HC Deb 31 July 1958 vol 592 cc1746-59

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I have had, at least in the past, one minor virtue in that I have always tried to uphold the sanctity of the law and the processes of the legal system of this country without question. It is sometimes said by certain persons that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor; but that I have always emphatically denied. However, I have denied it in the last few years with less certainty, and I have wondered in the last few weeks about it much more.

Our legal system is one of the best in the world, and I am not going to question that even by reference to the views of a French criminologist, M. Locard, of Lyons, in the case of Timothy John Evans and the advantages of delay in the execution of justice. The virtue of our system is in the integrity of our judges. That is what is said, and it is so; but other countries have that virtue and I have always believed that the one great virtue here is in the integrity of our police forces, responsible very largely to the jurisdiction of the Home Office—forces with a toleration and a desire not to create cases where cases are not necessary, and in which we have a great advantage in the administration of justice and our criminal law.

That is why I have often felt a grave feeling of disquiet when I have seen the continued habit of Government Departments creating their own unofficial police, with ill-defined powers, charged with the job of investigating alleged offences without the training and without the traditions of our police forces. They may well be perfectly honest and industrious people, but they are without the great advantages which a police force has. That is why, on 23rd June, I raised by Questions the case of Mr. Whybrow, an old-age pensioner of undoubted integrity, against whom nothing had been suggested, so far as we know, in his life, who had been drawing his pension and working part-time. When a rather urgent and important building job came along, he worked a few hours longer, and he drew the money. Whether he knew all about it or not, we do not really know, but the evidence of his integrity is in the steps he took afterwards. He found himself being interviewed by this unofficial force employed by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, on an allegation that he had drawn wages for work which he had done—which was to the benefit of the community—and that he had not done what he ought to do, namely, refuse the wages or refuse a part of his pension.

I think that, if those of us who are in the habit of filling up forms were put on oath about it, we should say that, very often, we sign the forms and leave it to accountants to fill in the figures. We may be aware of these things. But does the Parliamentary Secretary really think that every old-age pensioner has these things in mind and knows all the regulations, understands them perfectly, and has it in mind that working an extra half-day a week will bring him, for some reason or other, within the purview of the criminal law?

What has the criminal law to do with these things? A man can owe £100,000, file his petition in bankruptcy, and go free. A man who owes £10 on a wireless set is brought up before the county court, an order is made for payment, and he goes to prison if he does not pay. A greatly increasing number of British citizens, compared with the situation ten years ago, is now in prison on orders of the county courts. We have now a situation in which we create crime. I beg the House to believe that I speak with complete sincerity when I say that, if we are to have a criminal law at all, and it is to be respected, it is essential that one should not keep bringing up before the criminal courts perfectly decent people for mistakes in signing forms or breaches of regulations which they do not clearly understand. It brings the criminal law into contempt, and I cannot see why it is necessary to make crimes of these minor offences.

No doubt the hon. Lady will say that these provisions were established under the Labour Government. Many things were done under the Labour Government which I criticised at the time, and some which I wish I had criticised at the time. But we are now in 1958, and we can look on the effects of past legislation and consider whether it needs review.

No one suggests that Mr. Whybrow was brutally treated or anything like that. But the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance was not at his best on the occasion when I asked him about it. When we put the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance in the political dock, he is inclined to adopt the attitude of the old lag, try to look completely innocent, and look round for other people who should have been charged. We had the usual talk about protecting his officers, but this was not what we were complaining about. No one complained about his officers. We complain about the rule and its effect. If there is any one subject on which I am certain that I can speak as an expert, it is the effect of legal proceedings on the minds of people charged. Very few people realise that the effect on the mind of the person charged is very often in direct ratio to the honesty of the accused—the more decent, the more respectable, a man is, the more suffering he goes through when he is confronted with the possibility of being brought before the courts.

Comparisons are odious. Mr. Whybrow lost his life. He committed suicide rather than face the possibility of proceedings. The Minister said that there was no question of proceedings. His Department had decided not to proceed. But the man was cautioned that anything he said might be used in evidence. The Minister really has not looked at the rules of law, nor, indeed, are his officers instructed in the rules of law. The Judges' Rules make it quite clear—I need not quote the exact words from Stone's Justices' Manual, where they are set out—that the officer should administer the caution only when he has decided that a prosecution may result. It is only at that stage that a formal caution is administered or only when a person is actually under arrest. Until then the interviews are informal and information can be exchanged.

The result of that on the mind of Mr. Whybrow was very bad. Comparisons are odious and I have no desire to elaborate any other matter. But this man committed suicide on the possible threat of a charge relating to £4. It may be said that this is a very exceptional case, that it has happened only once, and that it may not happen again. I should have been rather disposed to take that view but that we read in the paper two days ago of a man charged with defrauding the Inland Revenue for 16 years of a sum of £23,000 and the proceedings were withdrawn on his admission of guilt because of the illness of his wife.

I do not criticise that at all. I take the view that no one has ever been improved by being put in prison, and that a lot of people are made a good deal worse by it. There are some people who have to be put in prison for the protection of society, but the fewer people we put in prison the better for the community at large. I do not criticise that withdrawal of proceedings, but I do say that when a case is made out and is not contested involving a sum of £23,000 over a large number of years and that case is not proceeded with, it does by comparison cause to seem somewhat unfavourable the attitude of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance towards an old-age pensioner who has done work and received pay for it to a very small amount indeed.

I would have left the matter, if I had not received particulars of another case two days ago. I received only today permission to use this name. For that reason I have not been able to give the Parliamentary Secretary details of the case. I got permission only this morning to reveal this, and she has had no opportunity of investigating the matter. However, I think I have sufficient facts here to quote this case and I think I ought to quote it to the House in view of the fact that the House is about to adjourn for twelve weeks.

Thomas William Turner was born in 1888. He was born in poor circumstances. He left school when he was 10 or 11 years of age. Because he was a deeply religious lad he stayed on at night school reading the Scriptures to try to qualify himself for his great ambition to become a local preacher. At the age of 11 he settled in the village euphoniously named Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. He lived and worked there for fifty years in the same neighbourhood. He scarcely left the scene of his labours for fifty years. For fifty years he worked to the satisfaction of his employers and for fifty years he was a preacher on both the Baptist and Methodist circuits of the district and became a man highly respected and deeply loved.

I am told in particular that he was passionately attached to the children, who were even more passionately attached to him: His life was gentle; and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, 'This was a man!' Whether he was the village Hampden or some inglorious Milton I do not know, but he lived a useful life, he lived an honest life, he lived a reputable life, and that he was respected is beyond doubt.

He brought up a family in terms of the ambition we all have, that our children should enjoy a slightly better standard of life than we had, if we can make it so, or at least have expanding opportunity of living and living abundantly. He taught the Gospel as he believed it, and at the end of a blameless life he retired and went to live in another little village in Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends.

He was a man who loved nature. There was not much exciting in his life, but he loved life and life was good—good until the spring of last year. In the spring of last year, having retired, he was doing work for a Mr. Gardner, and Mr. Gardner was not only his employer but also his friend, and he was not only his friend but he was also his wife's brother-in-law.

Had there been the slightest desire to diddle anybody, nothing would have been more easy than for Mr. Gardner to give him a few extra shillings for his hours of work and to say nothing about it. But nobody thought of this at all. Mr. Turner, a man of the highest reputation, worked for Mr. Gardner at busy times, and in the course of that work, it is alleged, and over a fairly considerable period, he had drawn the sum of £2 10s. more than the limit to which he was entitled if he qualified for his old-age pension.

Let me make it quite clear. It was not £2 10s. a week, but £2 10s. in all. How amazing it must have been for a man like that to read the story about a police inspector who spent £86 in a night club in the course of his duty and who was indignant when someone asked him to account for £5.

It was suggested that Mr. Thomas William Turner had overdrawn £2 10s. in disqualification of his full rate of old-age pension. If such a matter had been drawn to the attention of the police they would have laughed and said, "Well, we know Tom, he is not that sort of chap." The police inspector would have said, "I will just nudge his memory next time, but we will not go up to his house and upset him."

But in a tiny village in Oxfordshire a police inspector cannot be sent to see someone in order to find out the facts and make inquiries without the whole village knowing about it. Within an hour or two there is whispering all round the village, and there is conjecture. The finger of shame is pointed at whoever is under suspicion of doing anything wrong.

Even in a kindly village, as I understand this one was, and even when surrounded by friends, little matters of local excitement make themselves felt. I am not quite sure about the date, but I think that it was in the spring of last year that the inquiries were made. Mr. Turner was told that he was under suspicion of having committed an offence. I do not suggest that anyone behaved improperly. These are not easy jobs to perform, and no one suggests that what happened was performed with any exceptional lack of tact.

Mr. Turner's pension book was taken from him and from that moment it was not quite the same life for him. The sun rose and the sun set, but tomorrow was no longer a new day. Tomorrow was a continuation of agony, worry and fear for this man whose life had been spent in teaching the Gospel and in trying to show his fellows how they should behave. He was suddenly confronted with the possibility of a criminal prosecution, and with the loss of his character and reputation.

We can now say that no one would have pointed a finger of scorn for a thing like that. But the real question is how it affects the mind of the man charged. I ask the House to say that in no other organisation, for so small a matter, would so large a sum have been spent in making inquiries. A simple letter of warning saying, "You cannot do that", would have been sufficient.

As I say, Mr. Turner's pension book was taken away from him and from that day he became a very worried man. He travelled to Oxford in May and repaid the £2 10s. The sun rose and the sun set again for him. But nothing came from the Ministry. His friends were worried about it. It was not until 2nd August that his pension book was returned and then only was he told that no prosecution would take place.

Mr. Turner went through this agony for three months, and it got to the stage where life held very little value for him. In spite of his friends, in spite of his relatives and in spite of everyone trying to comfort him, this thing weighed upon his mind. He may have asked himself the perennial question: For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay. The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin."? Perhaps he thought, because he was a deeply religious man, that he would take his case before a tribunal beyond this world where the law is mercy and judgment is not in terms of condemnation but of understanding.

On 25th September he committed suicide. He was found hanging from the banister in his house. It may be said that one should not take up the time of listening senates to deal with individual cases, but is this sort of thing necessary, and being done in our name? The Minister of Pensions talked about the loss of £100 million if he altered the regulations. Is it necessary that the Minister should have a private detective force with no rules? Is not this a matter for the police? If we want to set on people with no great experience of dealing with the law let these people be put on to parking offences and let the police deal with allegations of this kind.

No superintendent and no village police constable would ever have dreamed of proceeding like this. There would have been a little friendly word of warning and a remark to the chief constable that here was a man of the highest reputation whom the police were quite sure had done nothing deliberate or underhand but who, quite openly and through a misunderstanding, had committed a minor breach of a rather difficult and technical law.

If the House is to hold the position which it should hold in the esteem of the people, we ought to be a little more careful in future when we make regulations. We should lay down provisions for them to be administered with humanity, decency, tolerance and understanding, and with respect for human dignity and respect for the individual. We must try to avoid tragedies of this kind, which have ruined a well-spent life and brought great suffering and misery to the friends, relatives and descendants of this honest man.

11.38 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) was kind enough to notify my Department that he proposed to draw attention to the case of Mr. Whybrow. When he began I thought that I should find myself in some difficulty, because it seemed to me that the hon. Member's complaint was against the administration of the law, which is not properly a matter for my Department, despite its multifarious duties. Nevertheless, the hon. Member went on to deal with specific cases which affect my Ministry, and I will do my best to reply.

I must give the House one or two facts about the case of Mr. Whybrow, because the hon. Member, I am sure quite unwittingly, has misled the House. I should like the facts to be clear for the record. The hon. Member mentioned that the man had worked only a few hours longer than he was permitted to do before the earnings rule came into operation. That is not quite correct. He worked from 30th December, 1957, to 5th March, 1958, and during the whole of that time his earnings were above the permitted sum.

Mr. Hale

He worked three days instead of two.

Miss Pitt

If the hon. Member refers to his words in the OFFICIAL REPORT, he will see that he has given the impression that this man worked only a few hours longer.

Mr. Hale


Miss Pitt

I am trying to make it clear that he worked longer, that it was for a period of weeks, and that his wage averaged between £3 16s. 10d. and £5 3s. 0d., so that he exceeded the earnings limit fairly considerably. He did not disclose his earnings.

The overpayment was not, as the hon. Member said, £4. It amounted to £18 3s. 0d. I do not want to exaggerate these differences—this is a tragedy—but it is essential that we should have the correct facts.

Mr. Hale

The hon. Lady is doing me an injustice and, in so doing, is doing herself an injustice. I was referring to the Question which I put down and to which I have referred. It is reported in HANSARD thus: Mr. Hale asked the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance whether he is aware that William Whybrow, aged 69 years, who was drawing a retirement pension of £2 13s. 0d. a week, took a temporary post for three days a week at £4 a week as a property repairer and committed suicide when he heard that the matter was being investigated with a view to prosecution …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd June, 1958; Vol. 590, c. 6.]

Miss Pitt

The hon. Member referred to a few hours' work. However, those are the facts, and I do not want to pursue them beyond making them clear.

Because of the overpayment, Mr. Whybrow was twice seen by an inspector from our Ministry, the second time, under caution. He offered to repay the amount he had overdrawn. Again, I make it clear that at that stage, although a statement was taken from him under caution, there was no threat of prosecution.

Mr. Hale

A caution is a threat of prosecution.

Miss Pitt

Not necessarily, as I shall explain.

The hon. Gentleman said that in his reply to the hon. Member in June my right hon. Friend said that there would have been no question of prosecution, but the hon. Gentleman has not refreshed his memory from HANSARD sufficiently, since my right hon. Friend said that there was no threat of prosecution when Mr. Whybrow was seen for the second time. I cannot say whether there would have been a prosecution, but in any event it did not arise because the man took his own life.

When my right hon. Friend answered the hon. Member on 23rd June, he expressed himself as very sorry about this tragedy. I should like to add to that. Suicide is a dreadful thing, not only because a life is lost, but because it affects the family concerned for a long time thereafter. I very much regret that we are discussing this case again tonight, because it will revive for this family the tragedy of last month.

I must again take up what the hon. Member said about Mr. Whybrow not knowing that he had broken the law and people not understanding the law. We make that fairly clear in the instructions which we give to pensioners, and I have taken the trouble to bring with me some specimen pension order books. The one used at the time Mr. Whybrow was drawing his pension—and there has since been an amended one—shows quite clearly in heavy type on the front page: Earnings over 50s. a week must be reported. In the instructions inside the book it says: If you earn more than 50s. in any calendar week, do not cash the order due for payment in the following week. Instead, complete the 'Declaration of Earnings' form. The later book, which is now in use, says, again clearly and in heavy type: Before you cash an order read the coloured instruction pages in this book. Earnings of 51s. or more in any week must be reported. A similar statement is contained within the book.

That is fairly plain and straightforward, and I believe that the vast majority of pensioners understand the earnings rule. They know that if they earn above a certain figure, they ought to declare the amount of their earnings.

Mr. Whybrow had to be interviewed because he had committed an offence and it had come to our knowledge. What the inspector did was quite proper, and I am glad that the hon. Member has made it clear that he has no complaint against the inspector. When I knew that the hon. Member was raising this matter, I went through the papers personally, and I was particularly struck by one sentence of the inspector's report. It appears that Mrs. Whybrow did most of the talking, and the report says: Mrs. Whybrow told me that the employer had been to warn her husband that I had been through the wages records and that they had been expecting me to call. She mentioned that her husband had been worried in case he had to go into Court. I remember my reply was in the form of an assurance as I could not then say whether there had been fraudulent intent and, as an Inspector, I am at all times required to keep an open mind when investigating irregularities. That makes clear the position of the man who conducted the investigation, and it shows what is the status of the investigating officer. It is not for him to decide whether a prosecution will follow any inquiries he may make.

The hon. Member very generously said that he had not given notice of the other case he mentioned and, therefore, I could not be expected to answer tonight, but I met him briefly this afternoon and he told me that he had a case from Oxfordshire and I have been able to make a brief investigation and am able to add a little to what he said.

I had not intended to mention the name, for, again, I did not want to distress the family—but the hon. Gentleman gave the name as Mr. T. W. Turner. He spoke of this case with some eloquence, effect and emotion, but he did not give the whole of the facts as I know them.

It is true that this man was a retirement pensioner and a part-time lay preacher. He worked for his brother-in-law and failed to disclose his earnings. He was interviewed in the same way as Mr. Whybrow, and, presumably under caution. He offered to repay, and did repay the money. The decision was taken not to prosecute, and he was advised of this on 2nd August, 1957. This was a technical offence.

He committed suicide on 25th September, which was eight weeks later. At the inquest, his brother-in-law admitted that Mr. Turner was aware that the Ministry was not taking proceedings. I know that it weighed on his mind that this investigation had taken place, but the evidence also showed that he had some trouble over Income Tax returns and, though it was not read in court, he did leave a suicide note. It referred to this, and the coroner in summing up suggested that trivial matters had preyed on his conscience.

Mr. Hale

I have reports of the inquest from three local newspapers. There is no mention of a word of that, and the whole of the evidence accepted by the coroner was not disputed as reported in these papers. They all report this as a tragedy resulting from this inquiry. The whole of the evidence was that this man commenced to go down with this inquiry and had gone down the whole time since.

Miss Pitt

I am not trying to suggest that this was not one of the things that preyed on his mind, but my information is that there was this other worry about Income Tax. That was mentioned in the suicide note, which was not read in court.

Nevertheless, here are two cases which concern the hon. Member as they concern all Members, and I should like to make clear the procedure which we use. We have a duty. We operate the National Insurance Act. To qualify for retirement pensions people must prove that they have retired from full-time work, and if they take up work the earnings rule operates. It is our duty to see that it operates properly.

Where we are reasonably certain that a person has committed an offence, an investigating officer is instructed to investigate and is instructed that the interview should be conducted under caution. If the caution is not administered a statement cannot normally be admitted by the court as evidence.

Mr. Hale

The hon. Lady should read the Judge's Rules and find out what they say. I have known them for forty years.

Miss Pitt

If we later had to offer in court evidence not taken under caution, we should be likely to be criticised, and in fact have been criticised in one case—criticised for not taking evidence under caution.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

On a point of order. Is it in order for a Minister to read the contents of a letter which was written before a suicide and which was not read to the court?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

What the hon. Lady has said is not out of order.

Mr. Hale

Can the hon. Lady tell us how she knows the contents of a note which was not read out at the inquest?

Miss Pitt

If the hon. Member wishes to ask me a question, perhaps he will do so properly.

I should like to clear up the point about the form of caution. It follows exactly that laid down in the Judges' Rules. We have the identical wording. The suspected person is given an opportunity to explain his conduct even when the evidence of committing an offence is otherwise complete. That is very proper and in accordance with our own ideas of justice. The decision to prosecute is not taken until after the interview, when all the relevant evidence has been assembled, and it is at this stage that any mitigating factors are taken into account. I would like to emphasise that the statement made under caution may help the individual concerned.

Mr. Hale

Does the hon. Lady know that we are now dealing with the law of England? It has been laid down on this matter by Her Majesty's judges. They have laid these things down after long dispute in this House over gross miscarriages of justice associated with the taking of statements. These rules now control the whole procedure of the law, whether it is administered by the police or by any local Ministerial O.G.P.U. The second rule says: Whenever a police officer has made up his mind to charge a person with a crime he should first caution such person before asking any question, or any further question, as the case may be. That is the law, and the law is not altered by a Parliamentary Answer by the Minister of Pensions or his Parliamentary Secretary.

Miss Pitt

Nevertheless, if we are to proceed to take legal action against persons who have infringed the law we must take proper precautions when inviting them to make statements on these matters, and I think that the action we take is quite proper.

I was trying to explain that the statement made in some cases helps the individual. It may throw a favourable light on his action, and it can be taken into account later, when we decide whether or not to pursue the matter further. None of these cases—and they are fortunately rare—is straightforward; they are very complicated. We have the task of administering the law as Parliament has laid it down.

I do not wish to bring in any political controversy, but the hon. Member himself suggested that it was his own party which passed the Act. This is correct, and both parties have operated it. Nevertheless, for the purpose of administering it we have to follow the provisions of the law. I am sure that my officers administer it as wisely and generously and with as much humanity as possible. We have discussed the tragedy of suicide tonight. Nevertheless, I feel that in the case of the large majority of people who draw retirement pensions from our Department we should find that things run without difficulties, complications and legal cases, and I should like particularly to emphasise that I am satisfied that my officers do a very good job.