HC Deb 21 December 1966 vol 738 cc1492-501

3.41 p.m.

Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)

The title of my Adjournment debate, death duty payable by widows of Service men who died on active service, cloaks the anonymity of the deceased officers' family and also preserves the anonymity of the medical officers who have tendered advice to those concerned, and in this case I am sure the House will allow me so to preserve their anonymity.

This is a constituency case, but it has revealed certain wider issues which, I think, are important not only to Service men generally, but, in particular, to married Service men who may wish to make provision for their wives. I should like, therefore, to develop the constituency case and touch on the other matters as I proceed.

There are certain provisions in our laws which exempt the estates of Service men from full death duty. This exemption lies in the Finance Act, 1952. I think it will perhaps be helpful to the House if I remind the House of the exemptions which are included in Section 71: Estate duty shall not be chargeable by reason of the death on or after the twelfth day of March, nineteen hundred and fifty-two, of a person in whose case it is certified by the Admiralty, the Army Council, the Air Council or the Secretary of State that the deceased died from a wound inflicted, accident occurring or disease contracted at a time…when the following conditions were satisfied, that is to say, that the deceased was a member of any of the armed forces of the Crown or was employed as a person of any of the descriptions specified in the Thirteenth Schedule to this Act"— which, incidentally, relates to the women's Services— or…was subject to the law governing any of those forces by reason of association with or of accompanying any body of those forces and (in any case) was either

  1. (a) on active service against an enemy, or.
  2. (b) on active service of a warlike nature or which in the opinion of the Treasury involved in the same risks as service of a warlike nature,.
or that the deceased died from a disease contracted at some previous time, the death being due to or hastened by the aggravation of the disease during the period…when the deceased satisfied the conditions aforesaid. As far as Parliamentary drafting goes, that seems fairly clear.

One of my constituents is the widow of a Royal Air Force officer who died in August, 1964. As his sole executrix she instructed her solicitors to apply for the exemption under Section 71 of the Finance Act which I have just quoted. Her solicitors applied on those grounds in the terms that they were making an application for a grant of probate under that Section and for a certificate that the deceased died of a wound inflicted, an accident occurring or a disease contracted at a time when he was a member of the Armed Forces of the Crown.

On 2nd November, the application of that firm of solicitors was refused by the Ministry of Defence on the ground that, in recommending the remission of death duty on the estate of a deceased officer or airman, the Secretary of State is bound by Section 71. That provides for exemption where it can be certified that a deceased person died from a disease contracted when he was a member of the Armed Forces of the Crown and was on active service against an enemy or on other service of a warlike nature which, in the opinion of the Treasury, involved the same risk.

For the purpose of this Section of the Act, active service against an enemy was deemed to cease on 31st March, 1963, and, since it has not been possible to relate the cause of the flight lieutenant's death to a day within the relevant period, he cannot be considered as coming within the scope of this Section.

That was a blow to the unfortunate widow. In his service her husband's means consisted of his salary and a life policy which he had taken out. In January, 1965, the widow was told by the Ministry of Pensions that she would not be granted a war widow's pension either, as the Minister did not consider that her husband's death was due to or hastened by a wound attributable to his service, nor that it was due to or hastened by the aggravation by service of a wound, injury or disease which existed before or a rose from his service.

His widow appealed against the decision of the Minister and adduced in her support the opinion of a distinguished physician. That was that the flight lieutenant's death had been caused by a heart condition which had been aggravated by his service in the Air Force.

In response to that, on 1st October, 1965, his widow received a letter, which reads: I refer to your appeal to these Tribunals and now write to inform you that I have today heard from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance that they have now accepted that the death of your husband was substantially hastened by service, and an award will be authorised in due course. As this disposes of the grounds of your appeal it has been struck out and I have so informed your representatives, the Officer's Association and the firm of solicitors who I understand are interested in your case. However, the Treasury still refused to grant exemption or partial exemption from death duties on the deceased officer's estate. That has hit his widow very hard, because she is now deeply concerned about how she is to bring up the child of the marriage.

The objections raised by the Department concerned have all hitherto hung on the definition of "active service of a warlike nature." It seems to me that this debate can be more widely useful if the Ministries concerned will use it to redefine what "service of a warlike nature" consists of.

The 1952 Finance Act is now about 14 years old, and the nature of the actions in which our forces are engaged have changed. It seems likely that, in the next decade or so, their character is likely to change again. Broadly speaking, all the Services are, ipso facto, engaged upon activities of a warlike nature. After all, that is why they are there. In times of national emergency, they are immediately engaged in war. Until then, their services must be of a warlike nature.

The deceased officer was engaged with the Royal Air Force at Laarbruch in Germany immediately before his death. He was then a flight lieutenant and the pilot of a bomber in a force which was standing by as part of the N.A.T.O. forces on what is known as "quick-readiness alert".

It is understood that the squadron in which he was serving was always to have certain planes available during the day and night, ready to take off at an instant's notice, armed with atomic bombs, presumably to meet an attack on the N.A.T.O. forces. This seems to me to involve service of a warlike nature if nothing else, and other people think so, too. The Minister may wish to express the Government's view on this, and I am glad to give him the opportunity to do so.

In a letter to me dated 17th February of this year, the Minister's noble Friend in another place set out the qualifications for exemption from Estate Duty under this section. He said: …Flight Lieutenant … would have:

  1. (i) to have been engaged at the time of his death on.
    1. (a) active service against an enemy or
    2. (b) on other service of a warlike nature or which in the opinion of the Treasury involved the same risks as service of a warlike nature or
  2. (ii) to have contracted heart disease at a time when he was engaged on such service or
  3. (iii) to have died from a disease contracted beforehand which was aggravated during a period when he was engaged on such service."
In writing that the noble Lord does not seem to have appreciated that the widow was claiming exemption on the ground that her husband's death was due to disease contracted beforehand while engaged on a service of a warlike nature, and this case stands or falls on whether or not the officer's heart condition was aggravated by his service with the Royal Air Force.

It must, I think, be accepted that when he was accepted for service with the Royal Air Force he was 100 per cent. fit. He entered Cranwell from school, and was commissioned into the Royal Air Force. Thereafter there are continuous medical records of his life. He was graded I in 1946, when he was 18, and he died when he was 35. The Department claimed that there was nothing in his medical reports to show that his health was affected by his service. I think that it is here that one gets a little puzzled by the attitude taken by the Department.

It is fortunate that I have been able to obtain a copy of the man's entire medical record while in the Service. I am a lay-woman, and I have no medical training, but on looking through these records I was struck by the behaviour of the officer's blood pressure readings throughout his Service career. When he was 18, in 1946, he had a medical examination, but no blood pressure reading was recorded. In 1947, when he was 19, he had another medical. His blood pressure readings were 130 for the systolic reading, and 70 for the diastolic reading. Not having had any medical training, I have naturally consulted those who have, and I am relying on their advice for the comments that I make now. I think that these comments are valid.

In 1948, when he was 20, he had no medical. In 1949, when he was 21, he had one. His blood pressure readings then were 128 for systolic, and 76 for diastolic. There is nothing in those readings to lead one to suppose that there was anything wrong with or strange about a man of that age. It was not until he was sent abroad for three years, from the age of 21 until 1953 when he returned that things began to behave erratically. In 1950 when he was 22 he had a blood pressure reading of 120 for the systolic and a reading of 94 for the diastolic reading. The significant figure here is the diastolic reading. The doctors who have advised me on this have both commented on the leap that this reading shows over the previous year's reading. By the time he had his next medical, which was in the same year, it had fallen to 76.

In 1951, when he was 23, it had climbed again to 80. The really serious jump was in 1952, when he was 24, when his systolic reading was 110 and his diastolic reading was only 44. It had completely collapsed and his systolic reading was low for a man of his age. In 1953, when he was 25, the systolic reading had jumped from 110 to 140, which was too high for a man of his age, and the diastolic reading, which had previously been 44, had suddenly risen to 75.

This is not satisfactory behaviour for a blood pressure reading. What is worrying is that throughout the course of his career this man's medical officers never thought of giving him an electro-cardiograph. He returned to this country from his tour overseas, which consisted of high-flying Sabres: he was a fighter pilot. His blood pressure readings remained stable until he was sent abroad then. Then, after a short time, he unfortunately died.

Here again it is necessary to look at the comment of the Ministry of Defence and to quote it again: During the twelve months before his death, the Flight Lieutenant was a pilot in a low-level Canberra strike squadron. As such he was frequently required to practice a method of weapon release which involves flying at high speed at ground level and then pulling up into a loop with a roll off at the top. The Canberra is a bomber which was not designed for this technique and the manoeuvre is most demanding, both mentally and physically, for the crew. The Flight Lieutenant was flight commander and authorising officer. In this capacity, in addition to his flying and secondary duties, he was required to spend every third day in his squadron operations room to supervise the flying programme. This duty started at 0800 hours and ended at 1800 hours, although if night flying was in progress he would probably have worked longer hours. Short breaks were, of course, allowed for meals, but this was a hard day's work by any standards. He was also required to fulfil a standby duty, which involved a two week period every six weeks working on a 24 hour on and 24 hour off shift system, living in special accommodation at 15 minutes readiness to fly. Apart from this, during the previous 12 months he had completed some 200 hours flying, 19 simulated bombing attacks, 62 shallow dive bombing attacks, and 23 air to ground firing attacks. This document says that His job involved considerable pressure for most of the time. I will not continue to read out the list, but by any standards this man was carrying an enormous load of responsibility and was being subjected to physical stress in a plane which was not designed for the job he was doing. Yet this was a man who had displayed, through his blood pressure readings, a cardiovascular disturbance at a time when he was on active service within the meaning of the act before 1953.

This raises one or two questions of wide importance to all our Service men. I put them to the Chief Secretary, although I appreciate that he is not in a position to answer them now. This is something which needs seriously considering. I do not expect him to be able to answer these questions today.

In so far as the medical aspects are concerned, when a Service man who has, by the nature of his service, been subjected to a stress of an unnatural kind and whose blood pressure readings behave erratically afterwards, is he given an electro-cardiogram? Why is this machine not regularly in use by the R.A.F.? As the U.S.A.F. regularly uses this machine and the R.A.F. will soon be flying U.S. planes, will it become the normal practice for the R.A.F.? On death duties exemptions, what is the current definition of "service of a warlike nature"? When was it redefined? Thirdly, in view of the constantly changing nature of the actions of Her Majesty's Service, do the Government intend to review the conception of "an enemy"?

I know that this has been a fairly detailed case to put to the right hon. Gentleman and I accept that he cannot be expected to answer some of the more specific and detailed medical questions which I have posed, but I would ask him to ask his right hon. and hon. Friends whether they will not review the case of this unfortunate flight lieutenant's death, especially in view of the evidence of cardio-vascular disturbance before 1953, which his blood pressure readings so clearly show on his medical records.

4.1 p.m.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Diamond)

The three detailed questions which the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) put to me about the use of electro-cardiograph, and on which she kindly said that she would not expect an answer now, I will be glad to do as she asked and write to her as soon as I have the information. On the main question which she put, I would say to her that I hope she will understand that, although what I say is dictated by considerations of accuracy, I have every sympathy with her constituent and her present state and every recognition for the gallant service which her late husband gave to this country. There is no question of that.

The reason that every review of this case has come to the same answer is that there is a major distinction to be drawn between the circumstances under which a pension is granted and those under which exemption from Estate Duty lies. It is this major distinction which the hon. Lady absolutely fairly described, but did not concentrate upon. The hon. Lady at times referred to "active service" and at others to "service". These are very different things.

I would, first, of all explain the reason behind the exemption from Estate Duty. It is not as the hon. Lady thought. She referred to the widow receiving the information that there would be no exemption and said that that was a blow, or that the widow was very hardly hit. Therefore the hon. Lady is contemplating that the purpose of the exemption is the relief of hardship. This is not so and is not intended. The idea of exemption from Estate Duty when an officer dies while engaged on active service—is killed in action—is that it is wholly repugnant to the State to think that, not only has he lost his life, but that because he has lost his life in the service of his country, Estate Duty should also be collected. Therefore, Estate Duty is completely remitted.

The hon. Lady will realise immediately that this means that those in the greatest need, because they are the poorest, get the least and that those of minimum need, because they are the richest and their estates are the largest, get the most help by being exempted completely from Estate Duty. Therefore, this has nothing to do with hardship but with the sense that it would be horrible and wholly repugnant to impose Estate Duty in these circumstances.

These circumstances did not apply in the case of the hon. Lady's constituent's husband. I will follow the hon. Lady and refer to no names. This gallant officer was not killed on active service. He was not engaged on service of a warlike nature. He was engaged on "service". Because the Government, as the employer, naturally wants to treat every employee as a good employer should, they decided that it was proper that a pension should be paid because this officer had, as a medical examination showed, become entitled to a pension on the conditions on which a pension is payable. that is, the deterioration of his health while on service.

That is absolutely right, but the conditions for a pension and the conditions for exemption from Estate Duty are two very different things. It does not follow that relief under one heading will bring exemption under another. In this case the officer was not on active service and was not engaged on duties of a warlike nature during the relevant period. The hon. Lady asked me, "What are the duties of a warlike nature?" The essential condition is that there shall be a hostile element present the whole time—a danger of being shot at, or shot down in an aeroplane, for example. Recent examples were in Borneo and Malaya. Those were cases in which there was a real risk to life in the sense of being shot at by an enemy.

The hon. Lady made it clear that this was not the case during what I and the medical examination call the relevant period. The officer was not engaged in duties of a warlike nature in the sense that he was not in danger of being shot down or shot at during the whole of this period. Although the disease was aggravated in a sense such as to justify a pension, it was not a condition which satisfied the terms of the 1952 Act. I make no party point, but this Act was brought in by the Government in power at the time and it has been accepted by every Government since. As I say, this condition did not satisfy the terms of that Act.

Although I look at the case with every possible sympathy, and am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing it forward, I cannot accede to her request. She has done a real service in enabling me, on behalf of the Government, to explain the essential difference between these two kinds of relief. I have been able to explain that Estate Duty exemption is granted for entirely different reasons from those in the grant of a pension.

In such cases, of course, we are ready to look at any new evidence which is proffered. If any hon. Member feels that there is a miscarriage of justice in such a case, which engages everyone's sympathy, we shall certainly look at it with the greatest possible care. But the facts having been so clearly established, I see no likelihood of being able to alter the decision which has been taken in this case. This officer became entitled to a pension but he is not entitled—because of the absence of duties of a warlike nature and the absence of a hostile element—to relief from Estate Duty.

I am, therefore, sorry that I cannot help the hon. Lady as much as I should like to have helped her on grounds of human sympathy.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) for the next debate, I want to thank the House for co-operating in sticking to the time-table today. The next debate will run until five o'clock and the Minister who will reply to it will rise at about twenty minutes to five.