HC Deb 15 November 1965 vol 720 cc899-908

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

2.31 a.m.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Waver-tree)

From matters of major moment to many, may I turn to one of import to but a few? I only pray that those few may not become many because of what has been debated earlier both in this House and in another place.

In September, a constituent of mine, Sapper David Adams, was killed in Aden. The family wished to bring the body home, but found that it could do so only after much difficulty and at what I believe to be unduly high cost. Because similar difficulties and costs may be met by other families, I am grateful for my luck in the Ballot and to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy who has answered Questions of mine and said that repatriation is under review.

My own belief is that it does not matter what happens to my body when I die, but there are many who wish to bring back home the body of a loved one who has been killed or who has died on active service. Too often a bereaved family has to make up its mind in a hurry and at present it finds great difficulty, not only in discovering what the cost will be, but, through a sudden decision taken largely on emotion rather than reason, it may incur an unnecessarily high financial burden for years to come.

The Armed Services until recently have had a policy whereby in whatever theatre of operations a man was killed or died there should he be buried in a military cemetery. On 5th March last year my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) pointed out the difficulties of any change in this rule. I believe that we all admire the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission. In many areas of the world its cemeteries are perhaps the only things of beauty.

But some families wish above all for a son or brother or husband to be buried at home. The Adams family had such a wish. It was helped when it appealed to the Ford Motor Company by that company, which at that time was employing another son. To make the proper arrangements with the Ministry of Defence, the company's personnel and welfare department spent no less than 50 man-hours and £100 in telephone and postal charges and general administrative expenses. I believe that to be quite impossible for the average family. But the main cost fell on the Adams family, even though the funeral directors, also constituents of mine, advanced £259 to pay B.O.A.C.'s bill. Incidentally, it costs only £102 for a live person to come from Aden.

There were also various out of pocket expenses. There was the cleaning up of the coffin, which arrived in a bad condition, so that the total undertaker's bill was as much as £358 13s. 9d. But on top of that comes a letter from the Ministry of Defence F.8 Effects (A.D.), Worcester Road, Droitwich which, after commiserating, demands a further £66 14s. Od. There is an item of £17 10s. for the provision of a coffin. Would that not have been free had Sapper Adams been buried in Aden? Then there are items for the provision of a zinc liner, £9 4s., and associated labour charges, £11 5s. Perhaps the Under-Secretary would be good enough to say what those charges are and whether they could not have been provided by the Armed Services. There is an embalment fee of £26 5s. Why is that so high, when it only costs 12 guineas in Liverpool, and could it not have been done by the R.A.M.C? Finally, there is an item for a health certificate, £2 10s. That, indeed, seems to be an odd name for a certificate to do with death. The total cost was over £425, which is an almost impossible debt for most families, coming on top of the shock of the bereavement.

I understand the problem which arises about what could be done should we be involved in a major war, and I know that many people think that the bringing back of bodies ought to be discouraged. But surely there ought to be some standard charge and a standard procedure that is easily discoverable, especially at a time like the present, in a sort of twilight war.

Times change. In decades gone by we could have been sure that no British cemetery would be altered, be it in Europe or elsewhere, without our permission. Can we now be so sure should we leave territories in Africa or Asia? Are we certain that our Service cemeteries will never be desecrated because of racial hostility, or, even without desecration, that the land will not be put to other use?

Some change of policy has already been undertaken by Her Majesty's Government. In the case of North-West Europe, the next of kin have a choice: firstly, that the body can be flown home at public expense; and, secondly, that two relatives can be flown out for the funeral service, also at public expense. Perhaps the Under-Secretary would be good enough to give the House particulars of the cost of each choice.

Is it not possible to do the same in Aden and in Malaysia? One is told that in a hot climate action has to be agreed on quickly, but is it not possible to have an embalmer on the war establishment in each theatre? If a body is embalmed for flight to another country, I am told that an incision can be made under the armpit of the deceased and, as with a blood transfusion, a chemical with a formaldehyde base is pumped into the whole arterial system. There is no cutting out of any part of the body, as in times gone by, and, if that is done, discoloration vanishes and the body will keep for many weeks in great heat.

It is placed in a metal casket which is hermetically sealed, and, in turn, that is placed in an ordinary packing case which is padded with a chemically-treated sawdust.

I am told that there are 1,000 em-balmers in this country who can deal with three or four bodies a day, and therefore, although I understand that in a major war immediate repatriation is impossible, in this kind of minor conflict surely something could be done? Freight is considerable at commercial rates, but do not Service aircraft in most weeks fly back from the area of operations, when they are not full, and when they could take coffins at public expense or at much reduced cost?

Other countries do this. The United States of America sends back tens of thousands of bodies, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman has seen the United States Air Force Manual on Mortuary Affairs. The United States is a rich country, but the United Nations send back the Irish in their service. The Australian Army and Air Force send back the bodies of those killed. The Dutch and the Belgians do, too, when there is no general way. and they do so at public expense, yet they have a lower income per head than does Great Britain.

I am not asking for no payment to be made by the family concerned. I am asking that there should be a low standard charge, that it should be easy to find out what this is and what the procedure is, and that the information should be given to the family without any request by that family. At the same time, guidance should be given on choice, and this should be given as soon as possible after the notice of death. Above all, I believe that the procedure should be as simple as possible. This would be no comfort to the bereaved family, but it could reduce distress and avoid some harrowing letters, and perhaps the Minister will look carefully at this problem.

2.42 a.m.

Mr. Ronald Buxton (Leyton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) for giving me a little of his time to bring a similar case to the attention of the Under Secretary of State for Defence for the Navy.

This case concerns Private Wallace, a young soldier of 17 in the East Anglia Regiment who was drowned only four days after he arrived in Aden. His parents, who are constituents of mine, were informed by telegram of his death. It happened to be a Sunday morning, and they got on to the welfare services with two requests; first, could they bring their son back to England; secondly, if that was impossible, could they fly out to Aden to attend the military funeral? The answer came back that it was impracticable to bring the body back to England because of climatic conditions, and they were told that it was impossible to fly them out in time to be present at the funeral.

Mr. Wallace, an ex-warrant officer, is a very determined man. He was determined that he would not take "No" for an answer. He arranged passages for himself and his wife, and they arrived in Aden in time to be present for their son's funeral, but he was never told of any embalming service which would have made it possible for his son to be repatriated for burial in this country. Now he is looking into the possibility of re-burying his son in this country if that can be done at a reasonable cost.

I think that there is a strong case for revising Service procedure in this matter. My hon. Friend has mentioned that many other nations do this. Why should not we repatriate those who lose their lives in peacetime in the service of their country? If this service is available for North-West Europe, why cannot it be extended to other theatres? After all, many of the costs would be the same. It is only a question of additional freight. Surely in a case like this, where aeroplanes are going to and fro regularly from most operational theatres, it would be possible, with the help of the embalming ser- vice so that the body did not have to be despatched immediately, and to avoid the high cost of civil aircraft, to bring them back in Service aircraft?

If a Service man is flown overseas alive, have not his parents or his loved ones the right to ask that his body should be flown back if he should meet with a tragic death in this way? In many cases relatives might be satisfied with burial overseas, in some war cemetery, but where they wish otherwise I do not see that this service should be denied them even if they are willing to pay some of the costs.

Times have changed in the Army since my hon. Friend and I served in it. Twenty years ago life was different. There were many harsh things in the Service, and there was a lot of "bull". There were bare and uncomfortable barrack rooms, and many similar things. But in the modern Army this service should be available to relatives when the most heartrending thing of all takes place— the funeral of a loved one after a fatal casualty.

I am glad that, due to Mr. Wallace's letter to the Queen, the wording of telegrams notifying relatives of fatal casualties may be altered. I ask the Under-Secretary to review the whole procedure. The cost would be negligible considering the fact that few of these casualties occur in peacetime. The Services provide for loved ones to visit the graves at a later date. The cost of this would be saved if the body were repatriated. Let us remember that yesterday was Remembrance Sunday—the time when we commemorate the casualties of two world wars.

In peacetime fatal casualties are fortunately very rare occurrences, and in those circumstances is it not reasonable to ask that when they do occur the best possible treatment should be accorded to those who have been bereaved?

2.47 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

This is a distressing, delicate and extremely difficult subject, but I am none the less very grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) and the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Buxton) who has supported him, because they have both highlighted some aspects of what has been Government policy for some years and is clearly unsatisfactory and distressing to a number of people.

I was disturbed to hear that the hon. Member for Leyton and, to a lesser extent, the hon. Member for Wavertree felt that their constituents had been in some way neglected or churlishly treated by the Ministry of Defence. I have looked at the details of the case which the hon. Member for Leyton has mentioned and I find that what happened was that on Sunday, 4th July, the father of the boy rang up, not unnaturally in very great distress, and asked whether the body of his son could be flown back at public expense. He was told that according to existing rules this could not be done. Subsequently, the father asked whether the parents could be flown to the funeral at public expense, and again he was told that under existing rules this could not be done.

Having stated what the rules were— and I shall refer to them shortly—the duty officers there then did everything possible to find a way to help the hon. Member's constituent—I must not say to find a way round the rules—and quite early on the following morning they managed. to find two places for the father and the mother on a flight that was going out to Aden.

When the father rang through again at 10.20 on the Monday morning, the following day, he was told that this flight was available. He had, using his own initiative, already booked a civilian flight, and in this respect too, the duty officers did everything they could to help him over passports and inoculation, informing Aden that they were arriving and seeing that they were met and looked after at Aden, and, subsequently that they were given a concessionary flight home. Within the rules, I assure the hon. Gentleman, the duty officers concerned did everything they possibly could.

The hon. Member for Wavertree, seemed to have some complaint about the treatment his constituent had had. He mentioned that the Ford Motor Company, who acted very decently and altruistically in this matter and spent a great deal of time and money in making arrangements. I am sad that they should have found it necessary to do so, but that was not through any fault of the Ministry of Defence. They were told what the procedure was—just one telephone call served to tell them—if the family wanted to bring the body home.

The hon. Member mentioned some of the expenses which were to be charged to his constituent by the Ministry of Defence. He mentioned the coffin, and asked whether the coffin would not have been free if the boy had been buried in Aden. That is exactly the question which I asked myself. He asked about the zinc liner and the embalming fee. If a coffin is coming home with a dead body in it, it has to have a zinc liner. The associated charges which were put in the bill are to do with the hermetic sealing and the extra welding and packing which the airlines insist on.

The health certificate, incidentally, does not refer to the health of the body. It is a question of the health of people who might be in contact with the body and certifies that there is no danger to the health of other people because of the body.

We have had a good look at these charges, some of which puzzled me. We have decided, in this case only—which is exceptional because of the hardship involved—to waive all of them except the health certificate, over which we have no authority. Furthermore—I would stress that this is an exceptional case—the hon. Member knows that there is an interdepartmental committee looking at the whole policy on this subject, and I shall make certain that these points are brought immediately to their notice.

I move now from the details of the case which has been put to more general issues. Both hon. Gentlemen have suggested, hopefully and reasonably, that we should provide an embalming service. This is incredibly difficult. There is virtually no civilian embalming in Aden; only one man does it. There are, of course, doctors, but it is not a doctor's duty to carry out embalming. It is not a doctor's job. They cannot be compelled to do so: some will, some will not.

There is a great deal of danger in embalming in tropical countries if a man has died from a tropical disease. There is no mortician's rate in the Services. There is no embalming service in the Services and we could not possibly provide one. Supposing we did so in Aden, which is the area with which we are concerned. The two men who were detailed out there would be on continuous overseas service because there is no call for their services at home, and for much of the time they would be completely unemployed. Thank goodness this sort of case does not happen often. So not only in Aden but elsewhere there would be extreme difficulty in providing an official Services' embalming service.

Both hon. Members rightly pointed out that other countries provide an embalming service. The Americans do it, but America has burial customs which are different from ours. Embalming before burial is fairly normal there; it is not here. It is abnormal with us. The Americans have a large civilian service, and it is common practice to embalm, so that it is possible for them to have a Services' embalming service, the men concerned doing some of their work at home and some abroad. But that would not apply to us.

There are the other countries mentioned, Holland, Belgium and Australia, and the United Nations also as regards the Irish troops who, unhappily, were killed on United Nations service. I am not absolutely sure as regards all, but I believe that it is, in fact, the American service which copes with this. I think that that is so, and it might conceivably be possible for us in some theatres, though not in Aden because they are not there, to come to an arrangement with the Americans.

Both hon. Members raised a major point regarding the very high cost of transporting the bodies home. I must say that, on looking at the figures, I am surprised at the cost. But, as things are at present, it is not possible to do it more cheaply. The airlines state what the charge is, and if we bring a body home in Service transport we have to stick to their charges because it is not an entitlement at the present time and we must not undercut them, if that is the right phrase. This is something I knew nothing whatever about, and that is why I said that I was extremely grateful to the hon. Gentlemen for raising the subject.

The hon. Member for Wavertree spoke of a fear that cemeteries overseas might be desecrated. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will not be, but I found encouraging some words in the 46th Annual Report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which has only just been published. The Report states that the newly independent Governments have shown "ready understanding" of this problem and have not hindered the work. So one can hope, without any absolute guarantee, of course, that the same respect will be given to our graves in the future as in the past.

The hon. Gentleman said, and I feel very much with him, that he did not mind what happened to his own body. Neither do I. But it is what some people feel, often very deeply, that matters. I should like to do everything I possibly can to meet the wishes of those other people. In this short outline of the position, I have mentioned the great difficulties I see in regard to embalming. I have mentioned what seemed to me to be some surprising facts about transport. I shall put all the points which have been raised—they are all being considered—to the Inter-Services Committee which is studying the matter now, and I shall make sure that my Ministerial colleagues are very well aware of them. I can make no promises about it, but I assure the House that the whole subject will receive a long and hard look.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock a.m.