

He made one complaint in particular. He said that the doctors kept making efforts to straighten out the leg. I know that that is denied, and I do not want to add any unnecessary controversy, but if that be true, then we have this treatment of a man with a fracture of the hip and a fracture of the knee, with the leg turned permanently outwards. These are matters beyond controversy, known to the whole of his circle of friends.

If one compares examinations of this kind with the reports of examinations which have taken place where the man had a social qualification for exemption, such as being able to play cricket or to drive racing motorcars or to take part in athletic contests, one is entitled to ask what are the classes of treatment which are given at examinations of this kind. Time after time in the House I have complained about the treatment of men who apply for industrial injury benefit for pneumoconiosis, silicosis, byssinosis and similar diseases or men who apply for pensions for disability. They are rarely given a hearing of more than 15 minutes, often have no examination at all, or when they have an examination it is so perfunctory in nature that the reports of specialists over years are overturned in a five-minute examination and pensions and disability allowances are refused.

But when it comes to military service we find a sick and crippled lad of 5 ft. 3½ ins. in height who is away from home for about seven hours, who returns home in such a state of distress that the following day, whether by direct result or not—I do not say that it is—or whether by the aggravating effect or not, which is certainly more likely, and who dies suddenly in his chair at the age of 18 years 9 months. He died within a minute or two or some sort of seizure and without any other manifestation except the distress which he displayed from the time he came back from the examination.

I wrote to the Minister about the matter and he said that he would make inquiries. He later wrote to me and said that he had made inquiries, but I understood from the letter that the inquiries were made only from the officials and the doctors who were there. If this examination went on all day, there were others awaiting examination that day who would be able to tell us a very great deal more about what transpired than we can ascertain by merely inquiring of people who, however honourable and distinguished, are necessarily interested parties. To be fair to the doctors. I understand that they say that they do not remember the case very well; they say that there was nothing outstanding at all, and as far as they know no special steps were taken. That is rather surprising if the disabilities were as obvious as I am instructed that they were.

Those are the facts which I desire to bring before the House tonight. I say that on those facts it is the duty of the Minister to make the fullest possible inquiry into the accuracy of the statement put forward in the best of faith by people of the highest respectability, by people who have lost their young son in very tragic circumstances—a son to whom they were devoted, who, on the testimony of everyone in the district, was deeply loved and deeply respected and whose death is very deeply regretted.

11.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Mr. Robert Carr)

The first thing which I want to do and ought to do is to express sympathy with the parents and family of Colin Brooks who have been bereaved in this way. I imagine that that is obviously the thought and feeling which forms in our minds. I realise that it is because of their feelings of distress that the parents will look to outside causes which may have contributed to their tragic loss. Indeed, it is right, if any doubt exists, that this suspicion should be voiced, and it is right that the hon. Member should raise the matter in the House tonight. In reply, I certainly do not want to say anything which could add to the distress which the parents have already suffered.

Nevertheless, it is a serious charge which is being made, because, in effect, it is no less than that the doctors and others who conducted this young man's examination treated him in a way which contributed to his death. If I am sure—as I am—that this charge is without substance, I feel that it is my duty, in defence of those concerned, to contradict it categorically, and explain as fully as possible my reasons for doing so.

As soon as my right hon. Friend learned of Colin Brooks' tragic death, through the letter which the hon. Member wrote to him on 11th June, he ordered an inquiry to be made. That inquiry was no routine affair, involving the exchange of a few memoranda and letters; it was conducted personally on the spot, in Manchester, by my Department's Chief Medical Officer for National Service, and another senior officer from headquarters, together with the Regional Medical Officer for the region. They together interviewed the chairman of the medical board the doctor who examined Colin Brooks' physical capacity, including his limbs and the movement of his joints, and also the Ministry of Labour staff who were assisting the medical board at the time.

All these people were closely questioned about the circumstances of the examination, and I am as satisfied as I can be that the accounts they gave hang together, make a consistent whole, and prove, in my opinion beyond any reasonable doubt, that nothing occurred in connection with the examination which could be held to blame for Colin Brooks' death two days later.

It is true, as the hon. Member said, that we did not seek out the other people who attended as prospective National Service men at that board. If there had been any reasonable doubt there might have been a case for that, but I really feel that the answers we got, crosschecked by seeing these different people, were sufficient. Perhaps the best thing I can do is to give an account of the procedure followed in this case.

First of all, it should be stressed that neither the Ministry of Labour nor any member of the medical board had any foreknowledge of Colin Brooks' physical condition. He was therefore examined under our normal arrangements, which are designed to deal with young men expected to be in normal health, even if some may prove to be unfit for military service. Here I should like to take up what seemed to me to be the only regrettable part of the hon. Member's speech—his theme about there being one law for the rich and another for the poor, and his suggestion that if it is socially desirable for some men to be turned down—such as cricketers or racing motorists—they receive a more cursory examination than did Colin Brooks.

I am certain that that is not so. I am sure that all those men had proper, normal medical examinations. If the hon. Member ever comes across any evidence which suggests that anybody is rejected for National Service without proper examination, I should like to look into it.

Mr. Hale

I hope that the hon. Member will not ask me for that. The question was debated in the House a year or two ago. No one wants to rake these matters over again, but if the hon. Member will turn up the reports of the debates and see what was said in the House a year or two ago he will find at least two named cases—I do not like to introduce names into this—of people who were probably performing a far more useful function by not being in the Forces, and who were performing athletic feats involving the utmost demand upon their physiques, and who have done so ever since.

Mr. Carr

I want to keep to the case in question, but I thought I ought to reject any suggestion that because Colin Brooks was not a famous name, or was in his particular social class, he was treated in any less kindly or thoughtful manner. As I say, nobody in the medical board or in the Ministry of Labour had any foreknowledge of his state, and therefore he was given the normal examination treatment. Any man who produces medical evidence in advance that he is unfit for military service or that the normal military examination procedure would constitute hardship or risk would be offered a simplified examination, and I am bound to say that it is a pity in this case that some such steps in advance were not taken. Then, perhaps, Colin Brooks might never have had to travel to the medical board and undergo the medical examination.

Mr. Hale

How would he know?

Mr. Carr

I think that it is generally known, because it is done, and our Regulations make provision for it. I think that any doctor or parent who is anxious about a boy making a journey like that would normally take that step. I do not want to make too much about that, except to point it out, because I am convinced that when he got to the medical examination he was treated normally and reasonably.

The hon. Member asked if he had an X-ray examination when he was obviously in this state? It happens that the normal routine of all these medical examinations is that all people who attend for a session are X-rayed. That is the first step. So Colin Brooks arrived at the medical board centre at 8.45 and, together with all the other people who came for that session, he was taken in a special bus to the X-ray centre for miniature mass radiography. That is a routine part of all examinations. He was then brought back to the medical board centre where he arrived at about 10.30 a.m.

He then took the normal next step in the examination, which is the written intelligence test with questions set out in a booklet. That test, together with the other routine documentation, was completed by about 11.30 a.m. He was then told that there would be a luncheon break until about 12.15. Immediately after that luncheon break, he completed the usual questionnaire about his medical history, and it was at this point that he disclosed that at the age of 12 he had suffered from fits.

He entered the actual medical examination room at about 12.45, and he left the medical board centre at about 2 p.m., that is, about 1¼ hours later, after having been placed in Grade IV, which, of course, meant that he had been adjudged unfit for military service.

During the actual medical examination, he was seen, as is usual, by five doctors. The first doctor, as is usual, checked his medical history, his mental capacity and emotional stability. It was at this stage, as is appropriate, that Colin Brooks produced a medical certificate from his own doctor saying that he was suffering from epilepsy. The doctor also at this stage elicited the fact that he had suffered from a leg injury, although Colin Brooks told that doctor that this had ceased to trouble him. There was, however, nothing about this on the medical certificate, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, neither did he refer to that leg injury when completing the form giving his medical history at an earlier stage. The second doctor checked his ears, nose and throat and teeth in the normal way.

We come now to the third doctor, who was the one responsible for the examination of the limbs, joints and general physique. This doctor was particularly closely questioned during our inquiry because this was the only possible stage of the examination when the question of trying to straighten Colin Brooks' injured leg could have occured, as has been alleged. The doctor concerned clearly remembered examining Colin Brooks. He could not recall every detail of the interview, but he assumed that, as usual, Colin Brooks was asked to make the normal physical movements, including knee bending, arm stretching, etc. But the doctor says that an extensive examination of Colin Brooks' physical condition such as is usually carried out was not carried out it was not necessary because it was obvious to this doctor responsible for this section of the examination that Colin Brooks was unfit for military service. So he was passed on to the fourth doctor, who made the routine test of pulse, heart, chest and abdomen.

He came next to the fifth doctor, who is chairman of the board and whose task it is—and, of course, was on this occasion—to review the other doctors' findings, form his own impression, and complete the grading. As already mentioned, the chairman immediately put Colin Brooks in Grade IV, that is, graded him unfit for military service.

When questioned during our inquiry, the chairman of the board could not particularly recall Mr. Brooks from among all the others attending during the board's work that day, but he made the point—I think it is a fair one—that he is quite certain that he would have remembered if any man had appeared before him in a distressed condition. The medical board's clerical staff, who also were most closely questioned, stated that Colin Brooks had been dealt with in the normal way and that to the best of their recollection he had shown no signs of distress in their presence. Certainly, they said, when they saw him after the examination to pay him his fares and his lost earnings, he made no complaint about his treatment any more than he showed any distress.

We have made a fairly close analysis of what happened during the medical examination. It brings nothing unusual to light other than the fact that the part of the examination dealing with physics condition and limb movements was less comprehensive and stringent than normal because it seemed to the doctor responsible for that part of the test that Colin Brooks would certainly be graded unfit for military service and, therefore, ought not to be put through the full rigour of the tests which are normally carried out at that stage.

Mr. Hale

I appreciate the Parliamentary Secretary's careful and thoughtful answer, but I refer him to his original letter, in which it was said that one of the doctors had reported that Colin Brooks was unsteady and emotional in his behaviour and very much underweight and that, notwithstanding that, he was probably put through the whole of the series of exercises, including knee-bending, arm-stretching, physical movements, and so on. It seems to me that this lonely lad of 18 years of age, with a long history of illness, with a certificate from his doctor that he had epilepsy, who was seriously crippled, going there alone, already probably in a nervous condition, to be examined for military service, who was subjected to an intelligence test, sent off to a hospital, examined by five doctors and put through arm-stretching, physical exercises, and so on, certainly must have had an emotional experience which disturbed him a great deal. I appreciate however, the careful way in which the matter has been dealt with and the way in which the Parliamentary Secretary has replied.

Mr. Carr

I had not quite finished. As I have one or two minutes left, there are one or two things I should like to say. I had certainly completed the main part of my case.

The doctor who made the remark about Colin Brooks' unsteadiness and emotional stability and the fact that he was under weight, was the third doctor to whom I have referred, who is quite categoric that he put him through only the initial movement tests before he realised that the man was obviously unfit and spared him the rest of the tests. That doctor categorically states that at no stage did he attempt to straighten Colin Brooks' injured leg.

There is only one other point with which I wish to deal. I do not wish to stress this heavily, because I do not want to say anything which might cause distress and I certainly do not want to throw doubt on anything that the parents have said in their loss. We did, however, make other inquiries locally. From the inquiries made of Mr. Brooks' own doctor and from the police, we are informed that Colin Brooks collapsed in the street while riding his bicycle on the Wednesday morning. Moreover, we understand that although his own doctor had given him a great deal of treatment over a period of six years, neither his doctor nor his partner was called to see Colin Brooks between his visit to the medical board and his death two days later.

Mr. Hale

The morning after.

Mr. Carr

No. He came back from the medical board—

Mr. Hale

He died on the Tuesday morning. He was examined on the Monday.

Mr. Carr

He was examined on Monday, 27th May, and he died shortly after noon on Wednesday, 29th May. Neither on the Monday evening nor the Tuesday nor the Wednesday morning, therefore, was his own doctor called in.

We have looked into this case carefully. It is a tragic case. It is a pity, perhaps, that advance information was not given about this man's condition. I will certainly look into this point, because we want to learn from things that happen, to ascertain whether any measures should be taken to draw the attention of parents and other people more than is done at the moment to the possibility of applying for special treatment, and because I feel that had this man been advised to give a full account of his condition in advance he might have been spared the journey. But he made the journey—

Mr. Hale

He went to the doctor whose services the hon. Gentleman is now extolling and from whom he has obtained private information behind the patient's back.

Mr. Carr

That is unfair. I should like to close as I began, by expressing my sympathy with the parents but also defending the way the doctors treated the man at the medical examination.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Twelve o'clock.