HL Deb 05 July 1965 vol 267 cc1138-47

6.4 p.m.

LORD WILLIS rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the decision of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Pensions by which a Service or war pension was refused to Mr. Paul Muncey: and whether they will amend the general regulations governing the granting of Service and war pensions so that proper financial assistance in the form of an adequate pension may be given as of right to cases of a similar nature. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name. The facts behind this Question are as follows. Paul Muncey volunteered for the Navy thirteen years ago, when he was 17 years of age. Three years later, aged 20, he was on service with the Navy in the Far East, and he went on a day's shore leave to Sandakan, in North Borneo. During the day he went to a football match: he had a few beers with his mates, and then they all decided to go for a swim in a nearby lagoon. I want to emphasise that it is freely admitted that he had had a few beers, but there is no evidence whatsoever, and it is not true, that he was drunk.

Paul Muncey was the first to go in. It was night, and, unfortunately, in the moonlight, the depth of water in the lagoon was deceptive. He dived in and broke his neck; and, since that day, for ten years, he has been completely helpless, paralysed and confined to bed. He now lives in a pre-fab. at Greenwich with his widowed mother. They have a total income of £10 5s. 6d. a week, made up of £4 sickness benefit, £1 4s. 6d. as a grant from the Greenwich Hospital Trust and £5 1s. from National Assistance. His mother, of course, cannot work, because she is nursing him full-time. In addition, the British Legion pay 10s. a week for a television rental for him. Out of this total income of £10 5s. 6d., nearly one-fifth—£2 a week—goes in rent. This sum also has to pay for the extra costs of linen, because he cannot move and the linen has to be changed once, and sometimes twice, a day, and laundered. He needs extra heating; a light burns all night; and the doctors have put him on a special high-protein diet, which your Lordships know is expensive, because they are afraid he may get too heavy and his mother may be unable to lift him.

Here let me digress for a moment to say one word about Mrs. Muncey, because I think that, in this cynical world, hers is a story of such unwavering devotion, unceasing tenderness and indomitable courage that it assumes the proportion of a saga. She has faithfully and patiently, and without complaint, nursed her son and attended to his every need for the last ten years. She is the epitome of Blake's lines: Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease, And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair. Because, believe me, my Lords, in that little pre-fab. there has been Hell's despair for many years. It is just as well that Paul Muncey has such a mother, for the shameful and scandalous thing which angers me about this story is that everyone else, it seems, has turned his back on them. At every turn they have been met with a grim stone wall of regulations. Successive Ministers, whom I know to be humane, warm-hearted and kind, have, nevertheless, like so many Pontius Pilates, washed their hands of him.

Richard Marsh, M.P. took up the case with the Ministry of Defence last year, and received an answer which can be summarised briefly as follows: The Naval service completed by Paul Muncey is not sufficient to comply with the statutory conditions for an award of a Service pension on invaliding out.

Nor had he served long enough to be eligible for even a grant from Naval funds. The Ministry of Pensions replied that: the accident was solely due to Mr. Muncey's own conduct and that since Service conditions neither caused it nor contributed to it, they are unable to award a war pension". The National Assistance Board regret that it is impossible to pay him a supplement since his basic needs are assessed under the regulations at £2 15s. per week, which is the scale rate for a person living in someone else's household.

My Lords, these are the cold, clerical answers of officialdom, mixed up with a few words of sympathy. But it is not only the case of Paul Muncey with which we must be concerned here: we are concerned also, I think, with a question of principle. We have been told by the Ministry of Pensions that "Service conditions neither caused nor contributed to" the paralysis. To me, this seems to be sheer sleight of hand. Paul Muncey was a minor, a junior, when the accident occurred. He happened to be in North Borneo, not because he decided to go there for a holiday but because the Navy took him there. He had volunteered for the Navy; the Navy decided that he should go to the Far East; and the Navy decided that he should have a day's shore leave in Borneo. In these circumstances it seems to me impossible to argue that Service conditions did not contribute at all to the accident. "Ah", they say, "he was on leave at the time; he was on a day's shore leave." Do the Navy now say that they accept no responsibility for minors on leave, even on one day's shore leave? Do they tell the parents, when their sons sign up: "We accept full responsibility for these youngsters while they are on duty. But if they go on leave and get involved in an accident they are on their own; we wash our hands of them"?

Then it is said that he was skylarking at the time; that he had had a few beers. I went into a naval recruiting office and got some pamphlets and brochures which appealed to young people to join the Navy. All of them stressed the call for adventure, the need of lively lads with active spirits. In the windows outside State House, the main recruiting centre, I saw written: "Skill, travel, adventure", and "A life of skill, adventure and security in the Navy." The Navy cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect to have spirited lads who turn off their high spirits when they go on leave.

Finally, I come to the argument of the Ministry of Defence, in effect, that Paul Muncey did not serve long enough to qualify for a Service pension. I accept that this may be the regulation; but, if so, it seems to me that this is a regulation that is bureaucratic, soulless and ought to be destroyed. Paul Muncey served for almost three years—in fact I think it was slightly over. Was he warned when he signed up that he must be careful not to break his neck or to contract a deadly disease until he had served a statutory period? I am not asking for charity for Paul Muncey—although even a little of that would not come amiss: it has been a stranger to his bedside for a long time. I am asking for certain basic elementary rights.

I base my case on these facts: first, he was in Borneo because he was in the Navy—nobody can dodge that—and for no other reason. Therefore Service conditions, of some sort or another, did contribute to his accident. Second, he was a minor; and the Navy must have the same responsibility towards minors that society seeks in a parent or guardian. The Navy cannot expect to get young people of high spirits and, as I have said, expect those high spirits to be confined only to the quarter deck. It might be argued that if the Services accept this argument in principle, they would have to accept an additional burden of pension in many other cases. But why not? They sign on these lads; they expect them to serve; they expect them to be high-spirited. Is it to be argued that we are going to have thousands and thousands of such cases every year? Clearly, that is absurd. Clearly this would mean an extra charge; but it is one which we ought, in all justice, to meet.

If the regulations prevent Paul Muncey from being given a pension then those regulations should be changed; they should be bent or broken, for they are unjust, inhuman and a disgrace to a civilised country. I know, as I have said, that Mr. Richard Marsh, and Miss Margaret Herbison, the Minister of Pensions, are just and compassionate people. I know that the Minister in this House is a just and compassionate man. I ask them to remember that in the Labour Party's Election Manifesto we said we were to build a compassionate society. I ask them to remember that compassion is an individual as well as a general thing. I beg them, in judging this and other similar cases, not to forget that. Since I started with Blake, let me finish with him: Can I see another's woe, And not be in sorrow too, Can I see another's grief, And not seek for kind relief?


My Lords, I think we would all agree that this is an exceptionally tragic case and it would obviously be agreed that we should treat a case of this kind with the utmost sympathy. We would certainly pay tribute to the quite remarkable devotion that Mrs. Muncey has shown to her son. At the same time, as I listened to the noble Lord I found myself somewhat in disagreement not only with the content of what he said but with his presentation of it. I should like to set out the position of Her Majesty's Government, be it of any Party, in this type of matter. Many of your Lordships will have had experience of cases of this kind and certainly those of us who have served in another place have handled many pension cases in our time and are well aware of the rules that apply. Indeed, I would suggest that much of the noble Lord's speech was rather an attack on the provisions of society as a whole than on the treatment of Mr. Paul Muncey as an individual. But I should like to set out the circumstances.

My noble friend is quite right in his facts as to the tragic injuries which occurred to Paul Muncey. In company with three other seamen on shore leave in British North Borneo, he spent the afternoon in the Sandakan Recreation Club and from there went to a small dance hall with a bar and an adjoining pool which was privately owned by a Chinese proprietor and was open to the general public. In due course Mr. Muncey decided to have a swim; he stripped off his clothes, ran to the diving platform and dived in. Unfortunately, the swimming pool is tidal and at the time it contained only six inches of water. He landed on his head on the sand on the bottom, fractured his neck and suffered damage to the spinal cord with the result that he is now totally paralysed from the neck down. A naval doctor was on the scene within half an hour and Muncey was moved to the Sandakan Hospital and transferred to the British Military Hospital, Singapore where he remained under treatment until October, 1954. From Singapore he was flown home to the Royal Naval Hospital at Haslar. On the 29th October, 1954, he was invalided from the Royal Navy suffering from quadriplegia and transferred to the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

The noble Lord referred to the allegation that Paul Muncey had had too much to drink. All I would say on this point is that the question of intoxication is not relevant to this case at all. I personally would not therefore have referred to it. The basic issue is whether or not his injuries were attributable to or aggravated by service. I do not think I need spend much time on the question of Service pensions. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has referred to the fact that Paul Muncey had only had just over two years' service; and I do not think anyone in the circumstances would question whether he should be eligible for a Service pension. It is obvious that he is entirely outside the purposes of Service pensions.

The question is whether he should be awarded a war or disability pension. This is governed by War Pensions Instruments, administered not by the Ministry of Defence, but by my right honourable friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. It is an essential condition for the award of a pension for disablement that the disablement must be attributable to, or aggravated by, service. I do not need to go into great detail on this, but I am bound to say that the view I took myself when I read the case was that the accident was entirely due to Paul Muncey's own actions and that Service conditions neither caused not contributed to the accident which resulted in disablement. In this type of case there is a statutory right of appeal to an independent pensions appeal tribunal against the Minister's decision. This procedure was followed by Mr. Muncey and the Minister's decision was upheld by the tribunal. The decision of the tribunal is legally binding on my right honourable friend and the only further recourse open to Mr. Muncey would be to appeal, by leave, on a point of law to the High Court. He has not done so, no doubt for good reasons. I am not suggesting that There is any possible point of law on which he could appeal.

My Lords, the conditions surrounding the award of disablement pensions are already much more generous than in any comparable field. To extend them even further to cover a case of this kind, tragic as it is, would be quite incompatible with the principle applied hitherto by which such disablement must be due to some Service cause. It has been argued that all accidents to Servicemen should be regarded as attributable to service, irrespective of whether they occur on duty or not, the argument being, as my noble friend suggested, that the victim would not have been where he was—in this case, in Borneo—but for the service which took him there. If this argument is pressed to its logical conclusion, we should be obliged to accept liability for any condition which manifested itself in service. This would entirely cut out the principle of causality on which the War Pensions Scheme is based and would make it virtually impossible to sustain the generally accepted preferences which war pensioners now enjoy. The existence of the War Pension Scheme is because of the acceptance of the principle of Service causation.

The noble Lord, Lord Willis, made some play with the fact that Paul Muncey was a minor. I am not sure what conclusion he draws from this. Should it be that in such circumstances the movements of any young man of under 21 should be completely restricted? Is it really possible for the Government to exercise a special responsibility for a man aged 20? The Royal Navy, in common with other Services, strives to the limits of possibility to take good care of its men, and particularly young men, abroad. But this does not, cannot and, in my view, should not involve continuous supervision. Quite apart from the fact that this course would be quite impracticable, I believe that it would be completely unwelcome to the men themselves. Paul Muncey was 20 years old; he was not a child, and I cannot think that it could seriously be suggested that the naval authorities were in any sense negligent in allowing him to go ashore off duty without supervision in the circumstances existing at the time.

I fully agree—we all must—that this is a tragic case, and it may well be that the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, should be directed to the provisions that society makes generally, and to whether arrangements for welfare are adequate; but in this case I must stress that the Services are not in a special position, and have certain strict rules which are made and agreed to by Parliament and which it is not open to the Minister or the Government of the day to vary.

It may well be that nothing like enough has been done for Paul Muncey, but what can be done to make up for this absolute tragedy? Here is a young man who is totally paralysed, and it is not possible to make up for that terrible accident. I should point out that, quite apart from the sickness benefit which has been paid continuously since February, 1955, Paul Muncey has also received a certain allowance from the British Legion. In addition, he was awarded a Greenwich Hospital Special Pension of £1 4s. 6d. a week. This was awarded quite exceptionally. Normally, only men with longer service than Muncey are considered for these pensions, so I do not think it would be fair to suggest that Ministers and my predecessors in the Defence Department have regarded this case in a heartless way. Mr. Muncey's mother receives a widow's pension and a National Assistance supplement—


My Lords, may I say that I do not think it is true to say that Mrs. Muncey gets a National Assistance supplement. Their total income is something like £10 5s. 0d. a week, with all the additional things indicated by the noble Lord.


My information is that she does receive a supplement. I am quite willing to look further into this matter, but it seems to me that this totals up broadly to the figure mentioned by the noble Lord. All I am suggesting is that, so far as the limits are at present set, the Munceys are receiving what the community is prepared to give them, and in addition there is this special pension from the Greenwich Hospital.


My Lords, the noble Lord will excuse my interrupting again, but I want to get this absolutely clear. They have a total income of £10 5s. a week. The income from the Greenwich Hospital is taken into account by the National Assistance Board, with the result that they do not get a supplement. The National Assistance Board have considered this and, as I indicated, do not think that this is a case in which a supplement would be justified.


Obviously, I cannot disagree with the noble Lord. I can only stand on the facts I have. I am perfectly willing to look into this matter further, but it does not, to my mind, alter the point I am trying to make, that there has been a very determined attempt, so far as is possible, to look at this case sympathetically.

I should add that in 1959 the then First Sea Lord offered to use his influence to have Muncey transferred to a home, such as the Star and Garter Home at Richmond, where disabled Servicemen have permanent accommodation in a happy atmosphere with the best possible treatment, but it is clearly the wish of Mrs. Muncey and Paul Muncey that he should live at home, and no one would suggest for one moment that Mrs. Muncey should not have her wish and continue to give the devoted service to her son that she is now giving.

My Lords, this is a very tragic case, and all of us would like to do something to help. It has been looked into again as the result of the noble Lord's Question. It has been most carefully and sympathetically considered at every stage, but I see no grounds on which it could be taken further. I would say this to the noble Lord: those of us who have had experience of dealing with pension cases know of many heartbreaking cases where people have been invalided from the Services with a condition not attributable to service, perhaps a rare disease like ankylosing spondylitis, and Parliament has seen fit to agree to certain regulations. Any young man who suffers an accident of this kind is bound to be a tragic case, but the remarks of the noble Lord, which were couched in pretty strong language, should, I think, be directed to the wider question of the obligations of society to those members who suffer misfortune. I do not see such a significant difference between a tragedy of this kind which happens in Borneo and a similar tragedy which happens anywhere else in the world. My Lords, in these circumstances I am sorry to say that there is nothing—much as we should like to do so—that we can do further for Paul Muncey.


My Lords, may I ask one question of the noble Lord? If anything does happen to Mrs. Muncey, will this boy still be able to go to the Star and Garter Home?


I do not want to rest on the fact that that is a hypothetical question. I should only hope that the offer made before would then be renewed. Certainly this is a matter which has been given very much anxious and sympathetic thought. I am sure that the Royal Navy feels a strong responsibility and would like to do the most it can within the rules as approved by Parliament.