HC Deb 02 May 1973 vol 855 cc1423-34

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I am grateful for the chance to raise a constituency case which has troubled me and has certainly given my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Johnson of 94, Shaftesbury Avenue, Keresley, much deep concern and regret. It concerns the death of their son, Signalman John Thomas Johnson, while on manoeuvres with the Royal Signals in Scharmstadt, Germany, on 24th September last year. This case was first brought to my attention by Councillor Tommy Ellis, who represents Keresley, and I am grateful for the assiduous way in which he has kept me in touch with the feelings of the family.

The family heard about their son's death by telegram asking them, on 24th September, to call the Army records office in Reading. They did so and they were told by that office that it knew nothing about the matter. Although Signalman Johnson died at 12.25 on Sunday 24th September it was not until the following Monday morning when Mr. Johnson senior called Germany that he found out true information. He was first told in the telegram that his son had died in a

traffic accident. His son died while asleep in a tent having been run over by an Army truck.

The Army chaplain from Bramcote barracks, just outside my constituency, visited the family that Sunday evening, but he knew nothing of the details. The burden of my story is that it took six months and nine letters to the Ministry to find out exactly the circumstances in which this soldier met his untimely death. I was particularly concerned at the lack of information which was given to the family about the way in which the body arrived in Coventry, almost as though the family had been a third party. It was the undertaker who informed them that he was collecting the body from London Airport and it was not until 3rd October, the body having been collected from London on 29th September, that a perfunctory letter arrived from the Royal Signals Regiment in Germany giving a rough outline of the circumstances of the death. It was not until 6th October that I was informed by the Minister's predecessor in a letter he wrote to me.

When the funeral took place some of the representatives of the regiment had to pay their own expenses to attend. Needless to say, the family was grateful to the individual soldiers who took that step. There was an incredible mess-up over the late Signalman Johnson's personal belongings. It seems that they went half way round the country before arriving at Keresley.

I was told in a letter from the Minister's predecessor on 25th October that the family was to contact the Soldiers' Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association if they wanted any further information, and the Minister told me in a letter he sent on 16th November that if Mr. Johnson senior wanted to attend the inquiry he would have to pay his own expenses. So disturbed was I at having written to the Ministry several times and receiving no information that I first raised this matter in a Question answered by the Minister on 30th November. In that reply he said The solicitor acting for the father of Private Johnson has reported that the family appreciated the sympathy and personal kindness of those who had to deal with them on behalf of the Army."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November 1972; Vol. 847 c. 609.]

I submit that that is a travesty of a quotation. It is a serious misquotation of what the solicitor actually wrote to the Department.

Mr. William Wilson (Coventry, South)

It happens that my firm were the solicitors involved. In order to put the record right, I shall read the letter which was sent to the Royal Signals manning and record office. After referring to the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred the letter says: While our Clients certainly appreciated the individual expressions of sympathy made to them by various Officers and the personal kindness of the persons with whom they have spoken they are frankly upset by the inadequacy of the information given to them and the lack of help from official circles. In particular one would suppose that some inquiry or inquest had been held and yet our Clients have received no word of this and apart from being aware that a lorry ran into the tent are ignorant as to the circumstances of their son's death. We would therefore appreciate you advising us as to whether an inquest has been held or alternatively the date on which such an inquest will be held and whether or not our Clients would be permitted to attend either in person or by a Legal Representative. If an inquest or an inquiry has been held then it may be possible for you to provide us with a copy of the notes of evidence and verdict recorded. We wish to stress that although our Clients have been touched by the way in which some aspects of the matter have been dealt with they do feel a sense of extreme grievance in others and you may consider this justifiable and we trust that we will hear from you soon in an effort to rectify this. Because of my professional engagement I do not propose to comment further on the matter.

Mr. Huckfield

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for putting the record straight and for putting the letter on record. That was the situation which obtained. The uncertainty of information represented the situation which obtained all the way through the matter until 27th March—that was six months after the unfortunate accident had occurred—despite the fact that my hon. Friend's letter was written to the hon. Gentleman's Department in November. The hon. Gentleman was still writing to me on 7th December that the family had appreciated the kindness which had been shown. That misquotes completely the letter and its intention.

I was told by the hon. Gentleman on 18th January that there was to be a court-martial on or about 30th January. That was the first that I or the family had heard about an inquiry. I was told that the charge was to be one of negligent driving. The hon. Gentleman told me in correspondence and in conversation that if Mr. Johnson wanted to attend the inquiry he would have to pay his own fare. In other words, having been kept waiting for so long for information about the death of their son, the family were told that if they wanted to find out more they would have to pay to go to the inquiry.

It was not until 13th March of this year that I was told in a letter from the hon. Gentleman that the court-martial had resulted in a non-commissioned officer being fined £40. Before then I had again raised the matter at Question Time. It was not until 27th March—that is, six months after the incident took place— that the hon. Gentleman wrote to me to tell me the result of the court-martial which was held in Verden. The corporal who was driving the vehicle, who was not the authorised driver, pleaded guilty to moving the truck after having moved a generator which was causing some disturbance to some nearby civilian families. The truck was moved after the generator had been moved. It was being driven backwards when the unfortunate accident occurred. The hon. Gentleman's letter of 27th March refers to a "momentary loss of concentration" by the driver involved.

The feelings of the family can be appreciated—they live in a mining village— when the original telegram said that their son had been killed in "a traffic accident" and when, after six months, the final bit of information was discovered. As I have said, Mr. Johnson is a miner and lives in a mining village, which is a close community and one which I have the honour and am proud to represent.

Mr. Aldridge, of my hon. Friend's firm, wrote to the Department asking about compensation. This, again, had not so far been mentioned, and the family is still in the dark about it. He wrote on 12th April requesting further information whether the Secretary of State could issue a certificate to say that death had been attributable to service for consideration for a possible award under the Royal Warrant. I realise that there are certain difficulties involving charges under the Crown Proceedings Act, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to provide further enlightenment on the point.

The main burden of my complaint concerns the very callous, very inhuman and regrettable way in which the family was kept waiting in the dark for the whole of that Sunday, until Mr. Johnson himself had to telephone Germany to find out what had happened to his son. Then there was the manner in which the body was delivered. I have said that the body was dumped in Coventry with the same amount of ceremony as a sack of potatoes, and my constituent still feels that. Then there is the hon. Gentleman's claim that the family is somehow satisfied. Mr. Johnson wrote to me earlier this week and said: The Ministry has still not sent us a report of the Court Martial. I am disgusted with them. I suppose it is a case of because they gave you and the solicitor a report it does not matter about us. I sympathise with Mr. Johnson's feelings. He feels almost as though the family has been treated as a third party throughout. The lack of information, the callous way in which it has been treated, and the way in which the personal belongings were treated, have very much upset the family. It will take it a long time to recover from this.

I want to press the point about compensation. It has been raised legally by my hon. Friend's firm and I shall press it again if I cannot get a satisfactory answer tonight. Bearing in mind all the suffering which the family has gone through and the callous treatment by the Army in keeping it waiting six months before it could find out what had happened to Private Johnson, I feel that some redress is due to the family and that some adjustment of procedures is called for. I have pressed the hon. Gentleman on this point before. If this is the way the Army proposes to treat the families of those who have been killed or injured on manoeuvres or exercises, I do not think much of the way it treats the basic ingredients of any fighting force.

The hon. Gentleman himself told me in his letter of 27th March that he was concerned that I did not receive the information until that date, bearing in mind that the court-martial took place at the end of January. I hope that he will elaborate further on the question why, since the court-martial took place at the beginning of this year, he was not able to tell me about it until two months ago.

This has been a tragic case, certainly a tragedy for the Johnson family. I hope the hon. Gentleman will do something to lighten their burden this evening.

11.56 p.m.

The Under-Secretary for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) had the opportunity to raise this matter tonight because it gives me the opportunity of clearing up what I think are some substantial misconceptions on his part, which I have no doubt are shared by Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and others. The House, I know, will share my deep regret at the tragic and untimely death of Signalman Johnson. Although I cannot agree with all the criticisms the hon. Member made of the Army's handling of the case, this in no sense detracts from the sincerity of my sympathy for the relatives. I think the hon. Member would concede this because I have corresponded with him a great deal, whatever other criticisms he may have made. I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of the main points with which he intended to deal.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. William Wilson) referred to a solicitor's letter. If he feels that I misrepresented what was said in that letter I regret it. I shall look carefully at the full text of the letter and what I said in the answer I gave in the House. The hon. Member for Nuneaton said that Mr. Johnson felt aggrieved that I had not sent him the letter of 27th March in which I gave the full facts. I proceeded on the assumption that the hon. Member would pass on the letter to Mr. Johnson which I think is the normal assumption on which Ministers operate in cases of this kind. I regret it if Mr. Johnson felt that I had neglected him.

The circumstances of the unfortunate accident in which Signalman Johnson died are, very briefly, that while taking part in a field training exercise in Germany on 24th September last year he was one of three soldiers sleeping in a tent when an Army lorry ran over one side of it. Signalman Johnson died in hospital about an hour later from the injuries he received. The letter of condolence written by the commanding officer to Mr. Johnson on the day of the accident did not arrive at its destination, owing to an unfortunate delay in the post. A letter which normally would take a much shorter time, took 10 days. In it the commanding officer gave a brief summary of the facts of the accident. For reasons that I shall explain he was not able to give them all. In view of the fact that the letter had not arrived at the time the hon. Member wrote to the Department, I quite understand Mr. Johnson feeling that he had not received adequate information.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton first wrote about this distressing case on 2nd October, when he passed on to my right hon. and noble Friend a complaint that the soldier's father was upset about the lack of help and information he had received from the Army concerning his son's death. My predecessor replied to the hon. Member on 6th October similarly giving brief details of the fatal accident and telling him that as soon as the official inquiries had been completed we would be writing to Mr. Johnson giving him a full account of the accident, although there was likely to be some delay.

I should like to give the House a summary of the procedure which is laid down by the Army for dealing with cases of fatal accidents overseas, and which was followed in the case of Signalman Johnson. The next of kin are informed immediately. This is done personally by a member of the unit if they are in immediate reach; otherwise by telegram. The latter was done in this case. The telegram expressed condolences and said that Signalman Johnson had died earlier that day in hospital, following a tragic traffic accident.

The telegram also informed Mr. Johnson that an officer would call that day to discuss funeral arrangements. This is our normal practice. The purpose of this visit, which in this case was made by an Army chaplain, is to extend the sympathy of the Army Board, to assist the family to decide on funeral arrangements, and to see whether there are any other problems with which the military authorities can assist. Since the visiting officer comes from the nearest military unit, neither he nor the man in the record office at Reading, whose telephone number was given in the telegram, would be familiar with the deceased soldier, nor would they be aware of any more of the circumstances of the death than had been told to the family.

The sole purpose of these early contacts is to provide a source of advice to the relatives, especially about the funeral arrangements. I should like to put the record straight on the hon. Member's allegation about the method of delivery of the coffin. With respect, I cannot accept his criticism. The coffin was flown from Germany on 29th September. It was collected at Heathrow by undertakers who regularly act as our agents and was delivered the same day by them to the undertakers in Coventry who were engaged by Signalman Johnson's family. The Coventry undertakers had no complaint to make about these arrangements.

Secondly, it is the commanding officer's practice to write immediately to the next-of-kin. I have explained that this was done on this occasion, although unfortunately the letter was delayed. Thirdly, the adjutant and three of Signalman Johnson's friends in the regiment attended the funeral. They were able to talk to Mr. Johnson about the circumstances of his son's death. I am confident that at this time Mr. Johnson would have been told most of what he wanted to know about the accident.

In the meantime, on 26th September Mr. Johnson had telephoned the adjutant asking to know the cause of death and had been given orally brief details of the accident. On 16th October, in accordance with our normal procedure, Mr. Johnson was sent a letter from the Ministry of Defence conveying an expression of the Army Board's sympathy. It explained why we could not then give him the further information which he was anxious to have about the accident. For the reasons I have mentioned, the visit of the soldiers and the adjutant at the time of the funeral, Mr. Johnson must by that time at least have had a general picture of the circumstances in which the accident occurred.

I now turn to the reasons why we have had to keep Mr. Johnson waiting for so long for a full and written report. This is the crux of the hon. Member's argument about delay.

I shall explain the procedure as simply as I can. When an accident occurs—and certainly in the case of a fatal accident —it is followed by an immediate local investigation into the circumstances to record the facts and to determine whether any further action, such as a board of inquiry, is appropriate. Such an investigation was carried out in this case on 24th September, the day of the accident, by the Royal Military Police who submitted an initial case report the next day. This was followed by a detailed investigation leading to a full case report on 11th October. The report of these investigations is analogous to the civil police proceedings which would follow a fatal traffic accident in this country. In neither case would the results of the investigation be divulged before any hearing of charges arising out of the incident since to do so could prejudice the position of anyone accused of such charges.

As in comparable cases in civilian life, at this stage, as at all stages, until the full judicial procedures have been completed the full facts could not be given to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson as court martial proceedings were likely or in progress. To give the Army's version of the facts might have prejudiced the defence of the accused. This is the basis of the sub judice rule with which hon. Members will be familiar and which is regarded as an important feature in ensuring that our legal system is fair.

It is difficult to see how more information could have been given formally and officially to Signalman Johnson's parents than was contained in the commanding officer's letter. In addition they must have learned a good deal about the circumstances at the time of the funeral.

After studying the military police reports and after advice from the Army Legal Service, the commanding officer decided on 30th October that there were grounds for a board of inquiry. Such a board is aimed not only at establishing the facts but also at determining what changes in procedures, if any, are necessary to avoid a recurrence.

However, the reports indicated that there were grounds for disciplinary action, which is not surprising, and this meant that the board could not sit until action had been taken, since to do so could prejudice the case against the accused and hamper investigations. The legal examination of the disciplinary aspects of the case had already begun on receipt of the full military police report, and revealed the necessity for further technical evidence and tests of the vehicle involved in the accident.

It is difficult to carry out these legal processes quickly—I think that the hon. Member will agree that this is also the case in the civilian courts—but by 24th November the Army legal services were able to advise that application should be made for the driver of the lorry to be tried by court-martial. On 7th December, therefore, the court was convened for 30th January, giving time for the appointment of members and officers of the court, and in particular for the provision of legal aid and counsel for the accused, and for the accused's counsel to be properly briefed.

The court-martial was held on 30th January, and the confirmed findings and sentence were promulgated to the accused soldier on 13th March. On the same day I wrote to the hon. Member informing him of the findings. There was some delay in the process of confirmation because the record of the proceedings of the court was not received until 27th February, 28 days later, from the civilian firm employed to provide it. I regret that. Not until then could confirmation of the findings take place. Once the findings of the court-martial had been confirmed, the board of inquiry was held, but, because of the hon. Member's interest in the circumstances of the accident, I took the unusual step of preparing a summary of the events from the proceedings of the court-martial, and this was sent to the hon. Member on 27th March instead of awaiting the findings of the board, which, as it happened, had nothing to add about the circumstances of the accident.

I have been asked about compensation. Mr. Johnson's solicitors have raised the question of a claim in respect of his son's death, and the hon. Member referred this to me on 13th April. This is a matter which needs to be discussed with the Department of Health and Social Security, and my Department is now doing this. I will write to the hon. Member as soon as possible, and I will take the opportunity of explaining Section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947.

The hon. Member may wish to be aware that Singnalman Johnson was a contributor to the Single Soldiers' Dependants Fund, and that a payment was made from the fund to Mr. Johnson four days after his son's death.

On reviewing the course of events in this sad case, I believe that Signalman Johnson's unit acted promptly and correctly, and that all reasonable help was offered to the family by the Army at the time of their bereavement. I understand and sympathise with the family's desire to have the fullest possible details of the soldier's death, but unhappily the full and formal record could not be given to them any sooner than it was because of the legal and disciplinary aspects of the case. The situation would have been no different had the case been before the civil courts. There is no evidence of any negligence or lack of urgency on the part of the Army in dealing with these matters, which often take considerably longer to conclude in the civil courts.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield


Mr. Blaker

I have little time left.

My investigations into this case confirm my view that no general instructions can be given on the disclosure of details to families, since the circumstances of every fatal accident and the proceedings which take place afterwards are never identical. I can only assure the House that in this sad and often harrowing side of the affairs of my Department all concerned are deeply conscious of the need for the utmost urgency and the greatest care and understanding in the manner in which tragic cases like this are handled; and that to the extent that we may be able to speed up the provision of information in individual cases in the light of the points made in this debate we shall of course do so.

In this sad side of the Department's affairs we receive more compliments than complaints. I should like to read a short extract from a letter I received quite by chance today from the parent of a soldier who has recently been severely injured in an accident in Germany. He writes: I have had the greatest kindness and consideration from your department. What has been done for my unfortunate son and for my wife and self has been beyond praise.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.