HC Deb 07 April 1925 vol 182 cc2181-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


On the 26th February I put the following question to the Minister of Pensions: Whether, in view of the large number of cases of pensioned ex-service men who have died as a result of their disability, and have left their widows and children destitute by reason of the fact that they married after discharge from the service and their pensions ceased upon death, lie will consider the possibility of continuing payment of the pension in such cases? The reply I received was to the following effect: I could not agree to this proposal. The responsibility of my Department in respect of death as resulting from war service has always been defined by the Royal Pension Warrants as limited to the man's family obligations as existing at the date of the contraction on service of the fatal disability,"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th February, 1925; col. 2106, Vol. 180.] It will be noticed that the Pensions Minister did not contend that the widows and dependents were not entitled to a pension. The statement was that it was so defined by the Royal Warrant. I am going to contend that if that be the interpretation of the Royal Warrant it is wrong, and if it be a correct interpretation, the sooner it is altered in the interests of justice, the better for the credit of this nation. Let us have clear in our minds why we pay+ a pension. What are the grounds for a pension? First, there is the physical deterioration of a normally healthy person due to war service; secondly, the widow and dependents of the soldier who was married and had such dependants before, but not after, such disability was contracted; thirdly, when the expectation of life is cut short by disease or wounds arising from the abnormal conditions of war.

There are two classes of men, married and unmarried. I am dealing with the young men who were unmarried when they joined the Army, with all the potentialities of men. We have no right to say that when a man joined the Army he was only a person who could play the part of a soldier. He was a man, and not merely something to carry a gun, handle a bayonet, or stop a bullet. If the abnormal conditions of war rendered that man unfit, then, in my opinion, the nation was bound to support any dependants he had. I may leave myself open to the charge of using "sob stuff." I may be told that the women who married these men knew of their disability. But I think there is much to be said for the brave little woman who married the wounded and disabled man after his return from the War, and brought life and joy into his life, and gave him some outlook in life. Many of these young men were engaged to be married before the War, and when they came back they carried out their obligations.

There are three cases which I wish to put to the House. I went to see a dying ex-soldier recently. He was suffering in body, but his tortures of mind were also very great, not because of himself, but because he knew that within a week his wife and two children would have to apply for the cold comfort of the Poor Law, and would probably he advised to go to the workhouse. The second case is on all fours with that. I have here a heart-breaking letter from a young widow with three children, whose husband fought from 1914 to 1918. He was wounded, but he pulled himself together, and who will dare to say that he had no right to marry? If he felt those movings that every healthy man must feel, dare any man say that he must go to a brothel to satisfy his natural longings? But if the Government refuse to pay a pension to men of this class, that is what they are telling such young men. Here is the case of a man who fought for four years and came back and married and has three children, and a grateful nation says to that widow and children "there is nothing for you but the workhouse." I wish to bring this down to hard logic, and I give another case of a young man who was a student. He joined up in 1914. He fought in France and on the Eastern front, and was badly wounded. He came back and resumed his education by fits and starts and he has been able to qualify for two professions. During the last two winters in order to overcome a physical difficulty he has been learning cabinet-making. He is earning his livelihood at neither of the two professions. As a result of his war service his life will be cut short. Will any one dare to say to me that a young man who fought for four years, who has proved mentally capable of qualifying for two professions and who has trained himself physically to carry out manual labour, is not entitled to a pension when his expectation of life has been cut short by war service? I hope I shall not get that answer from the Government. I am positive that I would not get it from this House, and I am still more positive that I would not get it from the country. You take into the Army a man with all the potentialities of a man. He fights for his country, and you have no right to say to his widow and children, when the expectation of life has been cut short, "There is nothing for you but the workhouse or the cold comfort of the Poor Law." I am confident that my country, if it were put to the people, would see to it that, at any rate, pensions were provided for this class of widows and orphans.


I must thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in postponing this question as long as possible, in the hope that the Minister of Pensions would be here. I have explained to him the reason why my right hon. and gallant Friend is not able to be here to-night. The hon. Member, talking about this as he has done to-night, and as he has done to me in private, has quoted the three conditions on which a pension should be granted, and he has made one statement which I think was rather, I will not say at variance with the facts, but rather a stretching of some of the conditions further than the words should be made to go. What the man was told was that if he was wounded or if he suffered in health the country would pension him in the future. It also said to those men who were married that it would look after their dependants who were existing at that time. I do not think that anyone was ever told that any future dependants he might have would necessarily be a charge on the State, and I do not think that the hon. Member can find that in any of the warrants or any of the promises that were made at the time.

But I do not quarrel with the hon. Member's actual statement of what is a pension. Roughly, I think we all agree that a pension is a compensation, so far as one can compensate a man, for the injuries that he has received on active service fighting for the country. That is a broad general proposition to which all hon. Members will agree. I contend—and I am only reiterating what has been said pretty often before, that the State's liability towards a man is limited, so far as his family obligations are concerned, to ties which he had at the time that the injury was sustained. The whole gist of the hon. Member's speech, I know, has been to dispute that, but I submit to him that that is the principle that has always been adopted. It was adopted in the pre-War pension warrants, and it has been adopted in the post-War pension warrants.


I do not deny that. I say it is time it was changed.

Lieut.-Colonel STANLEY

It is not only an academic distinction. After all, all schemes of compensation are based on the same principle, and I think have always been, the principle that the liability was determined at the time that the employment in respect of which the compensation is payable ceased, and it is not only this country that has adopted that principle. All our Dominions that have adopted pension schemes—and I think they all have—have in nearly every case adopted the same principle as we have done, and indeed, the pension warrants having laid down certain limits, the Pensions Minister of the day is bound to pay them out in as generous a spirit as is possible. Indeed, it is very natural that, in so far as that proportion is generously carried out, that the people outside the terms of the Pensions Warrant should wish to be brought in. In this we embark upon an entirely new principle. You are confusing pensions for injury which has been sustained with compassionate grants. Once you get into that line, it is impossible to see where it will end. As the hon. Member knows, we have a standing example in that respect in what happened in America after their civil war. The first year or two after the Civil War pensions and expenditure—I do not like to put it in terms of money, but one is bound to do so—ran on very much the same lines as ours has done. Gradually the system was extended. Pressure was brought to bear, and more people were brought into it. The net result at the end of 50 years was that they had their pensions expenditure increased, the number of pensioners reached its maximum, and was seven times as great as it had been three years after the war ended.

The hon. Member must realise that that is a contingency which has to be faced. There is also this point. He talks—and very naturally, I quite understand—in terms of the young man who has just left the Army and got married. How long is that going to last? A man may marry at, say, 40, 50, or even 60 years, after he has left the Army—if he dies in a few months is his widow to be entitled to—


Lord Nelson's descendents are still drawing a pension.

Lieut.-Colonel STANLEY

That is an argument, and, I think, a very cogent argument, against it. There is one point that I must make, or, perhaps I should say, one way of putting it. The hon. Member has kindly talked to me about this privately, and he has said, quite frankly, that this is not a party question. I agree that it is not a party question, and I even go further and say that for a Pension Minister to claim it as a party question would be very bad for ex-service men. To show that this is not just a decision of a Conservative Minister, I want to point out that this was the ruling laid down by Mr. Barnes in 1917. I am a great admirer of Mr. Barnes, but I cannot call him a Conservative. It was continued by Mr. Hodge, and the same remark applies to him. That was in 1918. Then it was continued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir L. Worthington-Evans), who is a Conservative, and afterwards by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson). It has been carried on by Ministers of Pensions, and was not even questioned by the Select Committee in 1919–1920. Finally, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. F. Roberts) only last year, when he was asked this particular question by Mr. Oliver, who was Member of Parliament for the Blackley Division of Manchester, said that he could not agree to the proposal; and he spoke to very much the same effect as the statement of my right hon. Friend which the hon. Member has quoted this evening.

I say frankly that when I went as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions I had a perfectly open mind on all pensions questions. I think it is advisable that one should have an open mind when one goes to a Department. I went into this question most carefully and read up all I could about it, but with the best will in the world, and after the most careful consideration, I could not see my way to suggesting any change in this particular part of the Warrant. It would be very much easier for a Pensions Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary to agree to all proposals that are made to him. It would make it easier for him.


You could agree to this.

Lieut.-Colonel STANLEY

The hon. Member cannot complain that I have not done the best for him. A Minister is in a position of responsibility; he has to see both sides of a question, and to look at it very carefully—

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