HC Deb 06 December 1963 vol 685 cc1606-16

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. A. R. Wise (Rugby)

I want to raise the personal case of one single man, but, although it is the case of a single man who I think has been denied his just dues, a general principle is involved that justifies an Adjournment debate. The question involved is: is a Government Department, as an employer, to be judged on standards different from those we would expect from a private firm? Is the Government, as a boss, to be solely legalistic in its attitude, or behave as we would expect a good private employer to behave? My contention is that even on the strict letter of the law my constituent has an entitlement which he has been denied but, if the Ministry cannot accept this, I hope that it will conform to the general principle which I hope to develop a little later.

I am quite certain that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air will do his best to bring the Treasury into a sympathetic line. He was once himself a Regular soldier, and knows what the Treasury is like. I am sure that we can rely on his sympathy. Going, also, on what he has said in the eight or so letters I have received from him since the case started, and on the tone of his right hon. Friend's replies to Questions I have put in this House, I am sure that he will do his best for us.

About two years ago—presumably in order to encourage airmen to leave the Royal Air Force—it must have been getting overstocked at the time—a resettlement grant was to be given to all those mustered out of the Service on or before 30th March, 1962. In Sergeant Hughes's case, the grant would have amounted to £250. I do not know why 30th March was picked except that, of course, for some curious reason known only to the accounting system of the Royal Air Force, it is the end of a pay period. Why, I do not know, and why 31st March should not have been as good a date, equally, I do not know. But I am convinced that commanding officers, seeing these instruc- tions, would say, "Oh, yes—the end of the month," and would not have firmly driven home to them that there was one spare day which might be fatal if they were not very careful in carrying out their duty to discharge men in time to get the grant.

At the time of his discharge, Sergeant Hughes was in hospital. I should like this point to be remembered as one that is extremely important, because I maintain that the Regulations differ, and can be seen to differ, in this matter. He left hospital at about 9 a.m. on 31stJanuary, with a leave pass that was date-stamped 30th January and which actually gave him permission to leave at midday. "Midday" and "after duty" are, in my view, two very different things, a point that I will develop later.

The Ministry's point is that the leave entitlement starts on the day following the day on which duty ceases. Sergeant Hughes, I suppose, strictly speaking was on duty, but, being in hospital, I think that can be left as a slightly vague point. In any case, the leave pass is stamped the previous day with every intention, presumably, that Hughes should leave when he did and when he had certainly not drawn any of the day's rations. If it is argued that he was on the ration strength on 31st January, I do not believe it. After all, breakfast is not part of any day's rations in any Service. It is the unexpended portion of the previous day's rations that is taken into consideration. Therefore, I do not believe he was on the ration strength of his unit later than 30th January. Sergeant Hughes left at about 9 a.m. and I do not think it can be contended that 31st January was anything but the first day of his leave.

There is a little more reason for assuming this. The R.A.F. invaliding instructions, so far as I can extract the basic meaning, under Paragraph 607, Appendix 9, of Queen's Regulations, state in 6H that the commanding officer of the hospital is to send an airman on leave as soon as he is medically fit for it, issuing him Part D of Form 95 A. It goes on to say that Form 95A will show the leave from the date of leaving hospital. There is no question that the date of Sergeant Hughes's leaving hospital was 31st January and that, there- fore, under this Regulation it must have been the date on which his leave began. This seems to me to be a very clear proof of my contention.

If this is the case, Sergeant Hughes's last day of duty was 30th Match and he is eligible for grant. I reach this conclusion from the following calculation. From 31st January to 2nd February inclusive is three days to which he is entitled as sick leave from hospital. From 3rd February to 2nd March inclusive is 28 days invaliding leave. From 3rd March to 30th March inclusive is another 28 days terminal leave. It all depends, I know, on this one day.

There is, however, a little more evidence of this calculation because there is another leave pass, which I sent to my hon. Friend today, giving leave from 3rd February to 31st March. It is not a document on which I would rest an enormous amount of my case, although I think it helps it. For one thing, the date has been altered visibly on one side, and secondly it is date-stamped 26th March, or 52 days after the leave which had been granted was supposed to have been given. If one were to rest too much on this document, one would assume that Sergeant Hughes had been absent without leave for all that time and the matter had to be put right later. I am not alleging any improper practice at all, but it looks like an effort to correct what some higher authority had said was a mistake.

One can assume, therefore, that Sergeant Hughes's next leave started on 31st February and therefore ended on 30th March. The R.A.F. Record Office tried to rectify this position. I do not know why, because apparently it had been accepted, to start with, that Hughes was entitled to his grant. He was paid on that assumption, that 31st January was the first day of his leave. But suddenly, the cornucopia was tilted and a generous R.A.F. sent the sergeant one day's pay for 31st March.

Not surprisingly, Sergeant Hughes was not enraptured by this. He had one day's pay, and the R.A.F. had saved £250—a good exchange for the Service. As taxpayers, perhaps, we should rejoice; but I think that most of us could think of better ways of saving money than that.

The explanation of this was that it was a book-keeping error, which was being rectified, due to 30th March being the end of the pay period, as I said earlier. I only hope that this sort of thing does not happen very often. There must be very many corrections floating about to create subsequent confusion if this happens every time on 30th March.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will quote from his letter explaining this to me. He pointed out that, since his discharge, Hughes's Service pension and terminal grant had been increased by 5s. 6d. and £42 respectively, adding, I hope that these increases will help to make up for the non-payment of the special resettlement grant. My hon. Friend is an optimist, because they are not all that much connected.

I am fully aware that the Department is reluctant to depart from the most metallically rigid interpretation of the regulations, even when, as I have contended, that interpretation is wrong. But, assuming that the interpretation was right, the reason for this rigidity is unquestionably the usual bureaucratic horror of causing a precedent. This fear is exaggerated. I cannot see a continual stream of special resettlement grants coming in the future. At least, if there is, there must be a lack of liaison between the advertising department of the Royal Air Force and its establishment committee deciding on the strength. It should not be necessary to take special steps, I trust, to reduce its strength at any time in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, I think that we might well find, if something of this kind ever were envisaged in the future, that there would be a little more flexibility in drawing up the regulation. Therefore, this particular type of case could not occur again. The Ministry informs me that there were only three airmen possibly affected by this occurrence, and I will go bail that only one of them has been discharged from hospital—which is the main strength of my case here. I cannot believe that there is much chance of a precedent being created. There seems to be no real danger of it.

Apart from the letter of the law—I have already argued and, I hope, proved that it is firmly on our side— what about the principle involved? I said earlier that the point at issue is really whether we are to judge a Service Department as subject to the same standards as a private employer or whether it is to be a rigid and unyielding body on its own. Is it not essential that Her Majesty's Government should appear as a good employer? Not long ago, in another branch of Government operations, when a railway man who was due for an award after long service did not qualify, through no fault of his own, not just by one day but by some months, the Railways Board was able to waive the condition and give him the award which was spiritually, at least, his due, if not technically. The Royal Air Force really ought to be as good an employer as British Railways.

I put this further point. Is it not certain that, if Sergeant Hughes's commanding officer had had the slightest idea that this sort of trouble was likely to arise, he would have avoided it by the simple expedient of discharging Sergeant Hughes a day earlier? There was no reason why he should not. It must merely have been that he did not realise the consequences of what he was doing, which was not his fault, I think.

When cases of this kind arise, special notification should be sent to all commanding officers to ensure that they realise fully the consequences of any action which they may take. In this case, with the best will in the world and with complete good faith, an inadequate knowledge has cost my constituent £250, and I feel that this sum should be made up to him. I hope that I have made it clear that the law is on my side. Certainly justice is; I have no doubt about that.

This N.C.O. has a good service record. He has not wholly quitted the Service. At the moment he is employed by the Royal Observer Corps and is still carrying out, roughly, part of the R.A.F.'s work. I think that a special effort should be made to satisfy his very just claim. The only opposition to it can come from the fear, to which I have previously referred, of creating a precedent. I do not think that this is a valid fear. Even if it is, I believe that my hon. Friend's Department should have the courage to overcome it.

4.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. Julian Ridsdale)

I know that this is the way that he fights for all his constituents, but I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Wise) on the tenacious way in which he has fought this case for his constituent, Mr. Hughes.

Before dealing with the details in the case, which are complex, I should like to assure my hon. Friend that I have considered the possibility of making an exceptional award. The difficulty is that, whenever a date becomes signficant as a dividing line, someone will fall on the wrong side. My sympathies are with Mr. Hughes and with others like him who missed the grant only by a narrow margin, but, obviously, I cannot help him without putting others in the position in which Mr. Hughes finds himself today. The question is: where is one to stop drawing a line?

I have looked into this case very carefully and I am absolutely clear in my own mind that the action taken by my Department was, in all respects, right, both technically and in equity. The facts speaks for themselves and I can give my hon. Friend two categoric assurances. First, there is absolutely no question whatsoever of Mr. Hughes having been deprived of his resettlement grant either deliberately or as an act of misplaced consideration for the taxpayers' money. Secondly, there was no administrative error.

Let me deal with my first assurance. I can tell my hon. Friend that I have personally examined the documents bearing upon the leave entitlement of Mr. Hughes. There is no evidence whatsoever on any of these documents of there having been any change of mind as to the dates of this man's leave. Everyone was perfectly clear from the outset about the procedure which he had to follow. That Mr. Hughes was paid up to 30th March, 1962, and received a separate payment for 31st March is not evidence of a hasty recalculation of entitlement at the last minute. It arose, as I told my hon. Friend in my letter of 20thMarch, 1963, from the accident that 30th March, 1962, happened to be the last Friday in March and hence the end of the airman's four-monthly pay ledger period. On that day all airmen's pay accounts were closed and prepared for audit and new accounts had to be opened for any subsequent period, even if for only a day. There was, in short, nothing sinister about the separate payment to Mr. Hughes for 31st March, 1962.

Let me deal now with my second assurance that there was no administrative error. It is necessary for me to go into rather complex detail of the leave regulations and the technicalities of the procedure followed in the case of invaliding. I apologise for having to do so, but I must, so that my hon. Friend can be perfectly satisfied that they were followed in all respects in Mr. Hughes's case.

It is a well understood thing in the Royal Air Force that periods of leave run from midnight to midnight. There has to be some definition and the exact reasons for this definition are lied up with the administrative aspects of accounting for rations, ration allowance and other entitlements.

However, we do not make a practice of sending people on leave at midnight. Men are normally allowed to go "after duty" on the day before leave is due to start. Their leave passes, which are their permission to be absent from their place of duty, therefore show not only the period of leave granted, but also the time they are allowed to depart in advance. Indeed, in a case where travelling time is given—and this may be up to two days in any one period of leave—the dates on the leave pass could show a period of absence of anything up to three days in excess of the actual period of leave. This is clearly set out in Queen's Regulations. I think, therefore, that my hon. Friend will agree that if our leave regulations are at fault, they err on the side of generosity. For this reason, we are not often criticised for this generosity.

The general regulations on leave have to be supplemented in particular cases, for example, when a man is being invalided out of the Service. That is the purpose of certain paragraphs in Appendix 9 to Queen's Regulations. In a case of invaliding, the hospitals are not in a position to know what a man's entitlement to terminal leave plus invaliding leave actually is. The procedure, therefore, prescribes that the man shall be sent off with an initial three days' sick leave and that in the meantime, the R.A.F. Record Office at Gloucester should be asked to calculate his total entitlement and to write to the man with the facts.

At the same time, it is necessary to have some routine for filling in the leave pass when the man actually leaves hospital. My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to the wording of a sentence in Appendix 9 to Queen's Regulations, paragraph 6, sub-paragraph (h), which states as follows: Form 295A will show leave from the date of leaving hospital to 'pending discharge decision This sentence is part of an instruction to a clerk at a hospital on the method of preparing a leave pass. I ask my hon. Friend to bear this in mind and to look again at the wording of the sentence. He will see that the instruction says that the pass will show leave from the date of leaving hospital. It does not say that this day will count as leave.

In fact, as I have explained, a man normally leaves his unit on the day before leave actually starts—

Mr. Wise

Am I, therefore, to assume that if it had not been for this provision which is intended to help with the three days' leave on leaving hospital, Sergeant Hughes would have been within eligibility for grant by two days?

Mr. Ridsdale

He starts his leave after he has been in hospital and his leave pass constitutes permission to be absent from his quarters. Possibly, if I may follow the argument through, I can deal with it more clearly in the course of my speech. As I have explained, a man normally leaves his unit on the day before his leave actually starts, and since his leave pass constitutes his permission to be absent from his quarters, it is necessary to show the date of leaving the unit as the first date on the leave pass.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will accept the fact that paragraph 1395 and Appendix 9 of Queen's Regulations have to be read together, the latter supplementing the former, and that he will agree that there is no conflict between them and that there is no question of Appendix 9 making an exception to the general rules about leave in invaliding cases.

Let me now deal with the present case. The details of Mr. Hughes' case conform to the procedure that I have described. He was seen by a medical board on 29th January, 1962. On 30th January, 1962, the necessary paper work was put in hand for him to be discharged. Included in this was the preparation of the leave pass. This my hon. Friend regards as the key document in the case. He has now kindly given me the opportunity to examine Mr. Hughes' leave pass, which is in every respect what I should have expected.

The leave pass was dated 30th January—the day the paper work was carried out. It provided for Mr. Hughes to leave hospital at 12 midday on 31st January, to begin leave on 1st February, though the latter date did not appear on the pass. I realise that the leave pass did not say that Mr. Hughes could leave the hospital "after duty"; but a man in hospital can surely be considered on duty only in the technical sense, and it is clearly reasonable to tell him that he could go whenever the discharge procedure was expected to be far enough advanced. The time forecast was midday, although Mr. Hughes says that in the event he left just after 9 a.m. Nevertheless, his three days' sick leave did not start until midnight. That is the answer to my hon. Friend's question.

On 31st January, the day on which Mr. Hughes left hospital, the hospital sent a telegram to the Record Office advising them that Mr. Hughes had been medically boarded on 29th January and discharged to leave February 1st to February 3rd. This was, of course, the initial three days' sick leave.

The Record Office wrote to Mr. Hughes on 6th February advising him of the conditions of his discharge and telling him that he would be granted 28 days' invaliding leave and 28 days' terminal leave to start on 4th February, 1962, and to run to 31st March, 1962. On 24thFebruary he wrote to the Record Office questioning the dates of his period of leave which had resulted in his not getting the £250 special resettlement grant.

With regard to the point my hon. Friend raised concerning the leave pass dated 26th March, this was no more than regularising the paper work— though, I must admit, somewhat belatedly. My hon. Friend had much correspondence with me about this case, since he first brought it to my attention on 14th February, 1963.

I have considered the possibility of an exceptional award. The difficulty is that whenever a date becomes significant as a dividing line someone is going to fall on the wrong side. My sympathies are with Mr. Hughes and with other people, who, like him, miss this grant by a very narrow margin, but, obviously, I cannot help him without creating other near misses. I am satisfied that this case has been very fairly handled. It is a very hard case, no one would deny, but in face of the facts I am bound to say that I am sorry that I cannot do anything more for Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Wise


Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member seeks leave to speak again?

Mr. Wise

If I may, Mr. Speaker, very briefly for a moment, for I am very anxious to understand, first, whether if ex-Sergeant Hughes had not got sick leave, he would have got his grant. This seems very hard, and might justify reconsideration for some special award. Secondly, that period of alleged sick leave from 1st February to 3rd February would reduce his leave from 28 days to 27. It started on 3rd February. He had only two days' sick leave.

Mr. Ridsdale

I think that if my hon. Friend does examine very closely the facts I have stated he will find that they are very clearly set out. I have looked round every way of trying to help Mr. Hughes. I am sorry that I have been unable to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock