HC Deb 13 December 1963 vol 686 cc806-18

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

I take the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to draw attention to circumstances arising out of the death in British Guiana last July of a young man who was a constituent of mine, Alan Land, a 19-year-old Rifleman in the Green Jackets Battalion, and I wish to draw to the attention of the Under-secretary of State for War and the House certain lessons which seem to me to derive from the handling by the War Office of the events following his death.

Alan Land died in Georgetown on the night of 12th July. I do not wish to go into the details of what happened, partly because there would be no point in so doing and partly because some of the details are still obscure. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this case is that the inquest into his death dragged on for a very long time in Georgetown and was not completed until 7th October. The coroner's depositions in the inquest have still not arrived in this country. I understand that the War Office still has no copy of them, and I know that the family has no copy. Therefore, many aspects of the case still remain obscure.

All I need say is that, on this particular evening, Alan Land was off duty. He was in the town, first, in the early part of the evening, with friends from his battalion, and later with some Royal Marines. Later the same evening, he was involved in a fight with two local policemen, as a result of which he died in hospital at about 11 p.m. What we do know from its verdict is that the coroner's jury found that the two policemen in question had used excessive force and were criminally responsible for his death.

I wish to discuss the policy of the War Office in regard to this tragic event, partly on behalf of the parents, who are constituents of mine, and partly because there are lessons here to be learned which have a bearing on other cases. I emphasise two aspects of these events. First, I remind the House that this is one more case—several of us have previous examples—of the distress caused to the family of a Serviceman, following a tragedy of this kind, as a result of War Office policy regarding the burial of Servicemen who die overseas. I speak of the War Office, but this applies also to Admiralty and Air Ministry policy.

After parents have had the shock of learning that their son has died in such circumstances—or, of course, it may be a wife who learns of her husband's death—there comes the shock of learning that he has already been buried and that they have not been consulted in any way about the arrangements. They have not had a chance to decide whether they would like the body brought home. There is no offer made of help from public funds to bring the body home. There is no offer to take them out to the place in question if they would like to attend the burial there, and there is no consultation about the kind of burial, the kind of service and so on.

I have been looking up the references in this matter, and I find that on 14th March last Mr. Profumo, who was then Secretary of State for War, announced on behalf of the Government a new policy regarding Service men dying in North-West Europe under which there would be an offer made to the family either to bring the body home at public expense for burial in this country or to fly out to Germany, or wherever it might be, at public expense, two members of the family to attend the burial service there. But he was not able to commit the Government to do this in other parts of the world.

I urge very strongly that this matter should be reconsidered. I appreciate that there are complications in some areas of the world. Sometimes a burial must take place quickly because of local health regulations and sometimes there would be real difficulty in transporting people from this country to the place in question. However, I feel that, wherever possible, something should be done at public expense—other countries, such as the United States, I believe, do help in these matters—either to bring the body home or to take relatives out to the place in question.

There are several possibilities. There may be cases in which the family would not want a cremation to take place overseas and the ashes to be brought home. Within a day or so of a tragedy of this kind, I should like a welfare officer from the War Office, or whatever Service Department is concerned, to call on the family and to offer whatever help is practicable. In such cases, the expense involved should not be a bar to doing what is considered reasonable and just. I know that in this particular case it would have brought a great deal of comfort to the parents, and I am sure that cases like this could be multiplied many times.

I wish now to discuss matters applying to this case which would not necessarily apply to other cases. As I have said, the inquest took a very long time. It finished only on 7th October, and neither the family, nor, apparently, the War Office has the detailed results of it.

In the first few days after Alan Land was killed, his parents received the usual telegram from the War Office. They then received two letters from the Commanding Officer expressing condolences and paying tribute to the boy. The second letter contained photographs of the burial service. They also had from me a copy of the letter which I had received from the then Secretary of State, who is now the Minister of Labour, giving the few facts which he had at the time. After that they received no information for a very long time.

This is a very unsatisfactory slate of affairs. The inquest was incredibly slow. I do not think that we yet know fully why this was so. In a letter to me of 14th November, the Parliamentary Secretary said: The reasons for the many hearings an adjournments are, particularly in the absence of a copy of the evidence, not yet altogether clear, although I gather that these were partly, at any rate, caused by delays on the part of the civil police in finalising their arrangements and by the fact that their Legal Adviser was not always available owing to his other legal commitments. Certainly it was a very slow process, and the family is entitled to an explanation of it as soon as one can be obtained.

During this period, no one from the War Office or from the civil authorities of this country in Georgetown communicated with the parents. The only news which they were getting was such reports as appeared in the local Press in the area which, because this was a local case, was receiving news from the wire services and reporting certain aspects of the inquest proceedings. This was the only news which the family was getting of what was going on.

I understand that there was no representative of the Army at the early sittings of the inquest, although I gather—and I have been in touch with the War Office on this point—that a military officer attended the sitting of 2nd October and that a legal adviser attended the final one on 7th October when the verdict was given.

During that time, the only information which Mr. Land, the father of the deceased soldier, was getting was what I was able to obtain from the Secretary of State, and this was, in the nature of things, not very much. The only letter which he received directly from the Secretary of State was one dated 14th October which repeated what the Secretary of State had told me in an earlier letter of 10th September. I protested at that stage that nothing was going direct to the father. This letter was merely a reharsh of one that had been sent to me earlier and which I had sent to the father.

I put it strongly to the Under-Secretary of State that this is not good enough. In such cases, the War Office has a special duty to the family of a young soldier who has been killed overseas, or, in other cases, it might be, to the soldier's widow. I quote again from the Under-Secretary's letter on 14th November, when, in relation to the inquest, he said: We do not necessarily arrange representation when a death arises in the course of purely private activities, as seems to have happened in Rifleman Land's case". I should have thought that that was just the sort of circumstances in which the War Office should arrange representation.

If a young man still in his teens were killed in this country, his family would clearly want to, know how it had happened. The parents would attend the inquest and would probably arrange to have a legal adviser with them if this were thought appropriate. When it happens on the other side of the world, most people cannot afford to go or to employ legal representatives to represent them, and yet for their own satisfaction they want to know what happens, as any of us would do if it were to happen to one of our own family.

The parents want to know what has happened, whether somebody was responsible and, if so, what is being done, perhaps, in either a criminal or a civil action appropriate to the case. The War Office should want to know what is happening. The Department has responsibility for a battalion being overseas in a difficult situation and, I should have thought, would want to be represented at an inquest of this kind and to get the fullest possible information.

I submit, therefore, first, that there should have been a representative of the Army or of the civil authorities, or both, at all stages of the inquest. Secondly, this representative should have regarded himself as being indirectly the representative of the family. The War Office owes this duty to the family. Thirdly, the parents should have been kept informed at every stage. In other words, after every day's sitting of the inquest, a letter should have been sent to the parents describing in detail what was happening Fourthly, the local representative should have been looking into all the consequential stages—and should be looking into them now—such as whether there is to be a prosecution in the case of the two policemen, what other steps need to be taken to satisfy the interests of the family, and so on. Finally, in this and in any similar case, a welfare officer from the War Office should call on the family and explain the developments point by point.

I suggest very strongly to the Under-secretary that there has been a lack of the human touch in this case. Nothing that is done by the War Office or by anyone else can replace the family's loss in these tragic circumstances. Everything should be done to avoid the feeling that somehow or other the family has been left in the lurch and that after the official notification, the War Office has washed its hands of the matter. That may not be fair to the War Office, but it is the feeling that was conveyed by the fact that over a number of weeks the family had no information and nobody has written, except on routine matters such as this disposal of their son's effects. The impression is conveyed that nobody cares very much what happens.

I suggest that this matter has not been handled properly and that lessons should be learned for possible future occasions. Apart from the humane considerations, the matter is important to the reputation and the image of the Army. Such matters indirectly affect recruitment, because the reputation of the Army among people is affected by incidents of this kind which people talk about with their neighbours and relatives. It is important that these things should be handled humanely and intelligently. In some respects, the War Office has failed.

I will welcome the Under-Secretary's comments and any information which he can give about how the case will be handled from now on and how he sees any lessons from this case which can be applied in future.

4.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Peter Kirk)

As the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) has said, this has been a case of peculiar difficulty for the War Office, and, indeed, for the hon. Gentleman himself, and I should like to start what I have to say by expressing publicly what I have already expressed to the hon. Gentleman, and what the Department has expressed to the parents of Rifleman Land, our very deep sympathy with them in the loss they have sustained on this occasion.

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is raising two particular points. The first one is a fairly general one, that is, the general policy of the Government over the repatriation of the bodies of Service men who die overseas; and the second one is the particular case of the way in which Rifleman's Land's death was handled by the War Office and by the Army authorities on the spot in British Guiana, and the general application of the arrangements, and I should like to say a word or two about that.

Perhaps I may deal first with the general point which the hon. Gentleman has raised, that is, the repatriation of dead bodies of Service men overseas. This, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is a matter which has given us the very greatest concern for a very long time. It is an appallingly difficult and deli- cate subject. Apart from North-West Europe, where the situation is generally the same regardless of which country one is in, there are immense difficulties which arise not only of the question of cost—in fact, the question of cost is one of the smaller difficulties involved—but also of local health regulations, climatic conditions and so on, which make it extremely difficult for any general rule to be laid down.

As a result, the only general rule which exists applies to North-West Europe, where conditions are fairly pari passu—very much the same. This general rule to which the hon. Gentleman referred was announced in this House by the then Secretary of State during our last debate on the Army Estimates on 14th March this year. The then Secretary of State said that the new arrangements for the next-of-kin of soldiers who die in North-Western Europe would be to give the next-of-kin the choice of having the body brought home at public expense or allowing two relatives to be flown out to attend the military funeral. We have looked most thoroughly into the possibility of extending this scheme to other parts of the world, but in general we have found it impossible, because of difficulties like climatic conditions, and local laws which demand burial in less than 48 hours. Indeed, even today there could be the difficulty of availability of transport, and of having a plane available in the area. In fact in this case, in British Guiana this was a difficulty, that the body of a deceased person must be buried within 36 hours of decease. That difficulty has occurred in this case, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and it might well have been impossible to find transport available to have brought the body home.

There would certainly be occasions on which we would be able to bring home a body or fly out relatives to the funeral anywhere in the world, but because of the difficulties which I have just mentioned we could not guarantee to do this in any place except North-West Europe. The wishes of the next-of-kin might be received too late to prevent burial, or the relatives might not get there in time, and, in fact, the first indication we had about the wishes of the next-of-kin in this particular case arrived after Rifleman Land had been buried. Failures of this kind—and they would undoubtedly be frequent—would naturally cause intense disappointment and sorrow and, we believe, even bitterness. Therefore we did decide very reluctantly that we could not extend a general arrangement outside North-West Europe to other areas.

If we find some way of doing it I am sure we would be only too glad to do so, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the main consideration is not that of cost. There are practical difficulties in finding a way in which we could ensure that no relative on any such occasion would be, as it were, deprived of what he might regard as a right.

Mr. Prentice

Could not the authorities, all three Service Departments, consider the possibility of doing it wherever it is practicable, and, where it is not, having someone call at the address of the family to explain why? On balance, that would cause less distress than the present arrangements, which people do resent anyway, and which cause bitterness at the moment.

Mr. Kirk

We will certainly look into that. I assure the hon. Member that we wish to find a way which will minimise distress to everybody. But there are occasions—in this case particularly there was the time difference between British Guiana and this country—which created difficulties. The time at which Rifleman Land died was eleven o'clock at night in British Guiana, which is about six o'clock in the morning in this country. There are difficulties about time lag, and so on, which sometimes make it absolutely impossible for us to make the arrangements we should like to make.

We have found up to now that it is better to make a general rule which everybody knows, that in the case of North-West Europe we can make these arrangements, which appear to work as satisfactorily as any arrangements can in these circumstances, but for other parts of the world we cannot lay down any general rule. If we laid down a practice which we should have to breach from time to time through no fault of our own, it might cause even more distress than the present arrangements do.

Coming to the case in question and the steps which the War Office took following the death of Rifleman Land in Georgetown Hospital on 12th July, it is the practice of the British Army when a death occurs from other than natural causes to hold a domestic inquiry—that is, an inquiry inside the Army itself—into the causes of the death. It is usual that this inquiry is not held until after any civil inquiry which may be held under the laws of the country concerned. But if it appears that the civil inquiry will be unduly delayed, the military inquiry is stepped up so that we in the Army can be satisfied about the circumstances which arose.

In this case, Rifleman Land died at 11.5 p.m. on 12th July, and the domestic military inquiry took place on 15th July, a little over two days later. At the inquiry a full investigation was held into the circumstances of his death. The findings were communicated to the War Office and received by it on 30th July, about a fortnight later.

We normally wait for the outcome of the civil inquiry before we inform the parents of the total circumstances. We had no reason to suppose on 30th July that there would be any delay in the civil inquiry. There was, therefore, this misunderstanding. We had assumed that the inquest would proceed fairly quickly and that as a result we should be able to have the results of both the civil inquiry and the military inquiry together and be able to communicate them both to Rifleman Land's parents.

However, as the hon. Gentleman has said, this did not happen. The inquest did not open until 7th August. Hearings were held on 5th, 9th, 10th, 14th and 17th September and 2nd October and there was a final hearing on 7th October, at which the coroner summed up and the jury brought in its verdict. It was only when the commanding officer and the War Office realised that the proceedings were being unduly delayed that it was decided to send a representative of the Army. He attended the last two hearings on 2nd and 7th October.

I should add a word about the powers of the coroner in British Guiana. Under the laws of British Guiana the coroner is empowered to adjourn any inquest or inquiry if he sees fit from place to place and from time to time until the whole of the evidence touching and concerning the death and the cause thereof has been obtained. So far as I can see, no one has any powers to stop him.

The same is true with regard to depositions. Under the same law, everyone committed to prison or held to bail under or by virtue of any verdict of a coroner's jury or any finding of a coroner may require and be entitled to receive copies of the depositions and of the statement of the accused person. But there is nothing in the Act which enables any other person to obtain a copy of the depositions as of right; and the Army, like anybody else, is in the hands of the coroner as to whether one can have the depositions or not. As the hon. Member knows, we have not as yet got them.

Mr. Prentice

In these circumstances was it not all the more important for the Army to be represented at every sitting of the inquest?

Mr. Kirk

Yes, but I must point out that, until the proceedings began to drag out, we had no idea that the inquest would take all this time. We applied for depositions on the day the inquest adjourned on 7th October, wrote again on 22nd October, made six telephone calls between the 22nd October and 6th November, wrote on 6th November, made two telephone calls between 6th November and 22nd November, wrote again on 27th November and made a further telephone call on 9th December, when we were told that copies were about to be despatched and that the delay was due to the copies not having been typed.

I have looked once again at the question of representation at inquests. The decision as to whether the War Office should be represented at an inquest on a man who has died overseas is normally left to the commander on the spot, who is in the best position to judge requirements in the light of local circumstances. In this case, the local commander decided not to send a representative at first, largely because the Army had already held its own domestic inquiry into the circumstances of the death of Rifleman Land, although it was decided to send a representative later when it became apparent that the proceedings were being strung out in a way that made it difficult to communicate information home.

With hindsight, and in the light of what has happened, I am not sure that the commanding officer's decision was right, but I would not censure him because he was in a very difficult situation. But it might have been better if he had sent a representative from the beginning. I am looking into the practicability of having revised instructions issued requiring automatic War Office representation at such inquests.

But, having said that, it is by no means certain that much, or anything, would have been gained by the War Office being represented at this inquest in view of the fact that we had made our own inquiries. Although the Army, in these cases, has a very real responsibility for the welfare of the troops under its command, it is rather difficult to say that it should be, as it were, representing the parents or next-of-kin on these occasions. In the case of Rifleman Land, of course, it would have been all right, but I can conceive of cases when the interests of the next-of-kin and the interests of the Army might conflict and a rather difficult responsibility would rest upon the commanding officer himself.

I am not saying that I am absolutely satisfied with everything done in this case, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman, the House, and Rifleman Land's parents, will realise that a very difficult position was forced upon the commanding officer. He had no means of knowing that the inquest would go on so long. He communicated to the War Office at regular intervals what was going on. The War Office also had a difficult decision to decide whether to send partially digested information or the complete story of what happened about Rifleman Land's death.

Perhaps, as I have said, it would have been better if the War Office had been represented from the start and we are looking into the whole question of inquest representation. But I am not prepared this afternoon to place any odium on the commanding officer, who had a very difficult decision to take, more than to say that I think that, in the light of what happened, it might have been better if we had been there from the start.

I have tried to give the House such information as I have. We still have not got the depositions from British Guiana. I inquired just before this debate and was informed that they have not yet arrived. As soon as they do they will be made available to the War Office and we shall then have to consider the situation as it is then.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past four o'clock.