Civilian Army Vehicle Driver (Prosecution)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th March 1969.

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

11.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Warrington

Twenty years' membership of this House has given me little faith in Ministers. That is not cynicism, for it is, I think, a good authority that warns us not to put our trust in princes.

My constituent, Mr. Anderson, is a man of a simpler faith. He was employed in 1966 as a civilian driver for the Territorial Army in Warrington. In March that year he was given by the Ministry of Defence a dangerous lorry to drive. In the result, he was involved in an accident, prosecuted and fined. His licence was endorsed and, on that wet afternoon in March, he forfeited 27 years' safe driving record.

In the simplicity of his faith, Mr. Anderson thought that if he reported the matter to the Ministry of Defence it would do all that lay in its power to help him. He was mistaken.

Immediately the matter came to the notice of the Ministry of Defence it did what Government Departments always do, it rushed madly to put around it a strong shield of self-defence. I had a long and somewhat acrimonious correspondence about this matter with my hon. Friend, because I share to some degree the sense of indignation with which Mr. Anderson has been suffused from that day to this. I have some disappointment in my hon. Friend, because every time that I have written to him trying to explain to him what it is that has given rise to this burning sense of injustice over the years in this man's mind I received from him what I can only describe as typical Departmental replies. I do not know how much care he has taken to inquire into the facts of this case for himself or to what extent he has been content to sign letters written for him by his Department, but I do know that any real inquiry would not have satisfied him to a degree which would have led him to send me the replies that I have received.

In the first letter I sent I told him that this man was given a lorry to drive from Warrington to Liverpool; that while driving it on that road he discovered that the tyres were grossly unsafe and that the lorry was mechanically deficient. When he got to Liverpool he asked that it should be examined, It was condemned by the examiner who told him to take it back to Warrington and that new tyres would, in due course, be sent. On the way back to Warrington, although he was driving with care, as one might expect of a man with his: record, the lorry skidded because of its tyres on the wet road and he was involved in an accident with two other cars, which led to his prosecution.

He immediately wrote to the sergeant in charge of his Territorial department by means of a recorded delivery letter. The date of the letter was 11th July, 1966, and the recorded delivery number is D 236515. He reported the accident and asked for advice. He was tried on 18th July, 1966, seven days later. In replying to my first letter asking that some support be given to this man, that some apology might be offered to him because, by reason of the negligence of his Department, he had been put into this situation, my hon. Friend sent me a letter in which he said that the inspecting officer, having looked at the tyres, said that they were considered to be safe for another thousand miles and the Territorial unit was given authority to get replacements before the old ones wore too low. In a later Press statement, much later, after this man had, in his indignation, written to the Queen, his Department authorised publication of a statement which said that the vehicle tyres were condemned as unroadworthy, examined and sentenced for replacement in anticipation, but at the time of the examination were still serviceable. Tyres that have to be condemned are not tyres that are fit for a thousand miles of travelling. In the event, this poor, miserable man had to take the lorry or lose his job and, within 15 or 20 miles, was involved in an accident which a police officer said in the course of his trial was largely due to the tyres that were grossly worn.

It was the clear duty of the Ministry of Defence to obtain that statement of the case and look at what was said. There were people present in the court that day, though not sent from my hon. Friend's Department, who could have and probably did report back that this man had said that his tyres were worn and that he was under an obligation to drive the lorry.

In his first letter to me, my hon. Friend said that Mr. Anderson did not tell his unit or my hon. Friend's Department of this accident until after the hearing. The recorded delivery letter gives the lie to that. That letter should exist in the Ministry's files, because its recorded, delivery exists in the Post Office to this day. Why, then, was my hon. Friend satisfied to send me this reply, which in almost every respect was untrue?

The Ministry of Defence should have taken the trouble to find out what the position was from the letter which undoubtedly it received, but this man had no one from the Department in court to give evidence. It is manifest that, if the lorry was examined after being brought from Warrington to Liverpool, it must have been done because the man complained about its condition. But so cursory, apparently, was the examination that the examiner, for whom my hon. Friend expressed some praise in his letter, did not bother to examine the lorry's mechanical condition. He said that he was only asked to examine the tyres, and did not think to look at the vehicle's mechanical condition.

Someone from the Department should have been in court to give a report on the condemnation of the tyres and the mechanical condition, which might have assisted this man to preserve his good record.

In the event, he wanted to appeal and to subpoena someone from my hon. Friend's Department to give the kind of evidence which he thought might clear his name. It might not have done, of course, but whether he was properly convicted is irrelevant to the fact that he was anxious to clear himself of careless driving. He wanted to subpoena the kind of evidence which should have come from the Department in the first instance. However, he was too poor to do that. The appeal has gone by default, and we understand that the papers have been destroyed.

My object in raising this subject tonight is twofold. It is to give publicity to what I regard as the wholly improper covering up of matters for reasons which reflect no credit upon the Ministry of Defence when it is dealing with someone who, by its standards, I suppose, is unimportant. It is also because I think that, even at this late date, the Ministry ought to make some acknowledgment of the sense of protest that this man has felt—this sense of burning injustice. The Ministry can do nothing for him after this long time, but it can come from behind its cover and express some regret for the way in which it has treated him and in that way, if in no other, make some recompense.

I hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies, will not repeat the kind of things that he has put in the letters that he has written to me. They have wholly missed the point. In the illustrations that I have given, it is perfectly clear that he has either been misled or that he has not really looked at all the papers in the case, because some of the things that he told me were, frankly, untrue.

For these reasons, I share some of the indignation that this man feels, and I hope that the Minister tonight will make such recompense as is within his power.

11.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Boyden Mr James Boyden , Bishop Auckland

I will clear up three points at once. First, no letters go out from the Department over my signature without my personal attention. Secondly, I have given this matter considerable personal attention and made full inquiry. Thirdly, nobody in the Department is unimportant in my eyes, whether he be a humble driver, a humble private or a general.

This case, as my hon. and learned Friend has indicated, is now three years' old and it has entailed a correspondence not only with the Ministry of Defence and myself, but with Her Majesty, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the Minister of Transport. I very much regret that, notwithstanding all this, Mr. Anderson still feels himself aggrieved and to have been unjustly treated. I do not as I have made clear to my hon. and learned Friend a number of times, believe his constituent is justified in so feeling, and if this debate now serves in any way to help clear up misunderstandings and allay suspicions, then it will have served a valuable purpose.

In March, 1966, Mr. Anderson was employed by the Territorial Army as a civilian driver with 436 Light Air Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery, of the Territorial Army at Warrington. On 10th March he was instructed to take a unit vehicle to 42 Command Workshops R.E.M.E. at Deysbrook for a tyre inspection. This was done. The inspector, who had 14 years' experience and was a very valued member of the Department, considered that the tyres were fit for another 1,000 miles driving, but that during the period arrangements should be made for replacements to be provided.

On the way back to his unit, Mr. Anderson had an accident in which two civilian vehicles were involved. The police charged him with driving without due care and attention, and, as my hon. Friend says, Mr. Anderson was fined £10 and his licence was endosed at a court hearing on 18th July that year.

Mr. Anderson criticises the Ministry of Defence on four counts. First, that the accident was attributable to the state of the tyres, yet he was punished for it. Secondly, that the charge against him was so framed as to divert attention from the real cause of the accident—the state of the vehicle and the Ministry's responsibility for it—to his own driving. Thirdly, that during the proceedings there was no representative of his unit in court with him and he was provided by the Department with no legal defence. Fourthly, that, after conviction, the Army Department both re-employed him and accepted liability for the third party claims arising out of the accident, thereby tacitly acknowledging its responsibility for the accident in the first instance.

As my hon. Friend may well expect, I do not accept the substance of these charges. First, the condition of the tyres. It is the normal practice for an Army vehicle to have its tyres inspected before they reach a point at which they are no longer lit to be used. The object of this is to ensure that a vehicle does not stand idle while replacement tyres are being ordered and delivered, and that, instead, this provisioning action takes place during the final phase of the tyres' useful life. It was precisely for this purpose that Mr. Anderson's vehicle was sent to Deysbrook in March, 1966. At the inspection the technical inspector judged, from the remaining tread on the tyres, that there was a further 1,000 miles safe use, but that provisioning for replacements should be put in train. That was done. There was therefore no question whatever of the tyres being "condemned", an expression Mr. Anderson has used about the results of this inspection. There was nothing wrong in his being required to drive the vehicle back from the inspection to his unit.

After the accident there was no mention of the state of the tyres, either in the chief constable's report of the accident, or, indeed, in the written reports that Mr. Anderson and his passenger made immediately after the accident. Surely there would have been such a reference if the tyres were indeed the main factor in the accident?

No appeal was lodged against the court conviction, and my hon. and learned Friend knows that in these cases the court proceedings are destroyed, so this was normal, and therefore there is nothing available for us to check with regard to the court proceedings. I have had inquiries made where I could of all the witnesses, where available, and one of the two witnesses who Mr. Anderson himself called on his behalf stated in court that he was questioned about the tyres, and said that they were fit for use, although due for replacement under the procedure I have already described.

I have no reason whatever to doubt the technical inspector's competence to assess the state of the tyres. Having made the assessment that he did, it follows that it was entirely right for Mr. Anderson to be required to return with his vehicle to the unit.

As to the second point, the nature of the charge preferred against him, it is entirely a matter for the chief constable to decide—and I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend knows this—whether to institute proceedings in a particular case, and if so the nature of the charge. There is no question of different treatment being accorded to Army drivers in cases of this sort. Section 3 of the 1960 Road Traffic Act, under which Mr. Anderson was charged, applies to all persons and vehicles in the public service of the Crown, whether they be Army drivers—military or civilian—or private citizens. There is no question whatever of the Ministry of Defence or anybody else trying to influence the police in the nature of the charge preferred, nor of the police being open to any influence of this kind.

Mr. Anderson's third point refers to unit representation at the proceedings, and to his defence. As my hon. and learned Friend knows, Mr. Anderson had resigned from his employment with the unit before the court proceedings took place. Further, we have been able to find no evidence that he formally notified the unit of the time and place of those proceedings. My hon. and learned Friend says that there is a recorded delivery certificate, but it looks to me as though this would have arrived after Mr. Anderson had left the employment of the T.A.

However, it is true that when Mr. Anderson knew that proceedings were to be instituted he wrote to two members of the unit asking them to attend as witnesses, but we know that he did this directly, and not through the unit. Mr. Anderson also claimed that the unit R.S.M. was aware of the position. We have been able to get in touch with the unit R.S.M., and, while he remembers Mr. Anderson, he does not recall the latter telling him anything about an impending trial.

That, however, does not substantially affect the question of legal defence. The position about legal defence is that it is not, as Mr. Anderson may have supposed, automatically provided when a Crown servant is charged with an offence under the Road Traffic Act. The Claims Commission of the Ministry of Defence takes its decision on the merits of the case. In this instance, by the time the case against Mr. Anderson was heard it was clear that the two civilian vehicles involved could be regarded as in no way responsible for the accident, and that the Ministry of Defence therefore would have to accept liability for civil claims arising out of it. From the Commission's point of view, therefore, there would have been no justification for spending public money on a defence where the other two parties involved were so clearly free from blame. In normal circumstances the Commission's decision not to provide a legal defence is notified to the person concerned, and it is also normal for the Commission, if it hears of proceedings pending from the police, as in this case, to notify the unit concerned.

In this instance neither of these things was done, for which I apologise. This was an administrative error which only recently came to light as a result of my investigations. However, that does not affect the situation that the Claims Commission would not have provided legal defence in this case.

Finally there is the question of the Department's apparent acceptance of responsibility in that it accepted claims arising out of the accident, and subsequently re-employed Mr. Anderson. There is nothing unusual in that. The fact that a potential employee may have had a traffic accident is not of itself grounds for refusing employment. As to the Department accepting civil claims, we had no choice; there was no doubt that the other two parties were in no way to blame. In cases like this, as my hon. and learned Friend knows, the Department is responsible for the torts committed by its servants, in exactly the same way as any other employer. But paying the civil claims in no way implies that the Department is directly to blame for the actual accident and that Mr. Anderson is not responsible.

Finally, Mr. Anderson has said that the vehicle was not used after the accident, so implying that the Department acknowledged that the tyres were responsible. Nothing of the sort is involved. Where a vehicle is in an accident, in which civilian vehicles are involved, as this one was, it is mandatory for the Army vehicle to be inspected by a competent R.E.M.E. engineer to assess the damage. For this reason it is normal practice for the vehicle not to be used on the road until this assessment has been made.

It is also normal practice after any accident involving damage to a vehicle, where it is suspected that damage arising from the accident renders it unfit, for the vehicle not to be used on the road until it has been inspected by a competent R.E.M.E. engineer.

Photo of Mr Thomas Williams Mr Thomas Williams , Warrington

May I ask one question? Is it not the fact that before that vehicle was put back on the road, all its tyres were replaced, or certainly before it had done another 100 miles?

Photo of Mr James Boyden Mr James Boyden , Bishop Auckland

That I shall have to check.

I turn now to matters which concerned my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I understand that in recent correspondence Mr. Anderson asked for his case to be re-tried and asked for legal aid. He also complained that a letter he had sent to the clerk to the justices asking for legal aid to enable him to appeal against his conviction was ignored; and that a letter he had sent to the police before the hearing of his case was not answered.

On the first point, the constitutional position is that it was for the court to decide on the evidence before it, whether or not the charge against Mr. Anderson was proved, and there is no power to order a re-trial of his case. The legal remedy open to anyone who is dissatisfied with a court's decision is to appeal to a superior court; in this case to quarter sessions, and a person who has insufficient means to do so may apply to the court for legal aid. Notice of appeal should normally be given within 14 days of the date of conviction, but it may be given later by leave of quarter sessions. This, however, is entirely a matter for Mr. Anderson to decide.

On the second point, the court records show that a letter was received from Mr. Anderson on 26th or 27th July, 1966, but the clerk to the justices is unable to say what the contents of this letter were or what reply was sent to it. It seems likely that the letter from Mr. Anderson was a request for further time in which to pay his fine because the court records show that he continued to pay his fine by instalments beyond the 14 days that he was originally allowed by the court. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that there are no grounds which could justify him taking the matter further.

The police have no record of receiving any correspondence from Mr. Anderson following his accident, but a certificate of posting produced by Mr. Anderson has enabled them to confirm that a letter from Mr. Anderson was delivered to them on 21st March, 1966 and signed for by a police officer. Unfortunately, they have been unable to trace this letter. They have, however, obtained a copy of a letter that Mr. Anderson wrote to the clerk to the justices on 4th July, 1966, in which he quotes the text of a letter that he wrote to the police on 19th March, 1966—that is to say, apparently the letter received by the police on 21st March, 1966. In that letter Mr. Anderson asked for the hearing of his case to be adjourned to enable him to prepare a defence, and said that there were disturbing features which he would have to raise in court.

The chief constable, now having seen a copy of the letter, is of the opinion that there is nothing in it that would have affected the decision to prosecute. Responsibility for the investigation of complaints against the police rests entirely with the chief officer of police concerned, in this case, the Chief Constable of Lancashire. He has had inquiries made into Mr. Anderson's complaint, but has decided to take no action on it. I hope that this will allay Mr. Anderson's sense of grievance. If he still feels aggrieved about his trial, he can still apply to quarter sessions for leave to appeal. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend could give him good advice on that issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.