Charles Stuart

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 10 February 2009.

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Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West 9:35, 10 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.