HC Deb 18 July 1968 vol 768 cc1823-34

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

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

I am grateful for this opportunity to tell the House of the experience of one of my constituents. The Salisbury constituency is proud to number within its boundaries a great many soldiers, both on the Active List and retired, and my story concerns one of the latter. I have given the Government good notice of the points which I wish to raise so that the Minister may be that much better equipped to answer this brief debate. I have told him also that I wish to keep an open mind on whether this case could properly be laid before the Parliamentary Commissioner.

We have only 30 minutes. I shall aim to allow the Minister 15 of them, but to succeed in so doing I shall have to speak quickly, for which I apologise.

Early last year, the Army published new redundancy terms. Among those who volunteered for premature retirement was Major A. F. Blundell, today aged 39, a very gifted officer with a distinguished Army career, happily married and with four children. On Friday last, Mr. Speaker refrained from pointing out Sir Alec Rose in the Gallery. By the same token, I refrain tonight from pointing out Major Blundell in the box below the Gallery.

This officer submitted his application in May, 1967, to leave the Army. In September, 1967, it was said that retirement would take place on 31st March, 1968. Looking ahead to the next chapter, Major Blundell decided to try for a career in the Diplomatic Service. He applied for this at the same time, 1st May, 1967, that he applied for release from the Army. He went through the process of interviews and selection, and on 8th September, 1967, the Civil Service Commissioners informed him that his application was successful and he would be offered an established post in the Diplomatic Service, providing inquiries into age, health and other matters were satisfactory.

In October, and again in December, Major Blundell had interviews with the Personnel Department of the Diplomatic Service, and it was arranged that he would leave the Army on 31st March and start his new career the following day. Thus the barometer was set fair and the next chapter for this able man was assured, and his future was full of promise.

Then the first blow fell. On 15th January, 1968, he attended for a further interview in London and was informed, with great sympathy and regret, and for that I give the Foreign Office full marks, that he could not enter the Civil Service after all. Seventeen years previously he had been captured in action with the Gloucesters—the "Glorious Gloucesters" as they were called, by Chinese Communists during the Korean war, and held by them for two and a half years. As we all know, the Radcliffe Report of 1962 advised against the holding of positively-vetted posts by anyone who had been in Communist hands for more than three months.

It is likely, I cannot confirm it this evening, that the fact of his imprisonment was included in his original application form of 1st May, 1967. This news came nine months after Major Blundell's application to join the Diplomatic Service and four months after learning that the application, in principle, had been successful. Of course it was a very cruel blow, but it was accepted with resilience and fortitude—soldiers are soldiers.

It was not the harshness of the decision itself which later drove Major Blundell to consult his Member of Parliament. When he walked out of the office in London where the news had been broken to him, there remained only two months before leaving the Army.

Beyond those two months, there was no longer a good career waiting, nor was there any longer a certain roof for Major Blundell's young family. The whole period from 1st May, 1967, to 15th January, 1968, when he could have been seeking employment elsewhere, had been completely wasted. There was only one thing to do in those circumstances. Within three days of receiving the news, Major Blundell asked for his retirement from the Army to be postponed for a few months, to allow time to prepare for some other form of civilian employment.

The request was warmly supported by his own commanding officer and by his Brigade H.Q. and forwarded to the Ministry of Defence. May I say how much I appreciate tonight that the Minister responsible for the Army should have seen fit to join us for this debate. I should interpose here that the Diplomatic Service, in breaking the news, had asked whether there was any other way in which it might help. Major Blundell had always, from the outset, made it clear that he was not attracted by work with the home Civil Service. He had done most of his soldiering overseas. In view of this offer of help, he asked whether he might be offered a short-term post, which it was not necessary to vet, with the High Commission in Australia. As yet I knew nothing of these events. I learned of the situation only when Major Blundell came to see me in Salisbury on the evening of 22nd March. At that moment of time, there remained only one week of his Army career left. There had been no encouraging word of extension.

I immediately wrote to the Foreign Secretary, as the Minister responsible for the Diplomatic Service. I asked him to make amends for the unhappy decision taken by his Department by helping to arrange the temporary post in Australia. My letter was passed to the Commonwealth Office. This, I think, explains why the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs is here to reply, although I consider that his Department is involved only peripherally.

Five weeks of silence then passed. Then the Minister of State, Commonwealth Office, the noble Lord Lord Shepherd replied, on 3rd May. He agreed that this was a singularly unfortunate case. He was sorry that no post was available in Australia. His letter ended, however: You probably know by now that Major Blundell has secured an extension of his service in the Army at least until July. Lord Shepherd was incorrect. Major Blundell's discharge had taken place on the original date of 31st March. No extension had been granted. I notified Lord Shepherd accordingly and begged the Government to take immediate remedial action. He replied on 30th May: I am very sorry to hear that contrary to our expectations Major Blundell was in fact discharged from the Army on 31 March. Until we got Major Blundell's letter to you on 10 May it had not been clear to us that his application to serve for a further maximum of six months had been refused. We had been in touch with the Commandant of 16th Parachute Brigade to inquire whether there was anything further we could do. We received a note from him expressing his belief that the Army were likely to secure his temporary extension and that they would call on us if need be. In the absence of any further word, we had assumed that all was well. In the circumstances I am giving further consideration to this matter urgently and I hope to be able to write to you again about it in the near future. Another five weeks of silence passed while Lord Shepherd gave what he had called urgent further consideration to the matter. Meanwhile, Major Blundell was still in his Army quarters. His earnings had ceased but there was a pension and —yes—there was unemployment benefit.

I still hoped that an extension would be granted and I waited anxiously for news. My secretary telephoned Lord Shepherd's office. Finally, his letter reached me—three pages of it. Was an extension granted or not? I read and read and reached the end of the letter. It contained not a single reference to the Army. It merely covered the earlier ground of the Diplomatic Service's decision. So much for Lord Shepherd's contribution to this case. And so much for the second period of five weeks which I had had to wait before hearing from him.

My story is not yet ended. Far from it. To draw unemployment benefit was nothing. The final indignity for Major Blundell still lay ahead. The Secretary of State for Defence, it was now clear, was determined not on an extension but on an eviction. A cheerful bailiff called at the married quarter. He had a summons in his hand to Major Blundell, who was instructed to appear at Andover Court on 26th June. Thus, three weeks ago, this officer who has given his life to the Army, who suffered solitary confinement at the hands of the Chinese, who so recently had seen his whole future career destroyed, was made to suffer further when he was ordered to appear in some provincial court like a common criminal.

My constituent has been grievously and irrevocably wronged. He has been injured by those very quarters whose debt to him is the greatest. Thus, he is leaving the country he served. He is taking his family to start a new life elsewhere. There is little I can do to help him there. But I ask three things of the Government. First, an apology— clear, unqualified and unconditional. Secondly, I ask for financial compensation. There was every justification to have kept this officer in the Army for a few additional months, and salary for those months should be paid. Thirdly, and more important, I ask for an inquiry, because this case reveals clear imperfections in our security system.

I will explain. Paragraph 77 of the Radcliffe Report states as follows: There is one type of case where particular care is needed before P.V. clearance can be granted or maintained. This is the case where a public servant returns to his service after being held captive or interned for any substantial period (by which we have in mind a period of say three months) in Communist hands. From evidence which we have heard and from our examination of the recent case of Blake we think that there must be a risk involved in employing anyone who has been through such an experience on secret work. While we recognise that circumstances may arise in which it will be thought right to take a calculated risk, we recommend that the general rule should be adopted that no one in the category we have described should be re-employed (or employed for the first time) in any post within the field of Positive Vetting. Two points arise from this. First, did Lord Radcliffe intend that a young soldier who falls into Communist hands in battle should suffer discrimination for the rest of his life, or did Lord Radcliffe not agree that there comes a time—in this case, 17 years later—when such disability can be expunged by loyal service? I do not know the answer, but for future applicants I think that there should be a ruling.

The second, and more important, point is this. The Radcliffe Commission's recommendations concerning security apply equally in the Foreign Service and in the Armed Forces. There is no distinction. If a man is fit for a security post in one, he is equally fit for it in the other. Conversely, if a man is not fit for a security post in one, he is equally debarred from it in the other: We are thinking throughout", said Lord Radcliffe in paragraph 12, primarily of those Government Departments or branches of Departments which are concerned with the protection and safeguarding of classified information or material. The Service Departments are, of course, within this category. We know that Lord Radcliffe is a man who does not use a single unnecessary word or phrase: The Service Departments are, of course, within this category", he said. There is no distinction.

Why did the Minister of Defence refuse Major Blundell a few months' extension of Army service? This young officer had given his life to the Army. Extension had been warmly recommended by his senior serving officers and those who knew him. Even Lord Shepherd, to use his own words, had assumed that all was well.

Why, instead, did the Minister of Defence set in train squalid steps to evict this young officer and his family from the Army property which had been his home? Why the indecent haste before even three months had elapsed? Why at the very moment when his Member of Parliament was pressing the Government for an extension of time? Why when the eviction of one of Her Majesty's commissioned officers is something without precedent? Why?

Suppose that the action of the Diplomatic Service had drawn the attention of the Minister of Defence to paragraph 77 of the Radcliffe Report. Suppose that Major Blundell already held security posts in the Army. Would not the Minister of Defence then realise that his own flank lay wide open? Did this not give him cause to cover his tracks and to drop Major Blundell like a hot potato? Is this the explanation? Alternatively, if Major Blundell held a series of security posts in the Army, and the Army had, therefore, unquestioning confidence in his integrity, then on what possible grounds can the Diplomatic Service have refused him? Surely, the Diplomatic Service should reconsider its decision. If the Army was right, then the Diplomatic Service was wrong. Those who know Lord Radcliffe's Report know that in security matters there is no distinction between the two Services. But if the Diplomatic Service was right, then the Minister of Defence was wrong, and had been wrong for years, because at the time of Radcliffe, in 1962, and through all the years which have followed, Major Blundell has held positively vetted posts in the Army.

He is shortly taking his wife and family to Australia. I should like him to take with him also the realisation that, while Governments come and go, we in this country still believe in fairness, in gratitude to those who serve us, and in justice. That is why I ask for an inquiry.


The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. William Whitlock)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) has spoken with obvious feeling about a constituent with whom he has a great deal of sympathy. In some measure I share that sympathy with him, but I am afraid that I have little comfort to offer him tonight.

Since Major Blundell's expectation of entry into the Diplomatic Service has contributed to his present distressing situation I am replying on behalf of the Diplomatic Service, although I shall cover some aspects dealt with by the Army and the Ministry of Defence.

As an independent body the Civil Service Commission conducts the selection procedures for recruits to the Civil Service, including the Diplomatic Service. Nevertheless, since the Government have decided that no one may be employed in the Civil Service in connection with work the nature of which is vital to the security of the State if, in such a way as to raise doubts as to his reliability, he is or has been associated with Communists or is susceptible to Communist pressure, the Civil Service Commission warns all candidates that certain Departments and certain posts in other Government Departments will not be open to persons who are thought to fall within these categories. The Civil Service Commissioners do not concern themselves with security matters and cannot enter into correspondence with candidates about any security inquiries. These are the responsibility of the Minister in charge of the Department concerned. The Diplomatic Service is covered by the Government's decision to which I have referred.

Any candidate for the Diplomatic Service is examined by the Civil Service Commissioners as part of the normal selection procedure, but to avoid a good deal of wasted effort the Diplomatic Service does not carry out any of the background inquiries necessary to safeguard national security until it has been notified by the Civil Service Commission of the names and addresses of those who have been successful in the various competitions and wish to join the Diplomatic Service.

When, therefore, Major Blundell was notified of his success in the Grade 9 (Executive) Competition by the Commission in its letter of 8th September he was told that he would be offered an established post in the Diplomatic Service provided that—and I stress these words—the inquiries by the Civil Service Commissioners into age, health and other matters were satisfactory. Major Blundell had previously been warned by the Civil Service Commission that successful candidates cannot be appointed until the issue of the Commission's Certificate of Qualification on satisfactory completion of these inquiries. While the Commission is making its investigations about age, health, character, etcetera, this is the time when the Diplomatic Service normally considers information relevant to security. As part of this process, Major Blundell was sent the appropriate form on 20th October, but he did not complete and return it to the Diplomatic Service Administration Office until 10th November.

His revelation to the Diplomatic Service that he had been held a prisoner of war in Korea from 1951 to 1953 took place at that point. It was not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, in Major Blundell's application form. This led to the careful examination of the problem which this posed for a prospective member of the Diplomatic Service. Everyone was immediately aware of how difficult and distressing this case was. It was to ensure that all the aspects were considered fairly that the process took some weeks. The conclusion was in the end reached that Major Blundell ought not to come into the Diplomatic Service. This decision was taken in the light of the Radcliffe Committee's recommendation—in the light of the notorious Blake case—against the employment of men who had been held captive in Communist hands in posts dealing with sensitive material.

We have no grounds whatsoever for questioning Major Blundell's personal honour and loyalty. On the contrary, his record in the Army is that of a faithful servant of the Crown. I want to stress that fact. But Blake, in his time, gave the same impression. He, too, to all outward appearances, was a faithful servant of the Crown who fell into Communist hands through no fault of his own. He, too, ostensibly behaved in an exemplary fashion during his captivity, and, indeed, for eight or nine years after it. But the effects of his treachery are still with us today. The Diplomatic Service simply cannot ignore this lesson, and I had understood the hon. Gentleman and Major Blundell had accepted this.

It was noted at the time that Major Blundell had held intelligence posts while in the Army, but there is a difference between a career in the Diplomatic Service, which involves fairly regular contact with Communist officials at posts abroad and possibly some appointments in Communist countries. The Army has a wide range of posts of varying sensitivity. The Diplomatic Service does not have the same latitude.

The Diplomatic Service had to make quite sure that the interests of the individual were properly weighed against the security needs of the State, but the final conclusion was that the lessons of the Blake case could not be overlooked.

Since Major Blundell had already been in contact with the Diplomatic Service following his success in the competition, the decision was conveyed to him in a special personal interview as soon as it was taken. However, the Diplomatic Service was able to say, with the agreement of the Civil Service Commission and the Treasury, that Major Blundell would be offered alternative employment in the Home Civil Service if he cared to apply for it. Efforts were made at the same time to see whether there were any posts of a non-sensitive nature in Australia which would suit him, but it proved impossible to satisfy the operational needs of the Service and meet Major Blundell's requirements.

There was, unfortunately, some delay between the initiation of the security inquiries, but, in view of the care with which such cases have to be handled, some lapse of time is inevitable. The number of candidates passing through the hands of the Civil Service Commission and the need of the Diplomatic Service to get the information directly from the candidates themselves are contributing factors. There is perhaps room for tightening up some of the procedures of consultation between the Civil Service Commission, the Diplomatic Service and other interested Government Departments. These are constantly under review. In Major Blundell's case it might have been possible to have shaved off a corner or two, but I am satisfied, after looking into the case thoroughly, that it was not the fault of any particular part of the machine, but the cumulative effect of a number of different processes which made the delay seem so long.

On the connection between Major Blundell's Army service and his wish to enter the Diplomatic Service, I should point out that it was not a question of a transfer. He had already asked to retire from the Army before he sat the competition for entry into the Diplomatic Service. From the point of view of the Diplomatic Service he was in exactly the same situation as any fresh applicant for a job. His particular domestic problems and his relationship with the Army were matters which could not come within the sphere of competence of the Diplomatic Service, but naturally efforts were made to mitigate the hardship, for example, by suggesting the possibility of employment in the Home Civil Service and looking into the possibility of a temporary job in Western Australia.

The hon. Member referred to the apology which my right hon. Friend Lord Shepherd, Minister of State, sent to Major Blundell. In defence of my right hon. Friend, I must say that it was not clear on the information available to the Diplomatic Service that the Ministry of Defence had intended to turn down the application for extension. In the weeks which followed Lord Shepherd's decision to have the case reconsidered, efforts were made to see whether it was possible to employ Major Blundell in the Diplomatic Service, but it was felt in the end that the earlier decision would have to stand. Complaints about delays arising because every effort has been made to help this man come rather hard from the hon. Member in these circumstances.

The hon. Member apparently thinks that there was every justification for the Army to retain Major Blundell's services for a further four months. Major Blundell's voluntary resignation from the Army was in no way contingent on his getting a further job in Government employment. His case was considered sympathetically, but obviously the Army cannot afford to pay an officer who has been declared redundant and for whom there is no authorised place on the establishment. It was not considered possible to keep him on in the Service solely for the purpose of facilitating his resettlement in civil life. He was informed accordingly. Upon retirement he received substantial compensation in addition to his normal pension and terminal grant.

There are two points of principle. First, there was no authorised post on the establishment which would have justified paying Major Blundell. Secondly, it would be very difficult to administer a system whereby men could alter dates of retirement according to their varying fortunes in obtaining civilian jobs, and that is what, ultimately, Major Blundell was asking the Army to do.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

Will the hon. Member deal with my request for an inquiry?

Mr. Whitlock

Bearing in mind that this case has been gone into several times with the utmost sympathy, I see no possibility of there being an inquiry.

I turn rather hastily to the question of Major Blundell's married quarter at Tidworth. I am afraid that if 1 went through the whole gamut of the arrangements and the mistake which was made in the failure to cancel the instruction to take legal proceedings against him, I should be here for much longer than in fact is possible. But as I have no time to explain all this, I would conclude by saying that I am authorised by the Ministry of Defence to convey an apology to Major Blundell for this unnecessary personal inconvenience—

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 accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.