HC Deb 14 April 1981 vol 3 cc298-304

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

1.12 am
Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise on the Adjournment the case of my constituent, Dr. Andrew Dossetor. He is a medical doctor who practises in Newmarket. He made application for his war service at the concentration camp of Belsen to be reckoned for his pension entitlement.

In my view Dr. Dossetor's application has been quite wrongly rejected. Although I am grateful to the Minister for the care that he has shown in looking into the case and for his attendance in the House at this late hour, I expect a great deal more sensitivity from him than his Department has shown in its correspondence with me.

The background is brief but terrible. It began in 1945 as the allied armies that were advancing into Germany began to uncover the horrors of the Third Reich's extermination centres. One such centre was Belsen. News of its bestialities reached the British 21st Army Group a week or so before the first British troops arrived there. In preparation for dealing with large numbers of weak and emaciated victims, an urgent call went out for medical volunteers.

In London, the War Office sent an SOS to the London medical schools, and one of the students who responded was Andrew Dossetor, then aged 21 and a final-year student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. Together with eight other Barts men, Andrew Dossetor placed himself under the command of an Army major, who took them to an Army depot and kitted them out in battledress. They were transported by military aircraft to an airstrip not far behind the British Army's front line in North Germany.

Within four days of Belsen being liberated Andrew Dossetor was installed in the captured mess of a German armoured unit. Under the command of an RAMC brigadier, Glen Hughes, now deceased, he was put in charge of a hut containing 200 of the concentration camp's women victims. They did not, of course, look like women. Most weighed well under six stone. Many in their twenties had hair that had turned completely white. Some lay in their own excrement, too weak to move or to speak. Scores were dying of starvation.

Not surprisingly, lice abounded. Their bites quickly infected the weakened inmates of Belson. Typhus spread like wild fire. Andrew Dossetor—today a middle-aged physician, but in those days an enthusiastic student—threw himself into the task of ministering to the sick. He washed and fed those emaciated women in Belsen. He cleaned them up as best he could. He nursed those who had any chance of living—there were not many—and he was handicapped, ironically, by the generosity of the British troops, who handed out their own bully beef, only to find that the shrivelled stomachs and weakened intestines of many of the Belsen inmates simply could not digest so rich a diet.

On several occasions Andrew Dossetor lifted the bodies of his typhus-ridden patients on to the straw palliases the British soldiers had provided. He assumed that the immunisation that he had been given in London would protect him but, unfortunately, in that he was wrong. Within two weeks of starting that work in Belsen Andrew Dossetor began coughing up blood. Postules appeared on his limbs and his legs were covered with lice bites. He was eventually flown back to London, suffering from a bad case of typhus. Lack of oxygen on the flight led to symptoms of myocarditis. Despite the best attention that could be given in a fever hospital, Dossetor's convalescence was interrupted by heart failure—unquestionably the result of the typhus that he contracted in Belsen.

It was two years before Barts hospital accepted Andrew Dossetor as being sufficiently recovered to be readmitted to full-time medical studies. He therefore graduated two years later—I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to note that—than he would have done if he had not volunteered for service with the Army at Belsen. Happily, Dr. Dossetor ever since has led an active life.

After finishing medical school he served for two years in the Royal Air Force. The Department, rather curiously in my view, regards that as evidence against Dr. Dossetor, arguing that his being conscripted into the RAF in 1948 is proof that he could not have served in the Armed Forces during the war. But the truth is exactly the opposite. Dr. Dossetor certainly could have argued that he should not have been called up again, and almost certainly he would have been able to make that argument stick. Instead, he chose not to do so. Why? It was because, although the Department may find it hard to believe in these days when patriotism is at a low ebb in our country, he actually wanted to serve his country. As he put it himself when I cross-examined him at the weekend: I made no attempt to get out of being called up again on account of my previous service, because this would have required a 'pity me' attitude. I was quite happy to be called up again, and indeed I extended my service by six months. I was keen to serve my country if required". It is because Andrew Dossetor has lived his life in this fashion that he is now a highly respected general practitioner in Newmarket. He is a calm, courteous and intensely patriotic man who has never allowed the scars, physical or emotional, of his experiences in Belsen to make him resentful or bitter, even against the Germans. He does, however, believe—and in this I agree with him—that as he approaches retirement he ought to be entitled, as all who served in the forces during the Second World War have been expressly entitled by this House, to count his war service in Belsen towards his superannuation.

Why does this matter? On the material side, admitting Dr. Dossetor's claim would mean that he could retire, if he wished, a year earlier and on a pension approximately £300 a year higher than he will get if the Minister denies his claim. Indeed, it is only if the Minister accepts my contention that Dr. Dossetor will be able to take his superannuation at the same time as his colleagues who entered medical school at the same time as he did.

I emphasise this because unless Dr. Dossetor's claim is accepted those of his contemporaries who did not volunteer to serve in Belsen, those who never put on a World War II uniform, will be able to retire one year earlier and on a higher pension than Dr. Dossetor. Compared with them, he will be penalised because he went to Belsen, which he did not need to do, because he volunteered, and because he put on a uniform instead of staying behind as a student.

I have personally been exposed, as no doubt my hon. Friend the Minister has to a number of military emergencies—in Budapest, in the Congo and in the Middle East—and I can tell him that when life and death choices are involved there is no time and no place for the subtleties of the Superannuation Act 1946, as subsequently modified by the National Health Service (Superannuation) (War Service, etc.) Regulations 1977. What matters in those circumstances is to move, and move fast and be damned to the regulations, because typhus waits for no man, and death on the scale that I later saw in Dachau, and which Andrew Dossetor struggled with personally in Belsen, does not hang about waiting for officials to untangle their red tape.

The material facts are these. First, Dr. Dossetor was asked to volunteer for Belsen by way of an urgent message from the Army, transmitted to him via the War Office. Secondly, when he responded, he was placed under Army discipline, under the command of an Army major. Thirdly, he was kitted out by the Army, fed and transported by the Army, flown to Belsen in an Army aircraft and housed in an Army mess. Fourthly, there he was given orders by an Army brigadier, and he was sent into that death camp under Army control and Army discipline.

Fifthly, the fighting was still going on. The nearby woods were full of SS snipers. If Dr. Dossetor had been killed by one of those snipers, he would have been gazetted as killed in action while on military service. He was not in the situation of an ARP warden, an ambulance man or a Red Cross man killed in the London blitz. They, I freely concede, were civilians on war work. They were not in the forces as such and, therefore, cannot benefit from the concessions that have been made available to those who served in the Armed Forces.

But Dr. Dossetor was in the front line. He was there under fire. He was there when British troops tied the grisly commander of Belsen, Kramer, to a stake on the perimeter fence. He was there when the bulldozers were pushing into those ghastly pits tens of thousands of corpses, some of them the women who had died under his own eyes.

He became ill and came close himself to dying of typhus, wholly and exclusively because he performed this active service with the British Army.

By any reasonable measure of fact and common sense, Andrew Dossetor was on active service. In recognition, he was awarded a military decoration, the France and Germany medal. He got this from the War Office under the signature of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. When he got that medal, he did not suppose, and nor would anyone else have supposed, that he was awarded it in recognition of his work as a civilian. He got it for his work with the Army.

For these reasons, and because I also believe that the Minister will want to temper reason with common sense, I conclude my remarks with two precise requests. The first is that the Minister should allow Dr. Dossetor to buy back his one-year entitlement to any NHS superannuation in recognition of his work for and with the British Army at Belsen and in recognition of the illness he contracted wholly and exclusively as a result of his active service with the Army.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend, if he cannot find it in the regulations—I am sure that he will find it in his heart—to find some other way of discharging the debt that all owe to men like Andrew Dossetor. His case is unique. Meeting it would create no precedents. The cost is infinitesimal but the right on his side is clearcut.

1.26 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Sir George Young)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) on putting the case of Dr. Andrew Dossetor so persuasively, movingly and effectively. I feel enormous sympathy and admiration for this doctor, whose humanitarian act clearly resulted in personal illness and risk to life and delayed his entry into his chosen profession. It is a story of selfless patriotism. I feel guilty that the Government have been unable to respond to Dr. Dossetor in the way that he responded to the Government in 1945.

It may help if, at the outset, I explain the background to the war service provisions. Shortly after the war, arrangements were made by the principal Civil Service pension scheme to allow credit for war service to civil servants whose careers had been interrupted temporarily by war service and also, by extension, to those whose entry into a career in the Civil Service had similarly been delayed.

Post-war entrants to the Civil Service were able to reckon their war service for pension purposes under section 1 of the Superannuation Act 1946. At that time, a civil servant had to be established before he became eligible for a pension, but unestablished service which immediately preceded establishment counted at half-rate for pension purposes.

Virtually no appointments to established posts were made during the war, but many of the people who were taken on in an unestablished capacity were expected to stay on after the war and gain establishment in the post-war reconstruction competitions. Such people would have had an unfair advantage from a pension point of view as compared with those who were prevented by the war from entering the Civil Service at all. The object of the 1946 Act was to seek to put the post-war entrant on an equal footing with the wartime entrant.

Under section 1 of the Superannuation Act 1946, war service was specified as whole-time service in the Armed Forces of the Crown, in the Merchant Navy or the mercantile marine, or in any of the women's services specified in the first schedule to the Act. I shall certainly see, in the light of what my hon. Friend has said, whether there is any way that Dr. Dossetor's work during the war could be considered to fall within the terms of that section of the Act.

At the time, much thought was given to the possibility of covering forms of national service other than service in the Armed Forces and suchlike, particular consideration being given to whole-time civil defence workers, who came within the scope of the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act 1944. However, during the war practically everyone of military age was engaged in some work of national importance and it was considered that it was not possible to extend the scope of the concession without bringing in everbody who had volunteered or been directed to work of national importance.

In fairness, I do not think that my hon. Friend seeks such an extension, which would be much broader than the present one. The scope of the concession was, therefore, made the same as that which had been adopted for the operation of the system of reserving a proportion of vacancies for established posts in the Civil Service for ex-Service men and women during the reconstruction period, which was in turn derived from the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. Parliament agreed that the concession should be limited in this way to ex-Service men proper, who, it was generally accepted, had a very special claim for the consideration of the community. I think that the case that my hon. Friend has made has been that Dr. Dossetor should qualify as an ex-Service man proper, and I do not think that he has been arguing for a much broader interpretation or a relaxation of the terms of the Act.

In 1973 very strong pressures were exerted in Parliament on behalf of the teachers, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who was then Secretary of St ate for Education and Science, obtained Cabinet agreement to extension of the Civil Service arrangements to teachers. She did, however, stress in her speech in Parliament that there were bound to be great practical difficulties and problems of definition in reopening at that late stage the question of reckonable service of teachers who trained and joined the profession immediately after the war and that inevitably, at that distance of time, we would have to accept that there would be an element of rough justice.

Following the concession to the teachers it was agreed that a similar concession could no longer reasonably be withheld from the other public service staff groups. But it was also decided, both on grounds of principle and because of the administrative and financial implications, that extension of the concession within the public service beyond the Civil Service should not be accompanied by a broadening of the conditions of the concession already written into the 1946 Act; in particular, the concession should not be extended to cover war service in services other than the Armed Forces of the Crown. So the provisions introduced in 1977 into the National Health Service scheme by regulations having effect from 1975 followed the same basic principles as those which had been adopted many years before.

At the earlier consultative stage of those regulations, the NHS staff representatives sought to extend the scope of the war service definition in order to include persons who had been engaged in wartime civilian organisations. It was, however, explained to them that the concessions could not go beyond that already determined, and this they accepted with reluctance but with understanding.

As regards the particular case which my hon. Friend has raised, Dr. Dossetor was a final-year medical student in St. Bartholomew's hospital in 1945 when, as my hon. Friend said, the call came for volunteers to go and help the sick and needy in Belsen concentration camp. Dr. Dossetor was one of a group of volunteer students who, commendably, answered this call. They were attached to the Red Cross and flown out to Belsen, where they worked under the direction of the military. Dr. Dossetor worked in that camp for a period of three weeks in April to May 1945—there is no dispute about the facts of his work there—before unfortunately being taken seriously ill with typhus and being admitted to hospital.

Dr. Dossetor performed meritorious service in assisting the Belsen victims, for which he subsequently received the France and Germany Star. I pay tribute to his work. Military campaign medals were awarded to members of relief agencies, such as the Red Cross, whose service took place in the theatres of war, but such work does not reckon as war service for the purposes of the superannuation concession.

I have said that I have great sympathy for this doctor, but I have also explained, and the House is well aware, that during the war almost every adult was engaged in work of national importance. I mentioned earlier that when the war service concession was introduced into the Civil Service pension scheme this question was given considerable thought before the decision was taken on who should be covered. Apart from the Armed Forces, many were doing difficult jobs, such as the Bevin boys and munition workers, and some worked in extremely hazardous occupations. Among these were the London Fire Brigade and firemen in other large cities, as well as members of voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross, the Student Relief Organisation and the Emergency Medical Service. No doubt hon. Members can think of others.

But in introducing this concession for public service employees—it is not available to those in the private sector—it was accepted that a line had to be drawn, and it was decided that it should be restricted to ex-Service men and women who had this very special claim for the consideration of the community.

Unfortunately, it appears that at present Dr. Dossetor's commendable work in Belsen does not qualify as war service which would count towards his NHS pension, for the reasons that I have given. I regret that Dr. Dossetor has not been able to buy war service, but, of course, it is possible for him to secure the same index-linked pension by purchasing instead added years. By so doing, he can bring his potential service for pension purposes up to the maximum of 40 years. I hope that this provision, from which I think he can benefit, will soften to some extent the blow to him.

It is fair to say that Ministers and hon. Members receive a number of constituency complaints concerning the war service provisions, but, unfortunately, the rules must be applied, however we may personally sympathise with individuals and however sensitive we are. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke about the extension to teachers in 1973 she recognised that reconstructing the past in this way created great difficulties and she accepted that a certain broad-brush approach was necessary. There is simply no room for ministerial discretion in this issue, and to change the law at this stage would have wide and unacceptable repercussions. Moreover, I do not believe that my hon. Friend wants that.

I shall have another look at the matter, in the light of the information about Dr. Dossetor's terms of service during the war, to see whether there is any way in which his service in 1945 might qualify as war service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Two o'clock.