HC Deb 21 July 1931 vol 255 cc1257-61

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal Section five of the War Pensions Act, 1921. I would like, first of all, to read the Section which the Bill proposes to repeal: The power of the Minister under any Warrant, Order in Council, or Order to grant a pension to any person in respect of disablement shall not be exercised unless the claim in respect of the disablement is made within seven years after the date on which the claimant was discharged, or the date fixed under the Termination of the Present War (Definition) Act, 1918, as the date of the termination of the present war, whichever date is the earlier. The word to which one objects in that Section is the word "unless." At the present moment there are large numbers of ex-service men suffering from something which they genuinely believe to be due to War service, and owing to the fact that more than seven years have elapsed between their discharge from the Army and the manifestation of the result of their wounds or disease, they are debarred under this Act from making claims, or, at any rate, having made claims, from having those claims brought to the appeals court. It may be said that the War has now been over for 13 years and that it is rather a long time afterwards to seek to alter an Act which has existed since 1921. But I think it is within the knowledge of the House that I, in my humble way, have lost no opportunity of bringing before the House the fact that this enactment should have been altered. I have tried to do so in every way I could. We have also the fact that ex-service men for the last two years have been rather in the position of Mr. Micawber and have been "waiting for something to turn up" because at the last election in "Labour's Appeal to the Nation" the Labour party definitely said: The limit of seven years which has meant so much injustice to ex-service men will be removed so cases may still be considered. The Government have made many concessions but they have removed nothing, I do not say that it was done intentionally, but unwittingly they have deceived the people into the belief that something has been done which has not been done. They have deceived even so learned a man as the Solicitor-General because in his election address in last January he said: War pensions are now being administered on a most humane basis and the seven year limit has been abolished. I think the Minister will agree that nothing has been abolished. What the Minister has done—and it is quite a lot though not nearly enough—is this. He has said that men may send in applications for consideration of their claims, and that no such claims should be debarred from a hearing merely through being outside the time limit. Since he said that in November, 1929, until February of this year, the latest figures which I have show that 22,800 cases have been submitted and of these 1,210 cases have been admitted to treatment or pension. Roughly, one in 19 who have made claims have been granted something. As I say that is something which we might not have achieved earlier but what the Ministry have not done, and what this Bill would do, is to give all these claimants who have been turned down the right of appeal to the appeals tribunal, just the same as if the claim had been made within the seven years. The Minister now reserves to himself the sole right of adjudication and the claimant is entirely in his hands and those of his officials.

The present concession was made by the Minister by a stroke of the pen, and it could, equally well, be unmade by this or another Minister, by a similar stroke of the pen. The ex-service man wants the right by statute to put forward his claim, and if it is not admitted, the right to go to an independent tribunal where the dice are not loaded against him, and where a friend can help him to put forward his case and where he is assured of a fair and impartial hearing. Widows are also affected in this matter. In a case where a widow gets a pension by special sanction and not by warrant she has no right of appeal. There is only a right of appeal in a case where the woman's husband had been awarded a pension by the War Office. Since pensions started, 225,220 or nearly a quarter of a million cases, have been heard by the appeals court and out of these 55,600 have been allowed, or one in four. That proves as far as anything can be proved that one in every four of the cases submitted by potential pensioners has been right. We have thus a proportion of one in four of the eases submitted to the independent tribunal allowed, but only one in 19 of the cases submitted to the Ministry.

The proposal of the Bill is no new thing. At the last Election the British Legion did not wish to bring pressure by a questionnaire while the Election was in progress. One knows how much candidates are swayed by questionnaires, but after the Election—about 18 months ago—the local branches of the Legion approached local Members of Parliament and 77 Members definitely pledged themselves to support the abolition of Section 5 of the Act of 1921—which is quite a large proportion. In conclusion I would quote from a speech made by the Minister of Pensions on 8th May, 1929, on the Ministry of Pensions Vote. He was not then Minister of Pensions, and this is what he said: Whatever may be our views in regard to other organisations which hare expressed views in regard to what is wanted in the interests of ex-service men I think it can he properly claimed that the British Legion is entitled to speak for the many thousands of members who come within its scope. The Legion say: 'We are of the opinion that whilst the onus of proof is on the claimant disabled officers and men should hare the right to submit claims to pension irresspective of any time limit and if rejected by the Ministry the right to place their claims before an independent tribunal.' That seems to me justly to meet the claim that can properly be made in regard to the time limit and I leave the matter with the support which I have quoted from the British Legion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1929, cols. 2242 and 2243; Vol. 227]. If the Minister held those views as a private Member, then it would say very little for public life if the fact of his going into office three weeks later altered them. I do not believe that the Minister has altered his views. He has always been a friend of the ex-service man and one for whom the ex-service man has always had the highest regard. I cannot help feeling that he is just waiting for something like this Bill in order that the House itself by a definite expression of opinion, may give him that impetus to say to his advisers "The ex-service men of the country want Section 5 abolished; the House of Commons has given its consent and I also am in favour of it. Let us get down to it."

Bill ordered to be brought in by Major Cohen, Lieut.-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, Mr. Everard, Lieut.-Colonel Watts-Morgan, Mr. Simmons, and Viscount Elmley.