HC Deb 07 November 1961 vol 648 cc937-48

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

10.12 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

It is perhaps not altogether beyond the traditions of this House that after debating the Loyal Address and having had the grand inquest of the nation we should turn to the question of a grievance of a humble citizen of this country who feels he has been aggrieved by the Executive. I refer to the case of a constituent of mine, Mr. J. H. Donovan of County Down.

The facts are very simple and are as follows. Mr. Donovan served for twenty-five years in Her Majesty's Forces as a Regular soldier. He finished his tour of duty in the Army, having reached the rank of warrant officer, Class II, R.Q.M.S., and left the Army with an exemplary character. Mr. Donovan then joined the Territorial Army, in which he served for three and a half years. After that he sought employment as a civilian employee of the War Office and served in Belfast, in County Down, and was then posted to Cyprus, after which he returned to County Down, to Ballykinlar, again as a civilian employee.

His troubles started in April, 1960, when he applied for and received a job as a War Office security guard in Germany. He went to the headquarters of the British Army of the Rhine and subsequently to Bonn. It was when he got to Bonn to the Joint Service Liaison Organisation that his troubles began.

When he got there, after all these years of long service, in which no complaint had ever been made against him of any kind, he found that the conditions of service were very difficult and onerous, with long tours of duty and four men doing the work of six. Sometimes he had very long hours without a meal break. I have looked at his schedule of employment. Sometimes there were spells of duty as long as fourteen hours and occasionally as long as twenty-one hours in the twenty-eight hour period. The meals service was very inadequate.

The employment began to get him down. The culminating point was reached on 7th January, 1961, when, after a fourteen-hour spell of duty, which he finished at 9 a.m., he found that a meal had been left for him, after a twenty-five minute walk to his billet, but that it was uneatable.

His general health was deteriorating. He failed to turn up for duty that night; he was due at 9 p.m., but he was not there. What happened according to Mr. Donovan was that he felt so unwell that he went to Bonn to get some medical supplies and then on to Cologne, and eventually he failed to come on duty. A charge of absence without leave was made against him. He was notified of the charge, which was under three counts of absence without leave. He replied to the charge, giving his defence, which was that at that time in the winter, after the long hours of duty and the very difficult time he had been through, he had not felt well and had gone for medical supplies and then had failed to turn up for duty.

Under the terms of his employment he could have been dismissed for misconduct. In fact, he was not. The military authorities considered the evidence against him and considered the letter which he wrote explaining why he had been absent. They said that they would not proceed with the charges, but they gave him one month's notice.

Had they charged him with misconduct and held a court of inquiry, he would have had an opportunity to defend himself against the charge and to give his reasons for being absent as a defence, but this did not happen. If he had been found guilty of misconduct he would have forfeited his passage money to the United Kingdom and his right to a month's notice. In fact, he was dismissed in the regular way and charges were not preferred against him. He received his passage money back to the United Kingdom, and that was the end of his service. This would perhaps have been bad enough. He might have felt at that stage that he had a grievance because he had not been heard in his defence. But what aggravated what happened was when he applied at the local National Insurance office, the employment exchange, in Downpatrick, County Down, for a job. While he was waiting for employment the Ministry of Labour in Northern Ireland inquired of the War Office whether he had been dismissed the service and if there was any reason for his dismissal from the service. The War Office replied to the Minister of Labour that Mr. Donovan had been dismissed for misconduct.

This, as the House will readily appreciate, in Mr. Donovan's view seriously prejudiced his whole future employment. His services had been terminated. He had not been found guilty of any offence. Yet the charge was held against him when he tried to get any employment in the public service. As he was a man who all his life had been employed with exemplary character in the public service, it was obvious to him — I think that he was justified in holding the view —that his whole future was prejudiced.

Accordingly he went to his solicitor. His solicitor came to me. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. In a letter to me dated 10th April my hon. Friend pointed out that Mr. Donovan had been discharged from temporary employment with the War Department in Germany following an investigation into his failure to report for duty … He was given a month's notice … My hon. Friend then said: I cannot find that the term ' misconduct' has been used by the War Department in connection with his discharge… As regards a testimonial from the War Office, Mr. Donovan wrote to you on 27th February, and on the same date the Civilian Establishment and Pay Officer in Germany despatched a testimonial to him. I was not at all satisfied with my hon. Friend's answer, so I wrote two more letters to him. In my letter of 30th August I made these points, which I think are relevant. Absence from duty is not alone an offence on which a charge can be founded; in other words, it must be absence from duty which is voluntary and for which there is no good reason. The simple fact that a man has not been there is not sufficient evidence of misconduct. Mr. Donovan's letter in reply to these charges constituted what is, at any rate, prima facie, a reasonable defence.

It seems that the authorities concluded that he was guilty of the offence and treated his letter of explanation as if it were a plea in mitigation. I do not imply that there has been any bad faith on the part of either the War Office or any other authority. I fully accept that they thought they were being lenient to Mr. Donovan, but the result of not charging him, not bringing him to trial or before a court of inquiry, and not giving him an opportunity of defending himself, is that a miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated.

In a further letter my hon. Friend referred to the question of the War Office having used the term "misconduct". In his letter of 3rd August he said: In the light of what is said in the letter enclosed with your letter of the 28th April I have had further inquiries made, and I do find that in a form which was sent to Northern Ireland Command by the Ministry of Labour and National Service of Northern Ireland asking whether Mr. Donovan's discharge was due to unsatisfactory conduct of any kind, the Command answered that Mr. Donovan had been given one month's notice of discharge for misconduct in the shape of absence from duty, particulars of the absence being given. I am sorry that I misled you in my earlier letter. I accept my hon. Friend's apology about that. I am certain that there was no intention of any kind to mislead me and that there was a genuine mistake. Nevertheless, I think my hon. Friend will agree that I was justified in the suspicion I had at the time that perhaps someone in the War Office was slightly ashamed of what had happened and had perhaps failed to give my hon. Friend all the information that was due to him. However, I do not want to make a point of that.

My main point is that, according to any inquiries which any Government Department may have made of the War Office, Mr. Donovan was dismissed for misconduct. Either the War Office dismissed him for misconduct, in which case he should have had a trial of some sort and an opportunity of defending himself, or his service was terminated in the ordinary way because he was not required, or something like that. The War Office cannot have it both ways. If it was the latter, Mr. Donovan should receive a perfectly clear testimonial. He has a right not to be described as having been dismissed for misconduct, or having been dismissed because he was unsuitable.

The phrase "temperamentally unsuitable" has since been used by the War Office. It first appeared in a letter dated 3rd October. The War Office has maintained throughout that the charges against Mr. Donovan were established, and that he was not temperamentally suitable for the job. In fact, the charges against him have never been established. Charges have been made against him, but he has not had the opportunity of defending himself.

The charge of being temperamentally unsuitable is based on that one occasion when he was absent without leave. It is true that in the course of his absence he committed a minor currency offence. He cashed a cheque, but he did so after going to the police to see whether he could get any help about getting back to his barracks. He was then in a very confused state of mind, and a very tired man. He told me that on that occasion he felt as though he was suffering from battle fatigue. He cashed a cheque on a Northern Ireland Bank to pay for his taxi back to barracks. It was not a serious offence, but, because of that and his absence without leave on this one occasion, the War Office appear to be basing a charge either on misconduct or on being temperamentally unsuitable.

The serious aspect of this is that Mr. Donovan's employment has since been prejudiced. On three occasions he has applied for a job. First, with the General Post Office in my constituency in Down-patrick, secondly with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and thirdly with the Foreign Office in London where he applied for a job as a Chancellery guard. He was told by the Foreign Office that he could be reasonably certain of getting the job provided his references were all right. He later heard from the Foreign Office that the position had been filled. It was clear that the Foreign Office had taken up a reference and that the War Office either was not willing to give Mr. Donovan a reference, or said that he was temperamentally unsuitable, or something of that sort. At any rate, Mr. Donovan did not get the job.

After all these years in the public service, he is employed sorting mailbags with the General Post Office at Padding-ton Station. I think that he has a perfectly genuine grievance. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies, will not close the door upon seeing whether there is some way in which what Mr. Donovan, in my opinion rightly, considers to be a grievance can be remedied. He has, in effect, been denied justice. I accept fully that the authorities have acted in good faith. None the less, the injustice has been committed and my constituent is entitled to some form of redress. I am not suggesting quite how.

On the general question concerning the employment of civilian employees I suggest that there is need to look at the method of treating civilian employees who commit any act of misconduct or give unsatisfactory service because it seems to me that even when the authorities are acting in good faith and, as they think, fairly, injustices can arise. I wonder whether my hon. Friend, in addition to considering the particular case of my constituent, will look at the question as a whole.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) for the opportunity he gave me to discuss this case with him at some length before he raised it on the Floor of the House. I hope now to satisfy him that Mr. Donovan has been fairly treated by the authorities from the start of this affair to the finish.

Mr. Donovan is an old soldier with a good record of service with the Royal Ulster Rifles. He finished up, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, as R.Q.M.S. in the regiment. After leaving the Army and having done various other jobs in the meantime, he applied in July, 1959, for service as security guard in the War Department in Germany, was selected by interview and took up his duties at Headquarters, Joint Services Liaison Organisation, at Bonn, in April, 1960.

The events with which we are concerned tonight started when, on 7th January, 1961, Mr. Donovan failed to report for duty at, I think, 11 o'clock — my hon. and gallant Friend said 9 o'clock —at night at the Joint Services Liaison Office at Bonn, where he was due to go on guard. Naturally, the authorities instituted inquiries into what happened to Mr. Donovan that night and, so far as I have been able to confirm it, this is the story.

At five minutes to twelve that night, Mr. Donovan, who was then in Cologne, some twenty miles away from Bonn, took a taxi to the station. When he got there, he found that he had not got enough money to pay the fare, so he went with the taxi driver to the police station. The police got hold of the proprietor of the taxi firm and asked whether he was prepared to take Mr. Donovan to Bonn, where, he had stated, he would be able to pay the fare by cheque, Bonn being where he had his quarters and where he was due to be on guard.

They went back to Bonn, the money was produced and then —we have all this on the evidence of the proprietor of the taxi firm —Mr. Donovan went back in the taxi to the place in Cologne from which he had been picked up. The taxi driver states that this journey ended shortly after 3 o'clock in the morning.

Mr. Donovan's explanation of why he failed to report for duty and his movements on the night in question boils down to the fact that owing to long spells of duty and insufficient time for rest and recreation, coupled with some news from home about his wife's health, which had caused him acute anxiety, he had reached a stage of mental instability such that he did not know what he was doing. He said that on the Saturday morning, the day he was due to go on duty, he felt very ill and went into town to get some medicine, which made him sick and dizzy, with the result that he found himself in Cologne railway station, from where he wandered into a cinema and fell asleep. After that, he remembers setting off from Cologne to Bonn, where he intended to report for duty, and he recollects nothing more until he was awakened in his billet on the Sunday morning.

At this stage, there are two points on which I should comment. The first is Mr. Donovan's allegation that the hours he was being required to work were altogether unreasonable and, as such, provided an excuse for what subsequently happened. It is certainly true that he had been working long hours. He was on duty between 7 o'clock at night and 9 o'clock in the morning on both 5th and 6th January. The position was that there were three guards sharing the twenty-four hours run of duty between them. I have, however, no record of his having reported to his superiors that this was having a serious effect upon his health, or, indeed, of his having taken any steps to consult a doctor or ask for medical treatment, which was available to him and to the rest of his unit on the spot.

In so far as there is substance in Mr. Donovan's complaint about conditions which he says affected him in the way they did, as I shall presently try to make clear to my hon. and gallant Friend, this was taken fully into account in dealing with his case as a mitigating circumstance. The steps taken to deal with Mr. Donovan's absence from duty were as follows. On 11th January he was formally charged in writing with the three offences to which my hon. and gallant Friend has referred and which I will not repeat again here. The procedure followed is in accordance with the Civilian Staff Regulations, a copy of which I have here. The charges were accompanied in the same letter by supporting evidence, the gist of which I have already given to the House. It dealt with his movements on the night in question.

Mr. Donovan's reply to the charges, to which I have already referred, was in essence a plea of mitigation. He did not deny them, but represented that his health had been put under an unfair strain and that this had led to long periods during which he was not accountable for his actions and, in fact, could not remember them. It was in the light of all this, including the plea of mitigation, that the competent authori-ies in B.A.O.R. considered the case and felt that although the charges had been established —Mr. Donovan, in fact, had not denied them in his letter — disciplinary action of the degree which would normally be appropriate should not be taken against him.

At the same time, they felt that his conduct, which was not denied by Mr. Donovan, had revealed his unsaiitabality for continued employment as a security guard. It was therefore decided that his services should be terminated by normal discharge after the requisite period of notice. This decision was made known to Mr. Donovan in writing by the chief of his organisation on 27th January, 1961.

My hon. and gallant Friend has queried the correctness of this procedure. He has said that in his view there ought to have been a court of inquiry and an opportunity given to the accused to make representations, and so on. It is true that the regulations provide that if in his written reply the employee disputes any allegation contained in the charge against him he is to be afforded such an opportunity to make representations. But Mr. Donovan had not disputed the charges made against him. His attention had been drawn to the regulations, and I at the moment know of no evidence that he asked to make representations orally.

Captain Orr

I am very sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend —I agree that I have not left him very long in which to reply —'but he keeps saying that Mr. Donovan did not dispute the charges. He did not dispute the absence, but he did dispute the fact that he was absent without leave under the regulations.

Mr. Ramsden

The charges were charges of being absent and that he failed to report for duty. He did not dispute the charges or that he had committed the somewhat technical offence in connection with the cheque. This is my point. Though attention had been drawn to the regulations, Mr. Donovan did not take the chance which is referred to in the regulations of making oral representations.

I must uphold the decision of the authorities that Mr. Donovan, on the evidence of the case, could no longer be considered as temperamentally suitable for employment as a security guard. He returned to the United Kingdom on 2nd February. He remained in the pay of the War Department up to and including 27th February, 1961, this following the terms on which it was decided to bring about his discharge. He received a testimonial to his services on 27th February and subsequently obtained employment in the Post Office.

My hon. and gallant Friend has represented in previous correspondence and tonight that we were at fault in that he would find difficulty in getting future employment, particularly in any Government Department, because it had been represented by the War Office to the Ministry of Labour in Northern Ireland that he had been discharged for misconduct. Mr. Donovan contended that if the War Office had given this information to the Ministry of Labour they would probably repeat it elsewhere and so prejudice his chance of obtaining Crown employment.

I should like to explain how this point cropped up. It is necessary for the Ministry of Labour's functions, in determining whether a man is eligible for unemployment benefit, that they should be given by his previous employers the reasons for his having left that employment, and there is a form for this purpose which has to be filled in. On this form the War Office put "misconduct", but I must stress two points. In the first place, it is difficult to see how we could have described What happened in terms other than misconduct, although we might have said "unsatisfactory conduct". Secondly, and this is the main point, this form is a document entirely confidential to the Ministry of Labour. I have been categorically assured that there was no question of it getting outside the files of the War Office and the Ministry of Labour and so prejudicing Mr. Donovan's chances of future employment as he feared it might. This is borne out by the event, because he eventually obtained employment with the Post Office and —I have checked on this —the Post Office had heard nothing of any question of misconduct on his part.

Captain Orr

What about the Foreign Office?

Mr. Ramsden

I have not checked with the Foreign Office. The information available to me is that he applied for a job in the Post Office almost as soon as he left War Office employment, and their inquiries occupied the five or six months intervening between then and the time that he was accepted by them. Reading between the lines of this case, and on all the evidence that I have been able to obtain, I am certain —

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.