HC Deb 12 July 1923 vol 166 cc1746-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Gibbs.]


This is the first occasion since I have been a Member of this House that I have raised a question on the Adjournment. The House will remember that during the past two or three weeks there have been quite a number of questions asked of the Pensions Minister concerning certain regulations of the Special Grants Committee which have been withdrawn. I can quite understand that the House finds it difficult to appreciate exactly what the withdrawal of these regulations means, because pension work in all its branches is extremely complicated. This is a most serious step which the Pensions Minister has taken, and therefore it is that I have asked the opportunity of saying a few words to the House to-night and of putting the case to the right hon. Gentleman. The fact of the matter is that certain regulations of the Special Grants Committee have been withdrawn. Two of these regulations give discretionary power to the Special Grants Committee to give allowances, or, if they like, pensions, in what we may call border-line cases, For instance, the hon. Member for Hanley (Mr. H. Parker) mentioned a, case here the other day in which a man had had his pension refused. He had been before the Appeal Tribunal, his pension had been refused, and he had been ordered back to work; and in a few days, after doing hard physical work, a piece of shrapnel had worked its way into his heart and killed him. That man's case has been before the tribunal, and a final decision was given upon it. There is no Regulation that fits that man, except, it may be, that the right hon. Gentleman will find a very ingenious, way of getting round it. That is an illustration, to put it mildly, of a thousand or two of cases which do not come under any regulation; and because of that the House has given the Special Grants Committee the statutory right to frame a regulation giving discretion to give pensions in cases which have been refused benefit under the Ministry of Pensions.

The other regulation is that relating to sickness grants to widows and their children. The widows, it is true, have £1 a week, The right hon. Gentleman says the cost of living has gone down, and that that is a reason for withdrawing the regulation under which the Special Grants Committee can give widows and their children special allowances when they are sick. But I put this to the right hon. Gentleman because in one of his answers he has told us that the cost of living has gone down, and he has given that as a reason for the withdrawal of this regulation. Although the cost of living has gone down, the Government has not dared to reduce the soldier's pension, and if there is a case for the increased pensions to continue, then there is a case for the widows' sickness allowance to continue. If the right hon. Gentleman's Department is going to withdraw these things, let them do it frankly and straightforwardly, and not trade upon the ignorance of the House and of the people generally in relation to these matters. I want to say this further word of explanation. The Special Grants Committee has its centre in London. It is a special statutory body. It is true that it is a branch of the Ministry of Pensions, but it has had a separate existence, and it has had peculiar developments of its own to meet certain types of cases. It has had the right to make its own regulations, it is true with the approval of the right hon. Gentleman, but its regulations have been approved for some years, and are now withdrawn by the right hon. Gentleman.

I want to draw attention, further, to this fact, that the right hon. Gentleman for some year or two has almost cried shame upon some of us when we have claimed that these economies have been dictated rather by the Treasury than on any grounds of justice. In this case we know we are right. I have here a copy of the Treasury letter which first began this game. The matter has gone on for something like 18 months now. One of the last letters was dated the 4th January, 1922, and in it they say, referring to the Special Grants Committee's regulations: A further financial report on the working of the Rules as amended should be furnished to their Lordships by the 31st December next, as a result of which my Lords will hold themselves free to call for the modification or withdrawal of any Regulations. … While my Lords will not press for the immediate withdrawal of all such grants, they would be glad if the Minister and the Special Grants Committee will consider whether such grants should not in all cases be withdrawn by 31st December next. I hope that after this, and after all the correspondence upon these lines which we could produce, the right hon. Gentleman does not argue cases of withdrawal of this description on the grounds of justice, because here is the big-business Treasury giving him his orders, and he has to march to his orders. He is a very estimable gentleman. He has courtesy, and he is frank when dealing with administration. When I went to school I knew an old proverb, that courtesy costs nothing and good manners are cheap. Since I have met the Pensions Minister I have begun to doubt that old proverb. I sometimes wish that he would give me a black eye, and give justice to the people over whom he is supposed to watch.

I wish to draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to this fact. It is not merely a party cry or an agitator's cry with which he has to deal, but a matter concerning one of the branches of his own Department. The Special Grants Committee for 18 months have been in conflict with him. They have a great obligation to these people—no less than that of attending to the educational needs of children whose fathers have been killed in the service of the country, of seeing that the man who has a just claim does not want for the good things of life or rather for the means of existence, and that the widows and children of men who died in the War do not want in time of sickness. There has been a conflict, and when questioned by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. A. Greenwood), this afternoon, as to whether the withdrawal of these Regulations was with the approval of the Special Grants Committee the right hon. Gentleman, in that wonderfully quick, jumpy way he has, tried to mislead the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I will not put it that way, but I will say this—


The hon. Member must not impute dishonest motives.


I will not put it that way. I withdraw that. All I say—and I want to say this without qualification—that the right hon. Gentleman's Department is one of the most difficult from which to get any straight information that I know in the House, and the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon did not give a clear answer, at any rate, to the points that were put. Here is the Special Grants Committee's own statement. They are speaking about the Regulations under which they have discretion. The statement is that any amendment to their Regulations could not be issued with their approval. We cannot change these views or depart from these decisions consistently with what we believe to be our duty in the sphere of usefulness which we were appointed to fulfil, and which we claim we have fulfilled with advantage to the State, and to the officers and soldiers, and their dependants, whose interests have been in our charge. So the right hon. Gentleman is bound to admit that he has withdrawn these Regulations in the teeth of the Special Grants Committee. If he puts new Regulations down, he will do so on his own responsibility and in the teeth of the opposition of that Committee. May I draw attention to the Report issued by the right hon. Gentleman's own Departmental Committee, of which he was chairman, in 1921. This is one of the paragraphs in the Report which deals with the Special Grants Committee. I will read it so that the House may understand the question: The value of the Special Grants Committee as part of the existing pensions system is two-fold. In the first place it is thereby possible for hard cases which have a real claim on the State, and which cannot be met under the strict terms of the Royal Warrant, to be dealt with by this independent representative body acting under discretionary powers. Secondly, where the need for the concession is not common to all classes of pensioners, grants may be made on a discretionary basis, and these result in greater economy than can be obtained by any provision of the Royal Warrant, which must either exclude many hard cases or include a much larger class than is contemplated by the concession proposed. The reasons which led the Select Committee, in 1915, to recommend that judicial and discretionary functions should be given to a representative body, apart from a State Department administering pensions and allowances, were based on the fact that decisions given by an independent, non-official body, which is not liable to outside pressure, and which contains representatives of the Services, of Labour, of the legal profession, and of the local war pensions committees, will be less subject to pressure than decisions reached by a Government Department. So the right hon. Gentleman on those grounds recommended the retention of this Special Grants Committee. Instead of that we have sickness allowances to the amount of £2,500 a year taken from the widows and children of men who have died. Is that worthy of the Pensions Minister? Is there any hon. Member opposite who would defend that upon the ground of economy? When I see thousands of people being cut down by the axe, by people who get anything from £10,000 to £20,000 a year from the British Federation of Industry, I feel inclined to say very bitter things. I have come to the conclusion that the best thing one can do is not to spend much more time in this House but to get outside and I invite the British Legion and all the organised forces that deal with the ex-service men and their dependants to join in the fight. £2,500 deducted by the well-fed starvelings of the British Federation of Industry, because that is all the Government policy is at present. The right hon. Gentleman is doing their work efficiently. However, much he may try to conceal this matter, he cannot hide the fact that he is up against a branch of his own Pensions Ministry that is taking £2,500 a year off the widows and children, and that is taking away the only hope there is for some men to get the benefit of the doubt. The House and the country should know that these men have a case, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and the House are going to right that wrong very soon.

The MINISTER of PENSIONS (Major Tryon)

The hon. Member has asked for a truthful and clear statement. It would have been more convenient if he had left me at any rate time in which to reply instead of taking up the whole of the time except nine minutes. He made a bitter personal attack upon one hon. Member, well knowing that it is perfectly impossible for that hon. Member to have any opportunity of replying. That does not reflect very well either upon his courtesy towards that hon. Member or upon his regard for the courtesies of Debate. He is anxious that nobody should be misled. Therefore, I will take the first opportunity of correcting the wrong impression created by his own speech. I am perfectly certain that the very serious error into which he has fallen is entirely due to his lack of knowledge of the subject which he has selected for discussion. He has made reference to the British Legion. I will say this: The British Legion do understand what they are talking about when they discuss pensions, and the British Legion would not have fallen into the error of having no knowledge of the particular Regulation which the hon. Member has selected for his speech, and upon which he has spent 20 minutes. He began by telling us about a man who died from a shrapnel wound. That man was examined, I believe, for other things. It is perfectly obvious that if some new discovery had been made, he could have put up a claim under Article 9, and could have got a pension. There is no reference whatever to men in the Regulation which has been withdrawn, and that if this Regulation was substantially continued, the man to whom the hon. Member referred could have obtained absolutely nothing, because there is no reference whatever to cases of that sort. The hon. Member has entirely misunderstood the Regulation.

It is obvious that in so small a sum it is not a question of economy but a question of principle. I am glad to notice that the hon. Member has, after a fortnight of assertion, apparently withdrawn the charge that we have issued a new Regulation. We have not issued a new Regulation, but on two successive Thursdays, at Question time, he or his friends have persisted in asserting that a new Regulation has been issued.


Did not the right hon. Gentleman tell us two weeks go that the Regulations were about to be printed?


No new Regulation has been issued on this point, and if the hon. Member will only listen I will endeavour to make it clear to him. It is a very complicated question, and I am certain that the very serious mistakes he has made are perfectly sincere and are due to his failure to understand a very technical point.


Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that he said that the new Regulations were to be printed?


We have issued no new Regulation on the subject referred to. The position taken up by the hon. Member is that the Committee should be allowed to expend public money without control or without the sanction of the Minister responsible to Parliament. In setting up this scheme, he not only ignores the responsible Minister but the rights of this House. The importance attached by the hon. Member to the Regulation leaped out at the end of his speech, when he held out the hope of having a successful political campaign in the country on this point. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Why not? I will tell hon. Members. Because he has grossly exaggerated the whole of this question. The Votes of the Ministry of Pensions this year are over £73,000,000. Of that only £165,000 are concerned with the Special Grants Committee. Therefore, the work for the Special Grants Committee is only a fraction of the work of the Ministry.

Only £2,500 is in question out of £165,000 for the Special Grants Committee; so that it is a fraction of what is itself only a fraction of the work of the Ministry. The Special Grants Committee was created during the War. It was entrusted with the exercise of certain powers formerly belonging to the Statutory Committee. Among its functions were the powers of making supplementary grants, in addition to pensions. The Committee exercise their functions under Regulations to be drawn up by them and submitted to the Minister of Pensions for his approval.

The hon. Member has got the thing the wrong way about. All these Regulations are issued subject to the approval of the Minister, not subject to the approval of the Committee. When the Committee was started a lump sum was set aside, and that lump sum, naturally, came to an end after the Committee had been in existence for some time. When that sum was coming to an end it was arranged between the Ministry and the Treasury that any future expenditure of the Committee should be taken on the Ministry Vote. This altered the whole relationship between the Ministry and the Committee. When the expenditure was transferred to the Ministry Vote, the Minister was necessarily put in the position of having to assure himself that the expenditure was in all respects reasonably charged, and he must accordingly be in a position to withhold his approval of any Regulation.

It was because of these considerations that my predecessor did not give an unqualified approval to the last Regulations in 1920. His approval was given for a very definte and limited period only. To make clear that the approval could be withdrawn, there was a notice at the head of the printed Regulations. There has been no forcing of a new Regulation on the Committee. What happened was that this Regulation was approved only for a limited time, and that time has elapsed. The hon. Member has naturally forgotten that last Autumn we had to settle not merely one problem. There was first the problem whether we could continue this, which is a provision affecting a very few people. But there was also the problem whether we should alter the rates of pensions which were due to be reduced. The one issue only affected a little over £2,000, but it involved expenditure which was clearly outside the proper limits which were laid down by Parliament for the work of the Ministry. The other was a decision amounting to millions. On the small point, on principle, we decided against the extension of the Regulations, but on the big point, which involved this Government in large annual expenditure, we decided in favour of the extension.

I hope that the hon. Member who is going to make speeches in the country as to the amounts taken from widows and children will let it be known that it affects only to an amount of slightly over a penny a year the people concerned, while in the case of the decision which we made in reference to the pensions for widows, the amount was no less than 3s. a week. So that while we saved on the small matter, the big decision was given in favour of the pensioner. It was a small Regulation, purely a War-time provision. We have no power to incur expenditure on the sickness of a man whose sickness was not due to the War. We should clearly, therefore, not do more for the widows than we should do for the pensioners themselves. It is a very small amount, but it involves a principle which limits our work to the proper limits laid down by Parliament. I hope the hon. Member when going about the country will state all the facts which I am giving here. I am sure he will tell them that the decision involving 3s. a week was given ill favour of the widows, while the decision amounting to, roughly speaking, a penny a head per year was given the other way. He does not seem to be very enthusiastic about making that point known. But those are the facts. Therefore, perhaps I should remind the House that we are clearly within our rights. The hon. Member was in error in suggesting that the particular wounded man he mentioned would have benefited in any way by this Regulation. These Regulations were specially provided to supplement the separation allowances of men who were away from home serving in the War. They were extended to all widows during the period of the War, and they were continued as a temporary measure.


Does the right hon. Gentleman—


I cannot give way. These Regulations were clearly limited in time, and they have lapsed. The contention of the hon. Member is that there should be an expenditure of money without the control of the Minister. His claim, in effect, sets up the Committee above the House itself. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne who put this question down evidently thought it of such little importance that he did not turn up at the proper time to put it, but I am glad that the hon. Member has raised this Debate so that the truth may be made known.

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half after Eleven o'Clock.