Orders of the Day — Army Lorry Accident, Atherton.

– in the House of Commons on 17th February 1942.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

I want to raise a matter which I have raised before at Question Time concerning accidents in which the drivers of Army lorries are concerned. This is a matter that is common to all the Services, and I gather that the reply from the War Office will cover not only that Department, but the other Departments also. For the information of the House, I will relate what happened. On Sunday, 10th August, 1941, a woman driving her motor car at Atherton, in the Leigh constituency, was run down by an Army lorry driven by a soldier. The woman was injured, and her car was badly damaged, and naturally it was expected that, since the Government was concerned and since negligence was proved on the part of the driver of the Army lorry, there would be no difficulty in recovering what she was entitled to recover. A claim was sent to the War Office, which asked for all particulars, made a thorough examination of the whole business, and in a sense admitted that it was the fault of the Army driver. It was then said by the Department of the War Office concerned that there was some difficulty in regard to payment being made in this class of case, and that payment could not be made without the consent of some higher authorities. After a long wait, it was found out that it was a type of case that could not be recognised by the Army authorities because it happened that the driver concerned was not doing Army duty at the time of the accident, although he was in Army uniform and was driving an Army lorry and appeared to the casual observer to be under the control of the Army authorities. This case has gone on for some time. Eventually a letter was received from the Claims Commission of the War Department at Chester It stated: I am in receipt of your letter dated the 28th November and very much regret the delay in arriving at a decision in this case. The delay does not arise out of my investigations into the circumstnaces of the accident itself, but on the question of whether the War Department can be advised to stand behind the War Department driver. A decision on this latter point will be made by higher authority and it is hoped that I shall be in a position to write to you more fully in a few weeks' time.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

I then took the matter up with the War Office, and I received the following reply on 29th January: Your letter of 16th January to Sir Edward Grigg referring to the cases of Mrs. Rowlands of Market Street, Atherton, has been passed to me as I deal with claims for injuries in which a War Department vehicle is involved. I have made inquiries, and find that after careful consideration it has been decided that the facts of the case do not bring it within the undertaking given in Parliament to which you refer and, therefore, the War Department cannot accept liability for the injuries susstained by Mrs. Rowlands. The undertaking given in Parliament was that the War Department would only stand behind its driver if, in similar circumstances, a private employer would have been liable for his servant. In the present case the War Department driver was using the vehicle for his own purposes at the time of the accident, and, therefore, the War Department cannot stand behind him. This seemed very strange to us, and I decided the matter could not be left there, and that whatever the consequences the public should know the position. I decided to raise the matter in Parliament, and on 10th February I put down a Question. I receive a reply from the Joint Under-Secretary to the War Office in the following terms: The policy with regard to the grant of compensation in such cases as this is as stated in the answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Liddall) on 22nd April 1941, and to my Noble Friend the Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) on 24th June, 1941. It is not a policy peculiar to my Department but is common to all public Departments. The circumstances of the present case have received careful consideration, but I regret they are not such as would permit the grant of compensation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1942; col. 1371, Vol.:377.] Perhaps the most vital point was contained in the reply to a Supplementary Question. The principle adopted by all Government Departments is that in circumstances under which, if the Government had been a private employer, it would have been legally liable for the torts of the driver, compensation is considered. This is not a case in which a private employer would have been considered liable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1912; col. 1372, Vol. 377.] As I have said, it seems to be a very strange position. May I put it in this way? Suppose a constituent of mine was run down by an Army lorry and the driver was proved negligent by everyone, the War Office would pay, but, if in similar circumstances the driver was not driving on Army business or was not taking the right route, the War Office would not pay. How can citizens understand the working of an Act which allows that kind of thing to happen? As I understand it, the Army authorities are under the protection of the Crown, and they cannot be sued. The Army authorities have recognised this and have agreed that they ought to pay something to a civilian who has been injured.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

If this had been the case of a private car, the driver would have been compelled by law to have a certificate of insurance, and the insurance policy would have covered him. Therefore, when in civil life an employer is not liable the injured party does not suffer because the driver is covered by insurance. In this case does my hon. Friend know how the soldier came to be driving an, Army vehicle uninsured?

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

No, I cannot answer that point, but I am glad of the help given me, because I had not seen that way of looking at it. It seems to me now that a private driver must have a certificate to cover him, whereas, if he is taken over by the Army, he does not require one for the same purpose. It brings it more directly under the purview of a Government Department to see that where a civilian is injured by their people recompense ought to be made. It will probably be replied that that kind of thing may involve a private employer in the same difficulty, but it cannot do that, because in neither case can the Crown be sued, but in the first case the Crown takes on the liability. The Lord Chancellor's statement on the point is very interesting. In answer to a question, he said: A member of the public injured by the negligent driving of a Service vehicle has the right to sue the driver of the vehicle and to obtain judgment against him for damage that he has suffered, but he has no right of action against the Crown as in law the Crown is not liable for the torts of its servants. If, however, the driver of the Service vehicle was on duty at the time of the accident it is and has been for many years the invariable practice of a Government Department to provide the funds required to satisfy any verdict obtained against the driver. A person injured by the negligence of the driver of a Service vehicle is, therefore, in no worse position than if the accident had been caused by a non-official person, and may be in a better position by reason of the fact that the financial resources of the State are available. The State has gone outside the law in saying in certain cases "We will meet the liability." How can you convince the citizen when in two identical cases of accidents one injured person can get compensation and, for some reason or another which is hard to explain, the other cannot? The State ought to do something to improve the position as we have it at the moment. It may be that I shall make no progress to-day. It is very seldom that you do on the Adjournment, except that you advertise a wrong and stir up public opinion. I have done this in order to draw the attention of the public to the position, in the hope that we may prevail upon the Government that the time has come to make some change in regard to these cases of injuries. In this case one has to ask how the driver was able to get hold of the Service vehicle. There was something lax to allow that to happen and for a man to be able to take a lorry from where it was parked and cause damage. In the interests of the War Office, I hope that the Financial Secretary will take the view of the case that I have put forward and not be bound by the other decision. I hope he will show that he is satisfied that there is a genuine case to answer and that he will put it to his chiefs, so that something can be done in the matter.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

I would like to urge my hon. Friend not to abandon his constituent's claim at this stage. I should have thought that the War Office had a good deal to prove before they made out a case for escaping liability even on the narrowest legalistic interpretation of the undertaking given. I hope that they will not take the narrowest legalistic interpretation. There is a tendency for them to do so. The standard of care of driving by Army lorry drivers is, by comparison with ordinary commercial experience, very low indeed, and it is to no purpose for official spokesmen to say in the House, as they sometimes do, that they have analysed the number of cases and that only in an infinitesimal percentage has the driver been found to blame. That is so, but it is because the inquiry is held by the War Department themselves, and they have an interest in the result. The amount of interest they have in the result is shown in the case which my hon. Friend has brought forward. If they can establish in their own court of inquiry to their own satisfaction that there was no negligence on the part of their driver, they save so much money.

I would like the hon. Gentleman to say how it came about that this driver was in possession of an Army lorry on the public highway without official sanction and for other than official purposes. If the War Office say that in these cases they have no responsibility for what follows, they ought to be able to establish that they have no responsibility for what occurred. How does a driver get an Army lorry and drive it away for his own purposes? Can that be done without the express or tacit permission of some superior officer? If it can, can it be done without the negligence of some superior officer? Surely lorries are not lying about full of petrol, not immobilised, and with the ignition key or starting handle available to anybody. Could a member of the public go and drive a lorry away? Can I do so? Is it only a private soldier who can drive a lorry about the public highway without anybody being responsible for him and without anybody's permission? In practice that cannot happen unless either tacit or express consent has been given or there is such a degree of negligence as to imply in law consent for the driver to take it away.

If that is so, the undertaking has not been carried out, because in those circumstances a private employer would be liable, even though the vehicle were being driven for the servant's own purposes and not for the purposes of the employer, if it could be shown that the servant was driving the employer's vehicle with the employer's permission, the employer knowing that the man was uninsured. It seems to me that that is the closest parallel you have here. The War Office stand as employer of the man who took the lorry, knowing that the driver was not covered by any policy of insurance. If they had been a civil employer, they would have been liable. In the circumstances, it seems to me that the constituent of my hon. Friend is entitled to reconsideration of his case.

Photo of Mr David Adams Mr David Adams , Consett

May I make an inquiry? In cases where legal liability is not admitted, is there not a Department which can make grants on compassionate and other grounds, in cases of hardship of this character? If that be so, it will be of some interest to the public to know it.

Photo of Mr Benjamin Riley Mr Benjamin Riley , Dewsbury

I hope that the Minister will not want to excuse the refusal of his Department to meet this claim on any legal ground, or to wriggle out of what everybody regards as a liability. After all, Parliament deliberately provided an Act under which it is obligatory upon the owner of every motor vehicle to be insured in order to provide for such a case as that re erred to by my hon. Friend. That was the deliberate intention of Parliament and of the Government of the day. There is a further point. Have the War Office a mutual arrangement with the principal insurance companies to meet liabilities of this kind? In that case all that the War Office have to do is to share the damages which might be regarded as due in this case. I hope that the Minister will not try to excuse the Department on the ground of some kind of legal point which is contrary to the spirit and intention of the Act.

Photo of Mr Duncan Sandys Mr Duncan Sandys , Lambeth Norwood

I am not here to excuse the Department, as the hon. Gentleman has just suggested. As I have previously explained to the hon. Member who raised this matter, it is not within the province of the War Office to decide policy in cases of this kind. I suggested to him that he should rake this case at a more appropriate moment, but from his speech—and I sympathise with him—it appears that he wishes merely to take this opportunity to bring forward what he believes to be a wrong an I to draw attention to it. He has no doubt achieved that end. So far as the speech of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) is concerned, I would say straight away that I agree as to the importance of raising to the utmost the standard of driving in the Services. It is, however, an extremely difficult problem to enlist very great numbers of men in a short time, train them, and put them on to the roads with large Service lorries, but the hon. Gentleman may be assured that very careful attention is being paid to this question of training drivers. It is one of our preoccupations at the present moment. With a mechanised Army the number of drivers needed is enormous.

I must, however, take exception to the remarks which the hon. Member made about the manner in which inquiries into accidents are conducted. The military authorities have no interest whatsoever in trying to show that negligence was not committed by an Army driver. After all, when the War Office pays out money in compensation, it does not come out of the soldiers' pockets, it comes out of the taxpayers' pockets, and the only concern of the military authorities is to do justice. It is a most unfair suggestion that the courts of inquiry held by the Army into accidents are biased or that they try to reach a decision in favour of the soldier and against the interests of the civilian victim of the accident.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

The hon. Gentleman has accused me of being unfair, and I want to assure him that I have no intention of being unfair to anybody. It has, however, always been a principle of inquiries in this country that they should not be conducted exclusively by those people who have an interest, direct or indirect, in the result of the inquiry. That is the only point I wish to make.

Photo of Mr Duncan Sandys Mr Duncan Sandys , Lambeth Norwood

The hon. Member was referring to statistics given by the War Office on the subject of accidents. This is a perfectly proper matter for the War Office to inquire into itself. We cannot always have a Judge of the High Court sitting on every tribunal. Certain things must be left to the Departments concerned to investigate. The practice to which the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) has referred is one which is common to all Government Departments. Perhaps the action of the Army in this connection has received more attention than that of other Departments owing to the fact that it has so many vehicles on the road at the moment. The accident in question took place, as he said, at Atherton on 10th August, 1941. An Army lorry was being driven by a soldier; it skidded and collided with a civilian private car which was damaged. The case was investigated by the military authorities who decided, after carefully considering the circumstances, that the journey was an unauthorised journey. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne asked how it came about that there could be such a thing as an unauthorised journey. In this particular case it appears that the driver started off on an authorised journey, and then, having completed the job, took the lorry on for his own purposes. There was therefore no question of any implied consent, as the hon. Member suggested. There was no implied approval. The fact that the soldier was in uniform, which was referred to by the hon. Member, has nothing to do with the question of responsibility. A civilian driver belonging to a big commercial firm might be wearing the firm's uniform but it would not necessarily imply that he was driving on their behalf. Having investigated this case the military authorities took disciplinary action with the result that the driver was awarded seven days' detention. A serious view was taken of this case as will be seen by the award. The owner of the car then claimed compensation for the damage to the car and loss of its use during the time it was under repair. He also alleged—though I am not quite sure whether he claimed compensation for it—that his wife had suffered shock as a result of the accident. This was referred to the Claims Commission, which rejected the claim, as the hon. Member has explained, on the ground that the journey was unauthorised and that the accident did not occur as a result of the discharge of his duty by the driver.

The practice followed by all Government Departments, not merely now but for many years past, is a perfectly straightforward one. I can well see that there is room for argument about this practice. On the other hand, I think it is not fair to suggest that Government Departments in any way seek to shelter behind the immunity of the Crown. Nor do I think it is right to say that any civilian is unfairly deprived of his right to compensation. I do feel that the analogy with the civilian driver is a solid and sound one. The civilian employer cannot be held responsible for injuries re- sulting from the action of his employee, if that employee is not, at the time of the accident, discharging his duties in the service of his employer or driving with the consent, authority and knowledge of the employer. The army driver is in very much the same position. The Crown, it is true, cannot be sued for the torts of its servants. The old maxim that "the king can do no wrong" applies in this case. But in order that the person suffering from injury as a result of the action of a Crown servant shall not be unfairly prejudiced, the practice has been adopted by all Government Departments for many years past to stand behind their servants if, when the injury was committed, those servants were acting in the discharge of their duties, or their action resulted from some negligence or oversight on the part of some officer of the Crown whose duty it should have been to prevent the occurrence.

I would add two remarks. The point was raised by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams) that in the case of special hardship—though I do not think that the case under discussion really comes within that category—even though the accident has not resulted from the man's performance of his official duty, none the less the Claims Commission can consider granting compensation. In this manner, in cases of special hardship, and they occur not infrequently, grants of compensation are made. In addition, the War Office are well aware of the need to tighten up discipline. In the Army we have been seeking to achieve this in a number of ways. Further steps have been taken very recently in order to try and reduce the number of unauthorised journeys which are carried out by Army drivers in spite of regulations. I have explained to the House as best I can the law and the practice. My hon. Friend will, I hope, agree that the Government is not trying to shelter behind any legalistic immunity. I think the Lord Chancellor was very fair when he said in that quotation which the hon. Member read to the House: The person injured by the negligence of the driver of a Service vehicle is therefore in no worse position than if the injury were caused by a non-official person and may be in a better position by reason of the fact that the financial resources of the State are made available to meet his claim.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER Adjourned the House without Question put.