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British Army (The Late Captain M M Martin)

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 16 November 1961

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

10.34 p.m.

It is a matter of some concern to me that on this, the fourth occasion on which I have had the privilege of addressing the House, I should find it necessary to bring before the House a matter concerning which I believe the Government, in the guise of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War, have arrived at a bad, stern and unbending determination.

This determination relates to the case of the late Captain Michael Maurice Martin, Royal Artillery, whose home was in my constituency. Captain Martin was an officer of great ability. It is, I think, universally recognised by those who knew him and served with him that he was an officer who, but for his untimely death, would have had the prospect of a truly brilliant military career.

Captain Martin was posted to Cyprus at the beginning of 1959 and he served there until August of that year, when on the 6th he was admitted to hospital suffering from poliomyelitis. I ask the House to note the date—6th August, 1959.

Here there arises the first question with which I should like my hon. Friend to deal. This officer had not been immunised against poliomyelitis when he went to Cyprus, and he still had not been immunised when he contracted it. I have been informed by my hon. Friend that at the beginning of 1959 supplies of vaccine had been made available through the Ministry of Health, so that by early 1959 immunisation was provided for officers and men and their families and dependents provided they were not over the age of 25.

Captain Martin was 29 when he contracted polio. It may be of considerable significance that within a matter of days of his contracting the disease the whole Cyprus garrison was being immunised against it. It is notorious that the incidence of polio is far more considerable in the Mediterranean islands than in this country or in other parts of Europe. Surely the proper course was to ensure that all those who were serving abroad in places where the incidence of polio was high were immunised as a first priority, whatever their ages, and it is of significance that directly after this most unfortunate officer contracted polio everybody in Cyprus was immunised.

Be that as it may, Captain Martin contracted polio and entered hospital on 6th August, 1959, and became desperately ill. He was totally paralysed within a short while. I understand that he was totally paralysed save for a finger. His father, Canon Martin, a clergyman of the Church of England, was flown with great expedition and appropriateness to Cyprus and arrived there on about 9th August.

In spite of the fact that Captain Martin was given the most elaborate treatment—and I have no quarrel with this aspect of the case, quite the reverse—his condition continued to deteriorate, and it was clear from the first that he was unlikely, to say the least, to be fit for military service again.

In the first week of September Captain Martin and his father were flown back to this country. At about this time, in addition to this disease, he contracted a virulent form of pneumonia.

By December, 1959, the War Office is on record as saying that this man would never be fit for military service again, and it was at about this time that the War Office apparently arrived at the determination not to invalid Captain Martin out of the service. This is another matter with which I ask my hon. Friend to deal. Why was Canon Martin, this man's father, never con- sulted about this decision that Captain Martin should not be invalided out, even though it was known full well that he would never be able to resume full service as an active officer?

Canon Martin was not consulted, despite the fact that he was the one person who was able to be in close harmony and contact with his son. Had he been consulted, his advice would have been that Captain Martin should be invalided out at an early date, because one of the matters which was concerning this desperately ill officer was his financial security. Had he been invalided out and received the capital increments, he would have had a greater sense of security which would have comforted him in what turned out to be his last months. But the decision was not, apparently, made for him to be invalided out of the Service, and his father was not consulted.

In April, 1960, Captain Martin's mother was told by the specialist in charge of his case that he was a dying man and that it was remarkable how at this time he was succeeding in hanging on to life. Still no determination to invalid him out of the Service and no consultation. Eventually, in June, the determination was made that he should be invalided out and he was informed, in so far as he was in a condition to take it in, that he was to be invalided out with effect from 6th August, after 28 days terminal leave and 28 days invalid leave.

That may well have been an arbitrary date, because the House will note that it was precisely one year from the day on which he entered hospital. On 28th July he died. Had he lived another nine days he would have been entitled to a terminal grant of £735 and to a resettlement grant of £500. I would emphasise that at the time of his death he had concluded his terminal leave and was on the last few days of his invalid leave. But, in spite of the fact that his terminal leave had been concluded, the War Office and my hon. Friend refuse to make any payment at all even though had he lived for another nine days he would have been entitled to both sums. In spite of the fact that the terminal leave was over the War Office will make no payment of the terminal grant, nor will they make any concession by way of giving an ex gratia payment to this man's estate.

In my submission this is nonsense. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it is a bad determination. The War Office is in need of recruits and it is its bounden duty, in my view, to set the very highest standards as an employer. There is not a single firm in my constituency which, in circumstances similar to those which I have outlined, would not have made at least a gesture. It is this sort of inflexibility which does such grave harm to the Service to which all of us are devoted.

In conclusion, I wish to emphasise the following factors and ask my hon. Friend to deal with them. First, why was Captain Martin not immunised against poliomyelitis? Troops keeping law and order in the more remote islands, it might be thought, should have full protection against any health hazards. Secondly, why was Captain Martin's father not consulted about the determination that his son's invaliding out should be deferred? Thirdly, why was the decision still deferred when it was known that Captain Martin was a dying man? Fourthly, why in all humanity has no concession been made by the War Office concerning this man?

I hope that my hon. Friend will not advance the argument that to allow this would be to set a precedent—that this would be the thin end of the wedge. What is needed is some degree of humanity and flexibility in dealing with a problem of this kind. Until we have a degree of flexibility a proper view of the Army will not be taken by people who are contemplating joining it. Those who sit on this side of the House will support the Government in "pauses" of an economic nature if they are in the interests of the community. What no one will support, in my humble submission, is a "pause" in humanity, and there is a lack of humanity about this decision.

Even at this late hour I hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to make a concession in this matter, or will persuade any mean men at the Treasury to make a concession, if the Treasury is involved.

10.46 p.m.

I should like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend not only for the clear way in which he has made his points tonight but for his help, throughout this difficult case, in seeking to make clear the issues. His predecessor, now Lord Alport, first raised this case with me, and I know that he felt strongly about it. I am sure that he would feel very gratified at the perseverance with which my hon. Friend has pursued the matter to the end. I should also like to thank Canon Martin, who was good enough to come to see me with my hon. Friend, for his assistance in discussions which, of their very nature, must have been extremely painful to him.

I hope to cover all the points raised by my hon. Friend. What has bedevilled this case almost above all other issues is the question of the hard-seeming nine days. Normally, a Service man is in, valided out of the Army as soon as hi is declared unfit for further service, but the War Office and the other Service Departments have a discretion, which they use, to defer invaliding for a period of up to four months after a man has been declared unfit, if the knowledge that he is to be invalided might have such a profound psychological effect on him as to prejudice his chances of recovery, or if the patient's expectation of life is very short and the act of invaliding at the normal time would hasten his death. The medical authorities must, for obvious reasons, not give any indication of the course that they have recommended to the patient himself.

In the case of Captain Martin the War Office decided that his retirement should be deferred for a period of up to four months. He was notified that he would be retired on 6th August, after completing the normal 56 days invaliding and terminal leave. But on 28th July, just over a week before the date on which he was to retire, Captain Martin died.

Shortly after his son had been notified of the date of his retirement Canon Martin wrote to the Army Pensions Office asking, on his son's behalf, what award he would be due to receive on retirement, and he was told that on his retirement on 6th August his son would receive retired pay of £245 a year, a terminal grant, and a resettlement grant, to which my hon. Friend has already referred. But, as things turned out, because Captain Martin died nine days before the date of his retirement, and because no terminal benefits are payable to an officer until he actually does retire, no payment was due to the deceased officer's estate.

Canon Martin has said that the Army medical authorities ought to have consulted him or his son before they decided to defer his son's invaliding. He says that his son knew soon after he came back to England that he had no hope of going back to active service, and in fact that he was making plans for his retirement. Canon Martin thinks that if the Army doctors had consulted him or his son and had explained the financial situation, they would have decided that the balance of advantage lay in invaliding Captain Martin without further delay, so that he might draw what are technically called his non-effective benefits—retirement pay, terminal and resettlement grants, and so on.

My hon Friend said that had Captain Martin been invalided he would have had a greater sense of financial security. Canon Martin feels that it would have made no difference to his son's expectatation of life had he been told soon after the medical board that he was to be invalided out. The action of the War Office in deferring this invaliding, on this view, means that his son's estate has lost a substantial sum which his son would have got on retirement and it is felt that the estate should at least receive an ex gratia payment in recognition of this.

First, I should like to deal with the question of whether the decision to defer Captain Martin's invaliding was right and whether he or his father, or both, ought to have been consulted before it was taken. I am quite clear that the duty must lie upon the War Office and our medical advisers to decide whether a soldier should be invalided out or not. It would be quite wrong to pass on the responsibility for so agonising a decision to someone who is bound to be a very sick man, or indeed to his family of a man who is suffering from a severe illness. These things certainly look different in retrospect, but it would not be reasonable to discuss with a sick man, or with his family, what the financial situation might be if the date of his invaliding was either brought forward or deferred in the context of the position before or after his death. I am certain that this is a job for the Army doctors and that their duty in coming to their recommendation is to the patient himself and to his interests. I do not believe that they can be expected to take into account the fact that if the patient dies while still in the Service, his estate will lose the lump sum benefits due to him on his retirement. They would not do it, and I do not believe that it would be right to ask them to do it.

Would not my hon. Friend agree that here what was being taken was a psychological decision to help this man and that the best person to have given advice would have been his father? Is he aware that the doctors have considered that they had in mind his financial interests as well at that time, and that it did not rest entirely on the medical position?

In my next remarks I shall come to the point of what aspect the doctors were considering, including the financial one, in the best interests of Captain Martin. In considering Captain Martin's prospects, the doctors had to look at them as they were at the time when they took their decision and it seems to me quite clear that the decision at which they arrived was in fact to his advantage. Leaving on one side the medical and psychological reasons which prompted the decision on his deferment, what was decided enabled Captain Martin to stay on full pay for four extra months and had he not died he would have received a slightly higher pension as well as larger lump sum benefits. But as we now know, he died and none of this happened.

Once he had died the whole position was altered, and we have the justice and injustice of this decision being looked at not from the point of view of Captain Martin, as it was our duty to look at it at the time when the material decisions were taken, but from the point of view of his estate, that is, from the point of view of his father and mother, and what their position would be. That is another matter. While it is true that the arrangements which were made turned out not to be to the advantage of his estate, that is to say, of his father, and while we certainly have a responsibility for the interests not only of Service men but also of their widows and their children, the fact is that we do not recognise a similar responsibility toward the beneficiaries of a Service man's estate, and I am afraid the plain fact is that I cannot accept that we should do so.

My hon. Friend has suggested that we might make some payment to Captain Martin's estate on the ground that our deferment of his invaliding worked out at the end to the disadvantage of the estate. I must ask my hon. Friend and the House to face what the consequences of this would be, because it raises very important considerations of fairness and equity. Whenever a man is seriously ill we have to review the question of invaliding and to take a decision upon it. If we choose the course of action that turns out to be less advantageous to a man's estate—and we sometimes do—we cannot then make payments as if we had chosen the more advantageous course. If we did we should find ourselves paying the lump sum terminal benefits in every case where a Service man dies after an illness that lasted long enough for the question of invaliding him to be considered. But, unfortunately, there are other soldiers who die whilst serving whose estates get nothing in the way of these benefits. There are those, for example, who die instantaneously or after an illness which does not last long enough for the question of invaliding to come up. In those circumstances, there would be no provision for any payment to the estate and I cannot but feel that such an arrangement would be illogical, unfair and indefensible.

My hon. Friend asked me to deal with the question of why Captain Martin was not immunised against polio. There was at that time no general immunisation against polio in the Army in that area, but this has since been introduced. The Army received supplies of vaccine which were made available through Ministry of Health sources. By early 1959 we were able to offer protection to officers and men and their families up to the age of 25, but, as my hon. Friend has said, Captain Martin at that time was 29. According to my information, it was not until October, 1959—two months after he had been struck down with polio—that we had enough vaccine to be able to offer immunisation against polio to all serving officers and men whatever their age. As the House knows, shortages of vaccine have also affected the extent to which people in civilian life could be offered immunisation. I could not accept that the Army was negligent in not offering immunisation to all Service personnel earlier than it did. The fact is that, as with the civilian population, so with the serving men, the basis on which immunisation has been available has been dependent upon supplies of vaccine.

My hon. Friend asked me why, since Captain Martin ended his terminal leave and was on invaliding leave when he died, terminal benefits could not be paid to his estate. On the question of payment of terminal benefits, there is no significance in distinguishing between invaliding leave and terminal leave. The 28 days' terminal leave is a period on full pay which helps the officer to resettle himself in civilian life. The officer who is retired because of ill-health needs longer to resettle than the officer who retires at the end of his service, so we give the former an extra 28 days' leave. In each case the officer's retirement does not have effect until he has finished all his leave on full pay and we cannot give him terminal benefits until he has in fact retired and ceased to draw full pay.

My hon. Friend raised the question of Captain Martin's retirement being unusually delayed. As I explained earlier, retirement may be delayed for a period up to four months beyond the date when an officer would be due to retire under normal rules. But the normal rules do not specify exactly how long it must be after the first onset of the illness before the officer is retired, so we cannot give an exact date for the end of deferment. This, I think, explains the point about why Captain Martin's term happened to fall on 6th August.

What happens is that an officer or man undergoing treatment is boarded five months after his first absence from duty. The board has first to be assembled, and may well take place a week or so after the five months have elapsed, following which the proceedings are sent to the War Office for confirmation. If invaliding is recommended, the papers are seen by the various branches concerned and after confirmation by the War Office, the Service man is notified. Invaliding and terminal leave then begin, and the officer or man is retired 56 days from the date on which he is notified.

It will, I think, be obvious to the House and to my hon. Friend that when a Service man's retirement on medical grounds is delayed the delay is not normally the subject of criticism, because it operates to his own advantage. It would be wrong, I think, to restrict this very humane provision for deferring the date of invaliding simply because it might, as it did in the present case, work against the beneficiaries of the man's estate.

I have tried as best I can to cover all the points raised, either by my hon. Friend tonight, or by Canon Martin in correspondence in this very sad case. I can only conclude by saying that although I sympathise very much with Canon Martin—and it seems all the harder since it was only those nine days which made so much difference—I have not been able to make out a case for exceptional payment to his son's estate.

11.2 p.m.

The Minister has made a careful and detailed reply, yet I think that there must be one or two hon. Members who cannot help feeling a little unhappy about the whole matter. I do not think that we would doubt that the Army authorities acted in good faith, but it is important that the Army should not only act in good faith but should be seen to act in good faith, and be beyond suspicion in such a matter as this.

If an extremely delicate decision like this has to be taken, is it quite impossible, in such a special case, to make reference to some other party—perhaps an independent party of some kind, or one of a judicial kind, so that if something like this happens the Army will be quite cleared in everyone's eyes from all suspicion that it has not acted with complete impartiality towards the Service man?

I appreciate the impression that the hon. Gentleman has received on hearing this case for the first time in detail, and I understand why he received that impression. I can only say that as this is a complicated case and as the implications take a little grasping—with no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman—I hope that he will study carefully what I have tried to say tonight, and at least give me and my right hon. Friend the benefit of the doubt as to having ourselves gone into this with immense care, sympathy and consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.