HC Deb 23 February 1966 vol 725 cc586-96

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

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the case of the late Captain Louise Brown, of the W.R.A.C, because it seems to me that the present operation of Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947, may effectively conceal the negligence of members of the Armed Forces from public scrutiny. This I believe in itself could tend to lower the standard of care taken by them and could also have a bad effect on recruiting, since it is vital for the Services to have a good reputation for the standard of treatment given to the relatives of those who suffer injury or death while on duty.

This case is the tragic story of a girl aged 21, attractive and intelligent, highly successful in her Army career, recently engaged to become married to a Regular serving officer—indeed, a girl who had, on 26th October, 1964, sent in her letter of resignation so that she could marry this officer. Only four days later, she was fatally injured in a motor smash.

This took place on the Carlisle—Stirling Road at Abington, in Lanarkshire. She was being driven by an Army driver, a private, in a Hillman estate car. He appears to have pulled across the road to take a right fork in the path of an oncoming lorry. There was virtually a head-on collision, in which the front of the car was completely wrecked. The driver and passengers were projected into the windscreen and despite all the efforts of the doctors and nurses of the Law Hospital, Canoke, to save her life, her head injuries were too severe and Captain Brown died. The driver himself was seriously injured, but fortunately, survived.

There are some disturbing aspects of the accident. The first is not a matter for the Under-Secretary of State, who has so courteously come here. It concerns whether the road markings are inadequate, and I have had an undertaking from the Department of the Secretary of State for Scotland that these are being dealt with.

But the other matters affect the Defence Ministry. First, there is the question of the serviceability of the cars available to Captain Brown's unit. Captain Brown wrote to her fiancé on 16th September, 1964: On the way back we were about to overtake a bus on a Jaguar's tail when all the brakes went. The traffic ahead was braking. We snaked like mad and thanks to a brilliant bit of driving my corporal got us on to the inside kerb by the bus, and stopped by handbrake in a layby—the brakes had completely broken. It is significant that a local garage was unable to repair these brakes straight away by pouring additional fluid into the hydraulic system, as it flowed straight through, and she and the driver had to be picked up by bus.

Captain Brown had told both her parents and her fiancé of a number of occasions when she had had to use her own private car because the Hillman was unservicable and of other occasions when she had to lend this vehicle to other officers and again used her own car on duty. None of this encourages me to believe that there was a high standard of maintenance in this unit.

This Hillman also happens to have been one only out of nine in the unit which was not fitted with safety belts. It apparently had come into service before 1st July, 1960, which was an arbitrary date fixed for retrospective action for the fitting of safety belts and, since we know from the evidence of Dr. Watson, at the hospital concerned, that Captain Brown would have lived had she been wearing a safety belt, it makes one wonder where one can defend a policy which said that older vehicles need not be fitted with safety belts. I am sure that by now we have outgrown that position and that this will not happen again.

Then there is the question of the driver's ability. The corporal who had avoided the crash described in Captain Brown's letter had apparently been transferred later to some other duties and a private allocated in his place. In another letter to her finance, dated 29th September, Captain Brown wrote a cryptic note at the end: Call from London, deliver rocket to driver. She also wrote a letter to her parents, which was, unfortunately, destroyed only a few days before the fatal crash, speaking of this driver and saying that it seemed as if he was day-dreaming about his girl, or something of that sort. The driver had had two previous convictions, one for driving while not insured and one for driving without a Ministry of Transport certificate for his vehicle. This seems hardly to display a responsible attitude on his part.

The father, quite naturally, wished to give evidence at the court of inquiry in view of the daughter's representations to him about the complaints which she had made about the serviceability of the vehicle and about the driver's ability, and I understand that she had also made these complaints verbally to her commanding officer. On 21st December, 1964, the father wrote to the Ministry of Defence, asking to be allowed to attend the inquiry. He did not receive a reply until 5th January, 1965, and was told then that the inquiry had already been held. I think that he might have had the courtesy of an earlier reply.

I am amazed to note on reading the letter myself that it is said that the inquiry was convened for purely domestic military reasons and not specifically to investigate the circumstances of the tragic accident. I am at a loss to understand what those words mean. Anyway, he was told that the public was not admitted to such an inquiry, which seems very unsatisfactory in a case of this sort.

We now come to the question of compensation. At the time of the accident, the father was told that his daughter was desperately ill and he was advised to get himself to Scotland with all possible speed. Naturally enough, in his anxiety he flew by scheduled service. His air fare cost him about £28, his hotel bill was £10, telephone calls, 30s., return of the daughter's car back to St. Albans, £7, and funeral arrangements, £67, a total expenditure of about £113, quite apart from legal fees in submitting his claim. He was paid by the Ministry of Defence £17 4s. second-class rail fare, because, apparently, the rules permit only second-class rail fare when two people travel. He got £7 14s. towards the funeral arrangements, compared with the £67 actual expenditure, and a special grant from the United Services Trustee of £10 to help to cover hotel and other expenses at the time of the accident. He thus received about £35 towards the £113 spent, apart from legal expenses.

The parents are not wealthy people. They are unable to stand such a sudden heavy expenditure without depriving the rest of the family of certain things which they would like them to have, so the father pursued the question of compensation with the Ministry of Defence Claims Commission, which wrote to him, on 14th April, 1965, as follows: As a certificate has now been issued under Section 10(1)(b) of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947, certifying that Captain Brown's injuries have been treated as attributable to service, you will appreciate that any question of entitlement to which it refers will be for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to consider, and not the Ministry of Defence. This was merely indicating that the matter was referred to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, that there was consideration available for pension, but no definite entitlement.

Significantly, there was a copy of part of the Royal Warrant attached to the letter the relevant part, being Section 40(3), which said: In determining whether and to what extent a parent is in pecuniary need, the Minister shall take into account the extent to which the member before and during his service supported the parent, and the extent to which, if he had not died, he would have been likely, in the opinion of the Minister, to support the parent. The parents had not asked the daughter to contribute to the running of the family home. They were proud of her success and they wished her to enjoy the fruits of it, especially since they had been unable in their younger days in her young childhood to give her all they would have liked when they were a struggling, newly-married couple. We find that they were entitled to no pension. Since they were entitled to consideration for a pension they were not entitled to claim compensation under Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947.

The driver was later found guilty of careless driving—I would have thought that it would have been considered dangerous driving—and fined £30 by the civilian authorities. Had this been a civilian driver in a civilian car, the father would have had a claim against the driver's insurance. I wish to ask the Minister if he will consider whether the protection afforded by Section 10 of the Act should not be withdrawn in peacetime, where the injuries or death are the result of either the negligence of a fellow member of the Services, of the defective condition of a Service vehicle, aircraft or ship, or alternatively, should not the authorities be permitted some discretion in the payment of compensation in such cases, despite the issue of a certificate under Section 10?

Nothing can compensate the parents for the loss of their beloved daughter in such tragic circumstances. Indeed, while my constituent is anxious about his own financial difficulties, he is more anxious to prevent others from being placed in a similar position by such a tragedy. If, as a result of this debate, greater care is taken in the maintenance of vehicles in the Services, and stricter checks are made on the ability of Service drivers, and if a new look is taken at Section 10 to prevent additional suffering being inflicted upon those who have already been dealt a devastating blow, then I know that my constituent, despite his grief, will feel that his daughter's life was not sacrificed in vain.

11.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

The hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has raised the very sad case of a young officer of the Women's Royal Army Corps, who was killed in a traffic accident only a few weeks before she was due to leave the Army to be married. May I take this opportunity to express my very sincere sympathy to Mr. and Mrs. Brown in their sad bereavement? I will deal with the points raised about compensation and family expenses later, but I should, first, repeat the circumstances of the accident, because they bear on any possible issues of negligence.

Captain Brown was 21 when she was killed. She joined the W.R.A.C. as an officer-cadet in January, 1962, and was commissioned at the end of that year. In September, 1964, she was trained to be a member of an Army team of lecturers, whose duty it is to tour schools lecturing about careers in the Army. She was promoted to captain and it was assumed that she would continue as a lecturer until she left the Army, at the end of 1964, having given notice of her impending marriage. The normal arrangements for lecturers are that each officer travels with his, or her, own vehicle and a military driver, who also acts as a projectionist for the films which accompany these recruiting lectures.

It came about that on 30th October, 1964, Captain Brown gave a lecture at Dumfries, and was then driven back towards Edinburgh. She was a passenger in the front seat of a small van driven by a private soldier. They drove down the A.73 to where the road forks, just north of Abington. They were due to take the right fork on to the A.702 towards Edinburgh. They were in a queue of cars and it appears that Captain Brown's driver turned right into the path of a lorry coming the other way. There was a collision and both Captain Brown and the driver were taken to hospital at Carluke. The driver recovered, though he remembered nothing of the accident. Captain Brown was unconscious, suffering from concussion and head injuries. She was unconscious from the time of the accident until she died.

As a sequel to the accident the Army driver was charged in the Sheriff Court of Lanarkshire on 11th February of last year. He was convicted of driving without reasonable care and attention and without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road, and was fined and had his licence endorsed. That is the story and the result of this most tragic and unnecessary death of a young officer who had had a short but successful Army career and was leaving to be married.

The hon. Member has raised points in connection with the accident. First, it has been reported to him that the vehicles used by this team of lecturers were not well maintained. I have looked into this. It happens that the inspectors who supervise vehicle maintenance in the Army and make periodic visits to units, visited the Army team of lecturers in August, 1964, about two months before the accident. They reported that there was a highly satisfactory standard of unit maintenance.

All the vehicles were clean, serviceable and roadworthy, a condition which the inspectors remarked as being particularly creditable in view of the rôle of the unit and the mileage which its vehicles covered. The vehicle involved in the accident had been inspected and had had minor faults repaired only 11 days before the accident. I hope that this sets the hon. Member's mind at rest concerning maintenance. The hon. Member will appreciate that the accident is believed to have been a collision caused by an error of judgment or fault in driving and that it has not been suggested that there was anything wrong with the van in which Captain Brown was travelling.

I share the hon. Member's regret that neither Captain Brown nor her driver was wearing a safety belt. It is our policy that all vehicles of this type should be fitted with safety belts. New ones are fitted by the manufacturers and old ones were equipped by the Army, but because of the numbers involved and the rate at which vehicles waste out of service it was decided to restrict the installation of safety belts to those vehicles which came into service, as the hon. Member said, since July, 1960. The great majority of Army vehicles are equipped with safety belts and all these small cars and vans will be so equipped in future. By a terrible coincidence, Captain Brown was killed in one of the very few vans—in fact, the only one in her unit—which had no safety belts fitted.

The hon. Member mentioned that the Army driver might not have been as safe as he should have been. It is difficult to comment on this with the irrefutable evidence of a fatal accident and a consequent civil conviction. I can only tell the House that there had been no complaints to the officer commanding about this driver's ability. He had held a driving licence as a civilian and a soldier for four years without any previous recorded accidents.

Mr. Goodhew

Has the hon. Gentleman confirmed whether complaints were made verbally as opposed to in writing? My information is that they were made verbally.

Mr. Rees

My information is only about whether any were made in writing. I have no evidence about whether any were made verbally. What I have been informed is that there had been no complaints to the officer commanding.

It is true, as the hon. Member said, that the driver had been convicted that same year of two offences under the Road Traffic Act, 1960, but the offences were under the Sections dealing with driving a vehicle while not insured and with driving a vehicle which does not have a certificate of road-worthiness, neither of which I condone, but they are not connected with the soldier's ability as a driver.

The hon. Member referred to road conditions at the place where the accident occurred, and it has been raised in correspondence, but, quite properly, he acknowledged that this was the concern of the Scottish Office.

As to a court of inquiry, the position briefly is that a court of inquiry in the Service is a purely domestic matter to consider safety regulations and the like. It is in no sense a legal court.

Mr. Goodhew

The letter went on to say that its purpose was not to investigate the causes of the accident in particular. This seems to give a misleading impression and I hope that it was an error to say such a thing.

Mr. Rees

Yes. Courts of inquiry are more of an administrative nature to make sure that, in this instance, all necessary steps of a safety nature, and so on, had been taken. I can only repeat that they are not of a legal nature.

The hon. Member referred to the question of compensation and funeral expenses and mentioned the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947. I do not wish to develop this too far, but I will say that the Act was passed to deal with the problems of the Armed Forces. It would be impossible for personnel in the Armed Forces to proceed as if they were employed under the same conditions as persons employed in a private company. Under the Act, no none who is on duty as a member of the Armed Forces is subject to liability in tort for the death of another person who is also on duty, neither is the Crown liable. Section 10 was included in the Act, first, because without that Section there would have been nothing to stop Service men or dependants of Service men from bringing an action for damages on the ground that the injury or death had been caused through the negligence of another member of the Forces. Clearly, no Government could accept that position, since not only on operations, but also on training, Service men are called upon to risk injury and sometimes death, and it would subvert discipline if they could bring an action against other members of the forces or the Crown for alleged negligence in the course of military activities.

Secondly, the Government do provide compensation in the form of pensions paid under the Royal Warrant administered by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance for ex-Service men and their dependants—I agree, provided certain conditions are fulfilled—where their disablement or death is attributable to military service. The underlying principle is that all Service cases are treated alike: it makes no difference whether a man or woman is injured or killed in action, or in an accident which results from peace-time service. I believe the principle to be a sound one.

In the present case, it means that Captain Brown's parents were eligible for consideration for a pension in exactly the same way and under the same conditions as if their daughter had met her death as the result of enemy action. Since Captain Brown was on duty at the time of the accident, and it has been certified by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance that her death would be treated as attributable to service for the purposes of entitlement to an award under the Royal Warrant administered by that Ministry, no claim for compensation can be brought against the driver of the vehicle, who was also on duty, or against the Crown.

The hon. Member has suggested that this bears harshly on Captain Brown's parents. I can quite see that there could be this feeling that Section 10 deprives parents of compensation they might have obtained if their daughter had been killed in a similar road accident with a civilian vehicle or driver, but there is, I am afraid, no question of our being able to waive immunity to enable such a claim to be made. To do so by making it possible for parents of Service men killed in peace-time accidents to obtain more financial compensation than those of Service men killed in action would be quite contrary to the principle of equality of treatment, but I repeat that there is no question of our being able to waive immunity to enable such a claim to be made. By the same principle, it would not be proper for the Government to pay compensation on an ex gratia basis.

As regards funeral expenses, it is the practice that when a member of the forces dies while on duty, the funeral is the responsibility of the Service authorities and is conducted with military honours; the costs are borne by the public. If death occurs in the United Kingdom and the relatives wish to make their own funeral arrangements, a coffin is provided, and the remains are conveyed at public expense to the place chosen by the family. A grant of £5 which is available to civilians through the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance is also paid.

This is what happened over the funeral of Captain Brown, The Department also refunded to Mr. and Mrs. Brown, again, as the hon. Member has said, the cost of their return railway fares from St. Albans to Scotland, for their journey to the bedside of Captain Brown while she was in hospital at Edinburgh. Because of extra expense they incurred at hotels, and so on, an additional grant of £10 was made from welfare funds.

I fully appreciate the feelings of Captain Brown's parents. I can only hope that my explanation of the events and of the steps taken by the Department will show that we do try to act with consideration and sympathy, and I hope that the hon. Member will also accept that we have taken all possible steps to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.