Charles Stuart

– in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 10th February 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Blizzard.)

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Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West 9:35 pm, 10th February 2009

I wish to speak about the appalling way in which the Ministry of Defence has treated my constituent, Mr. Charles Stuart. The nub of my argument is that not only has he been treated very shabbily, but he has been refused the right of a hearing before the Air Force Board.

Charles Stuart had an accident on duty in November 1991 at RAF Belize, when a falling heavy oil drum struck his head, injuring his neck. He was following instructions from his sergeant. At the time, Mr. Stuart was a 30-year-old senior aircraftsman, loyally serving his country abroad in the Royal Air Force in Belize. Ever since, he has struggled to get accountability from the service for the systematic neglect of his neck injury.

Immediately following the Belize accident, the RAF failed to get Mr. Stuart proper medical attention or a doctor, even though he had reported sick. The accident was not subject to an investigation by a unit inquiry, despite having been entered in the section's accident book and his sergeant having full knowledge of the incident. A week later, Mr. Stuart flew back to the UK without having received the quality of care that he deserved.

In early 1992, upon arrival at his next unit, RAF North Luffenham in Leicestershire, Mr. Stuart reported sick and complained bitterly of constant neck pain and headaches. The station medical officer cynically belittled his genuine symptoms as being a mind problem. RAF doctors prescribed tranquillisers and beta-blockers and compelled a sick man to do manual work for several months against his wishes, exacerbating his injury. His line managers labelled him a malingerer and refused him a second opinion at a local hospital.

After six months of apparent medical laxity by RAF doctors, Mr. Stuart decided, with the support of his father, to complain to his commanding officer about the mistreatment of his health and well-being by his commanders. At the resulting interview, he asked his commanding officer to arrange an MRI scan of his neck, which should have been normal medical protocol. He warned his commanding officer that if such a scan was not approved, his father would report his ordeal to a newspaper. Lo and behold, the commanding officer advised Mr. Stuart not to go outside the service.

The results of the MRI scan in August 1992 showed an abnormality—a prolapsed disc in Mr. Stuart's cervical spine. Only then was he properly medically protected by being fitted with a neck collar and advised not to do any heavy lifting and to avoid strenuous exercise. Soon after the diagnosis, he instructed a London solicitor to make a claim against the Ministry of Defence for damages for employer's negligence. His civil action was eventually successful, being concluded in 2005 after an 11-year battle.

Meanwhile, nearly two years after being messed about by RAF doctors, Mr. Stuart was referred to a civilian spinal expert in 1994. The neurosurgeon stated that the prolapsed disc was the reason for his suffering and offered him surgery to remove the damaged disc and fuse his spine, in an attempt to alleviate his painful symptoms. The operation was given only a 30 per cent. chance of success, owing to the RAF's delay in both diagnosis and correct treatment.

Unfortunately for my constituent, the surgery was not successful and Mr. Stuart was invalided out of the RAF in the summer of 1995 after 10 years' loyal service. His conduct was assessed as exemplary. He is now assessed by the Veterans Agency as 70 per cent. disabled and unfit to work. The woeful neglect that he experienced and the whole unhappy situation reduced his trust in the service, and he submitted a redress of complaint in accordance with Queen's Regulation 1001 before leaving the service in 1995. It is important to note that, at about the same time, the Ministry of Defence admitted liability for his Belize accident. Mr. Stuart's complaint implicates two commanding officers and, ironically, Dr. Tony Batchelor, the current commandant of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Selly Oak hospital—which treats injured soldiers returning from Iraq—for breaches of health and safety law and statutory RAF regulations, and asks for steps to be taken to ensure that the same does not happen to other servicemen.

Officers assigned to handle the complaint never properly investigated those serious allegations, and no evidence was provided to show that doctors and witnesses were ever interviewed. Mr. Stuart therefore exercised his right to have his case put before the Air Force Board and stated his grounds for doing that. What concerns me is that, having presented his case and stating clearly the precise redress that he sought, Mr. Stuart's redress of complaint was unfairly closed by the RAF after six months, without being presented to the Air Force Board. He believes that that is not permissible within the regulations. The Royal British Legion and I support him in that belief.

Having been so advised, Mr. Stuart carefully read Queen's Regulation 1001 and its guidelines, and, according to his understanding, the MOD was wrong in closing his case and may have contravened his human rights by not allowing him a fair hearing. That is why Mr. Stuart sought my help some two years ago, when I first contacted the then veterans Minister about the sad affair. I asked my right hon. Friend Mr. Touhig to clarify whether Mr Stuart's complaint was closed in accordance with Queen's Regulation 1001. He confirmed that the regulation does not specifically set out the circumstances in which a complaint becomes closed and said:

"This aspect of the process is governed by the concept of what is reasonable on the part of both the Ministry of Defence and the complainant."

If that is to be believed, I remind the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, and the Ministry of Defence that my constituent has never agreed to his complaint being closed—he has never believed that that was reasonable—and that he has been penalised by the MOD for correctly following the regulation and its guidelines, as listed in Air Publication 3392.

In the meantime, I sent my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn all the documents that Mr. Stuart kept from his 1995 complaint, so that officials could review matters. Unfortunately, in Mr. Stuart's view and mine, the review appears biased and wrongly criticises Mr. Stuart for not presenting his case, which he had already done. Ministry officials also failed to notice that Mr. Stuart had responded correctly to the advice of the senior investigating officer, Group Captain Baker, in not accepting the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief's ruling, and chose to take all aspects of his complaint to the Air Force Board for final decision.

My right hon. Friend also ignored Mr. Stuart's requests for a fresh investigation by the RAF. As a result of that unfair review, we decided in May 2006 to present a case to the parliamentary ombudsman. Unfortunately, the ombudsman could not investigate Mr. Stuart's case because the ombudsman is prohibited from examining public service personnel matters.

In November 2006, my hon. Friend Derek Twigg was appointed the new veterans Minister. I contacted him and requested another review because I felt that the previous one had been inadequate. I also wanted him to ensure that officers who had been responsible for my constituent's condition were made accountable for their mistakes. My hon. Friend replied by saying that he was content that full responses were given by his predecessor and that it was the correct decision to close Mr. Stuart's case in 1995 without presenting it to the Air Force Board. I have pressed the MoD twice more this year to reconsider the compelling evidence of this case, and I have been disappointed.

It is clear that something went seriously wrong with the duty of care by RAF staff for Mr. Stuart's spinal injury. It is also disturbing that, having won his personal injury claim, which demonstrates serious breaches of the duty of care, the MOD is still not committed to accountability, and refuses to open the case and give Mr. Stuart his right to a hearing by the Air Force Board.

I have no doubt that a culture of defiance and resistance existed—and probably exists now—in the RAF hierarchy, and it still appears to be rife at the MOD today. In all honesty, this contempt for injured servicemen, which is something that the Royal British Legion has recently been exposing, needs stamping out. Last week Mr. Stuart spoke to a senior British Legion pensions officer, who advised him that the resolution to his 1995 RAF redress of complaint under Queen's Regulation 1001 was still running, because the MOD cannot close his complaint without his permission. In any case, he had already chosen to refer his complaint upwards to the Air Force Board, which was his right. It is time that Mr. Stuart, my constituent, received justice.

Finally, Mr. Stuart's case strengthens the case for an independent veterans ombudsman, which is what they have in Canada. Canada has an impartial, arm's length and independent veterans ombudsman who has the responsibility to assist veterans in pursuing their concerns and to advance their issues. We have a responsibility to our veterans, and a veterans ombudsman here would be an important step forward. My constituent deserves justice. He has been treated in a shabby and appalling manner. He is a veteran. We have a wider duty of care towards those men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line for this country.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 9:46 pm, 10th February 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Singh on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity that it affords me to update the House on Mr. Stuart's case, which is some 18 years old and has, over that time, been the subject of extensive correspondence between my ministerial predecessors, and my hon. Friend and his predecessors, as Mr. Stuart's constituency MP. Owing to the passage of time, much of the paperwork is no longer retained, but I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that the limited information available shows evidence of a detailed investigation undertaken by my predecessors into all aspects of the case.

It might be helpful to recap the Ministry of Defence's understanding of Mr. Stuart's complaint. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Mr. Stuart sustained an injury to his neck and shoulder while serving at RAF Belize in November 1991. He subsequently reported sick in January 1992, upon which a full investigation was undertaken by the medical authorities and Mr. Stuart was put on what are referred to as "light duties". As my hon. Friend mentioned, he then took legal action against the Department concerning the injury and, after exhaustive investigations, accepted a full and final settlement in 2004.

However, in addition to his legal claim, Mr. Stuart contacted his then Member of Parliament, the then Member for Workington, now the noble Lord Campbell-Savours, to raise a number of complaints about the treatment that he had received for his injuries while in the RAF and about the decision not to extend his RAF service. Mr. Stuart's concerns about his medical treatment were addressed by the right hon. Viscount Cranborne, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, in his letters of 28 September 1993 and 21 February 1994 to Lord Campbell-Savours. Viscount Cranborne confirmed that there was no evidence that the medical staff who had been responsible for Mr. Stuart's health had been in any way negligent. On the contrary, it was clear that all the organic causes of his symptoms had been fully investigated.

It was apparent that Mr. Stuart's complaint had been taken seriously at all times, with every effort being made to assist him. He was treated by a physiotherapist and saw a physician, an orthopaedic specialist and a neurologist at regular intervals. Viscount Cranborne concluded that his complaints had been taken seriously at all times. Mr. Stuart continued to receive medical attention until his discharge on invalidity grounds in July 1995.

As to Mr. Stuart's specific complaint against his physiotherapist in November 1994, the then Minister for Defence Procurement confirmed that the RAF director general medical services had personally reviewed Mr. Stuart's treatment and confirmed that there was no case to support the accusation of medical negligence against the physiotherapist.

Mr. Stuart has also raised the issue of the extension of his service. He complained that although an extension of service by three years was offered to him in July 1992, which he accepted, it was subsequently withdrawn when the results of medical tests became available. Viscount Cranborne, in his letter of 28 September 1993, informed Lord Campbell-Savours that individuals can be offered extensions of service subject to continued eligibility and suitability for service. Eligibility and suitability must be confirmed by the individual's superiors and by medical staff before the offer is formally made to the individual. In Mr. Stuart's case, it was known that he was awaiting an appointment with a specialist at the time of the offer. I understand that Mr. Stuart contended that, since he had not at that stage been medically downgraded, the unit medical staff should have approved his extension of service. In fact, given that the unit medical staff were aware that he was awaiting further medical tests, it would have been a breach of regulations for them to have endorsed Mr. Stuart as fit for further service before the outcome of those medical tests. The case was therefore returned to the RAF personnel manning authority to await the outcome of those medical tests.

The RAF authorities considered Mr. Stuart's request to be allowed to extend his service very carefully. Occasionally, personnel are granted a short period of extra service to enable them to regain an acceptable level of medical fitness to re-engage. However, following his medical tests, the medical staff advised that is was very unlikely that Mr. Stuart would regain the necessary level of medical fitness to enable him to be re-engaged in the RAF.

On the issue of medical negligence, to which my hon. Friend has referred, Mr. Stuart initiated a claim against the Ministry of Defence in May 1993 in respect of the personal injuries he had sustained in Belize. That action took quite a long time to reach its conclusion, but it was settled in August 2004, when Mr. Stuart accepted an offer in full and final settlement of his claim against the Ministry of Defence. The conditions of that settlement precluded him from making any further claims against the Ministry of Defence in relation to the incident, or from pursuing any other course of action to obtain financial compensation. Having reviewed the file, it is clear that he accepted that offer in full and final settlement of any future claims against the Ministry of Defence.

My hon. Friend has referred to the issue that is perhaps now at the heart of Mr. Stuart's case—namely, the redress of his complaint—and I should like to touch on that now. During the period 1993 to 1997, Mr. Stuart raised three redress of complaints procedures, in accordance with Queen's Regulation 1001. While there is little documentary evidence remaining about the level of investigations that took place, it is evident that a large amount of ministerial time was spent reviewing Mr. Stuart's case with RAF staff to ensure that a full, open and detailed explanation could be given in response to his inquiries. That is supported in the documentation that my predecessors have written in response to the large number of inquiries they received.

Limited information is available about the investigation carried out in respect of the redress. I can therefore only refer my hon. Friend to the letter of my predecessor of 30 January 2006, which found that Mr. Stuart had been requested to provide further information in support of his redress of complaint to enable the investigation to take place. Unfortunately, despite a number of reminders, Mr. Stuart failed to provide the requested information and a decision was then taken to close the case. While there are no specific guidelines within Queen's Regulation 1001 regarding the closure of a case prior to submission to the Air Force Board, every reasonable course of action should be taken to ensure that all relevant information is available to enable the board to make a judgment on the case. Mr. Stuart had the option to request an extension to the deadline to enable him to provide the relevant information, but there is unfortunately nothing on the record to indicate that that was ever requested or that any further explanation was actually provided.

In conclusion, it has been nearly 14 years since Mr. Stuart was invalided from the Air Force. I would like to put on record my thanks to him, as to all former servicemen and women, for their service to this country. Limited papers are now available to enable a further investigation to take place. That said, having considered the exchanges of correspondence and the information that has been presented to my predecessors, I am assured that all the complaints have been thoroughly investigated and that Mr. Stuart has been treated fairly within the parameters of the Queen's Regulations. In light of the fact that Mr. Stuart has accepted compensation in a full and final settlement of his injuries, there is no real basis for reopening the case now.

In those circumstances and in the light of what has been said, and after looking at the case in detail today, I feel that there is really no way forward. I congratulate my hon. Friend again on securing this debate. I hope it is helpful to him if I say that if either he or Mr. Stuart has any further evidence that has not been presented so far, I would be willing to meet to discuss any such points and to see whether anything has been overlooked. I leave that option open to my hon. Friend; if he brings any more evidence forward, I will certainly meet him at his convenience.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

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