HC Deb 22 June 1984 vol 62 cc659-66

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

It would seem appropriate for me to be following a debate on the civil aviation industry, for the matter I wish to discuss concerns the Royal Air Force.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the case of Warrant Officer J. E. Moss for the award of the cadet forces medal. I have raised the matter in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will by now have had an opportunity to look into the case with his usual fairness.

Mr. Moss was first appointed to warrant officer rank in the Dagenham squadron of the Air Training Corps on 13 October 1967, having previously served as an NCO in the Royal Air Force, from which he was discharged with exemplary conduct.

All went well until the annual summer camp at Thorney island in 1971 where, as a result of what can best be described as a personality clash with his superior officer, he found it necessary to offer to withdraw from the camp. This offer was accepted and a return railway warrant provided. The following week he was asked to resign, but declined to do so, and was then suspended pending appearance before the squadron committee.

At the hearing he was advised that adverse reports had been received, but there was no report from the officer to whom he had spoken the previous week. He was not advised of the contents of the reports that had been received, nor who had submitted them. Nor was he given an opportunity to defend himself, but, in spite of that, his warrant was withdrawn.

As this appeared to be a denial of the rules of natural justice, he decided to pursue the matter and asked for copies of the reports. This request was initially refused, although subsequently they were read to him and he was told to submit an application for redress on what he had heard. He was still refused copies, but eventually was allowed to see the reports and take notes.

Apart from the report from the senior officer concerned, there were reports from other officers making accusations, although no action had been taken by any of them at the time the events were alleged to have taken place, although, clearly charges should have been instituted immediately if the allegations had any foundation.

As a result of this irregular action, my constituent consulted a solicitor, who wrote to headquarters on his behalf pointing out the unfairness of the matter and asking for copies in order to submit a proper defence. This was again refused, and therefore Mr. Moss submitted an application for redress of grievance as best he could, on the limited information available, and in due course this was rejected.

He next threatened legal action, and was invited to see the senior staff officer in charge of administration of the national headquarters to discuss the matter. At this interview he was assured that the incident at Thorney island was, in the senior officer's own words, Now water under the bridge and a dead duck, and that if he could find a squadron that would accept him an application for reinstatement would be favourably considered and his service would not be affected in any way by previous events.

He applied to, and was accepted by, a squadron, but his application was refused by headquarters, and nobody seemed able or willing to do anything about it. He therefore found it necessary to instruct his solicitor to take counsel's opinion. A copy of that opinion was sent to national headquarters, and it was extremely critical of the method used to remove his warrant. Among other things, it emphasised that in the first place he should have been given notice of the charge against him and a right to reply; secondly, that the officer who submitted a report for the prosecution should not have been allowed to sit among the committee as a judge at both the hearing and the appeal — a position which is quite contrary to the rules of natural justice; and, thirdly, that the reports were contradictory and largely supposition and hearsay — again, evidence which would have been unacceptable in any properly constituted court.

Counsel properly advised headquarters that the hearing was, in fact, a breach of the laws of natural justice and that if it did not reverse its decision proceedings would be taken to the High Court to set aside the decision to remove Mr. Moss's warrant.

After considerable correspondence, headquarters offered him a post at an east London squadron, and after much consideration about the future of that squadron, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Mr. Moss, his warrant was finally reinstated.

That appeared to be confirmed by correspondence and was further confirmed by the award to him in October 1975 of the Royal Coat of Arms badge, which is awarded to warrant officers after eight years' service as though there had been no loss of service. Further confirmation occurred in 1979 after 12 years' service, when he was presented with Wing Commander Ridgeon's personal cadet forces medal by the mayor of Havering at the 1979 Battle of Britain parade, as his own medal had not yet arrived. On subsequently pursuing the matter, he was told, to his astonishment, that he did not qualify because of a break in his service.

Headquarters still insist that a gap of over three years occurred and, therefore, his previous service could not be taken into account. In actual fact, of course, the technical loss of service was caused purely by a decision by headquarters to withdraw his warrant in the most strange circumstances and, subsequently, by its being dilatory in making decisions, replying to correspondence and introducing irrelevant arguments in the period leading to his reappointment.

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that the circumstances concerning this case leave unanswered a Lot of questions. We have here a man who has faithfully and diligently carried out his duties on a voluntary basis since 1967, throughout a period when it has been extremely difficult to obtain worthwhile and reliable instructors in the cadet forces.

I believe I am right in saying that there is no surfeit of offers of help in this particular area and that Mr. Moss fills an important and vital role in the training of these young people, many of whom then become regular service men.

He has always taken the action he considered to be in the interest of the service regardless of the effect this would have on his personal life. It seems quite extraordinary that he should be so dedicated to his commitment to the Air Training Corps that he should at his own expense fight to retain his warrant, when the vast majority of people in similar circumstances would have said, "If they are not grateful for what I do, I will look elsewhere to give my voluntary services." This he has not done, but has fought every inch of the way to continue doing what he thinks is entirely worth while, to the best of his ability and the benefit of the community.

It would now seem entirely wrong that he should be penalised in this way. The regulations quite properly lay down rules to ensure that broken service is permitted only in certain circumstances, so that those concerned have the opportunity to find another post within a reasonable period and ensure that they are not dilatory in their commitment.

In this case, Mr. Moss has shown his willingness at all times to be of service to the Air Training Corps and has gone out of his way to give of his best to this cause, and therefore at no time could he be accused of failing to fulfil his commitment or of being dilatory. Moreover, the technical break in his actual uniformed service which occurred appears to amount to three years and 10 days, and if my hon. Friend feels that in spite of his efforts to maintain continuous service he cannot be credited with that period of time and be eligible for his medal on 13 October 1979, surely, in the interest of natural justice, he should be eligible for the award on 23 October 1982.

I cannot believe that there is any likelihood of creating a precedent in this matter, for to admit that this might be the case would suggest that dilatory behaviour was to be condoned within the Ministry of Defence. I am confident that my hon. Friend will ensure that that is not so. At the same time, it seems wrong to penalise my constituent for the bureaucratic errors of the past. If my hon. Friend is not in a position to confer the award on my constituent today, I appeal to him to refer the matter to the appropriate service board for special dispensation in the interests of natural justice.

2.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on his success in raising the subject of the award of the cadet forces medal to Warrant Officer J. E. Moss and on the skill and effect with which he has put his case.

The Air Training Corps — the ATC — is not an organisation which often comes to the attenion of this House for, although it covers the whole country, it goes about its work in a quiet and unobtrusive manner. That work makes a valuable contribution to the education and development of many young people, and I am therefore glad of this opportunity to give the House an idea of the sort of activities which it promotes and of the vital role played by voluntary instructors like Warrant Officer Moss.

While I am extolling the virtues of the ATC, I should say that it is just one of the many cadet forces which exist; in all, the ATC, the Army Cadet Force, the Sea Cadet Corps and the Combined Cadet Force offer places for over 140,000 young people. I believe both my hon. Friend and I were members of CCF at school. My comments about the ATC apply to all these bodies.

The ATC was founded in 1941 and has operated since 1946 as a national youth organisation. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and has very close ties—naturally enough—with the Royal Air Force. Although many cadets do take up service careers—and find their ATC training and background a great help—it is not a recruiting organisation. Its object is to promote and encourage among young people a practical interest in aviation; to provide training which will be useful in later life; and, by fostering a spirit of adventure, to develop leadership and good citizenship.

At the moment about 36,000 young people are members of the corps. They are organised into about 1,000 units up and down the country and meet on two evenings a week. I have been to a number of functions involving the ATC-1104 Squadron—in my own Pendle constituency and I have been very impressed with their keenness and dedication and the quality of instruction that they have been receiving. I cannot list all the activities which they undertake, but some examples are aero-modelling, navigation, orienteering, local history, gliding and debating. Cadets take part in many sports, an annual camp and visits to operational RAF stations. The ATC is the largest youth organisation participating in the Duke of Edinburgh's award about 9,000 cadets are currently active at bronze, silver and gold levels.

The ATC has a long list of people who have passed through its squadrons and go on to make a distinguished career for themselves in adult life. Many are senior RAF officers, including the present Chief of Air Staff. Others have come to prominence in all walks of civilian life, among them John Conteh, Richard Burton, Jimmy Savile and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). Perhaps other hon. Members can also be claimed by the ATC.

None of this work or achievement would be possible without the many thousands of hours which the volunteer instructors devote to the corps. Although there is a small staff at HQ air cadets and the Ministry of Defence directs policy, the success of the whole scheme rests on the largely unpaid work of people such as Warrant Officer Moss. The instruction and week-by-week work with the cadets is borne by 6,500 commissioned and warrant officers and civilian instructors who are, for the most part, unpaid.

In recognition of the service which they give, officers and uniformed instructors become eligible for the cadet forces medal; this is highly prized by those to whom it is awarded. The principal qualification is 12 years' continuous satisfactory service, and clasps are awarded for additional periods of eight years thereafter. The rules for the award do allow an interruption of the 12 years service —of up to three years—in certain circumstances, but, as I will demonstrate in a moment, this has no relevance in Mr. Moss's case. However, service as a civilian instructor does not count towards qualifying for the award of the cadet forces medal.

As my hon. Friend knows, Warrant Officer Moss has had a disrupted career in the ATC and, if the House will bear with me, I think it would be helpful if I gave a brief resume of the course of events.

On 13 October 1967, Mr. Moss was appointed to warrant rank in the Air Training Corps, and all went well until 21 August 1971 when an altercation occurred during the course of the annual camp of No. 2048 (Dagenham) Squadron ATC at RAF Thorney island. On their arrival at Thorney island, the Dagenham cadets under the charge of Warrant Officer Moss, together with cadets from Nos. 452 and 1107 Squadrons, were divided into three groups so that cadets of each squadron were in each group. Each group was then allocated separate accommodation. Warrant Officer Moss objected to this arrangement and directed cadets of No. 2048 Squadron to one room. In spite of being interviewed by the camp commander, Moss would not comply with the accommodation arrangements, and said he would take his cadets home. A little later, a commissioned officer of No. 2048 Squadron arrived, and after some discussion it was agreed that the 2048 Squadron cadets should stay, but that Moss should be sent home. A railway warrant was provided.

Reports on the incident were submitted by Warrant Officer Moss, by the adjutant of No. 2048 Squadron and by the acting camp liaison officer. The squadron commander of 2048 Squadron considered the reports, interviewed Warrant Officer Moss, and recommended that Moss's service be terminated. This recommendation was considered by the squadron civilian committee, which also interviewed Warrant Officer Moss, and it supported it.

On 28 September 1971, the recommendations were considered by Headquarters Essex Wing of the ATC which also had before it a report by the camp commandant at Thorney island with whom the original dispute took place. Again Warrant Officer Moss was interviewed, and again the recommendation to discharge was supported. The matter now came into the hands of headquarters Air Cadets Central and East and they advised that Warrant Officer Moss should be told of the procedure for submitting redress of grievance. At about this time, Warrant Officer Moss asked if he could see the papers on the case. He was told that this was not appropriate as no final decision had been made.

The matter then reached Headquarters Air Cadets, and on 18 January 1972 it directed that Warrant Officer Moss should b interviewed by the regional commandant. This interview took place on 8 February 1972, and Warrant Officer Moss inspected all the relevant papers, as he acknowledged on 14 February 1972.

Whilst this official action had been in progress, Warrant Officer Moss had been in contact with his solicitors, who wrote to the regional commandant expressing their concern that their client had not had an opportunity of seeing the written evidence against him until 8 February.

On 12 March 1972, Warrant Officer Moss submitted an application for redress of grievance. This was considered by the squadron commanding officer, who again interviewed Moss, and by the civilian committee. The application was then forwarded to the West Essex Wing Headquarters, and Warrant Officer Moss was again interviewed there on 11 April 1972. The report of the interview and all the papers were forwarded by the regional commandant to Headquarters Air Cadets on 18 April 1972 with his recommendation that the treatment of Warrant Officer Moss did not constitute grounds for redress of grievance.

The case was considered by the air officer commanding air cadets on 20 April 1972 and his decision was, first, the warrant officer warrant should be withdrawn; second, there were no grounds for a redress of grievance.

On 28 June 1972, Mr. Moss requested an interview with the air officer commanding, but, after obtaining legal advice, Headquarters Air Cadets replied saying that this would be granted only if fresh evidence were provided. His solicitors questioned this decision but again, after legal advice that their action had been unexceptionable, Headquarters Air Cadets reaffirmed the decision.

The matter had now been brought to the knowledge of the Ministry of Defence, and, when Mr. Moss's solicitors raised the issue again on 30 January 1974, the matter was referred to the Treasury Solicitor, who replied stating that Warrant Officer Moss's solicitors' complaints of unfair treatment to their client were not accepted. Further exchanges between the legal experts took place, until in May 1974 it was learnt that Mr. Moss was interested in rejoining the ATC as a civilian instructor. His solicitors wrote saying that they had instructions to proceed with legal action if his application were not approved. Mr. Moss was offered, and accepted, appointment as a civilian instructor on 1 July 1974 in No. 1995 (Tower Hamlets) Squadron, but it was made clear to his solicitors that his application was being treated on its merits the Department was under no constraint to accept it, because of his previous history. On 1 May 1975 he was appointed to a vacant warrant officer post.

On 7 December 1979, Warrant Officer Moss wrote to Headquarters Air Cadets and claimed a cadet forces medal. This claim was rejected because he did not have sufficient qualifying service. Therefore, Mr. Moss will not qualify for the cadet forces medal until 1 May 1987; that is, until, like everybody else, he has fulfilled the conditions laid down. The House may care to know the conditions relating to breaks in service. They are as follows:

"Continuity of Service—Breaks

(a) (1) Qualifying service for the award of the medal shall be continuous, exception being made at the discretion of the Defence Council, when a break in qualifying service does not exceed six months.

(2) The six months break may be extended to three years in the case of those officers and instructors who, by reason of a change in their places of residence, or in circumstances of their civilian employment and who, although still residing in the United Kingdom are no longer able to continue to serve with their Cadet Forces unit. Officers and instructors who wish to resume their service with the Cadet Forces must apply, within one month of being posted off strength of their old unit—for service with a new unit.

(b)Exception may also be made at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Defence in the following cases:

  1. (1) When the Cadet Forces service of an officer or instructor is interrupted by service abroad as may be required by his civilian employment and he, within three years of arrival in the United Kingdom, is reposted to a Cadet Forces Unit, or
  2. (2) When, on transfer from a Cadet Forces unit of the British Commonwealth to a United Kingdom Cadet Forces unit, the break in qualifying service does not exceed three years; provided that application is made for posting to a Cadet Forces Unit within one month of arrival in the United Kingdom."

For the information of the House, I should make it clear that the instructor service referred to relates to uniformed service. Service as a civilian is not eligible. I have to make it clear, therefore, that none of those exceptions would apply in the case of Warrant Officer Moss, even if his break in service was less than three years.

Mr. Moss contends that, in re-engaging him as a warrant officer in May 1975, Headquarters Air Cadets and the Ministry of Defence were tacitly accepting that the earlier decision to withdraw the warrant was incorrect and thus all his warrant officer service should count. This is not so; the earlier decision stands. At no time has Headquarters Air Cadets or the Ministry of Defence, as Warrant Officer Moss has put it,

agreed to reinstate him on the basis that there had been a misunderstanding and that the matter should be forgotten

The whole background to this involved case was thoroughly re-examined following my hon. Friend's letter to the then air officer commanding air cadets on 7 July 1981, and again after his letter to the previous Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces on 3 September 1981 and the reply on 9 October 1981. My hon. Friend will also recall his meeting with the Under-Secretary of State on 7 July 1982, when again the matter was fully discussed. I have to say that I fully agree with the views conveyed by the Under-Secretary of State on those occasions that Warrant Officer Moss has insufficient service yet to qualify for the cadet forces medal.

This has been a convoluted story and there have been, I admit, administrative lapses. The original withdrawal of the warrant was not handled as expeditiously as it might have been; and I gather that there was an odd incident when Warrant Officer Moss was "presented" with someone else's cadet forces medal at a Battle of Britain parade ceremony in 1979.

The House might like to know that the cadet forces medal erroneously presented to Warrant Officer Moss on 16 September 1979 was in fact the medal belonging to the officer commanding West Essex Wing. He presented Moss with the medal at a Battle of Britain parade held by the wing, at which he was the reviewing officer. It had been assumed by this officer that Moss was qualified to wear the cadet forces medal, and it was simply a matter of the medal not arriving in time for the ceremony. This was not so. The award of the cadet forces medal was considered to be a foregone conclusion by the wing commander and this parade was apparently seen to be a convenient opportunity to make the presentation. When he realised the mistake, the wing commander instructed Moss that in no circumstances was he to wear the ribbon. This verbal instruction was later followed up with a written order. Warrant Officer Moss was also allowed to wear the Royal Coat of Arms Warrant Officer sleeve badge earlier than he was entitled to.

Although I am satisfied that the original disciplinary decision was correct, I agree that those dealing with Mr. Moss since then have not exactly covered themselves with glory. However, what is important is that the qualifying terms for awards are inviolate any lowering of the qualification would degrade the value of the award.

The royal warrant for the rightly highly prized cadet forces medal stipulates the service I have mentioned, and not a day less. Until Warrant Officer Moss has completed the required 12 years satisfactory service, I have to say that he does not qualify for the award.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.