HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1425-37

2.3 p.m.

Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment the problem of compensation for the Green Howards Regiment.

The background history of this matter is that at three o'clock in the morning of 11th June 1974 the equipment, musical instruments, badges and bandsmen's property were blown up on Ministry of Defence property at Strensall, near York. Fortunately, no one was injured in the explosion. However, all the instruments, property, music of the band and personal effects of the bandsmen were destroyed.

The Green Howards Regiment, whose headquarters in Richmond are in my constituency, was founded in 1688. For nearly 300 years it has had a remarkable record of service. Indeed, few infantry regiments have been awarded 18 Victoria Crosses and three George Crosses—the record of the Green Howards. The main recruiting for the regiment is done in the North Riding and Cleveland County, and for this reason my colleague the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley), my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) support me in this matter. Therefore, I am supported by members of all three major political parties.

The regiment is in Northern Ireland on its sixth tour of duty there. Only this Monday headlines in the Evening Gazette demonstrated once again the good work of the Green Howards: The Howards wound three in Border battle; 15-minute gun battle in Northern Ireland ". The first battalion, except the band, was serving in Northern Ireland in June 1975, and it was decided that the band should be put back into playing order as a matter of the greatest urgency, for a number of reasons. First, a lengthy period of inactivity would have been bad for the morale of the band. The regiment's pride demanded that a cowardly attack was not to be seen as an in- convenience to the regiment. Also, the band had promised to undertake a number of commitments, and it wanted to meet those engagements.

Because of the support of numerous people, agencies and other units, the band continued its programme within five days of the explosion, using borrowed instruments and hastily tailored uniforms. Within a week of the explosion the regiment ordered new instruments and scarlet uniforms. At this stage it was felt that just under £10,000 would be received in insurance money and the regiment was fairly confident that, as the explosion had occurred on War Department property, the Government would give it some assistance.

The actual cost of replacing the equipment was just over £30,000. There was no option other than to buy new instruments and uniforms. Second-hand instruments would have taken months or even years to acquire, and second-hand uniforms do not exist. The band property losses for instruments, uniforms and music amounted to £23,700. Insurance covered £9,100, and an appeal fund gave £1,400. The compensation from the Ministry of Defence on personal effects for the bandsmen was £2,000, the share of insurance on instruments was £900, and a grant from the Army Benevolent Fund amounted to £2,100. The amount for which the bandsmen were out of pocket to cover personal effects was £780.

The regiment is in debt to the tune of £9,780, and, although the Ministry of Defence has arranged for an interest-free loan, it will have to be repaid later, starting in 1978. Surely one would think that the Ministry of Defence could have assisted the regiment and paid for the outstanding amounts.

At the time of the explosion the insurance coverage was done through the military insurers, Wilson and Company, and it appears that it was impossible for the regiment to obtain insurance at replacement value because this sort of cover was not available in 1974. However, owing to the development of terrorist attacks on regiments, the shape of military insurance policies has been changed to ensure that this situation could not arise again.

I should like to refer to a letter written on 7th April to Brigadier John Oldfield, Colonel of the Green Howards, by a director of Wilson and Company: One point which may perhaps have some bearing on this is the situation of the Band at the time of the incident. The Band was in mid-tour, and had a series of engagements it had to fulfil. The Band therefore was forced into a situation of having to re-equip itself in the minimum possible time. There was no other course open to the Band other than to buy a complete set of new instruments. Turning now to the situation which applied to the Band insurance pre-June 1974. The basis of the insurance was that each instrument should be insured for such a figure as would enable replacements by a reconditioned similar instrument. In the event of the loss of one instrument this is a feasible proposition, but as I am sure you are well aware, it would be quite impossible to produce, at short notice, a complete Bandsworth of reconditioned instruments. Therefore, at the time the band was not in a position to obtain the full cover necessary for replacement in the circumstances in which it was placed.

That, I am sure, clarifies the dilemma of the regiment, and all should agree that it was proper that it took steps for immediate re-equipment in June 1974. Lord Tranmire, who served with the regiment, has raised this subject in the House of Lords and has been supported by a number of their Lordships on both the Government and Opposition Benches.

I went with the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby to see the Secretary of State in December last year. I felt that at that time he listened sympathetically to our comments and our arguments, but regrettably the money has not been produced by the Civil Service Department. I believe the Department has felt that, if the full compensation were paid to the regiment, a precedent would be established which might affect the Government's future responsibility.

I do not, however, accept this argument, partly because the military insurers have made some alterations to their policies to cover this situation, and, secondly, because other regiments could easily be circularised by the Ministry of Defence and informed of the difficulties encountered by the Green Howards Regiment, and advised to see that their insurance cover is fully satisfactory.

I honestly believe that, even if the Minister in his reply today fails to give us a satisfactory answer, and states that full compensation cannot be paid, I and some of my colleagues will refer the matter to the Prime Minister, in view of the considerable difficulties that the regiment will have to face if the money is not forthcoming.

Surely, with the outstanding record of service of the Green Howards Regiment, we owe it to the regiment to see that this cowardly attack at dead of night by a group of terrorists does not in any way leave an embarrassing financial position or undermine the morale of the officers and troops, who are yet again serving in Northern Ireland.

2.11 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Bottomley (Middlesbrough)

It affords me pleasure to give support to the proposition of the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) that full compensation should be paid to the regimental band of the Green Howards. As he said a moment ago, the headquarters of the Green Howards Regiment is in his constituency. Likewise, I can claim that the Green Howards Regiment has had a long association with Middlesbrough. As far back as 1944 the town gave the Freedom of Middlesbrough to the regiment.

I am pleased to say that on 26th June next the band will exercise its right to have a ceremonial march through Middlesbrough. I know that many of my constituents have been very proud to serve in the regiment.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, in 1974, as a result of terrorist action, the regiment suffered losses. The band lost its instruments and equipment. These were replaced, as explained by the hon. Gentleman, but, for the reasons already given, they were not fully covered under the insurance. It is understandable that the instruments and equipment should have been under-insured. Nobody could ever anticipate that there would be a complete loss at one fell swoop. Nevertheless, that happened.

As a result of the representations made to the Secretary of State for Defence, I am very glad to say that he received us sympathetically and, I think, genuinely wanted to help the regiment. Indeed, when he found that he had not the powers within his own Department, he went to the Civil Service Department and asked for its help. The Department was able to go some part of the way in rendering assistance, saying that, in the case of the loss of personal effects suffered by bandsmen, they would be compensated, and that they would be compensated also for the loss of their individual instruments. But that is not enough.

The Green Howards regimental band has played a big part in helping to build up the reputation of the regiment in this country and in other parts of the world. The regiment is renowned for its bravery and gallant action not only in the past but also at the present time in Northern Ireland.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that, if he cannot accept today that his Department should pay full and adequate compensation in order that the band may be fully replenished, he should get his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to appeal to the Prime Minister. After all, the Prime Minister was once Home Secretary and had the experience first-hand of seeing the Green Howards in action. It should be possible for the Prime Minister, in his rôle as the First Lord of the Treasury, to be more forthcoming than has so far been the case.

I support the view that there is not likely to be a case of this kind again, because nobody will under-insure. If that is so, I do not think there should be any repercussions. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to convey to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the plea that full compensation be paid to the band of the Green Howard Regiment.

2.16 p.m.

Mr. Leon Brittan (Cleveland and Whitby)

As Member of Parliament for a constituency in which the Green Howards recruit extensively, I fully support what has been said so far in the debate. I do so the more for having had the privilege of visiting the Green Howards when they were serving in South Armagh last year.

The Green Howards enjoy a unique place in the hearts of the people of Cleveland and of North Yorkshire, and the band of the regiment occupies a very special place. It has given pleasure to thousands. It has provided a showcase for the regiment, and the pride in it has contributed greatly to the morale of the regiment. If the band and the regiment are felt to have been treated shabbily by the Government, it will create a feeling of bitterness throughout Cleveland and North Yorkshire which will last a very long time, which I am sure the Government do not wish to see—all the more so as today the regiment is serving for the sixth time in Northern Ireland, in the most arduous conditions, with great courage.

In those circumstances, to approach this problem with the cheese-paring and misguided niggardliness of a second-rate accountants' clerk could bring shame and disrepute on the Government and do far more harm to the Government than could ever be done to the regiment or to the band.

The moral claim, I suggest, is unassailable, and the attempts to refute it so far are riddled with illogicalities and inaccuracies. At the time the incident occurred, it simply was not possible to insure the band equipment for replacement value, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) has conclusively shown. There was a small element of under-insurance of the existing use value, but it was quite impossible to insure for replacement value. Therefore, there can be no danger whatsoever of a precedent being established. There is nothing to fear in that direction.

I also lay stress on the fact that, at the time the incident occurred, the band was on a tour of duty. The incident occurred on Ministry of Defence property. The band was entitled, in those circumstances, to expect a more generous attitude from the Government. If it had occurred in Northern Ireland, there is no question but that compensation would have been payable and would have been paid.

In case the Government are still worried about the danger of a precedent being established, I remind them that they have themselves established a precedent by compensating the bandsmen, perfectly properly, but not sufficiently. I ask the Government to reconsider the matter and to show a more imaginative approach to a problem which cannot recur, and a more generous attitude to a regiment which is even now setting an example of fortitude and courage of which we should all be proud.

2.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Robert C. Brown)

The hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson), and Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley) have been pursuing this question for some time now. I understand their concern on behalf of their constituents and I understand their constituents' feeling that they are entitled to help.

Before going into the disputed area, I should like briefly to reiterate the facts of the case. As a fellow North Country man I have the greatest possible sympathy with this famous regiment or band. The debate arises as the result of a terrorist attack that has already been mentioned. I shall therefore not need to go into the details of that matter.

Following the explosion, the regiment made a claim on its insurers, and received £9,176. Since the total cost of replacement of the lost items was considerably more than that sum—it was about £30,000 at new prices—the regiment then asked my Department for the difference—about £21,000. After the claim had been considered, compensation of about £2,500 was paid from public funds to individual bandsmen, but my Department was not able to meet any part of the loss sustained by the band itself. The hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby and my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough have made various representations on behalf of the regiment, and I pay tribute to all three of them, because no constituency Members could have worked harder on a case. But since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been unable to offer any further compensation, the matter is now being raised here.

I should, perhaps, explain two points that form an important part of the background to this case. First, although the men forming a regimental band are, of course, serving soldiers on an authorised establishment, and although some financial help is provided from public funds to establish and maintain the band's instruments and equipment, these are the property of the regiment and not of the Army as a whole. It is the regiment that is primarily responsible for their maintenance.

The annual grant from public funds is modest by any standards—between £310 and £440—and the rest of the money needed for the band's instruments and equipment is found privately by the regiment. Some of it comes from the proceeds of private engagements, concerts, recordings, and so on, undertaken by the band. Nearly all the income from such engagements, after expenses have been met, is shared between the bandmaster, the bandsmen and the regiment's bank fund. Only a very small percentage goes back to public funds. Should the band's instruments or equipment need replacing, the cost must be borne by the regiment. These items do not, therefore, come into the same category as ordinary military stores and equipment, which are provided and maintained at public expense.

It is, therefore, the responsibility of the regiment, and in its own interests, to see that the affairs of the band are properly conducted in every way, and that there is adequate insurance.

The second point concerns the question of compensation. Since this subject gives rise to a great deal of misunderstanding, I should explain that, in broad terms, my Department may pay compensation in two ways only—either as common law damages or under the Department's regulations.

Common law damages are paid to a claimant when my Department has, by negligence, caused loss, injury or damage to a third party and is legally liable to pay compensation. Should a claimant be dissatisfied with my Department's handling of the claim, he is entitled to commence proceedings and to ask a court to hear his case. It was suggested to my right hon. Friend by the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, that my Department might have some legal liability for the loss that we are now considering, because it took place on premises owned and protected by the Ministry. This suggestion was not pursued and, given the circumstances of the loss, I find it hard to believe that a court would hold my Department legally liable to meet the regiment's claim. Despite all that the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby said about "second-rate accountants' clerks", I assure the House that this case has not been dealt with at that level at all.

I want now to deal with the issue of compensation payable under the Regulations. There are many Regulations governing the activities and entitlement of Service men and civilian employees of my Department. One includes provision for the payment of compensation to officers and soldiers who lose personal possessions in specified circumstances, subject to certain conditions that are clearly laid down. It was under this particular Regulation that the regiment's claim was made and considered by my Department.

Unfortunately, the band's claim did not fulfil two of the basic requirements, which are that the loss must be due to the exigencies of the Service, as defined in the Regulations, and that compensation cannot be obtained under an insurance policy or elsewhere. We have already seen that the band obtained some compensation from its insurers, and terrorist activity is not solely an exigency of the Service as defined in the Regulation in question. Indeed, since the majority of terrorist attacks are against civilian targets, it would be difficult to argue that they are an exigency of military service.

Furthermore, bands are specially mentioned. The attention of band committees is specifically drawn to the need to effect adequate insurance of their property to protect themselves from the high cost of replacement in the event of loss and /or damage. A similar warning is given in my Department's Instructions for Bands. As I shall show in a moment, the regiment, unfortunately, failed to take this simple and sensible step, and it now seeks to obtain assistance from public funds to make up for its omission.

In spite of the fact that the claim did not fulfil the conditions laid down in the Regulations, my Department was able, as a special case, to pay sums totalling nearly £2,500 to individual bandsmen who had lost private instilments and other possessions. Some of the soldiers' private musical instruments were covered, partly at any rate, by the band's insurance policy, but nevertheless it was decided that, as good employers, it would be reasonable for us to pay the amounts that I have mentioned. The compensation paid was based, as is usual, on the estimated second-hand value of the items at the time of their loss. It was not assessed on the cost of replacement by new items.

I am sure that the House will recognise that in making these payments my Department was acting in a generous manner. It is a tragic fact that terrorist attacks are becoming a feature of life in England, and when injury or death is caused thereby a claim may be made under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. There is, however, no corresponding provision for paying compensation from public funds for damage to property, as I believe there is in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been asked in this House on more than one occasion to introduce a scheme for such compensation to be paid from public funds, but he has declined to do so, since the risk can be covered by insurance, and the prudent owner should insure his own property. Nevertheless, as I have said, we thought, as good employers, that the individual soldiers should receive something towards their losses, but we were unable to extend this gesture as far as paying compensation to the regiment for the uninsured part of its loss.

Sir T. Kitson

The Minister must surely agree that in the case of a regiment with this number of years' service to the country, it would be an appalling state of affairs if it had to take legal action against the Minister of Defence to establish its claim. As the Department has agreed in principle to make a contribution, and as the regiment has no other money—other than going back to the people of the North Riding and Cleveland with a general appeal, bearing in mind that it had an appeal in 1971 to raise £65,000 and that to go back with another appeal to the local people would seem to be very unfair—could not the Department be generous and make the final payment of a further £10,000?

Mr. Brown

That sounds very easy and very appealing, but I hope that before I finish my speech hon. Members will understand the very much wider implications. It is no good saying that we are not setting a precedent.

Mr. Brittan


Mr. Brown

It is no good the hon. Gentleman saying "Nonsense". Is he suggesting that the Government should accept the insurance liability of all the citizens of this country?

Mr. Brittan

This is a regiment.

Mr. Brown

But broader issues are also involved.

On behalf of the regiment it has been argued that at the time of the loss the band could not obtain insurance to cover the cost of replacing the lost items with new ones, although what is now termed "new for old" insurance has since become available. I am not quite sure why it is considered that this is a good reason for asking for compensation from public funds, but the point has been raised and it obviously calls for an answer.

In normal times, most articles have a second-hand value that decreases as time goes by. If the article is insured for its new value, and is lost, the insurance company will pay either the new—that is, the insured—value or the actual value at the time of the loss, whichever is the less.

Inflation has, however, changed this picture. As the cost of new articles continues to rise at a rapid rate, so, very often, does the second-hand value of used articles. The actual value of a used article can easily increase instead of decreasing. This may well be less than the increase in price of the new article.

Faced with this situation, insurers introduced "new for old" insurance. This means that, subject to certain conditions, which often include an additional premium, an insured part-worn item which is lost or destroyed can be replaced by a brand-new one for which the insurers will pay the full cost. This change in insurance practice started, I believe, with the insurance of house contents, and by 1975 had extended to some other types of insurance, but I am quite willing to accept that "new for old" cover may not have been available for bands in 1974 and, indeed, may not have been widely known.

This is a bit of a red herring, for three reasons. First, the regiment was, obviously, in no worse a position than anyone else for whom "new for old" insurance was not available in 1974. Secondly, any compensation that my Department can pay under the Regulations is in any case limited to the estimated value of the items when they were lost. Thirdly, the band's instruments and equipment were not even insured for their real value at the time of the loss. It is the failure by the unit to update the insured value of their instruments and equipment in times of inflation that has really caused most of its difficulties. The hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks shakes his head, but I hope to convince him.

In May 1967 the band's property was insured for £4,220. By October 1969 new instruments had been bought, and the total sum insured was increased to £9,176. During the next four-and-a-half years, in spite of continued inflation, the regiment did not further increase the insured value of the band's property, so when it was lost in June 1974 the insurer's payment was limited to the 1969 value, of £9,176. The real value of the lost articles was obviously greater than that sum, and was, indeed, said by the regiment to have been over £23,000. Had the regiment continued to increase the insured value of the band's property in the 1970s, as it had done in the 1960s, it would have received much more than £9,000 from the insurance company. I accept that in the absence of "new for old" insurance it would not have obtained enough to buy brand-new items to replace those lost but, at the time, this was usual, and certainly does not provide justification for a payment from public funds.

It has been suggested that a payment in this case would not create any precedent, as "new for old" insurance is now available. This, I am afraid, is not the case. Were the public to meet the regiment's claim, public funds would also be expected to bail out any other units that sustained a loss of private effects due to terrorist activity and were, by oversight or otherwise, under-insured.

The representations made by the hon. Member and his hon. Friends have been very carefully considered, but I can hold out no hope that any further money will be forthcoming from public funds above the sum of about £2,500 that has already been paid. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough for his aknowledgement of that, and for the sensible points that he has made. I think that it should be realised that the money sought from my Department by the band does not appear out of thin air; it is raised by taxation, and I do not think that the taxpayer can be asked to make good the band's failure to take out proper insurance. We could not justify this to the taxpayer. I hope that the band will now be able to accept this.

Forward to