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Orders of the Day — R.a.M.C. Officer's Widow (Pension)

– in the House of Commons on 21st October 1943.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[Captain McEwen.]

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

I venture to raise the case of a war widow and the treatment which she has received at the hands of the War Office. It is an individual case, about which, I am bound to say, I cannot speak without considerable feeling, although I am not personally interested in the matter. I direct the attention of the House to this matter with less apology, because I have the assurance of the Secretary of State for War that it is not an isolated case and that therefore a matter of principle is involved.

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."—[Mr. Boulton.]

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

William Bremner Highet was a surgeon employed at the Wingfield Hospital, Oxford. He was an exceptionally brilliant man, and from the inception of the nerve-centre cases at the beginning of this war, he acquired experience in dealing with injured soldiers with nervous trouble. In 1942 he was asked to form a new centre in South Africa for the benefit of soldiers injured in the Middle East and he volunteered for that service, an exceptionally responsible post for which otherwise he would not have thought it worth his while to volunteer. It was a post which carried with it the rank of major, a rank which he was promised. From the outset, said his colleague, in the hospital at Oxford, it was agreed that he should go with the rank of major. To his dismay he was commissioned as a lieutenant. His colleague says: I took up the case immediately, with the Central Medical War Committee and with certain Army consultants, Brigadiers Bristow, Cairns and Riddoch. I was assured that his promotion was only a matter of days, and that he would nut hold merely the temporary rank of Major. Lest there should be any doubt about this matter I desire to read documents which are signed by authorities in the War Office: Major-General Monro, consulting surgeon to the Army, wrote to his colleague: I passed the letter to A.M.D.I with the following comment: 'Highet most certainly would have been classed as a specialist surgeon (neuro-surgeon) and this, I maintain, should have been done before he embarked for S.A. to take up an important post'. I have also a copy of War Office minute sent by D.P. Stevenson, D.A.D.G., from A.M.D.I which says: It is unfortunate that promises were made in writing to this effect"— namely that he should have a major's appointment by Brigadiers Rowley, Bristow and Riddoch, and it goes on to show that he was in fact given the rank of lieutenant only because of the technical regulations then in force. As matters happened his ship was torpedoed as it went out to South Africa and he was drowned and his widow now gets a lieutenant's pension. This is what she says: It became necessary for me to give up our home. My husband's parents are in New Zealand and I have now no home of my own apart from that of a brother-in-law. On this small allowance nothing is available for the education of our child. Consequently, I have had to return to hospital in a resident post in order to be able to pay school fees to put my daughter into a nursery boarding school. A nursery boarding school for this man's child! She goes on to describe other things connected with her position. I took up the matter with the Secretary of State for War and I had a number of answers from him on the subject. The first answer he gave was as follows: I have already considered this case personally on a previous occasion as a result of representations made by the High Commissioner for New Zealand.‖ As I explained, Lieutenant Highet has been treated strictly in accordance with the Regulations and in the same way as every officer placed in the same position would be. To that I replied: Does this mean you have no power to give exceptional treatment in such cases? He replied: If it was considered that the case justified exceptional treatment it would be possible under the Dispensing Warrant to grant the rank of major from a date prior to that on which the vacancy was filled. So it would be perfectly possible for my right hon. Friend to give the award I am asking for. He added in this letter: ‖ nor can I see there is any question of breach of faith. What can be said of such treatment, in view of the fact that three brigadiers and a consulting surgeon had given promises in writing that this man should have the rank he was denied? I put a Question to the Secretary of State. I asked what he was going to do about it. His reply was that this case was not to be regarded as an isolated case and did not call for the exercise of special powers. I asked: Is the fact that the instance is isolated a reason for not putting it right? He replied: I think if failure to provide for circumstances which have not arisen is an injustice, then, practically the whole of the world is an injustice. I was not asking the Secretary of State about failure to provide for circumstances which had not arisen. I was asking him to use the power which in his letter he admitted he had. This is an injustice. Any decent employer would have done exactly what I am asking. The word of the subordinate would have been kept. Nobody but the Crown would treat an employee in this way. It gives the Crown a bad name when men are dealt with in what I can only describe as a scandalous manner. It reminds me of a poem by G. K. Chesterton: Of all the easy speeches which comfort cruel men. But perhaps that is cruel. I doubt whether we are dealing with a man so much as a bureaucrat born in a pigeonhole, swaddled in red tape, educated at the Treasury, reaching manhood as a civilian in the War Office, and coming in his full maturity to this House to deal with questions in this manner. When, at last, he is removed to another place no doubt there will be written on the tombstone, a Treasury Minute instead of an epitaph, "Passed to you for further consideration and comment." I have said that I can hardly refer to these things without deep feeling. If this is the way in which the Crown treats servants and the right hon. Gentleman administers his office, the sooner he moves from his position the better.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I would like to say at once that I agree with my hon. Friend when he states that the late Mr. Highet was an orthopaedic surgeon of great ability who volunteered for service in a special, indeed an important, appointment in South Africa at the request of the War Office. I also agree that the appointment as such carried with it the rank of Major. I may say that Mr. Highet had had considerable experience in dealing with nerve injuries and there is no doubt that his services would have been of the greatest value. It is equally true, as my hon. Fr end admits, that Mr. Highet was in fact commissioned with the rank of lieutenant. In this connection, I would quote from a letter sent to him from the War Office dated 12th August, 1942, as follows: You will be granted an emergency commission as Lieutenant in the R.A.M.C. from the date of joining for duty and you will receive the same pay and allowances as officers of the same rank in the Regular Army. You have been classified as a graded surgeon and will as far as the exigencies of the Service permit, be employed in specialist work. Whilst employed in an employment normally held by a specialist you will be entitled to the additional pay for officers holding such appointments but you will not be entitled to the acting rank of Major by virtue of holding the appointment, that is, a graded surgeon. This was followed by a letter on 4th September, 1942, to Mr. Highet, which I quote: You will be appointed to an emergency commission as Lieutenant in the Royal Army Medical Corps from the date on which you join. On 20th September, 1942, a letter was received at the War Office from the Secretary of the Central Medical War Committee from which I quote: Professor Seddon— Professor Seddon was the professor under whom Mr. Highet worked— has now raised the question of his (Mr. Highet's) grading, being of the opinion that Highet should be given full specialist status with the rank of Major. On 19th October a reply was sent on behalf of the Director-General of the Army Medical Services saying— The specialist work for which the services of Dr. Highet are required will be in a hospital overseas, and on assuming this overseas appointment he will be raised to full specialist status I would add that full specialist status carries with it the rank of Major. I think the House will agree that this letter makes it clear that Mr. Highet would not receive the rank of Major until he had assumed his overseas appointment. Quite frankly I have not been able to ascertain whether the contents of this letter were conveyed to Mr. Highet but I think it not unreasonable to think that this was the case.

In those circumstances my hon. Friend presses for a pension to be given on the basis of the appointment that Mr. Highet would have taken up if he had not so tragically died as the result of enemy action at sea.

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

Is my hon. and learned Friend now dissenting from the opinion in the statement signed by the D.A.D.G.—A.M.I? He said: It is unfortunate that promises were made in writing to this effect"— that he should hold an appointment within an authorised war establishment— by Brigadiers Rowley, Bristow and Riddoch.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I will deal with the letters from those officers in a moment. At present I am filling in the general picture.

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

Surely I can have a simple answer? Is that a fact or is it not?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

My hon. Friend will get an answer when I deal with the point he has raised. My hon. Friend pressed for a pension on the basis of the appointment that Mr. Highet would have taken up, if he had not so tragically died as a result of enemy action at sea. The amount of pension payable under the rules in any particular case is governed by the Pensions Warrant. Under these regulations, the award is dependent upon the paid rank held at the time of the casualty. There is no doubt fiat at the time of his lamentable death Mr. Highet was, in fact, being paid as a lieutenant. It may be asked why should he not be deemed to have the rank of major by virtue of the fact that if he had arrived safely in South Africa, he would have automatically have become a major on taking up his appointment. Here we are bound by the provisions of the Pay Warrant, which lays down that acting rank, which in due course is converted into temporary rank, will be granted only to fill vacancies in approved establishments. A vacancy is regarded as being filled only when the officer appointed to it actually assumes duties. I want to be quite frank: there is one exception to this rule. When an officer is selected in this country for a staff appointment overseas, except in the case of India and Burma, the rule does not apply. In such a case the officer receives the rank of his appointment, even if it is higher than his existing rank, immediately on embarkation for the foreign theatre of war. I have made inquiries, and I understand that there is an historical explanation for the existence of this rule as to staff officers. It dates back to 1881, if not earlier. But I have not been able to obtain an explanation of why the staff officer rule came to be operated. It is based on peace-time conditions, and, in my view, is definitely out of line with the war-time system to which I have referred.

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

I have here a letter signed by the Secretary of State for War, which says: If it was considered that the case justified exceptional treatment it would be possible, under the Dispensing Warrant, to grant the acting rank of major from a date prior to that on which the vacancy was filled, and the rank having been given, the pension award would follow. Is my hon. and learned Friend saying that what the Secretary of State for War wrote to me was false, and that he does not have the power which he said he had; or is my hon. and learned Friend agreeing that the Secretary of State has got the power?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I certainly do not disagree with what my right hon. Friend said. The letter is not inconsistent with what I have told the House.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

Is this, in the opinion of my hon. and learned Friend, an exceptional case?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

It is an exceptional case, in the sense that the facts of the particular case apply only to Mr. Highet's appointment. But the application of the rule that an officer does not take up his rank until he has actually assumed his appointment, is general. Unless and until Mr. Highet assumed the duties of his post, he was not entitled to the acting rank of major. My hon. Friend has stated that there has been a breach of faith. I cannot accept the view that there is any question of breach of faith in view of the letters written to Mr. Highet which I have quoted dated 12th August, 4th September and 19th October, which, I submit, constituted a firm arrangement. My hon. Friend has referred to promises that he states were made by authorised officers. As regards the letter to Professor Seddon, dated early in February, 1943, after this unfortunate occurrence, from Major-General Monro, the consulting surgeon to the Army. This, in my view, endorses my statement that in fact Mr. Highet was not classed as a specialist surgeon before his departure. I find that the comment that was made by General Monro was that Mr. Highet most certainly would have been classed as a specialist surgeon, and this, he maintained, should have been done before he embarked. While it is clear, as my hon. Friend says, that General Monro said it should have been done, it is also evident that it was not done otherwise it would not have been necessary for General Monro to have said that it should have been done.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I am not discussing justice at the moment, but whether there was a breach of faith on the part of the War Office, and I am suggesting for the consideration of the House—and the House can make up its mind—whether or not there was a firm arrangement. If there was not a firm arrangement, it was no use the letter being worded in this way. It is obvious that General Monro took the view that he did not agree that there was this firm arrangement. Then there is a letter from Brigadier Bristow, dated 18th November, 1942, which was seven days before the late Mr. Highet sailed, intimating that Mr. Highet's promotion was being expedited. I think the explanation of that letter is—and again I want to be frank and put all the facts before the House—that in fact a recommendation signed by Brigadier Bristow was sent to the appropriate branch of the War Office recommending that Mr. Highet be appointed orthopædic specialist with the acting rank of major, but this recommendation was not carried out. Again I agree that my hon. Friend can quote Brigadier Riddoch as taking the same view as that which was taken by Major-General Monro, that before he sailed this officer, in their opinion, should have actually been given the acting rank of major, but it is none the less the fact that he was not given the acting rank of major. He was told in plain terms that he was not to be given the acting rank of major until he had actually reached his station and had assumed his duties.

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

I am sorry to interrupt again, but my hon. and learned Friend is really not doing justice to the case that I am presenting. I produced a document signed "D.P. Stevenson, D.A.D.G.," and it states not only that promises were made in writing to this effect by Brigadiers Rowley, Bristow and Riddoch, but I also produced a document signed by Professor Seddon, who said: I was assured that his promotion was only a matter of days. Does my hon. Friend really seriously say that this statement of fact signed by his own D.A.D.G. is a false one and that no promise was made and that what Professor Seddon said is also false and that no promise was made? If not, why does he not say promises were made and why does he not keep them?

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

I will try to refrain from being heated about this matter; all I want to do is to put the facts before the House. As regards the point as to whether I deny that promises were made by senior officers of the War Office I am quite prepared to accept my hon. Friend's statement that these promises were made. What I am trying to tell the House is that these promises were not made on the authority of the appointments held by these officers, and I have tried to make it clear that whatever promises were made by these individual officers they were not carried out before Mr. Highet had left for his destination abroad. What I have said shows that there was a firm arrangement made. My hon. Friend also asked me whether Professor Seddon had not been told that Mr. Highet was to be promoted almost at once. I have already quoted to the House a letter received from the Central Medical War Committee, dated 28th September, 1942—before Mr. Highet sailed—in which it was asked that he should be graded as a specialist with rank of major. I have quoted a reply from the War Office and from the Department that is concerned with appointments, and not from an officer, however distinguished, who is not concerned with appointments of officers, to this effect: The special work for which the services of Mr. Highet were required will be in hospital overseas, and on assuming this overseas appointment he will be raised to full specialist status. That appointment, I agree, carries with it the rank of major.

This tragedy occurred. This officer never reached his destination; he did not take up this appointment. He left this country as a paid lieutenant, and in accordance with the regulations that operate to-day, the pension must be assessed in relation to the pay for the rank he was receiving at the time of his death. That is exactly what has been done, and that is the pension which is being paid to his family.

Photo of Sir Alfred Beit Sir Alfred Beit , St Pancras South East

What strikes me in listening to this case, with which I had not been previously acquainted, is that the Financial Secretary has not answered a most important point. He has put forward a good Departmental case, but he has not answered the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), who stated that in a letter to him by the Secretary of State it was said that the latter had special powers which could be exercised in a case like this. It is quite clear from what the Minister has just said that this is a very difficult case; indeed, he expressed considerable sympathy with this officer and his family. I only want to know why in these circumstances the special powers are not taken?

Photo of Mr Peter Bennett Mr Peter Bennett , Birmingham, Edgbaston

The only point I wanted to make about this case is that if industrialists had to face one like it, how should we face it? I feel very strongly that it does not come very well for it to be said that the Crown does not treat its servants as well as industrialists treat theirs. In a case like this I do not think any industrialist would try to get out of it. If he did try, it is certain that no one would let him. He would be appealed to on moral grounds and asked, "Surely you will do the right thing?" If this young man had said to me, "Shall I take this appointment or shall I insist on having my majority before I leave?" I, and I am sure others too, would have said, "Go out as a lieutenant and wait for your promotion when you get there." This man was torpedoed on the way, and I hope the War Office will look at this case from the point of view I have tried to put.

Photo of Mr Arthur Henderson Mr Arthur Henderson , Kingswinford

Appeals have been made by two Members in support of my hon. Friend. This is not so easy a proposition as would appear on the face of it, as it would involve, in effect, re-writing the terms of an arrangement which has already ended. I am somewhat loth to respond to my hon. Friend, because I think he made a somewhat vicious and unwarranted attack on my right hon. Friend. None the less, in view of the strong representations that have been made from both sides, I will certainly undertake to convey to my right hon. Friend the feeling of the House that this case should be given special consideration in the light of the special factors that exist.

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