HC Deb 10 June 1964 vol 696 cc439-41
30 and 31. Mr. McKay

asked the Secretary of State for Defence (1) if he is aware that an 18-year-old Royal Army Service Corps driver, Leslie Chambers, was killed on duty in Cyprus on 8th May, 1964, and that, at the request of his parents, the body was brought to Wallsend, that the Army authorities refused financial help, and that the cost to the parents was £350, causing an appeal to be made to local people; if he is satisfied with the present situation regarding this matter; and, in view of these facts and the consequence that many people are unable to afford the expense of having the bodies of relatives in the Services who are killed abroad brought to this country for burial, what proposals he has to assist such people;

(2) in view of the facts that the relatives of Servicemen killed overseas in peacetime have to bear the expense of bringing the body to the United Kingdom for burial, that the cost may be £300 to £350 and that this amount is beyond the means of many families, if he will appoint a committee of inquiry on this subject to recommend, on the basis of the joint liability of the Service Departments and the relatives for the cost involved, what percentage should be paid by each, and to consider whether transport costs should be borne by the Services.

Mr. Ramsden

I am aware of the tragic death of Driver Chambers, and I should like to express my sympathy to his parents in their sad loss.

I would refer the hon. Member to the statement made in the House by the then Secretary of State for War on 14th March, 1963. We have examined this matter with the greatest care and sympathy. We do bring back the bodies of deceased soldiers from North-West Europe if the next-of-kin so wish, or we fly out two relatives to attend the funeral. Outside North-West Europe, however, practical difficulties prevent our introducing such arrangements. Although what the hon. Member wants might be possible to do in certain cases, we could not be sure of being able to do it for all cases, and cases of failure would cause intense disappointment and sorrow. We ought to treat all cases alike, or added distress will be caused to some next-of-kin. I am sure, therefore, that it is right to have a rule and to stick to it.

Mr. McKay

It is a long time since this matter was considered. After all is said and done, it does not matter what the subject may be—with time all viewpoints change. The question is a matter of importance for people in general, and this policy is rather bad in their opinion, because it makes a distinction on the question of the circumstances in which families can have the bodies of their relatives brought home for burial. The fact that it costs £350 to do this is rather a restrictive qualification, despite the freedom to do so, which applies only to a small section of the community whose members have incomes which enable them to accumulate a little bit of money for emergencies. There are millions of people who cannot accumulate money to such an extent as to pay to have the bodies of their relatives brought home. The policy in itself is limited. I am asking whether the time has not arrived for this matter to be investigated, so that people can have the privilege of bringing the bodies of their relatives home irrespective of their incomes. I am making a plea that this question should be examined.

Mr. Ramsden

We all sympathise with the hon. Member's concern about these cases. The matter was gone into by the three Services fully and sympathetically only just over a year ago. It was concluded that the present arrangements ought to stand, because to extend them would be to run the risk—because of the practical difficulties of repatriation to which I have referred—of being unfair in giving different treatment as between one case and another. I therefore felt that on the basis of that examination we should stand by the existing rules.

Mr. Kershaw

In cases where it is clearly impossible to bring a body back to this country, will my right hon. Friend consider flying out the relatives later to view the grave of the soldier concerned?

Mr. Ramsden

I will certainly consider that, but that question was also examined in the context of the last review, and visits of relatives were found to be a possible policy to sustain only in North-West Europe.

Mr. Bellenger

Although we can understand some of the arguments which the Minister has advanced, does not he think that the cost is very excessive for a parent who wants to meet the expense of bringing home the body of a relative? Surely the military forces could meet a case of this kind for much less than £350?

Mr. Ramsden

The difficulty is that military transport is not always available within the prerequisite time bracket. If as the Question suggests it came to a contribution towards the cost, part from us and part from the next of kin, we should run into difficulty because some next of kin might not be able to afford any of the cost. We have gone into this matter with immense care and I see no possibility of making progress from the present position.