HC Deb 21 February 1966 vol 725 cc193-202

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

I am grateful to the Chair and to the House for the opportunity to raise this matter this evening. My constituent Mr. Offord joined the Army in June, 1940. He was commissioned in March, 1941, and subsequently served at home and in the Far East until June, 1946, when he was released in the normal way. While serving in the Far East he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent three years and six months in captivity. Following his repatriation to the United Kingdom in February, 1946, he stated that he had had malaria 12 times, tropical ulcers, beriberi and jaundice.

Mr. Offord was an officer in the Royal Norfolk Regiment which formed part of the ill-fated 18th Division which consisted very largely of troops from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and whose capture and subsequent treatment as prisoners of war by the Japanese have left an indelible mark in the minds of those many families who were affected.

I wish to relate only one example of the story of that time as related by Mr. Offord. I do so to highlight the terrible deprivations that he and many others suffered. In a statement which he gave to me, he said: I was commanding an assorted force of Royal Norfolks, Indian troops and Australians, and contracted malaria which did not assert itself till the last 48 hours of the mainland fighting. During the fighting retreat from Batu Pahat to Johore Bahru, I was greatly inconvenienced by stomach disorders necessitating motions as much as 20–30 times daily. At that time I was commanding the mixed force mentioned above, and was responsible for all policy, being segregated from all higher authority. After arriving back to Singapore, having marched some 70 to 80 miles in 3–4 days and nights, I was admitted into the civil general hospital suffering from malaria, jungle ulcers, raw feet and unspecified stomach disorders through living in the jungle on whatever could be foraged in the way of food and drink. That amply describes the sort of problems which my constituent had to face.

On his discharge in 1946, his general condition and state of nutrition were, however, found to be good, and I am not for a moment disputing that. In January, 1954, Mr. Offord saw his doctor and complained of numbness and dead fingers, crampy pain in the calves, and indigestion. He had had these sym-toms for about three years. He had previously seen his doctor in 1949, when the diagnosis was that he had xanthoma. In March 1954, he had a number of examinations in hospital, and reports stated that he was suffering from essential cholesterolaemia with generalised atheroma. In August 1954, he was admitted to hospital and his right leg was amputated. Subsequently, in 1959, his left leg also was amputated.

On 31st December, 1957, and again in June and October, 1961, there were appeals before the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. I know that the rulings of those three tribunals are legally binding upon both the Minister and Mr. Offord and I am, therefore, not able to argue otherwise tonight. I have to accept those rulings, but I wish, none the less, to make two or three points. First, it seems to me that, in considering evidence which is put before a tribunal, consideration ought always to be given to the relative availability of witnesses particularly in a specialised medical field. I do not suggest that the Ministry is not helpful in these matters, but one has to bear in mind that it does have access to much greater medical assistance than, perhaps, is open to the appellant.

In this case, Mr. Offord was fortunate. He was able to produce evidence from two consultant surgeons, Mr. Craig and Mr. Owen, and also from Professor Peart of St. Mary's Hospital. All three took the view that it was at least possible to assume that his wartime experiences could have contributed in some part to the development of his condition. On the other hand, the Ministry was able to bring heavier guns before the tribunal to say the contrary.

My main point is that, writing in 1960, at the time of the proceedings before the tribunal, Professor Peart said that little was known about essential hypercholesterolaemia save that it sometimes ran in families. He went on to say that his overall view was that, in the present state of medical knowledge, it would be unwise to assume that Offord's experiences could not contribute in some part to the development of his condition.

It seems to me, therefore, that one can say straight away that medical research is constantly producing fresh and sometimes contradictory evidence, and what may have been the case even in 1960 is not necessarily the same in 1966. Since I have prepared the case and it has had some publicity, I have had communication with other people who have suffered, or are suffering, from the same complaint. I have not been able to check this evidence completely, but it seems that in the United States there has been some fresh research evidence made available recently which suggests that stress, strain and anxiety can be contributory factors in this disease. If this is true, it opens up a completely fresh line of evidence which never came in front of the tribunal and which, indeed, at that time, in 1960, was unknown. This could have a very considerable bearing on my constituent's case. There are one or two other things which ought to be borne in mind, but I make that point particularly to the Parliamentary Secretary.

When Mr. Offord returned home in 1946 he weighed 11½ stone. Within a very short time his weight had gone up to 16 stone. That is a condition which is just about as bad for this disease as could possibly be. This very sudden increase in weight was not, as he said, because he had made a pig of himself. It was the result of the fact that his body was at once released from the privations of being a prisoner of war and enabled to eat what at that time was no more than an adequate ration at home. He maintains that this was another factor which was not brought out at the tribunal which could have had some effect on his constitution and on the course of the disease.

There is also the point that if Mr. Offord had never gone into the Army, when he started to have trouble with his legs he would have at once gone to the doctor, suspecting that something was wrong. But in the event he had the symptoms of numbness in his legs for three years before he did anything about it. He gave as his reason for this the fact that having had the very bad leg ulcers as a prisoner of war he expected that something would be wrong with his legs when he came out, and, therefore, he did not bother to go for treatment. Like many ex-prisoners of war when they came home, he expected that something would be wrong with him and so did not go for expert medical advice when he should have done, and as he probably would have done if he had not been a prisoner of war.

All these are facts which I think are important to this man's case. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to be as sympathetic as he possibly can. This is a case where the medical evidence is contradictory, but there are fresh factors coming to light which I think call for a further answer and, possibly, examination. I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the trouble that he has taken in the case, both in a letter to me some time ago and in the preparation which he has carried out for this debate.

I have known Mr. Offord for a number of years. I know his background and I know of his courage and his terrible disability. On Saturday when I visited him I was able to lift his artificial legs. To carry them around all day must be a tremendous effort, and one that does not get any easier as the years go by. His amputations are not below the knee, so that there is no help from the stumps. They are well up his thighs, and this makes it very much more difficult.

I always felt comforted in the knowledge that Mr. Offord was receiving a disability pension and it was a shock to many people, and certainly to me, to find out that this was not the case. Had it not been for the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker), I would not have had this case drawn to my attention. It was through a constituent of the right hon. Gentleman's that this happened.

I began by saying that few families in East Anglia did not suffer some loss or heartache as a result of the fighting in South-East Asia. Therefore, even though the tribunal ruled accordingly, and even if the fresh evidence I have produced is not considered to be of sufficient importance, there is nothing to stop the Minister, as an act of grace, from giving a pension if she so desires.

I know that this is difficult because it means going against the considered opinion of a tribunal. But if the Minister does so, she will be considered in East Anglia as doing no more than justice to many brave men who suffered in Japanese hands. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will not fall back on the principle of creating a precedent, for we all hope that the circumstances which forced Mr. Offord to spend these years in Malaya and Siam will never be repeated and the precedents that might be created must be diminishing in number very considerably each year.

Here we have a case where there is some doubt and where there will always remain some doubt. In view of the fresh evidence that may be coming forward, and probably is coming forward, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can give us a favourable answer.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I thank the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) for raising this case and, like him, I thank my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and his colleagues in the Ministry, the officials, for the great trouble they have already taken to answer our letters and make investigations. I rise, by courtesy of the hon. Member for Lowestoft, because the tragic case of Mr. Offord was drawn to my attention quite a long while ago, and again very recently, by close friends of his, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, who are my constituents in South Derby.

I will not traverse again the powerful and moving case made by the hon. Gentleman. I heard it with growing sympathy and, if I may say so, with mounting conviction that not only in morality, but in medical appreciation, his conclusion was right. I fully understand the professional evidence on which the tribunals and the Minister have made their decisions that Mr. Offord has no claim to pension; I understand the argument that he suffers from the congenital weakness of hypercholesterolaemia; I can understand that it was plain that this weakness was the reason for the amputation of his legs, first the right and then the left; I understand the contention of the Minister's medical advisers that hypercholesterolaemia was the sole and a sufficient reason for the amputations and that Mr. Offord's sufferings in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in no way predisposed him to the later ravages of the disease, or made its effect upon him greater than it would otherwise have been.

But I venture to repeat what the hon. Gentleman said. There is now weighty evidence on the other side, the evidence of the specialists Mr. Craig, Mr. Owen and Professor Peart. Apart from their expert views, I find it very difficult to believe that three years and six months in a prisoner-of-war camp did not reduce Mr. Offord's resistance to the physical weakness he inherited at birth.

In October, 1945, I crossed the Atlantic in the "Queen Elizabeth" from Canada to Britain with 4,000 ex-Service men who had just come from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. I was left with the conviction that the camps must have had a most grievously debilitating effect upon these men. We do not know how far psychological causes can break down resistance to infection, disease, or other weakness. Certainly the psychological results on most of those 4,000 men were very serious indeed. Add to Mr. Offord's suffering the fact that while he was in the prison camp he had malaria 12 times, tropical ulcers, of which the hon. Gentleman spoke, beriberi and yellow jaundice—I find it impossible to think that those sufferings did not help to break down Mr. Offord's resistance to his inherited weakness.

If the Parliamentary Secretary tells us that the law forbids the granting of a pension to Mr. Offord—and I share the hon. Gentleman's view that that is probably not so—then I urge on my hon. Friend, in the light of the new evidence which the hon. Gentleman has produced, that the law should now most certainly be changed.

11.30 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Harold Davies)

First may I say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) for presenting me with the facts of his case before he addressed the House and for marshalling his case as he did. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) that no case which I have had on my desk has given me more concern for many months. The House will know that the then hon. Member for Westmorland, who was my predecessor, also had to deal with this case, so that it has come before Ministers from both parties. Unfortunately, under both Administrations the conclusion has been the same.

However, I have listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman has said about this exceptionally tragic case and I share his sympathy and that expressed in the moving speech of my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the House would wish me to pay tribute to the sincere and temperate way in which the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend have put their case.

The facts have already largely been presented. Mr. Offord was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and the hon. Gentleman gave some details of his privations and hardships. I know the part of the world concerned very well and I remember seeing in Rangoon Gaol the conditions which some prisoners of war had had to suffer, as I saw them too in the jungles of Malaya and in Siam and Indochina. I know what the troops of all nations went through during that terrible period.

Mr. Offord was a prisoner of war; he was ill; he did suffer from malaria and it is true that he had tropical ulcers and beriberi and jaundice. I do not want to appear to minimise these things. They are, indeed, distressing, and they were experienced by many prisoners of war in that part of the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South has the honour to represent a part of Britain from which came many of the men who had such experiences in the Far East.

Mr. Offord was released from the Army as fit for further service in June, 1946, and it was not until 1954, eight years later, that he claimed a war pension for the amputation of his right leg. The hon. Gentleman explained the reasons for some of the delay. As a layman and not a medical man, I hate using medical terms, but, for the sake of accuracy, I have to do so. The amputation was the result of a circulatory disease called essential hypercholesterolaemia. Mr. Offord associates this with his captivity.

He first consulted his doctor in 1949, a point which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and which we have recorded. In 1954, we arranged for him to be taken to Roehampton Hospital where there is a unit specialising in tropical diseases. This illustrates the care which any Administration takes in such a case. No residual disablement was found from the various conditions he had suffered when a prisoner, but the diagnosis of hypercholesterolaemia was confirmed. Our doctors had to advise that this was an inborn error of metabolism, genetically determined, which causes the body to lay down fatty tissues in the wrong places, and that it was unrelated to any factors in Mr. Offord's service.

I know that this sounds technical, but we must get the medical facts on the record. Mr. Offord then appealed to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. He was represented by counsel, briefed by the Officers' Association. The tribunal upheld our view, that the condition was neither attributable to nor aggravated by his service.

In 1958 Mr. Offord's other leg had to be amputated as a result of the progress of the disease. Again he claimed, but, since the underlying condition was the same, we were again obliged to reject his claim. He appealed once more to the tribunal, and on this second occasion he submitted, in support of his appeal, the very three further medical opinions to which my right hon. Friend has referred. It was common ground that the disease could not be attributable to his service, but they argued, in effect, that insufficient was known about the disease to be able to say with certainty that his experiences in captivity had not possibly made it worse than it otherwise would have been. On this occasion Mr. Offord was represented by the British Legion, which is-very experienced in these matters. The whole of the evidence was before the tribunal, which considered the issue de novo. Its finding was the same as the earlier tribunal.

I should mention here that we have accepted that any effects remaining from malnutrition and diseases which he suffered while a prisoner would be attributable to service, but as I have said, our doctors found no disablement from these conditions. As the House knows, the Pensions Appeal Tribunal is an entirely independent body, appointed by the Lord Chancellor, and its decision is statutorily final, subject only to a right to appeal in an entitlement case on a point of law to the High Court. I want to repudiate any suggestion that if evidence is advanced in favour of a claimant, the Ministry sets out to prove the contrary. We have never tried to do that. It is not a question of proving anything, but of trying to decide a claim fairly and as generously as possible, and giving the tribunal the fullest possible evidence. It is True to say that in no Administration is there any lack of sympathy by the Ministry of Pensions doctors about such cases.

Medicine is not an exact science, and I want to make it clear that a war pension claimant is given the benefit of the doubt. That remains true, however long after a man's period of service a claim is made Mr. Offord claimed some eight years after his release under Article 5 of the Royal Warrant, which explicitly lays it down that the benefit of any reasonable doubt shall be given to the claimant. Nevertheless, although there was conflicting evidence; the tribunal did not feel that there was a reasonable doubt on the side of Mr. Offord.

What can I say tonight that will offer any hope? There is a procedure whereby, by consent, a case can be remitted to the High Court for rehearing by the tribunal. But I must emphasise to my right hon. Friend and to the hon. Member for Lowestoft that there must be new and cogent evidence which sheds an altogether fresh light on the case, and not merely a reconsideration of the issues within the boundary of the facts as already known.

I have listened with care to what my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Lowestoft have said so cogently, pleasantly and constructively, and I am sure that Mr. Offord has had two excellent advocates in the House tonight. But I must not mislead the House. The case has had some publicity, and I know that the hon. Member for Lowestoft has had a communication from the United States indicating some fresh evidence to the effect that stress, strain or anxiety could accelerate the disease. I think those were the words.

Mr. Prior

They could contribute to it.

Mr. Davies

They could contribute, yes. If that be true, then we will consider carefully what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight. But I do not want to raise any false hopes. The case has been going on for a long time.

I want it to be absolutely clear that I have not tried to make a passing reference—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.