Orders of the Day — Farnborough Hospital (Miss Brownlow).

– in the House of Commons on 18th June 1942.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

One never knows how much time one may have to raise a matter on the Adjournment, but to-day, luckily, there is ample time, because the Business of the House has been concluded at an early hour. I wish to raise the very serious question of the dismissal of Miss Brownlow, the Matron of Farnborough Hospital. I wish to make it clear that I am raising this as a matter of principle, and not merely because of the dismissal of Miss Brownlow. We are fighting for freedom, democracy and liberty overseas, and we must be careful that we do not lose liberty and freedom on the home front. I do not wish to prejudge the case. Naturally, I have heard only one side. I wish to say, however, with emphasis, that there is a prima facie case for inquiry. What are the facts? Miss Brownlow is a lady of splendid character who has spent her whole life as a nurse, sister, and then as a matron in the service of public assistance hospitals, and has now been dismissed with three months' notice, and, as far as I can find out, has no chance of appeal or of an inquiry of any kind. The Minister of Health very kindly wrote me a letter, dated 4th June. He begins by saying: I hope you will forgive a rather lengthy-reply. I wish to quote to the House one or two sentences from this letter. The Minister states: No stigma attaches to the person concerned. The appointment is terminated, not because of misconduct or failure to discharge the duties attaching to the post, but because the post has ceased to exist, or because its nature and duties have undergone a fundamental change. I have, therefore, had no alternative but to put the County Council in a position to dismiss Miss Brownlow. I should like to draw attention to the interchange of powers between the Minister of Health and the County Council. Apparently the County Council has to appeal to the Minister for powers to dismiss Miss Brownlow, and in consequence it was arranged for the termination of appointment both of Miss Brownlow and the present superintendent matron, Miss lies. I would point out that Miss Brownlow was a matron of a public assistance hospital. Public assistance hospitals are staffed by people who come from the lower walks of life—elementary schoolgirls. When the war started and the blitz began, Guys Hospital was evacuated to three different hospitals—in Farnborough, Orpington and Pembury. As I understand the position, they tried to run Farnborough Hospital with two staffs and two matrons. Naturally, they failed. Miss I1es, the Guys Matron, was appointed in charge, and I understand she has now been relieved of her duties. The Minister goes on to say in his letter: I have also offered to sanction the payment to her of a gratuity of £500, a step which is not usual in such cases, but which I regard as justifiable in this case in order to avoid any suggestion of ungenerous treatment. I should like to ask what would be the position if one of the Minister's senior civil servants who had served him so well was given the sack, and it was stated there was no stigma attaching, and that it was not because of any misconduct or failure in the discharge of his duties, and he was given £500 to be kept quiet. What is Miss Brownlow's position now? She has been dismissed, and the mere fact that the Minister has authorised a payment of £500 proves that there is nothing against her character or efficiency. But she has been given three months' notice, and I am told that, because of this, she loses not only her salary but her pension rights.

The matter goes back to an old inquiry, of which the Minister is fully aware. Miss Brownlow was appointed to clear up what was alleged to be laxity of discipline in the hospital. She went there and cleared it up, and there was an inquiry because they said she was too dictatorial in her methods. At that inquiry her attitude, conduct and character were completely vindicated. I suggest that it is because of that vindication, and something that came out in the evidence about the medical superintendent, that every effort has been made to get rid of her. I do not want to judge the question now, but I say, with all the emphasis at my command, that there is a prima facie case for an independent inquiry. What is the Minister's position? He cannot be judge and prosecutor in the case. He has given the necessary instructions for her dismissal, but, after all, he is the prosecutor in the case, and it is grossly unfair. A constituent of mine with a marvellous record, holding all the qualifications and having passed all the examinations that could be passed by a woman in her position, against whose character or efficiency the Minister says there is nothing, is peremptorily dismissed, and I demand an impartial inquiry, with an independent chairman, at which evidence can be taken on oath, so that Miss Brown-low shall have an opportunity of presenting her case personally or by counsel. That is in accordance with the traditions of the House, which, after all, fought for Magna Charta and for the rights and liberties of the subject. It is unthinkable that a woman of Miss Brownlow's character and efficiency can be peremptorily dismissed without a chance to defend herself. I ask the Minister to grant this inquiry and, if he is fair-minded about it, I am sure he will do so.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

I confess that, as chairman of a hospital in Kent controlled by the London County Council—I believe it is one of London's largest hospitals—and having listened to the case the hon. Member has presented, I shall be baffled as to where injustice has at any time or anywhere been created. I am always fearful lest matrons, medical superintendents or others in charge of our hospital service should suffer injustice due to bias or jealousy—and there are petty jealousies of various kinds in hospital administration—or perhaps due to the management committees not understanding the problems associated with the everyday life of these institutions. As I understand the case, I believe that the matron is still the servant of Kent County Council and not of the Ministry of Health.

Sir W. Smitfaers:

It is because of that that the Minister has had to give permission to the Kent County Council to give her the sack.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

Far be it from me to criticise the Kent County Council, for some of my best friends are members of it, and I have no doubt that as a local authority they are a very efficient body. I do not know how they deal with their labour problems. I know how the London County Council deal with theirs, and I would say that had this lady felt aggrieved or thought she had suffered injustice in any way, she had a right under the various codes of discipline to appeal to the proper authority, which is not this House. There is adequate machinery provided by the local government bodies, and I believe by the Kent County Council in particular. I do not wish to commend the trade union machinery, because I feel it is well to understand that in the administration of these institutions every servant of a local authority has a right to engage anyone to assist him in making his appeal to the board or committee appointed to inquire into his case. The hon. Member says that the lady has actually been given three months' notice and in addition £500.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

She has been offered £500, but I understand she was advised not to accept it, because it was adding insult to injury.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

Nobody has ever insulted me with hush money of that kind. I have had the sack on many occasions, sometimes with less than 24 hours' notice, but it has never been with hush money never to quarrel with the employer. The hon. Member brings a case to the House and fails to explain whether the lady in question has exhausted all the machinery available to her through the local authority. Does she deny the right of her employer, which is the local authority, to sack her?

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

It is a very technical business. The position is that Farnborough Hospital was a public assistance hospital which came under the Kent County Council, but owing to the war Guys Hospital evacuated to it, and it became a grade I hospital under the administration of the Ministry of Health. It is because the Kent County Council have not still full control that the permission of the Minister of Health has had to be obtained to give Miss Brownlow her dismissal.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

It is a remarkable coincidence that the hospital with which I am associated is also a branch of Guys Hospital, but I do not think the Minister of Health has ever said at any time what we should do with our matron if there were any complaints against her. Fortunately, we have a good matron and have never had to do so, but I have yet to learn that the Minister of Health has taken from us since the outbreak of war any power we had to say to our matron, "You must conform to certain codes of conduct and discipline and subscribe to our rules." I am very much concerned when I hear cases of this kind brought to this House. I do not wish to relate it to the Blatherwick case, because that is altogether different.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

No, the same principle.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

It is not the same principle by any means. Colonel Blatherwick was the servant of the Minister, the servant of the Crown. In the case of the matron to whom my hon. Friend has referred I believe she still is, if she has not left, the servant of the Kent County Council. We have tried to advise workers whether in the mining industry, in textiles, the distributive trades, with which I am connected, in fact all workpeople, that if they have a grievance, if they feel their employer has done them an injustice, even if they have had an argument with the local Employment Exchange concerning unemployment benefit, they have the right to present their case to the proper tribunal which has been set up and the right to be accompanied by a representative of their organisation. I do not know whether the lady in question has utilised her opportunities in that way, whether she has asked for her case to be heard and for representations to be made by, say, the National Union of County Officers. If not, I suggest that she ought to have done so. I feel that the hon. Member for Chislehurst should, before the Minister replies, explain to this House that all the machinery available to a matron or any other person in the service of a county council has been used before the case is brought to this House. The hon. Member for Chislehurst has never made it clear in any stage in the argument he has presented that all the channels of redress which are available to the persons in question have been exhausted, and I think that he is in duty bound to tell us just how she has tried to regulate whatever injustice she feels she has suffered.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

This matter has been going on for a long time. We have tried our best to make representations. In answer to the hon. Member, I will quote again from the letter signed by the Minister himself: In order to reduce to a minimum any personal hardship it may involve I have-arranged that Miss Brownlow should have three months' notice of termination of appointment, thus giving her ample opportunity to apply for a new appointment. The Minister says there "I have arranged." Caesar having spoken, I therefore appeal to Caesar.

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

On that point, my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Sir W. Smithers) is drawing a false inference frorn the phrasing. The Order lays it down quite plainly, in Article 157, that a senior Poor Law officer—and Miss Brownlow is a senior Poor Law officer— shall continue to hold office until he dies-or resigns or retires on superannuation or is dismissed by the Council subject to the consent of the Minister, or until the Minister considers it desirable that his duties should cease. That is the law as it stands. Of course, no one can object to my hon. Friend or any other Member raising an issue of this kind. It is the glory of this House that an individual can always have a grievance raised on the Floor of the House for public debate and for the consideration of the House. But, as the House will appreciate, this is not and never has been a very simple issue. It is of long standing. It is a very difficult case, but I want my hon. Friend and the House to understand that I have done my best, in letters to him, to make it clear that two distinct questions are involved. They must not be confused if the issue is to be properly-appreciated.

The first question is about the inquiry, which was referred to by my hon. Friend. That was held, not by me, but by my predecessor. The House will see that the case goes back farther than my immediate predecessor. In one respect it goes back to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Lt.-Col. Elliot) It is a long and complicated story. My predecessor did cause an inquiry to be held. That is the answer to my hon. Friend when he suggests that the case has, not been heard. The inquiry was held because the Kent County Council made an application for sanction for the dismissal of Miss Brownlow from the Farnborough public assistance institution. The second question was of her fitness, not for that post but for the position of matron of a very large casualty hospital under the Emergency Hospital Service, of which that institution is a part. Those are the two questions. The question of Miss Brown-low's dismissal from the public institution was settled by the inquiry which was held in the early part of 1939.

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

Has she been out of work since?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

No, Sir. If the hon. Member will listen, he will get an answer to his question. I have done my best to prepare a connected story for the House in the interests of all concerned. The hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. E. Walkden) has appreciated the point at once. The inquiry which was held resulted in the rejection by my predecessor of the application of the Kent County Council for sanction to her dismissal. That issue was settled, but the House will understand that this did not make the subsequent situation easier. That is only commonsense and human nature.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

Is it not a fact that, as a result of that inquiry, Miss Brownlow was completely vindicated?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

Perhaps my hon. Friend will let me make my statement in my own way. I did not interfere with him when he was speaking. I want to make the position clear to hon. Members and all those who may read the OFFICIAL REPORT. We all understand that an inquiry of that kind, involving a clash of personalities and different points of view as to administration, may be an aggravation of symptoms which already existed. Otherwise, there would not be an inquiry. The fact was that Miss Brownlow's position at Farnborough Hospital had been a matter of some difficulty even before the outbreak of war. With the outbreak of war this institution was made, as other places have been, into an important casualty hospital. Its staff was reinforced to deal with an increased number of beds. The number of beds was increased, as the House will see, from 650 to 1,100, making an entirely different undertaking in scope and in object.

Reports were received from the officers responsible for that sector of the Emergency Hospital Service—not from the Kent County Council, but from officers responsible to me for the working of the Emergency Hospital Service—that the administration of Farnborough Hospital was defective and that there was a danger of it breaking down if the casualty service were to be exposed to any serious pressure. The substance of these reports was that Miss Brownlow was not the person to be in charge of the nursing staff of such a large hospital, and contained suggestions that her deficiencies might be due to her having had no holiday for a long time, having lately undergone a severe nervous strain through the inquiry and working since then under conditions of great difficulty. So at the end of 1939 one of my predecessors, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove, directed the Kent County Council to appoint a superintendent matron to be matron of the enlarged institution—which included of course the smaller institution—to whom Miss Brownlow should act as assistant and to whose control she should be subject. The House will therefore see that she was treated with great consideration.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

Would the Minister give the name of the lady appointed as head matron?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

The appointment was made early in 1940, and in February of that year Miss Brownlow left the hospital on extended sick leave, I will not here go into the question as to whether or not it is easy to dovetail an organisation of this kind, but I will say that we have a number in the Emergency Hospital Scheme working extremely well and showing that there is nothing wrong with the basis or with the arrangements as such. The House of course will know that everything depends upon judgment upon the spot and upon temperament and character, and according to my information the arrangement under the superintendent matron to whom Miss Brownlow was to be assistant worked satisfactorily at first.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me the name of the superintendent matron?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

The hon. Gentleman has already mentioned her name. At first the arrangements worked as an improvement; there was a better atmosphere, but after Miss Brownlow's return from sick leave difficulties and friction re-appeared in the administration. I myself was then Minister of Health, and I gave very full consideration to this very protracted trouble. I thought about the best means of bringing it to an end, and I had long correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst. I went myself to Farnborough Hospital and met both the superintendent matron, Miss Iles, and Miss Brownlow on the spot and saw them together. I did everything I could to inform myself, so that I should make quite sure that I was aware of the facts and the atmosphere so as to form my own judgment of the personalities. I do not think the House will differ from me when I say that it is clear that Miss Brownlow is in no difficulty with regard to any bias from the Minister or because of any lack of information on the part of the Minister.

I saw them both, and I came to the conclusion after that that the joint arrangement made at the end of 1939 could not be continued without serious prejudice to the efficiency of the hospital and of the London casualty service, of Which the Farnborough Hospital formed an important part. Therefore, in June, 1941, I issued a direction the effect of which was to place Miss Brownlow on leave with pay until further notice or until she could take up further remunerative employment. I understand that Miss Brownlow then made more than one attempt to secure other employment, but, I regret, without success. The justification of this unusual arrangement, to which my hon. Friend has referred more than once in discussions with me, was this: While in my view Miss Brownlow was not fitted to act as matron of the enlarged hospital, and the attempt to secure joint working under a superintendent matron had proved unsuccessful, Miss Brownlow was still matron of the public assistance institution and she had not, as the inquiry proved, shown herself incapable of fulfilling that post satisfactorily.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

Is the institution side separately administered from the Emergency Medical Service?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

Oh no, and that increases the complications. If there had been two separate institutions, the issue might or might not have arisen; I cannot say. But in July, 1941, the position was modified because the Kent County Council appropriated the Farnborough Hospital as a hospital under the Public Health Act, 1936, which altered the whole basis. The hospital thereby ceased to be a public assistance institution. Early this year the Kent County Council approached me and explained that their intention in appropriating the hospital was that it should, after the war, be used as a major general hospital designed to hold a key position in the public health service of the county, and they represented that the existing anomalous position of Miss Brownlow prevented the general revision of the administration of the hospital which this permanent change in its function rendered necessary, and they asked my help, as Minister of Health, in securing a settlement of this persistent difficulty. I agreed with the County Council's proposals for the future use of this hospital, and informed them that, since the hospital was no longer a public assistance institution and would not revert to that status, it followed that the duties of the officers of the institution under the Public Assistance Order, 1930, had come to an end. I added that in the circumstances I considered that Miss Brownlow's duties as matron of the institution should come to an end. The County Council concurred in this suggestion, and towards the end of April I issued a direction that the County Council should take the necessary steps to terminate the employment of Miss Brownlow on 1st August next.

I have given this detailed account of this case, in order that the House may appreciate the points that seemed to me essential to its consideration. The first is that the termination of Miss Brownlow's appointment was in no way connected with the inquiry held in 1939, except in so far as the strain of that inquiry may have made difficulties afterwards in terms of temperament, and may have reduced Miss Brownlow's efficiency in the larger organisation, and certainly made it more difficult for all concerned to cope with the difficulties which arose from the enlargement and change of function of the Farnborough institution. The issues raised by the Kent County Council concerned Miss Brownlow's work as matron of a public assistance institution, and these issues were disposed of by the inquiry. The subsequent difficulties concerned the administration of a hospital of the London casualty service and were brought to my notice, not by the Kent County Council, but by my own officers, officers of the Emergency Hospital Service; and I should have been failing in my duty, when I realised that the efficiency of the Service was at stake, if I had not taken steps to secure the efficient working of this important key hospital.

The next point is that I and my predecessors have tried more than one expedient to end this difficulty with the minimum of hardship to Miss Brownlow, and it is a little difficult, after that, to listen to one or two of the sentences spoken about the proposed gratuity, which is legal under the Local Government Act. The only other point is that a settlement of the trouble has been made possible by the fact that Miss Brownlow's original post ceased to exist with the appropriation of the Farnborough Hospital under the Public Health Act, 1936. Her fitness for that post has not been questioned since the inquiry of 1939. The fact is that she has not been selected as matron of the enlarged casualty hospital or of the general hospital which it is projected it will be when the war is over.

Photo of Sir Waldron Smithers Sir Waldron Smithers , Chislehurst

The Minister said, if I quote him correctly, that the present position is in no way connected with the 1939 inquiry. I venture to suggest that there is still a great connection, and that that is one reason for a fresh inquiry. If Miss Brownlow is not fit to be matron of this big hospital, is it not the case that a successor was appointed—by whose recommendation I do not know—who has been found to be inefficient, and is now dismissed, and that there is an advertisement out for a new matron?

Photo of Mr George Ridley Mr George Ridley , Clay Cross

I have a mild interest in this matter, but it can be put no higher than that. Miss Brownlow is obviously a woman of considerable attainments, but of considerable temperament. Whatever my views about the merits of the case, the Minister is to be thanked for the very great trouble he has taken to ascertain the facts for himself. I in no sense desire to engage in any criticism in connection with this very involved case, but I would ask whether the Minister appreciates, as I think he will, that dismissal, even on these generous terms, may leave a serious mark on the future career of a woman who is now not a juvenile, and whether he will be willing—he may already have done so—to provide whatever assistance he can to help her to find employment within what he regards as the range of her accomplishments?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

I would do all I could to help her to find a post for which I thought her suitable. That is why I have taken infinite pains to safeguard her interests. The position is not, as my hon. Friend seems to think, that we have a "down" on her; but we must have the right people in key positions.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

In view of the number of advertisements appearing in recent months, has my right hon. Friend no influence whatever to help the lady to secure a position, if not in her own area in some other part of the country?

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

My hon. Friend will understand that there are two sides to that.

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

I have listened with great interest to this discussion, especially as it was originated by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Sir W. Smithers), who is always interested in the bottom dog. But there is one thing that I cannot under stand. I know of fellows getting dismissed practically every week, and they do not get £500, nor do they get three months' notice. If what is said about this lady is true—that she cannot do the job—then let somebody else do the job. There is no need to plead that the Minister shall get a job for her. If she possesses the ability that the hon. Member for Chislehurst claims for her, many local authorities will jump at the chance of employing her. I do not always agree with the Minister of Health, but I believe that he has put the case as fairly as it is possible for anyone to put it. I may be coming next week, or the week after, to the Lord Privy Seal because some of my chaps do not get three months' notice. They get about 24 hours. Only the other day 700 people were sacked from munitions work in Wallasey, because work could not be found for them. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Reakes) is sitting here—

Photo of Mr George Griffiths Mr George Griffiths , Hemsworth

It was just at the top side of Wallasey. They were stopped all at once, not because they could not do the job, but because the production could not be got out—there were too many people around, and they were falling over one another. I believe that these people got a week's wages, and then they could please themselves where they went. I am delighted that the Minister has given the full facts of this case. I hope that the hon. Member for Chislehurst will be satisfied, and that he will say no more about it.

Photo of Sir Joseph Lamb Sir Joseph Lamb , Stone

As the chairman of a hospital myself, I think that, after the statement of the Minister, the House would be wise, in the interests of the lady herself, to let the matter drop. A request has been made to the Minister to do all he can to obtain employment for this lady. It is very much better to leave the Minister to use his own discretion privately and to make no further public observations in this House upon a case, which, I think, has been dealt with very reasonably.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.