HC Deb 13 November 1970 vol 806 cc806-16

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

1.59 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

The House would wish me to tell my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence that we are glad to see him here to answer this debate.

The background of fact to the issues which I now invite the House to consider, and to the questions which I shall raise with my hon. Friend, is as follows.

Lieut.-Colonel J. P. d'E. Skipwith, now retired, was cited at the end of his Army service as co-respondent in a divorce case by a retired officer, at the time re-employed by the Army, who was serving under Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith on the staff at Headquarters Malta and Libya. The court awarded agreed damages of £500 and costs against Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith in an undefended suit.

The Army Board, exercising the powers of the Defence Council under the Royal Warrant of 1964, which governs the pay, promotions and appointments of the Army, and under Article 255 of the Schedule to the Warrant, decided that Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith should be called upon to retire for misconduct. Of course, that decision was not dismissal or cashiering, which latter would imply some disgraceful and probably criminal offence.

As a result of the Army Board's decision to require Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith to retire, the Board then had to decide under Article 39 of the Army Pay Warrant of 1960 whether to grant Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith a compassionate award of retired pay and gratuity. Under Article 39, this award could not in any event exceed 90 per cent. of Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith's entitlement otherwise; that is to say, the Board was bound to cut his pension and gratuity by 10 per cent. It decided to cut his pension by 20 per cent., or £220 a year, and his gratuity likewise, by £660. Those cuts might be grossed up over some 20 years, taking Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith to the age of 70, at something like £3,000 over and above the 10 per cent. cut which the Army Board was obliged to make under Article 39.

At this point, I should record four facts. First, before Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith came on the scene the marriage of the officer concerned was under stress and had been so for a long time. Second, Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith subsequently married the lady in question. Third, the lady's husband was not in the strict traditional regimental sense a brother officer of Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith. Fourth, the husband in any event would not be remaining in the Service, and likewise Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith was known to be about to retire voluntarily. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel it right to accept what I have said so far as not being in question or dispute, and, on that basis, I turn to the issues that I want to raise.

The first is the personal grievance that Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith has against the Administration. When he claimed unemployment benefit, to his horror and humiliation he found that the appropriate Ministry official at the office in his own small home town disallowed his claim on the ground that he had allegedly been discharged from the Forces in consequence of having been convicted on proceedings under the Army Act, the implication being that he had been guilty of some disgraceful offence, and not that he had been asked to retire for misconduct under Article 255. I do not think that my hon. Friend will be disposed to dispute that that happened, and I hope that he will not deny that it was a ghastly and unpardonable blunder. I understand how it all happened, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not consider it offensive when I say that I am not interested and I hope that he will feel it right not to trifle with the House and attempt to shift the blame on other Departments where possibly it might lie. But I hope, too, that he will give the House no explanation. If he does, it will sound as if it is meant to be an excuse for what was done. It was done, it was inexcusable, and that is the end of it.

I ask the House to require of the Minister an unqualified and absolute apology to Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith and a firm promise of a substantial sum ex gratia to mark the gravity of the offence committed against an officer of unblemished military record. This is especially painful as his family has served the country with honour since 1066, when its only offence was that it was on the winning side.

The last thing I wish to do is diminish or under-emphasise the importance of that point. But the further issues that I wish to raise in connection with the circumstances of the case are of a wider and deeper nature. Certain aspects of the case caused me anxiety and perplexity.

I think that the House should ask my hon. Friend to let us have an explanation on two points. First, he should clarify the underlying principle upon which the power of the Army Board to require an officer to retire because of misconduct in a divorce case has been based in the past and is to be based in the future. There is a difficult distinction here. The second concerns the procedure adopted by the Army Board in deciding both the requirement for retirement and the amount of the award of a discretionary grant, which, in effect, is a decision on the amount of the fine to impose on an officer.

As to the principle in the past, there were two elements, idealistic and common sense. I think that I apprehend the idealistic element. My great-great-grandfather commanded the Queen's Regiment in the Peninsular War, and my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father were field officers in fighting regiments.

As I understand it, the first element is enshrined in the ideal concept of the officer. An officer must in action, while not needlessly wasting a life which could be of service to his country, count him self already dead. Secondly, an officer must never require anyone under his orders to do anything that he cannot and is not known to be able to do better than the man whom he orders to do it. The third requirement of an officer is one without which courage and professional competence are not enough. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will not dissolve in laughter when I say that an officer should be a gentleman. I know that the word is more offensive in public utterance today than many shorter words, but it means that an officer should be in the truth, fair—men place quite a lot of value on that—and gentle in the sense that Chaucer painted it in his portrait of the Knight. It implies that he should not steal another man's wife. That is based on the social and spiritual ideal of fidelity in marriage. It is why British officers have been known to lose their tempers when too close an analysis has been made of the character of Lord Nelson.

I should like to break out my ensign and declare that I am on the side of the idealists on this issue.

The second element is enshrined in the common sense notion that in a regimental mess on a station or in the wardroom of a ship it creates tension and is therefore bad for morale and bad for efficiency if officers seduce one another's wives. I should like to confirm with the Minister that it was purely on idealistic grounds and not on common sense ones that Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith was required to retire, because neither he nor the other officer would ever serve again together and that was well known and well established. No awkwardness could arise in the matter of Army postings, causing the War Office possibly to say, "How awkward. We cannot put Skip-with and the other fellow there, because there is this tension between them".

As to the principle on which the Army Board may require officers involved in divorce cases to retire, will the Minister expound the philosophy of the Armed Services of the Crown nowadays? The word "gentleman" has finally been removed from the Army Act. The Divorce Reform Act has removed and eliminated the concept of the matrimonial offence, and, in any real sense, the concept of marriage. I believe the Army still retains an untrendy, quaint, old-fashioned, prejudice against buggery, but I should like to know what the attitude of the Army is towards a man seducing a brother officer's wife in this trendy age. I think that the House should know. Possibly hon. Members' constituents will be in this situation again.

Next, will the Minister inform the House about the procedure under the two Articles in question? Just what rôle does and can the Minister personally play in the decisions that are made? He himself is Vice-Chairman, and effectively Chairman, so I understand, of the Army Board. My hon. Friend is the author of a monumental and sensitive study of the workings of government and of the realities of what Tories call "responsibility" and what the paranoid Left calls "power", and he is no mere academic student of these realities because he has been tempered in the glorious fires of the hustings and of constituency representation. He knows as well as I do the fears that exist—they are healthy fears—of bureaucratic bumbledom, chair-borne blimpishness, inflexibility of judgment, and so on.

I know as well as my hon. Friend knows that mostly these fears are ill founded, because I in my time have been Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Under-Secretary of State for War, as he used to be called, and I know the quality and the calibre of the Army officers and the civil servants who support and serve my right hon. and hon. Friends in Government Departments and especially in the War Office, as it used to be called.

However, both my hon. Friend and I know that the Minister is answerable personally to hon. Members here in the House, and he must therefore always be, and be seen to be, the master and not the errand boy of his Department. Hon. Members are answerable personally to their individual constituents. We must both ensure and guarantee that the processes of government are susceptible to and responsive to our personal influence, judgment and values. That is especially so in a case such as this one of Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith, where a man's whole life, career and most profound interests and deepest susceptibilities are touched. That is not a bureaucratic domain.

Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will give the House a precise, vivid and frank account of exactly what the process is that goes on in making decisions under the Articles quoted and explain by whom, how, subject to what influences, especially from the parliamentary representative, as my hon. Friend is, on what criteria, and on what body of doctrine these intensely personal and often painful decisions concerning officers are made.

For example, if the High Court sanctions agreed damages at £500 for adultery, why does the Army punish an officer with an extra £3,000? I am sure that this may have had very good rationale to it, but one would like to know exactly why this was done, what procedures for appeal there are, and what representation an officer has in the Court of Star Chamber.

What the House of Commons is for is, among other things, to enable this sort of exercise to be carried out for the reassurance and edification of the nation. The House could have no Minister endowed with more appropriate gifts of insight and expression to help us in doing this than my hon. Friend. I hope that I have given him advance notice of what I thought he might do for us which will help him to do it. I am most grateful for the attention that he has given us and for the way that he has listened to the representations I have made. I know that the House will greatly look forward to hearing his reply.

2.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

I am sure that the House will be very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) for the way he has raised this rather delicate and unfortunate matter. I am very grateful to him personally, partly for the very kind words he used about me and more especially because he was good enough, as he said, to give me notice of some of the points that he was aiming to raise this afternoon.

I am particularly grateful for that because, as my hon. Friend knows, the case of Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith is not one with which I myself was in any way concerned. It is just about five years since his case was dealt with by the Army Board and, according to our records, the Ministry of Defence has heard nothing about it for more than two years.

I know that my hon. Friend will understand my reluctance to recite in the House all the details of what is undoubtedly an unfortunate personal case which was thoroughly investigated long ago. I propose to mention them only to the extent that this is necessary for me to be able to reply to the main points my hon. Friend has raised.

Of the four facts that my hon. Friend mentioned early on I accept the first two. There is one fact which I will come to in a few moments. There is one on which I do not agree with my hon. Friend: he said that both officers were to retire voluntarily. This is not so. Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith's letter to the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army in 1968 shows that Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith was talking about taking up another appointment in the Army at Nottingham later on in 1965. The other officer concerned did not retire until the end of 1966. So they were both continuing to serve in the Army at that time.

I should like to deal with the question of an apology to Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith, which my hon. Friend mentioned with a good deal of firmness and clarity. Here I wish slightly to disagree with the point made by my hon. Friend. He said that the other officer was not a brother officer in the strict regimental sense. With all respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think this is a distinction which can usefully be made. These two officers were serving in the same headquarters at the same time and, in effect, the other officer was a staff captain to Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith, who was the A.A. and Q.M.G. at the time. They were regimental brother officers in a real sense.

That is the crucial background to this case. As my hon. Friend said, the divorce court awarded damages and costs against Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith. In accordance with normal procedure, the matter was reported to the Ministry of Defence and the officer was called upon to retire under Article 255 of the Pay Warrant, 1964. It might help if I read that Article: An officer may at any time be called upon by the Defence Council to retire or resign his commission or be removed from the Army for misconduct. I emphasise that the term "misconduct" as applied to an officer under this Article has a different connotation from "misconduct" as used in relation to the discharge of a soldier convicted by a civil court or by a court martial.

But, unhappily, in November 1965, in connection with a claim made by the officer to other Ministries for unemployment benefit, the word "misconduct" was used without qualification—this was quite wrong—on a standard departmental form and was inadvertently misinterpreted by the other Ministries to mean that Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith had been convicted on proceedings under the Army Act. This misunderstanding was later put right and entitlement to unemployment benefit was fully and retrospectively restored and an apology was accepted by Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith's solicitor, who said that there was no need to pursue the matter further.

However, in view of what my hon. Friend has said today, I willingly repeat that apology in unqualified terms. There was an unfortunate failure of communication between Ministries five years ago, and I regret it unreservedly. But I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend, because I cannot concede that, unfortunate though that happening was, any question of a payment arises because of that failure in communication.

My hon. Friend asked about the policy of the Army Board in this matter and went on to draw a distinction between idealism and efficiency. I should like to make the background clear. First, the mere fact of divorce proceedings does not automatically cause the Army Board to call upon the officer concerned to resign his commission or to retire. The Army Board is concerned solely to uphold the reputation and discipline of the Service and to ensure that proper relationships are preserved between members of the forces.

From what my hon. Friend said, it is clear that he accepts that different considerations do or should apply between Service conditions and ordinary civilian life. Each case is carefully considered on its facts and full regard is paid to the officer's representations, if he makes representations, and to the views of his superior commanders. But clearly, where the wife of a subordinate is involved, the respect of colleagues and the trust of superior officers is likely to be forfeit and the officer's usefulness in the Service is diminished.

Therefore, I do not think that my hon. Friend's point that the men concerned were not going to serve in the same unit again is valid. Unfortunately, these cases attract publicity within the Service and outside and therefore, if privacy and confidentiality could be preserved, different considerations could apply. But unfortunately these matters leak out and very often become something of a cause célèbre. However, I should like to make clear that the Army Board is guided, not by a desire to judge moral issues but by a need to safeguard the interests of the Army. In Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith's case, the circumstances were most carefully considered by the Army Board with the result that my hon. Friend has pointed out.

As my hon. Friend made clear, this decision automatically brought into operation Article 39 of the Army Pensions Warrant, 1960, which reads: An officer who is called upon to retire or resign or is removed for misconduct, or who is cashiered or dismissed the Service, and who has at least 16 years' reckonable service may be granted, if the Defence Council so decide, a compassionate award of retired pay at such rate as they may determine but not in any event exceeding 90 per cent. of the sum which would have been admissible under Article 36 had he retired at his own request. Therefore, the full voluntary rate of retired pay is applicable to officers who have given satisfactory service over the years; but the traditional policy relating to Army pensions is that when an officer leaves the Service as a result of misconduct or any other failure on his part he forfeits any entitlement to an award of retired pay and terminal grant. In other words, the entitlement goes and the matter becomes a question of discretion for the Army Board. The amount of the discretionary award depends on the circumstances.

I think that my hon. Friend is interested in the sort of factors which are taken into account. They include the type and gravity of the misconduct leading to the termination of service, whether it affects the good name of the Army, whether it was subversive of morale or discipline, the award payable on voluntary retirement, the quality of service given by the officer up to the time of his offence and any other relevant factors. The Army Board decided in this case that the appropriate award was 80 per cent. of the amount of the retired pay and terminal grant which would have been paid on normal voluntary retirement.

My hon. Friend asked me to state the attitude of the Army Board to seductions by brother officers. I am not sure that this is a matter which is suitable for an ex cathedra pronouncement by me, and I will only say that I do not think the Army Board's attitude has changed or that it differs in any way from that of my hon. Friend.

I agree wholeheartedly with all that my hon. Friend said on the constitutional point. He pointed out that it was important that people should not think that there was bureaucratic bumbledom and that people were at the mercy of the machine. I can assure him that, in the case of the Army, his fears can confidently be allayed. As he pointed out, the Under-Secretary of State, that is, me, is in effect the Chairman of the Army Board because the Secretary of State delegates that duty to me. Whether or not a Minister is involved in these matters is entirely a matter for him. Obviously, one cannot legislate against Ministers who do not take the trouble, but the procedure is sound. The Minister has every right to be involved in all these matters and to state his view and argue it out and see that justice is done. He can then, with a good conscience, defend the result of such proceedings in the House or elsewhere.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend—

Mr. Iremonger

I do not want to press my hon. Friend unfairly about this, and I know of the enormous pressure that his duties place upon him, but he has left it open for the House to follow him on this by saying that it depends upon the Minister; and while he cannot answer for others, he can answer for himself. Would it be unfair to ask him to say that, in these cases, this is something which he would not care to let go by without his personal scrutiny?

Mr. Gilmour

I am not sure that I could say that. Something might arise while I was abroad or on a tour, for example. I can, however, certainly say that my views on these matters would be made plain to the Army Board and to all concerned. I can, therefore, confidently assure my hon. Friend that in any matter which arose, even if I were not myself present, account would definitely be taken of those views. I am interested in these matters and I assure my hon. Friend that I will take as much interest as possible in them, although it would be tempting providence to guarantee that every single case would receive my personal consideration.

I have studied all the relevant papers in the case and have examined the awards which have been made in other cases of misconduct. The Army Board's award in Lieut.-Colonel Skipwith's case was in line with other awards made in comparable circumstances. Now that the time has passed and the decision has been made—although I have no hesitation in making the apology for which my hon. Friend asked—I cannot see any ground for altering the decision.