HC Deb 14 December 1956 vol 562 cc893-900

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

4.0 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I wish to take advantage of the privilege which hon. Members have on the Adjournment of the House to draw attention to the dramatic and tragic story of the death of Brian Hodgkinson. I put a Question to the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty on this subject on 14th November. I was not satisfied with his reply, and I asked leave to raise the matter on the Adjournment, as I am now doing.

When he left school at 14½ years of age, Brian Hodgkinson had one passion; it was to go to sea and become a sailor. His mother endeavoured to dissuade him. But he was so strong in his desire to become a sailor that at last she gave way, and he joined the Navy. He went in the destroyer, "Zest". As soon as he went to sea, Brian Hodgkinson had the most violent seasickness. He thought that quite a normal occurrence to those who went first to sea. But the seasickness persisted so continually that in April he was transferred to the Royal Navy sick quarters at Eglinton. He was kept under observation there for a fortnight. He had a pain in the lower part of his abdomen, and the surgeons decided to operate. But when they had opened up his body they came to the conclusion that there was no need to remove the appendix.

While he was ill, Brian Hodgkinson asked permission to be discharged from the Navy, owing to the fact that he was sick whenever he was upon water. It is true that in his application for discharge he did not mention the continuous and violent seasickness. He was rather shy about it. As can easily be understood, being a boy of 16, he thought it might be considered rather "sissy" to complain on those grounds; and so he asked for his discharge because of his mother's need of him. Undoubtedly there was that need. She was living alone and had to go out all day to work. There was an examination of the case by the welfare officer, who came to the conclusion that though there was a need, there were other cases where the need was still greater and where discharge had been refused; and so the discharge was refused in his case.

The boy returned to full duty on 18th August. I recognise that the naval authorities placed him aboard a large and steady ship, H.M.S. "Maidstone," a vessel of 12,000 tons displacement, where it would be unlikely that a rough sea would cause seasickness. Nevertheless despite the fact that there was very little movement of water, the seasickness still persisted and on 4th September he was again placed in the sick bay for two days. H.M.S. "Maidstone" then went to sea. The official report says that there was little movement on the ship, and the ship's log showed that at no time did the height of the waves exceed six feet; yet the boy was still continuously and violently sick.

He came home on weekend leave on 7th September. On his way back to report for duty on the Sunday night he collapsed in the street. He was picked up and taken to Upton Hospital at Slough, in my constituency; the boy's mother lives in my constituency. He was taken home to the mother by ambulance on the Monday morning. On 19th September he was certified, by his doctor and by an agent of the Navy, as fit to travel. He reported at the barracks, was medically examined and found fit for duty.

He returned to H.M.S. "Maidstone" and again the sickness persisted violently and continually. Under the mental and physical strain of this condition, he absented himself from the Royal Navy on 1st October. On 11th October he was apprehended, and on 12th October he was escorted back to H.M.S. "Maidstone," charged with desertion and placed in the cells. He was in the punishment cells for two days. At four o'clock in the morning of the third day he complained of abdominal pains. Later in the morning his condition became worse. He had now had renewed attacks of sickness, and at ten o'clock he was transferred to the sick bay and examined by the medical officer.

The next day he was transferred to the naval hospital at Portland, where his condition showed further rapid deterioration. At 4.15 in the afternoon he died. The facts are that he was taken back into the Navy on 11th October, placed in the punishment cells for desertion arising from the experiences which I have described, he was kept there for three days, later he was removed and he died the same afternoon. I do not think that the accuracy of that statement will be denied.

I wish to ask for two things. I ask that there should be an inquiry into how it came about that there was not an earlier diagnosis of this boy's condition. The post-mortem examination showed that he had been suffering from intestinal obstruction due to adhesions in the small intestine, and that the sickness from which he had been continually suffering was not due to the normal causes arising from being at sea but was due to this abdominal trouble. Yet all that time passed and on one occasion his stomach was opened up.

There was no diagnosis of what was actually wrong with him, and he suffered this continued physical and mental distress which led him ultimately to absent himself from the Navy. He is arrested, put into punishment cells and dies three days later. I ask that there should be an examination of the method of diagnosis in cases of this kind. We cannot bring the boy to life, but we can be concerned to ensure that other boys shall not pass through this experience.

The second thing I ask very sincerely is that, in view of all these circumstances, his mother shall be given at least an ex gratia payment. There can be little doubt that the boy suffered from a physical defect which was not diagnosed, and which led to an assumption that he was merely undergoing the normal seasickness. That led to him absenting himself, under distress, and to all the other consequences. Though an ex gratia payment can be of little value to a mother for the loss of her boy, it would at least be a gesture, by the Royal Navy, of the sympathy with her in these hard circumstances, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that appeal.

4.12 p.m.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. George Ward)

I would start by expressing my appreciation of the very reasonable and restrained way in which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) has put his case. There is very little in the history of the case as he recounted it to the House with which I want to disagree. Therefore, I will not weary the House with too much repetition of it. I would add one or two points for clarification rather than to contradict the hon. Member.

The first ship which Hodgkinson joined, H.M.S. "Zest" which, for the sake of accuracy is a frigate converted from a destroyed, he served in for only 19 days, very little of which was spent at sea. During his service in this ship two single-day trips were made in southern waters and a two-day passage was made from Portsmouth to Londonderry. The first report of his seasickness occurs on 8th May, after which he was put on light duty. The next report is on 12th May, after he had arrived at Londonderry and after, admittedly, a very rough passage. He had been very sick during the passage. As the hon. Gentleman was fair enough to point out, it is by no means unusual for young ratings to be seasick on their first passage, so a serious view need not have been taken of this matter.

However, his seasickness during the passage to Londonderry was coupled with abdominal pain, so he was put in the sick quarters and thoroughly examined. It was decided to examine his appendix, but the surgeon decided not to remove it. Hodgkinson made a satisfactory recovery and was then reexamined at Haslar Hospital for a period of eight days before being found fit for duty.

The first point I want to get straight is that the hon. Member said that Hodgkinson had applied for discharge at this time. We can find no trace of any application from him for discharge from the Navy.

Mr. Brockway

I have evidence that the welfare officer came to see his mother as the result of the application, that he investigated the case, and made a report.

Mr. Ward

We have tried to find trace of it in the Admiralty, but without success. I am not going to pursue that matter beyond saying that there is no trace of it in the Admiralty.

As the hon. Member said, he was drafted next to H.M.S. "Maidstone" in which he did only four days at sea, for the first two of which he was seasick, but by the fourth day he was reported as being well. On 10th September, while on leave, he reported sick to a civilian doctor, complaining of abdominal trouble. He remained sick on leave until 19th September. He was seen then by another civilian doctor—a local surgeon and agent—and certified fit to travel. He got back and was examined again at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, found fit for duty, and returned to the "Maidstone". The ship remained at Portland for the rest of the period that Hodgkinson was on board.

We come to the next period, in which the hon. Member said that Hodgkinson was continually suffering from seasickness, but on 22nd September, H.M.S. "Maidstone" records that Hodgkinson was told that if he suffered from seasickness he should report to the sick bay. There is no notification in the records that he did so. It has to be assumed either that he had no further sickness, or that he did not report it. As we know, on 1st October he went absent without leave, was arrested at Slough, and put under close arrest on Friday, 12th October.

It is important to follow carefully the next sequence of events. In H.M.S. "Maidstone", Hodgkinson was seen in the cells by the duty lieutenant commander the night of Friday, 12th October, by the duty regulating petty officer on the morning of 13th October, and by the divisional officer on the morning of 13th October, and again by the duty lieutenant commander on the night of 13th October. None of them reported anything amiss. His first attack was at 4 o'clock on Sunday morning, 14th October, when he complained to the duty sick bay attendant of abdominal pain. He examined Hodgkinson, noted that he had no nausea or vomitting and that his pulse and temperature were normal. He was given a dose of sedative medicine. By 9 o'clock his pain was slightly worse and he was transferred to the sick bay and examined by a medical officer.

The medical officer recorded the results of that examination. It did not then give rise to serious concern. Hodgkinson was placed on the sick list and kept in the sick bay for further observation. However, as we know, his condition suddenly deteriorated on the following morning and he was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital, at Portland. His condition made immediate surgery inadvisable, but everything possible was done to prepare him for operation later. Unfortunately, he did not rally, but died the same day.

There are three questions, I think, with which the House would wish me to deal in particular. First, was the boy's health endangered by sending him to sea in spite of his liability to sickness? Secondly, was the medical attention he was given adequate, or was there any question of negligence? Thirdly, was his health endangered by being put in cells?

On the first point, the normal treatment of a rating subject to seasickness is to draft him to a larger ship and, if the seasickness persists and the only alternative is permanent shore service, to consider invaliding him out of the service altogether. The Admiralty takes a perfectly reasonable line with seasickness cases, but in this case it would hardly apply, because the boy's seagoing experience was so brief, and an early opportunity was taken to send him to sick quarters ashore for a thorough investigation. I think I can deny with confidence any charge that the boy was subjected to an unreasonable degree of seagoing service.

Mr. Brockway

I should have thought the fact that the sickness continued when he was not at sea—even when he was in harbour—was an indication that there was something more fundamentally wrong with him than normal seasickness.

Mr. Ward

I quite agree, but we must remember that it was precisely because the seasickness was accompanied by abdominal pain that he was examined at Eglinton and even operated upon. We gave him every possible attention. There was no delay in getting him to the sick quarters; all his symptoms were carefully investigated there; he had thorough attention; ample time was allowed for his recovery, and he was certified fit for duty only after being re-examined at Haslar Hospital. I do not think that up to this point we can possibly be accused of any lack of attention.

On board H.M.S. "Maidstone", after his arrest in Slough on 12th October, neither on that day nor on Saturday, 13th did he show any symptoms of illness while in the cells, and in the early hours of Sunday morning, when he first complained of pain, he was promptly visited by a sick berth attendant and transferred to the sick bay for medical examination shortly afterwards. He remained in the sick bay under observation until a sudden deterioration made it necessary to bring him ashore to hospital. I do not feel that he could possibly have had medical attention much more promptly or carefully given.

I have discussed this matter with medical people at the Admiralty and I am assured that this complaint is by no means easy to diagnose. I am prepared to accept that in view of the fact that this boy was examined not only by Service doctors, but by at least two civilian doctors, none of whom correctly diagnosed the complaint. It is quite clear that it is not easy to diagnose, and that it boils up very quickly when it becomes critical.

Finally, should he have been put into the cells? It is at the discretion of the captain and those to whom his authority is delegated to determine whether a man awaiting trial shall be placed under open or close arrest. It is also important to make a distinction, which I aim sorry the hon. Member did not make, probably because he did not know the true facts. Hodgkinson had not been sentenced to punishment in the cells, and was not, therefore, subject to the ordinary punishment routine, which includes restrictive diet and a daily task.

Mr. Brockway

I did not mean to suggest that. I have gone through the experience myself. I know it.

Mr. Ward

He was not doing punishment in the cells; he was there under close arrest. Men awaiting trial are placed in close custody mainly to avoid involving themselves in more serious trouble by getting ashore—which is not difficult if a man is left at liberty—and it also ensures that they are under fairly constant inspection. I think that the officers concerned acted reasonably in the circumstances, and certainly within their authority.

There remains the question of the ex gratia payment. I am afraid that there can be no question of the Admiralty making an ex gratia payment. We do not admit that we are in any way liable for the boy's death. It is, of course, open to his mother to apply to the Ministry of Pensions for a pension, but the Ministry would have to decide whether the boy's death was attributable to his service. They would also have to be guided by the regulations which specify that parents must show a degree of dependence and pecuniary need. I could not, of course, anticipate what the Ministry of Pensions would decide or would be likely to decide in this case.

Before I finish, I want once again to express my sincere sympathy with the boy's mother and other relatives in their sad loss. I hope that as a result of this debate, they will put their minds at rest that everything possible was done for the boy by those responsible for his wellbeing.

Mr. Brockway

Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision not to make even an ex gratia payment? Surely there is enough element of doubt in the case which I have submitted to him, without the Admiralty having to accept responsibility for the boy's death, at least to show sympathy by making an ex gratia payment.

Mr. Ward

I assure the hon. Member that I have every possible sympathy for the relatives, but I am advised that it is not possible to make an ex gratia payment without accepting liability. I think and hope that I have made it clear this afternoon that the Navy was in no way liable for this boy's death.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.