HC Deb 24 June 1920 vol 130 cc2537-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Lieut.-Colonel Sir R. Sanders.]

11.0 P.M.


At Question Time to-day I gave notice to the Minister of Pensions that I should raise, on the Motion for Adjournment tonight, the case of a soldier's widow who is on the verge of destitution and has been refused any subsistence allowance by the Ministry of Pensions. I am very sorry to have to raise this question, because, during the whole of the election campaign of 1918, in reply to every pensions question that was addressed to me, I begged of people concerned not to make the question of pensions for our soldiers and sailors a political question. I deprecated it in every way. I would not lend myself to bidding for votes or support on that head. But I am afraid I cannot help raising this question to-night. I have done everything I possibly could to induce the Ministry of Pensions to take an intelligent view of this matter. For more than six months I have been badgering the Ministry of Pensions to get some consideration for this poor woman, and I have laid in wait for every Pensions Minister and his private secretary that has come along, and, in the first instance, I have received sympathetic consideration from everyone.

On the outbreak of the War there was a man called Brighty, who was a very decent man, a locomotive fireman, and he had a wife and two little children and his wife's own brother dependent upon him. He joined up in 1914, I am told, and after a period of training in England was sent abroad, served five months at the front, and then was killed. His widow received a pension on account of the death of her husband and a subsistence allowance for her dependent children. About two years afterwards she married a soldier called Gallagher. He had been badly knocked about in the War and shot in the abdomen, and a few months after her marriage was discharged from the Army as being unfit for further military service. She was married on 22nd September, 1917. Gallagher was injured in April, 1917, and died, according to my information, in May, 1919, and according to the answer to my question to-day on 14th August, 1919. It is rather important because between May and October Mrs. Gallagher was drawing a satisfactory subsistence allowance from the local Ministry of Pensions, and in October that allowance was stopped. Gallagher was granted a pension of 11s. 3d. per week. This included an allowance for Mrs. Gallagher's child by her first husband, and when the child died the pension was reduced to 8s. 3d. per week. Gallagher died, and Mrs. Gallagher went to the Pensions Ministry and applied for a pension on account of the death of her second husband, and she was told eventually that no claim could be admitted because the wound from which he died was prior to his marriage with her. I believe the Pensions Ministry is up against that difficulty, but what becomes of the claim of the widow of Brighty? Cannot that woman revert to her original pension? If she had been the widow of an officer—officers' widows have very few privileges, and I do not want to cast any aspersion upon their privileges—she could have reverted to her former husband's pension, but being the widow of a private she is debarred from doing so because of the consideration which was paid to her on her second marriage, namely, a year's pension. This woman to-day is the widow of two soldiers. She has been twice widowed during the War, and she is now dependent on charity. She has been drawing charity from the Middlesbrough Guild of Help, and has received something over £60 pending a settlement of this case. That cannot go on, and the only alternative is for her to go to the Middlesbrough Board of Guardians for relief. There is not a Member of this House who did any recruiting work in August, 1914, but did not tell the people they were addressing, with the full sanction and assent of the Government, that if the men enlisted and they were killed their dependants would be provided for by the State. That was a definite promise made to them. Brighty lies in a soldier's grave in France. He was given a definite promise when he enlisted, and on his behalf and on behalf of my constituents I request and I require the Ministry of Pensions to look after his widow.


I can easily see that under the Royal Warrant, as it stands at present, there may not be power to give a pension to this woman in respect of her first husband, but I can see no reason why the Royal Warrant should not be altered. It undoubtedly operates very harshly in cases of this kind. In the cases of dependants, not of widows who had not previously been dependent upon a soldier, they are not granted a pension if they have adequate means of support, but if at some future time they are deprived of these adequate means of support, the pension is accorded to them. I think it is quite reasonable, as the Warrant lays down, that if the widow marries again she forfeits the pension so long as she is in a position in which she is dependent on someone else and has full maintenance, but if at some future time her second husband dies, and she is incapable of working herself, and is deprived of all means of support, she is in the same position as another dependant, and is entitled to the same consideration. There is no doubt that the position of destitution in which this woman is placed is not in the first place on account of her second husband, but on account of the death of her first husband, who was killed in the War. He might have been living yet to support his wife but for his voluntary service in the War. I do not think that the moral obligation of the State is completely brought to an end by the remarriage of the woman; the moral obligation arises again if she gets into a position of destitution. I hope the Government will consider the Amendment of the Warrant in this respect.


There is one obvious way of settling this difficulty, which reveals an enormous number of anomalies that happen under the Pensions Warrant. If the widow of an ordinary soldier remarries she gets a yearly gratuity, but does not revert to pension; if the widow of an officer remarries she gets no gratuity, but reverts to pension. Why in the name of common sense cannot the Pensions Warrant be altered so that in both cases they will get the marriage gratuity which is one year's pension, and if the husband dies revert to the pension? That is obvious common sense, and I cannot understand why it is not done.


I am very much obliged to the hon. Member who has brought this forward, and to the other two hon. Members who have spoken. I do not think that any of them will expect me to give a definite promise to alter the warrant on the strength of this short discussion, but there is matter in what they say, particularly in what the last hon. Member said in pointing out the difficulties, almost the danger of treating officers and men differently. It is by no means the case that the officers always get the best of it. When the widow of a private soldier marries again she gets a gratuity, and they all get the gratuity, so that every case is covered. In the case of officers nothing more is done for the widow on remarriage, except in the event of her again becoming a widow. So I hope that the House and the country will not go away with the impression that there is anything which is unfair to the men as compared with the officers. It is quite arguable that it is the other way. It is a somewhat difficult calculation to compare the grant in every case of a gratuity for a year with the distant possibility of the renewal of the pension after a considerable period. I will consider the arguments put forward, but, with regard to this particular case, I cannot say that the hon. Member opposite has chosen a very good case to put forward, because I think, in justice to the Ministry and to the House, he ought to have mentioned, as I did in my reply, that this particular widow is at this very moment appealing for a pension in respect of her second husband. Surely, he does not expect us to grant a pension in respect of the first husband, when the widow is, at this, moment, appealing in respect of the second husband. That pension will depend on two things—whether the injury or illness occurred after marriage and not before it, and also on the verdict of the appeal tribunal. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this forward, because the Ministry in justice to itself ought to have the opportunity of pointing out that the House of Commons decided that those cases of attributility and other cognate questions were not matters to leave simply to the Ministry of Pensions, but that there should be entirely independent tribunals appointed by the Lord Chancellor, which could over-rule the Ministry of Pensions and everybody. Therefore with regard to this particular widow, it is not fair to blame the Ministry of Pensions for the present position. Her case is at present sub-judice, and is going before the Appeal Tribunal.


I think that a mistake has arisen between the hon. and gallant Gentleman's answer to my question to-day and the letter which I have in my hand which says that at the present moment Mrs. Gallagher's appeal is not admissible at all, and therefore the decision may be taken as final and against her.


I know that letter. That is the case with regard to the wound, but the man did not die of the wound, and if the illness occurred after the marriage and was due to active service after the marriage she will get the pension. It is on that ground that the case is going forward. So far from our being unsympathetic, we have written urging, with a view to getting the matter settled, that it shall be taken at the earliest possible moment by the Appeal Tribunal. It is not fair to blame the Ministry of Pensions for a matter which the House of Commons has taken out of its jurisdiction.


Will the Minister of Pensions give instructions that this woman is to receive a subsistence allowance until her case is finally settled, so that she need not go to the Guardians for relief?


I will see what my powers are; I think that can be done.

Captain LOSEBY

I think the hon. Member for Middlesbrough has done a great service in calling attention to another of these ridiculous anomalies. I want to make a point that I have endeavoured to make before in this House. I wish it did not fall to have Members eternally to come forward and discover for the benefit of the Minister of Pensions anomalies that he ought to have discovered for himself. There are anomalies innumerable in this pensions business, and the soldiers have undoubtedly suffered from the fact that, although the Ministry of Pensions have redressed these anomalies when brought forward, nevertheless the Minister does wait and has waited over and over again, until they were actually forced upon his attention. The hon. Gentleman has made one other point in regard to which I have always felt very keenly. He states that when the House of Commons decided that the pensioner was to have a right of appeal to a Board independent of the Ministry, they then decided to overrule the Minister of Pensions. That is an attitude which was not adopted by this House but by the Ministry, in spite of many emphatic protests by many hon. Members of this House. It is true that the man has a right of appeal on his pension and that when he gets that pension awarded to him he has a statutory right; but even Appeal Boards make great and grievous mistakes, and the prerogative of the Minister still remains. It is perfectly true that he refuses to exercise that prerogative. He says, No; you appointed these Boards and you must stand by them." The House never gave an instruction to that extent. I have always felt very bitterly that this Minister, whom we have put up as the curator of the disabled man, whose function is to look after him and his grievances, should say, "No. I acknowledge this may be wrong, but you have decided and it is taken out of my hand." Nothing of the kind. This House has never decided that.


It is an Act of Parliament.

Captain LOSEBY

It is an Act of Parliament that a man has a right to appeal on a pension. But surely I am not wrong in saying that the prerogative of the Minister still remains, and if the Board decides that the pension shall be 20s. and the Minister in his wisdom says that is wrong, and he has a prerogative, and that the pension shall be 25s., he is able to do so. That is why he is there. The hon. Gentleman feels strongly on this point, that rights have been taken away from him. I hope he will look into the matter again. I have great confidence in the hon. Gentleman and in the Minister of Pensions, and if they will exercise that right, as the House wishes them to do, it will be conferring a great benefit on the disabled man.

Captain BOWYER

May I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary, not as a Member of Parliament, but as a man who only a short time ago was a company commander and went out with three different detachments, and served with these men, and now represents them in Parliament? My appeal is for a little bit of a human touch in these matters. In cases like that which has been brought forward there should at least be an allowance given in order to enable people to carry on until a decision is arrived at. That would be the human touch. If cases which I bring forward personally to the notice of the Minister are delayed, or if they fail, what is to happen to the ordinary case which does not come into and through the hands of a Member of Parliament to the Ministry? I am sure that what I have said will receive sympathetic attention. I attended quite recently a regional meeting of the new area, and I have done everything that I could to make myself aware of the rules and regulations. I feel more strongly than I can find words to express, not as a Member of Parliament, but as a man, for these men, with whom, until recently, for months I served in France.


I would like to refer to the question of the attributability of the cause of death. This is a kind of case which gives rise to very great difficulty with Pensions Boards. I still think justice is not being done in the matter. Many lay people, and I as a medical man, do not understand why one man's disease should be regarded as attributable and another man's disease as not attributable. That, I believe, is a question that has got to be reviewed in fairness to all concerned. These are questions that give rise to very great apparent injustice and cause a great deal of feeling of unfairness in the community, and I do not believe, if the Ministry came to the conclusion that any cause of death that arose during service was regarded as attributable, it would add very much to the financial burden on the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned at Twenty - five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.