§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]
§ 11.58 a.m.
§ Mr. F. O. Roberts
I am sure that every hon. Member will appreciate the importance of the subject which I venture to raise to-day, in relation to ex-service men. No Debate on the subject has taken place for a considerable time, and attention has been given to it only by way of question and answer and a few speeches to which the Minister replied during the course of the Debate on the Address. One does not blame the Minister, who answers only when we ask him to do so. The position now is that we cannot refrain any longer from putting a few points to him. Unless some material improvement can be shown, I can promise the Minister that a little more frequent attention will be given to the subject, and that he will have a chance of responding a little more frequently in future than he has in the past. In using those words I do not intend to threaten the Minister, but only to issue a word of warning to him.
All Members know men who were passed into the Service as A.1 and are now broken. Many of them have no pension, others are unable to secure work, and most of them are well-nigh devoid of hope. This is a matter not only of grave concern but of dissatisfaction to Members 2200 of this House, whatever their party may be. I am sure that every hon. Member desires this state of affairs to be brought to an end as speedily as possible. It would be a fine ending ot this Session if, after an exchange of views in the course of the discussion, there eventuated some more satisfactory solution of the problem. The matter is of concern not only in this House; outside, as we know, an inquiry has been commenced by the British Legion. They were led to undertake it because of strong representations made at their annual conference last Whitsuntide by delegates from all quarters of the country. Thus there is clear indication of a measure of unrest and dissatisfaction in the ranks of ex-service men themselves. I believe, also, that responsible deputations have waited upon the Minister from time to time to urge that some kind of reform or change should be made in the administration of the Pensions Department.
I cannot refrain from quoting, in support of my statement that there is grave concern outside, a resolution passed at the annual conference of the Conservative party, which I am sure the Minister would not regard as unimportant. A statement made in the course of that resolution seems to indicate clearly the acceptance of the view that something must be done to bring about a change. The resolution says:This Conference is of the opinion that there are many ex-service men who, as a result of injuries received or ailments contracted during their service, are suffering serious physical incapacity, but who are receiving no pensions at all or only such as are inadequate for their needs; and that with a view to ascertaining what measures are necessary for the relief of many cases of hardship known to exist an inquiry into the matter by the Government should be instituted forthwith.I hope to make one or two observations in support of that general contention calling for an inquiry.
Ex-service men can be divided for our consideration into several categories. The first that we can name consists of those who have had their cases equitably settled. They are by far the largest majority. Next comes the category of those who regard themselves as under-assessed, a by no means small or unimportant section. Then come what we know as hard cases and those who are on the border-line, and have never received any suitable reward. There are some who 2201 may, possibly, in the early days of demobilisation, have received some kind of recognition of their disability. Then I would put a number of new cases which are arising all the time, and which can be dealt with under the special machinery which has been provided. Lastly, I would mention the cases that have become known as, I believe, the prematurely aged, those who are believed to be breaking down in health and circumstances as compared with average people who have had no actual war experience.
I propose to make one or two remarks about the hard-line cases first. There is no need to emphasise unduly the significance of this phase of the problem; the facts are ever present to the Minister and his Department as well as to Members of the House who are communicated with from time to time in that regard. But the special need which is created by the existence of cases of this type seems to me to demand that exceptional treatment shall be given to them. The position of many ex-service men seems to get more and more precarious the further we get away from the War; hence the need for a greater measure of support and protection for them. I appreciate that the Minister will hesitate to do anything that is likely to upset the established warrants, and I would not counsel any such action. But, accepting that, if we are to do anything, fresh ground will have to be broken. A new survey is absolutely imperative.
The Minister finds that he can do no more in connection with the border-line cases than has already been done in connection with hundreds upon hundreds of them. Many of them come and go time and again. Whenever there is a change of administration, a kind of battledore and shuttlecock game goes on with these cases as between Members of Parliament who may never have seen them before, the Ministry, and the applicants. It seems to me that that is a kind of thing which is not good in itself, and with which we ought to try to deal if we possibly can. In view of the many expressions of view which have been made, I am certain that the House cannot, and does not, intend to leave the matter where it now stands. To do so would be both unfair and unwise. If any adequate alteration is to be made, it appears to be established that some kind of special consideration of this matter will have to 2202 be undertaken. Representations have been made from many quarters, including these benches, advocating the appointment of a Select Committee as the medium whereby proper consideration of the matter can be entered upon. I support that view. If such a committee were given wide terms of reference, they could first of all review the position as it is to-day, and representations could be made to them which would be direct and serviceable so far as the ex-service men go. Such a committee could also inquire whether there is any way of dealing with the many cases which the existing warrants and regulations cannot cover.
If we accept the conclusion that it is undesirable to do anything to upset the existing warrants, the answer must be that we must either have new warrants or additional warrants beyond those which already exist. A Select Committee, if appointed, could investigate whether an extra special warrant could be made applicable. I do not know whether the Minister has ever considered the practicability of such a suggestion, but I would like him to do so first of all, even though he may subsequently agree that it is a matter which a Select Committee could well investigate. A Select Committee, after consideration, could advise the House as to the necessity or practicability of setting up special tribunals to deal with the old hard cases to which I have referred, and which cannot under the existing regulations be accepted. The Minister might also find it an advantage to have the advice and conclusions of a Select Committee alongside any conclusions which may be presented to him by the British Legion in the report which they are now compiling. In passing I would mention that the British Legion investigation, as I understand it, is being confined mainly, if not wholly, to the position of the men who are called prematurely aged, and the points which I am mentioning now seem to me to go right beyond the investigation which the British Legion is now undertaking.
In further support of the general case which I am making with regard to the hard-line cases, I have in my hand a list of 25, not to be dealt with individually, but only produced collectively for the guidance of the Minister as to the type of case that we have in mind when we refer to the old-time or hard cases. The ages of the men in this list of 25 are: in 2203 four cases under 40; in nine cases 40 or over but under 50; in nine 50 or over but under 60; and in three, 60 or just over 60. This list has been furnished to me by the secretary of a branch of the British Legion, and I know from personal association with many of these cases that one or two of them, if not more, have been investigated several times. I believe that a thorough overhaul has been made of the whole of the circumstances associated with them. But, knowing some of them as I do, and knowing the position held by the representative of the British Legion who has presented them to me, I am satisfied that there is still something lacking, because otherwise, even if the whole of these cases could not be accepted, a number of them certainly would. I have no doubt that each of these cases has been decided strictly in accordance with the powers given to the Minister and his Department, and I have no doubt that every regulation, so far as they are concerned, has been complied with. But this list of cases could be multiplied by hundreds if we were to take the country through, and it seems to me that they really give ground for doubts in the minds of those who have investigated them. I cannot help submitting that they indicate either a need for a definite alteration in the existing warrants or regulations, or for the provision of additional warrants or fresh regulations or a modification of those which are in existence at the present moment. To me this is just an indication of the kind of investigation which a Select Committee could undertake, and as a result of which it could offer sound advice to the Minister and his Department and give greater satisfaction in all quarters of the House, and also establish that greater measure of confidence in the country which is essential when we are dealing with cases of this kind.
I am further supported in the contention which I am making by the fact that, as a member of a committee, called the Emergency Help Committee, associated with the Order of St. John, there are from time to time brought to the notice of myself and other members of that committee another series of difficult types of cases; and I should say, from my own knowledge of the work of committees of 2204 that kind, that it affords additional support for the case which I am endeavouring to put to the House and to the Minister to-day. There is another difficult type of case which was brought to my notice, and the Minister with his usual care and consideration took up the case on my representations. But there are associated with it features which are not quite as satisfactory. I shall not mention names. It is the case of a man resident on the Continent. First of all he had exceeding difficulty in establishing connection with representatives of the Ministry who act in that part of the world. Such a length of time went by, according to the statements made to me, that I was not without some kind of fear that the man might even die before he had an opportunity of getting over to this country for the hospital treatment that was accorded to him.
If the facts are as I state them, I ask the Minister to see that these lengthy intervals do not take place, whether in association with the Continental representatives or anyone else who is working with the Ministry. When this man was brought here he received very adequate treatment at the hospital at Roehampton. A major operation was performed. The man is now declared to be more than 50 per cent. depreciated in earning capacity. Yet the award made to that man is not in any way commensurate with the lowering of his status, so far as responsible work goes. The next case is one which the Minister still has under consideration, but it is a type which seems to warrant some of the observations that I am making to-day. It is the case of a man who is compelled to wear an artificial limb. He had to make various efforts to get his case adjusted. In his last extremity he wrote to me as a Member of Parliament. I do not blame him, but I do think that in cases of this kind a man ought not to have to await the attention of a Member of Parliament before proper regard is had to his circumstances. This man was in a very unfortunate position indeed. In the course of a speech on the Address the Minister said that a manis pensionable because of a disability which can reasonably be attributed to war service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1937; col. 351; Vol. 328.]A great deal seems to depend on the interpretation which those concerned place on the word "reasonably." The type of 2205 case which I am now bringing to the notice of the Minister makes me say that I would like to see what might be regarded as a common-sense interpretation rather than one that merely comes inside the meaning of that word "reasonably." I sometimes feel that perhaps a little more elasticity might be associated with decisions coming under the existing arrangements. Some rejected claims might then be more readily accepted, and both the Minister and Members of this House would avoid some of the trouble to which they are put. There is still a need for applicants to be really allowed the full benefit of any doubt.
I want to advance one further argument that something should be done to deal with emergencies and the tiding over of difficulties, and I do not know what is the position of the Ministry in relation to what is known as the King's Fund. If there is nothing in the King's Fund which the Minister can bring to his aid in dealing with cases of emergency or exceeding difficulty, I put it to him that he might ask the Treasury to let him have a grant, if only £250,000, which he could have properly administered in helping cases which do not come inside the Warrants at the present time. I know that that cannot be regarded as any kind of a settlement. If we are to have adequate justice meted out to the men in such cases as I have mentioned, something beyond this has to be done. But as an expedient I think it would be exceedingly valuable to the Minister if he had such a fund at his disposal for administration by properly chosen representatives. If he has not sufficient remaining in the King's Fund, can he take the responsibility once more of appealing to the Treasury?
I must make one or two observations with regard to the cases of the partially disabled. I have no doubt that every one of those cases can be regarded as properly assessed according to the number of inches of limb which the man has lost, or as to any form of disability which he has to bear. But, from one cause or another, many of these types of men are unable to work, or if able to work they are not able to get back to the jobs which they once had, and the procuring of what is termed light employment, which they are advised to get, is not easy, and many cannot get any employment at all. In the cases of the 2206 men who are "100 per cent.," there should be some kind of review if there is no employment for them or if they are unable to get the job which they are seeking. If that cannot be done there should be a definite obligation as to reconsideration of the assessment which has been made. That, again, is a type of case which might be assisted if the Minister had the kind of grant which I have mentioned at his disposal. As far as one can judge, the disabled man shows a greater tendency to break down in these days, under the strain which is imposed, than was the case even a few years ago. It becomes exceedingly difficult for a man to find a job, or if he finds one to hold it down.
There is a further point for consideration. I am wondering whether the time has not come to apply a principle which is accepted in other directions by allowing men to be eligible for an old age pension at an earlier year than 65 or 70. My next point relates to artificial limbs. I have said many times, both when I had the honour of being at the Ministry of Pensions and since, that if there is one branch of the work of the Ministry in which one had the right to feel some measure of pride it was in association with the provision of limbs for those who came to the Ministry. But I have been a little disturbed by the receipt of a letter and a sort of memorandum which have been handed to me. They came to me from such a reliable source that I have no hesitation in citing a couple of examples from the documents. First I would ask the Minister, has there been during recent times any lowering of the standard of the limbs which are supplied to ex-service men? Is the type any different? Are the men able to make a selection of the type of limb which they feel is most adequate to their needs? Is sufficient time given to the patients to enable them to understand how to use the artificial limb which they will have to wear?
Is any reimbursement made to the men who attend the limb-fitting centres for the time they may lose from their work or for the expenses they may incur in travelling? One particular case mentioned in a letter I have received is of a man who was so dissatisfied with the limb supplied to him that he purchased one for himself at a cost of £50. I am sure it was never 2207 the intention of Parliament or the Ministry that any man should be so dissatisfied with a limb supplied to him that he should have to purchase one for himself. Another case is that of a man who suffered a double knee amputation. He was in France, and my information is that he had to carry on eight months' correspondence before the Minister would allow the expense for the journey to London for fitting purposes. I should be very glad to give the Minister the information in my possession, and I am sure I should not have to ask him twice to give it his sympathetic attention.
I notice that the Minister has been holding a series of conferences. I hope they have proved as useful to him as they did to me when I had the honour of holding them and addressing them. I should like to know whether these conferences were with chairmen only, or whether they were general meetings? Although I do not want to ask the Minister to take up unduly the time of the House to-day, it would be interesting if he could tell us a few of the things that the chairmen told him. Did they tell him whether there was any volume of complaint from the districts of which they were in charge; and what kind of efforts do they still make for keeping in contact with the disabled men whom they are appointed to serve? I hope the Minister will be able to say one or two things, if only about his experience in that connection.
I want to say one further thing about that class of pensioners, the ex-service men who are called the prematurely aged. I notice that in the Minister's address, in October or November, he expressed doubt as to the conclusions which have been reached by certain of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, as to the effect of service on a man's condition. The Minister quoted conclusions which had been reached, mainly in the Dominions, that service conditions, so far from militating against a man's success, rather help him to a condition of life which would prosper him after the service has been finished with. I cannot accept the conclusion of the Minister in this connection, but I suppose we shall have to await that full report which is coming from the Legion. I am wondering whether the Minister, in deciding to confine his conclusion largely to the experience gathered by the Dominions, had 2208 any evidence as to circumstances here. Has his own Department been making any such study as to this question? If so, can he give us any information as to its conclusions?
My last observations will be with regard to the Legion report. First, I would like to ask the Minister whether he knows if the Legion examination is confined in its scope to consideration only of the position of the men regarded as prematurely aged? There is one other point. As I said at the beginning, I understand that the direction for the compiling of this report was from the British Legion Conference held in July. Is it intended that this report is to go back to the Legion again at Whitsuntide, for ratification, before any action can be taken, either by the Minister or the Legion? What is to be the position of the Minister if he finds that he cannot accept the report and its conclusions? Suppose it contains nothing of value so far as his administration goes. It may be unsatisfactory from many points of view. One hopes that it will not; but, in that event, has he any plans of his own which he can lay before the House to-day?
In view of all the circumstances, I want to repeat my request that he will seriously reconsider the judgment he expressed some time ago, I believe on behalf of the Government, that it was not the intention to appoint a Select Committee. I hope that the representations which have been made will show that there is only one satisfactory sort of examination, and that is through the kind of Select Committee which I have again suggested to-day. The Legion report will probably be a most valuable document. At the same time, I cannot help feeling that it would have been better for the Government to have accepted the responsibility for this work through its own inquiry, and that this course will, after all, prove necessary. There is a rapid decline, unfortunately, in the volume of work to be undertaken. Figures that I have show that during the seven years from 1929 to 1936, 51,000 pensioners died, giving a mortality rate of 16 per 1,000 among ex-service men, as compared with 7.6 per 1,000 for adult males of the same age. These natural causes are bound to continue, and they will make the work of the Ministry less and less each year. This fact, combined with the others to which I have alluded, and taking into account the 2209 general change in circumstances and conditions, and the accumulation of cases of uncertainty and difficulty, appear to me to make this the most opportune time for a general and complete survey. I would rather see the Minister act now than wait for a continuous pressure from inside and outside the House, which he may find himself unable to resist.
I have tried to put as fairly as I can the case as I see it. I do not underestimate, or fail to appreciate, the difficulty of the Minister and his Department, but the position of many ex-service men is so exceedingly grave that we cannot ignore it, even if we desired to do so. This House and the Minister cannot rest content with the position as they find it today. I ask the Minister to take as bold action as he can to deal with some of the defects which have arisen. They are nobody's fault, but somebody has to deal with them. However bold the action necessary, I can assure the Minister that he will have complete support from all quarters of the House.
§ 12.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Kingsley Griffith
I am sure we should be extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman raising this subject today: first, because we could not spend the few hours remaining, before we go away, better than by considering the case of these men, to whom we still owe so much, and, secondly, because if, over a long period of time, the transactions of this or any other Ministry are left undiscussed in the House, it must inevitably lead to a spirit of complacency, which may not be justified. Without saying anything personal to the Minister, it would be an entire mistake to imagine that, because it is a very long time since his Vote was considered, for that reason everybody in the House and their constituents were satisfied that all was well with the treatment of the disabled ex-service men. After being in this House for some time, one begins to form a kind of automatic estimate as to the chances of getting any particular application through to a particular Minister, but I have been led to approach the Minister of Pensions in a mood of chastened pessimism—it may be true of any job a Department has to do—because after the lapse of time it is harder to establish the facts necessary to get what one wants. That impression remains in my mind. 2210 The right hon. Gentleman above the Gangway, who has such a vast experience in dealing with this kind of case, has put the matter so thoroughly to-day, that he has eased the task of those who may follow, and I intend to take up only a few minutes in addressing the House.
One particular class of case has occurred to me again and again, and that is, that of the widow who claims that the death of her husband was due to pensionable disability, and it seems that almost any and every excuse is taken to find that it is not so. If pensionable disability is put on the death certificate as the cause of death, and there is something else added, perhaps some cardiac complaint, that seems to be good enough, in nine cases out of ten, to form the ground for a decision that death is not wholly due to war service. When one considers that in the nature of things, when all things come to an end, in all probability subsidiary and secondary diseases and symptoms occur, and I wish that the Ministry could take a more generous view and give the benefit of the doubt more often than, in my experience, it has been found to do. The same kind of thing occurs when a man is suffering from a certain definitely pensionable disability and some secondary disability attacks him, thereby greatly increasing his incapacity. Too little attention is paid to the common sense certainty that the man's power of resistance to disease has, in so many cases, been gravely lessened by his original pensionable disability. When that is so, the most generous view should always be taken, and I am not satisfied that it is. It is because of problems of this kind—I have put only two, but the right hon. Gentleman above the Gangway put a great number which he had found as a result of his great experience—that I support him wholeheartedly in two of the suggestions that he made.
The case for a Select Committee was made out by his speech, and I earnestly urge that it should be given the full consideration of the Government. He made the admirable suggestion that the Minister should have at his disposal an emergency fund to deal with cases which do not come strictly within the warrant. In so many cases—and I am sure that the Minister must recognise them—he has to end a letter which has been most amicably expressed by saying, "Unfortunately 2211 there is no fund at my disposal to deal with the case." The House would be delighted if the Minister were put in the position that he did not have to end letters in that way. It would be, of course, a matter for his discretion. One could not possibly envisage a tremendous extension of expenditure, but there are cases where, I am sure, the Minister himself must wish that he had at his disposal some fund which would enable him to take an action which he feels to be right and reasonable but which, at the present moment, he cannot take. With these few words I would again say how welcome it is that we should have this discussion before we go away, because there are a great many ex-service men up and down the country who have rather been thinking that they were being forgotten in this House, and they will be reassured by this Debate.
§ 12.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Butcher
I join with the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) in welcoming this discussion at this time of the year, because I believe that there is a very widespread feeling not only among ex-service men, but among those who, like myself, were too young to serve in the last War, that the time is now ripe to re-examine the question and the warrants under which pensions are granted. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the ex-service man to establish the facts which the Minister properly requires him to do. For example, over the period of years there have been deaths, as referred to by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, among ex-service men. There have also been deaths in the ranks of the normal medical attendants looking after these ex-service men, and similarly there have been removals. I have a case in which I am engaged at the moment, with which the Minister is very kindly dealing, where an ex-naval man of pre-war service, and having served in Jutland, has subsequently gone blind. He is endeavouring to prove that his blindness is due to war service. The difficulty he is up against is that his medical attendant has removed. He lives in a distant country village, and the difficulties in this case are really very great indeed. I would welcome some action by the Minister. If in the present day we could relax, if at all possible, these regulations 2212 upon which the Minister properly insists, it might be possible for the Ministry, as its work is being reduced, to place more assistance, by means of travelling representatives, at the disposal of claimants. I put forward that suggestion for the consideration of the Minister.
The only other point to which I wish to refer is the question of the prematurely aged. As recently as Tuesday last the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), in referring to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, said that the passage of years had aged him. I find that the Foreign Secretary has occupied his post for only two years. Many of these men served for four years, and if arduous service in this House shows—in the hair only perhaps—on those who have the honour to be Members of His Majesty's Government, it shows equally on the ordinary man who served in the War. When a man goes to an employer, the employer not unnaturally and unreasonably selects a man with the appearance of greatest virility and strength, and the ex-service man is perhaps, therefore, penalised in some way. I hope that at this time of Christmas, when we saw by last evening's newspapers that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport had given London a Christmas box, my hon. Friend will imitate that example and make an announcement of good cheer for the ex-service men.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Major Milner
I, with those who have already spoken, very much welcome this Debate, because I feel that the Ministry of Pensions have, in the course of years, got into somewhat of a groove, and it is time that some awakening process took place. In some of the matters which they administer a very unsatisfactory state of affairs exists. I want to deal with one particular question with which the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. F. O. Roberts) did not deal. I refer to the rather delicate and difficult subject of the termination of pensions payable to widows, on the ground of alleged unworthy conduct on their part. As the House knows, there is power under Article 10 of the Royal Warrant vested in the Minister to terminate or suspend any pension in a case where in his opinion the pensioner is unworthy of a grant from public funds.
2213 There are, no doubt—and I should be the last to dispute the fact—a great many cases where it is right and proper, the facts being as they are, to terminate a widow's pension. I make no defence of or excuse for a soldier's widow who is guilty of a course of misconduct extending over a period of time; but there are many cases where the pension is terminated without a scintilla of evidence which would be accepted in any courts of justice. I am speaking from my own experience of a number of these cases, in regard to which I was more particularly active in years gone by, and from that experience it seems to me that the whole procedure in these matters from start to finish is extremely unsatisfactory, un-English and unfair, and is designed to put widows under a disadvantage rather than the advantageous position in which, in my opinion, and I hope in the opinion of the House, they ought to be put. One gets the feeling that the whole question is prejudiced and biased from the commencement.
In my experience—and I am speaking only from the cases which I have taken up—the Ministry seems to decide on inferential evidence only. I have had a number of cases where, as far as I know—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—there has been no direct evidence of any kind. The procedure is usually this, that the Ministry or some official of the Ministry receives an anonymous letter from some source or other, perhaps a neighbour. I asked the Minister a question to-day whether he would give particulars of the proportion of reports that had originated in anonymous letters, but he was unable to give me those particulars. Perhaps he will give the House some idea in the course of this Debate, because I assert—and I have some grounds for what I am saying—that 90 per cent. of the reports made as to these widows emanate and originate from anonymous letters.
§ The Minister of Pensions (Mr. Ramsbotham)
That is quite inaccurate. Only a small minority originate that way.
§ Major Milner
I am not going to say that I do not accept what the Minister says, but I have been informed by other occupants of his office that that was the fact. Whether that be so or not, the Ministry receives information from some source. They then make inquiries. I 2214 do not know who are their inquiry agents. I have heard various stories, I have heard that they are members of the British Legion, that they are voluntary agents, that they are paid inquiry agents, and so forth. Perhaps the Minister will tell us the truth in that regard. I only know that in the cases that have come within my own experience the agents of the Ministry have made inquiries. They make inquiries from neighbours or from the landlord. They pick up any gossip in a village or town and put down as gospel truth every bit of tittle-tattle they get. They even go so far as to misrepresent their position in making these inquiries. I know of a case where the Ministry's representative represented himself as an insurance agent in order to make his inquiries. In another case the agent went to a house where a widow resided and asked - whether Mrs. So-and-So was in, using the name of the man with whom the widow was supposed to be associating. The reply was that there was no Mrs. So-and-So there, but that the woman interrogated was Mrs. Jones, or whatever her name might be. The point is, that the Ministry's emissary distinctly endeavoured to trap that woman, in an unguarded moment, into saying that she was the wife of the man with whom she was supposed to be associating.
When the information has been obtained the procedure, as far as I can understand, is that the report is passed on to the local committee and up to the Special Grants Committee. The Special Grants Committee appears to be a very curious body. From what the Minister has told me to-day, it consists of 14 members, presided over by a distinguished ex-permanent secretary at the Home Office. On it there are a number of people who have had some experience of public affairs. The committee sits in secret. Its names are not publicly known. I assume perhaps the Minister will tell us that they make various reports to the Ministry of Pensions on these cases and also on other matters. These 14 people sit in judgment subject, of course, to the Minister's final responsibility on these cases, and on many other matters. It is remarkable that during the past year out of those 14 members there has been an average attendance of only four. I do not know whether this is a paid or an unpaid committee. I imagine that it is an honorary committee, but it seems to me a very disgraceful state of affairs that out of 14 2215 members it has an average attendance of only four. What confidence can the general public have in a committee which has an attendance of only about 20 per cent.?
That committee sits in secret. It has before it, I understand, the reports from the inquiry agents in writing. It is not permitted, apparently, to hear viva voce evidence. The accused is not permitted to appear before the committee or to be represented before the committee. The accused woman has no right to cross-examination of any kind or to know any particulars of the evidence which is put in writing and used in secret before that committee. The committee, apparently, accept these reports as true. They start from that hypothesis and a verdict is given. From the figures given to me by the Minister this morning, in over 50 per cent. of the cases reported the pension is terminated. Apparently, there is no warning given. There is no suspension of pension, but it would appear that in a few cases the pension is put under administration of some kind. There is no right of appeal and no periodical review. I asked in my question what action is taken on the reports, and all that the Minister gives me is the number of pensions terminated, but no cases of any warnings given or any suspension of pensions such as the committee or the Ministry are empowered to give. It seems to me that those powers are unused by the Ministry. The simple fact is that in over 50 per cent. of the cases the verdict is "guilty," and the pension is immediately terminated. There is no right of appeal. There is apparently no review by the Ministry of these cases at regular intervals. In my experience I have not known one case which has ever been put back on pension once the pension has been terminated. When we receive particulars of these cases we are not permitted to see the papers in the case. That is my experience. I have made inquiries from the predecessor of the Minister, and I have not been permitted to see the reports or the evidence on which the pension of my constituent was terminated. Why, I do not know.
If we want to submit additional evidence to the Ministry it must be in writing. I have to give my case fully to the Minister, but the Ministry do not give me their case. I am not permitted to see the evidence. I do not know whether 2216 it is good, bad or indifferent, or whether they have any evidence at all on which they make a decision. In the majority of cases it is purely hearsay evidence, and would not be accepted in any court. The Ministry write sympathetic letters saying that they will be happy to have any representations I care to make in writing, or any representations by the widow whose pension has been terminated. Again, in my experience, nothing happens. We are up against a stone wall. Frequently the Ministry do not reply to the correspondence inside a month, except by a bare acknowledgement, and very frequently their letters are a complete evasion of the question. The whole system, in my view, is extremely unsatisfactory and reflects little credit on the Ministry of Pensions.
Let me take a particular case. I will not mention names, but I have known this case for a considerable time, and have almost given it up as a bad job. A widow living at different times at different addresses acted as housekeeper to a man and at all these addresses without exception other members of the family, father, mother, brother and sister, lived in the same house. As work became available in one district or another so did the whole family, together with the lodger, go to a house in the different districts. All the time these other members of the widow's family lived in the same house, and the man in question was an old friend of the family; he had known them for over 30 years, and there is not the slightest tittle of evidence as to misconduct. That pension was terminated. The man who was alleged to have associated with the widow was never interviewed. The person who could admit or deny the truth of the assertions which the Ministry were making was never interviewed. I do not get my information of this case from the Ministry, but from various other sources. In this particular case it is alleged by the Ministry that the widow was known as Mrs. So-and-so—the name of the lodger. Everybody from whom I have made inquiries denies that statement. It is the case in which the inquiry agent endeavoured to trap the widow by asking whether Mrs. So-and-so lived there.
It was also alleged that the widow was on the voters' list in the same 2217 name as the lodger. Apparently, the Ministry did not ascertain the facts, or, if they did, took no notice of them. But the facts are that the lodger's unmarried daughter has the same Christian name as the widow, and when the voters' list was compiled the daughter was living in the house, and in that way the daughter's name was put on the voters' list. Then it was alleged that the widow was drawing her pension not in the village where she lived, but in an adjoining town, and that she was thereby trying to hide the fact that she was a pensioner, that there was something sinister about it. The Minister regarded this as one of the reasons for terminating the pension. The truth was that the widow had drawn her pension in the village, but because her last residence was near to a large town to which she went to do her shopping, and which she had known from her childhood, she drew her pension in the town. What was more natural than that she should do so? I have seen that woman, a respectable hard-working, decent woman. There is another case where a man had been dead two years and yet the Ministry terminated the widow's pension without warning, and without any suspension of the pension.
The real fact is that the Ministry, or the Special Grants Committee, decide purely on hearsay evidence, purely on the reports of their inquiry agents, which they always accept as true. Such evidence would not be accepted in any court of law. I am told that there are members of the Special Grants Committee who for a long time have been unhappy about this state of affairs, and are not at all satisfied that justice is being done. In my submission the whole procedure is wrong. Before such a serious step is taken as terminating a pension there should be in all cases a right of the pensioner to appear and in all cases the widow should be supplied with a precis of the evidence. The court should have legal members, or the tribunal should be a judge or some other legal luminary appointed for the purpose. There should be a right of appeal on new facts. If the verdict is guilty, then, in appropriate cases, I submit that a warning would be quite sufficient, or a period of probation, or a suspension of the pension. All cases should be reviewed at regular intervals, and in the case of a review the widow 2218 whose pension is being terminated should have notice of the review and should be allowed to appear before some tribunal. The pension, of course, ought to be renewable, and regularly renewed in appropriate cases, as, for example, in the case of a single foolish act of misconduct.
Why it is that there are no particulars of these cases in the Ministry's report? I have looked at the last report of the Ministry of Pensions, but it gives no particulars as to how many widows have had their pensions terminated. No information is given in it as to the constitution of the Special Grants Committee. Why is there all that secrecy in a matter of this sort? Is there, or is there not, something to hide? No statistics are given on the basis of which we can form any opinion of the true state of affairs, and in order to obtain information, we have to address questions to the Minister. Moreover, the reports of the Ministry seem to be published at very irregular intervals, since the last report in the Library was published in July, 1936. Why is it that no report has been published for the last 18 months or thereabouts?
Hon. Members and the Minister ought to remember at all times that these women are the widows of men who gave their lives in order that others might live. I knew many of these men, and they believed that their widows and children would be looked after by a grateful country, that no advantage would be taken of them, and that they would receive all sympathy. I hesitate to say what my feelings might lead me to say, but in this matter, as in so many others, I feel that many of the soldiers who fought in the Great War have been misled and betrayed. Year by year the Ministry of Pensions are saving many thousands of pounds at the expense of soldiers' widows, whose pensions are terminated by a mere stroke of the pen of the Minister and who have to go to the Poor Law authorities, to depend on relatives or sometimes even to beg. The whole position is a gross scandal, and a reflection on the Ministry of Pensions and on every Member of the House. Let me make it clear that I make no personal reflection upon the members of the Special Grants Committee, who are appointed by the Minister. Of them, the only thing I say is that they ought to attend to their duties and not to have the record of 2219 attendances which has been read out to us to-day. Secondly, they ought not swallow at its face value every report put in front of them by those who make these inquiries. Thirdly, surely they ought to apply some principle of law in regard to this evidence.
I expect the Minister will say that he will be very happy to consider any representations or evidence that I may put before him, and to have any of these cases reconsidered. That will not satisfy me. I have no confidence in the judgment of any of these tribunals. A moment or two ago the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens) was sitting on the benches opposite. Let me say that I should be quite content to hand all the evidence on both sides to some independent gentleman having legal knowledge, who would make an independent review. I should be very happy if these cases were taken before any independent tribunal, so that those who decided them were not judges in their own cause.
I wish now to address a few specific questions to the Minister. What is the proportion of acquitted cases to the number of cases reported? What is the proportion of warnings and suspensions to the number of complete terminations? Is the Minister willing that accused widows should have the right to appear or to be represented, and if the law does not provide for that as at present, to take steps to alter the law? Is he willing that any responsible Member of Parliament should have the right to see the files and the evidence on which his or her constituent has had a pension terminated? What is the proportion of cases voluntarily reviewed by the Minister? What is the proportion of pensions which, having once been terminated, are renewed? Finally, is the Minister willing either to have set up a Select Committee, as suggested by my right hon. Friend, or alternatively, to do the very least that the House can expect, to have these cases reviewed by independent tribunals? Or does he desire all those women, of whom in my view there are quite a number, whose pensions have been unjustly terminated, to suffer for ever?
I wish now to deal with another point altogether. There are cases where the Ministry obtains, or professes to obtain, 2220 an independent medical opinion, usually, I believe, from some medical gentleman nominated by the Medical Association. Is it true that in some cases—I do not know the proportion—those opinions are given merely on the basis of the papers, which include medical reports given by other medical men, and that the independent medical gentleman in some cases never has an opportunity of making a personal examination, and gives his judgment, which may have such serious effects, solely on a perusal of the previous medical reports obtained by the Ministry? I happen to know of one case where that was the position. I submit to the House that it is extremely unsatisfactory that any medical man should presume to give evidence in such a serious matter without making a personal and independent examination of the person concerned. I conclude by expressing the hope that this Debate will stir up some interest in this matter and possibly awaken the Ministry of Pensions from its mood of complacency, which has existed too long, and that it will lead to an improvement and the setting up of the Select Committee for which my right hon. Friend asked.
§ 1.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Lipson
I do not intend to follow the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) in the particular topic which he has chosen, in his strictures on the Minister of Pensions, or in the heat he has shown in his observations; but I entirely agree with him on two matters. In the first place, like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am glad that this subject has been chosen for consideration, and I think every hon. Member will agree that it is well worth our giving time to it. Secondly, I agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman that we ought not to forget what we owe to these men. We ought to remember the promises that were made to them when they were asked to serve their country in the War, we ought not to forget the services which they rendered, and the victory which they helped to give us. Therefore, I feel that we ought to be sure in our minds that not only justice, but full justice, has been given to the claims of these men for pensions, and that there should be no suspicion that in any way we have not been fair to them.
My own experience with the Minister has been such that I cannot support 2221 the suggestion that there is any lack of sympathy on his part. As a new Member of this House I am not familiar with procedure, but when I have put forward claims for pensions, I have found that if a claimant was not eligible for a pension, and if there was some other source from which it was possible to help him, the Minister has gone out of his way to indicate to me what I ought to do. Like other hon. Members I have had to bring before his notice many claims and I wish to pay my tribute to the sympathy with which those claims have been received. Because I have had that evidence of the Minister's sympathy in these matters I support all the more confidently the plea for a Select Committee of inquiry. I believe that there is, among ex-service men, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with their treatment. The only way to decide whether there is any justification for that dissatisfaction or not is an inquiry.
I have served as a member of a guardians committee, and it was most humiliating to me to see ex-service men coming before that committee seeking for relief. A Select Committee should be able to establish whether or not that sort of thing is necessary; whether a man who applies for relief is entitled to a pension, or whether he is receiving the full amount of pension to which he is entitled. Another point which ought to be considered by such a committee of inquiry is whether, in dealing with applications for pensions, sufficient attention is paid at present to the opinions of a man's own doctor. We have been told in connection with the health campaign for which the Ministry of Health is responsible, that full consideration must be given to the part played by the general practitioner and the family doctor in connection with national health. We know that in our own households the opinion of the family doctor is of value because he has known the family for many years and is able to add to his medical knowledge an experience of his patients as individuals which no other doctor, however eminent in his profession, can profess to have. Therefore, when we have the experience, as many hon. Members have, of getting one opinion from the man's own doctor as to whether a disability is due to war service or not, and a contrary opinion from another doctor, one feels that more attention ought to be paid to the opinion of 2222 the family doctor than is paid to it at present.
I would also like such a committee to consider the important question of the prematurely aged. Members of the House know that a real problem in connection with unemployment is that of the ex-service men of 50 years and over. There can be no doubt that ability to secure employment is affected by war service, and that these men are suffering in that respect, as a result of what they have done for their country. We feel that they should not be so penalised. I, therefore, strongly support the plea, which has been advanced with such ability and moderation by the right hon. Gentleman who opened this Debate, that a Select Committee should be appointed by the Minister to inquire into these questions. If the Minister accedes to that request, it will be further evidence of his practical sympathy, and it will bring home to the ex-service man and to the country, clearly and definitely, the fact that Members of this House are determined that these men shall receive just treatment, and that if any debt is owing to them we are willing to pay it. I cannot see any objection to such an inquiry. If its result is to vindicate the Ministry, and show that all is well, the Minister should be pleased at having had the inquiry. If its result is to show that there is still more to be done in regard to this subject, then I believe it is the wish of the House and the country that that should be done.
§ 1.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen
I join in the appeal for the appointment of a Select Committee. Since I came into this House in 1922 I have taken a deep interest in the administration of the Ministry of Pensions. At first I had a feeling that many of the difficulties connected with that administration were due to the hard-heartedness of the Minister in charge. It was only after long experience that I found that these difficulties were not due so much to the Minister as to the procedure which has grown up round the administration of the Pensions Acts. Every Minister whom I have approached, whatever his political colour, has shown sympathy with the cases I have put to him, but has found himself tied by Act of Parliament in such a way that he could do very little. This House has a great responsibility in this matter, and the time has 2223 come for us to see that the victims of the Great War are not left in poverty and misery if we can provide means of dealing with the problems which now exist. Among those problems is that of the seven years' limit. In order to get over that point, a dispensing power was used, and the Minister set up a procedure which operated to help many people who were in difficult circumstances owing to the working of the seven years' rule. But even that alteration is inadequate to deal with all the cases, and I submit that a prima facie case has been made out for doing something more to deal with the operation of the seven years' rule.
In every aspect of the working of the Ministry something similar could be said. The Minister, when he was dealing with this question previously, told, for example, how in cases where there was a conflict of medical testimony he had arranged to give an ultimate appeal to an eminent physician appointed, I think, by the Royal College of Physicians; and yesterday, in reply to a question of mine, he was good enough to agree in a particular case that there should be an appeal to a distinguished physician in this way. But I am not convinced that this procedure meets the case at all, because, as I understand it, the Ministry puts at the disposal of this physician the records of the case and asks him to pronounce on those records. That is only a one-sided presentation of the case, and what I think is necessary, where there is a conflict of medical testimony, is that there should be a medical referee before whom the applicant should be able to put his case for adjudication.
In the particular case to which I refer, a distinguished medical authority in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary gave a certificate in favour of a woman, and other physicians gave certificates, but all that was put aside by the Ministry, and I understand now that the Ministry is going, in view of those representations, to put its records before some other physician and to say, "Have we acted rightly?" I shall not be satisfied, and I do not think any hon. Member would be satisfied, with that. There should be a presentation of the case for the applicant by some person who can really put the case effectively as against the case for the Ministry, and I would ask the 2224 Minister that, before the case is put to the medical referee who will be appointed by the Royal College of Physicians, the applicant should be asked to submit the medical evidence anew directly through the Ministry to the medical referee. I would also like to ask that before further steps are taken in the case, the Minister should send to me a full statement of the procedure that he is going to pursue in this matter.
I mention this particular case only in order to say that I do not think the reference to an ultimate medical authority in this way is a satisfactory solution of the difficulty. My own view is that the medical referee should be the medical adviser of the applicant. If an applicant can bring the medical testimony of his own medical adviser, and if there is doubt in the case, according to the old principle the benefit of the doubt should be given to the ex-service man. It has been said again and again in these Debates that if there is any doubt, the benefit of the doubt should be given to the ex-service men. I myself raised that point on one occasion with the Minister through personal correspondence, and I was given the reply that the Ministry could not trace this undertaking, but if I am not mistaken, it was given to the House of Commons during the termination of office of the present Postmaster-General, when the administration was being questioned with regard to hard cases. I say that the ultimate medical authority should be the medical adviser of the person concerned, because he knows more about the case than do the distinguished medical gentlemen of the Ministry down here.
Another way in which, I think, these cases should be dealt with, is that there should be a pensions committee set up by the local authority in the district. I know that there is a local pensions committee, and that there are various people interested who work on it, but I would like a more responsible committee, a committee that is responsible to the electors in the district, and if it came to a decision approving a pension, that decision should be determinate—it should determine a case—and there should be nobody in Whitehall who should be entitled to say, "You people locally are all wrong." If that is not possible, I say that the present local pensions committee should be the final authority with regard to a case. It presents a case to the Minister, and it 2225 feels that a pension should be given, and then somebody up here looks over the case and decides that the local pensions committee is wrong and that it is not a case in which a pension should be given.
There is another point. It is the case of the woman who got married to a man after he had left the Army or after he had received his wound. It was laid down that a pension should not be given in such a case, the idea behind this rule being that possibly women would marry wounded men in order that they might get a pension on their husband's decease. But it is a long term of years since the War now, and I submit that in the case of a man who got married even after his wound, if the marriage has existed for a certain time, there should be reconsideration of the question whether, in such a case, the widow should not be granted a pension. All these kinds of questions are worth while considering by a Select Committee. There is another type of case that irritates me exceedingly, and that is the case with regard to chest troubles. I have had replies from the Minister that his medical authorities have decided that the amount of aggravation of bronchitis has passed away. I myself have suffered from bronchitis, and I know that when a medical man is talking like that, he is talking through his hat. How can he tell about the amount of aggravation by looking at a person, tapping his chest, putting his stethoscope on him, and hearing nothing, but letting on that he does, and carrying on this magic game of make-belief of the physician? They are giving a sounding, and they are acting in the same way as any witch doctor of a native tribe. They tell us that the aggravation has passed away, or they say that 40 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the trouble is due to service.
All this shows that there has been injected into the administration of pensions a type of mind which has failed to realise that when the Ministry of Pensions was set up the country wanted these people to be generously treated. It is always argued that there is a responsibility for expenditure from the public purse in order that no unworthy person got a pension. This guarding of the public purse has led to unworthy persons getting pensions and many worthy people not getting them. Wherever you go throughout the country, you will find in practically every street a hard case of an 2226 ex-service man who had been refused a pension, or the case of the widow of an ex-service man. The Minister said, in reply to a question the other day, that he would like evidence from me of this widespread discontent. I will issue a challenge to him now. I will go with him to his own Division and I will guarantee that in practically every street, if we borrow a chair in each street and say what we have come for, we will in about five minutes have an ex-service man or his widow telling us about his or her hard case.
There is any amount of evidence. Every time I visit my Division I get new heart-breaking cases. Members on all sides are united in desiring something to be done. If it be said that I am taking an extravagant view, a select committee will make the position plain. It will give the opportunity for the British Legion and for people who have had experience of the hard treatment of pensioners to put their evidence forward. So many new hard cases are arising because so many of the men who served are only now beginning to feel the effects of their war service. I sent a case to the Ministry only this week. It is one of those cases of a man who is assured that his present physical condition is due to the effect of his war service. The doctor says, "How can we tell? Men in civil life who were not in the War are showing similar disabilities." If the man's own medical adviser, who has had experience of him during the years since he came back, has come to that conclusion, his voice should be of greater authority than that of some doctor in London.
§ All these questions need ventilation, and I cannot understand why the Minister should reject this widespread appeal. It is not an appeal only from this side of the House; it is also the demand of the Conservative party that there should be the fullest inquiry, because no one wishes ex-service men not to be treated decently. The Minister will be well advised to seize upon the opportunity that is presented to him by this appeal from all sides of the House to appoint a select committee with wide powers of reference, so that the whole position can be inquired into and recommendations made as to the necessary steps to avoid injustice to those who served in the Great War. There are many of these cases that have caused heart-break to all of us, and if a select 2227 committee is set up I am assured that it will be one of the most valuable committees that the House of Commons has appointed, and that it will be the means of helping to bring justice to many poor people who have been in despair.
§ 1.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Ellis Smith
I am sure that my hon. Friends will welcome the support which is being given to the appeal we are making by the two hon. Members who have spoken from the other side. I would refer in particular to the speech of the hon. Member who indicated clearly that he was reflecting the feeling in the industrial centre which he represents. What applies to his area can be applied to every industrial area in the country. I want to produce evidence that can go on the records of the House in order that during the Recess the Minister and the Cabinet can consider it. I am convinced that if they are prepared to give the same sympathetic consideration to this question as Lord Baldwin was prepared to do 18 months ago, something will be forthcoming as a result of this Debate. Had the national crisis not have arisen when it did, and had not the ex-Prime Minister had to give all his attention to it, this question would have been dealt with before now. The Notice of Motion which has been on the Order Paper for nearly 18 months should go on the records of the House so that the Minister, the Cabinet, and hon Members on the other side can consider it. The Notice of Motion is:That a Select Committee be appointed to investigate the administration of the Ministry of Pensions with particular reference to war pensions and applications for war service pensions; that the Committee have power to receive evidence from ex-service men, widows of ex-service men, and to send for persons, papers, and records.One would have thought that the feeling that existed at the Conservative conference at Scarborough in October would have reflected itself in this House among the Government supporters before now. As, however, the Government supporters have not been prepared to reflect the feeling of that conference, it behoves us, with our national responsibility and as representing the people of the country, to reflect it. There is no need to remind the Minister of what was said. He himself took up the attitude at the conference that the 2228 country was honouring its pledges to ex-service men, and there were loud cries of "No" from all parts of the conference. I could quote extract after extract, but as my time is short owing to so many other Members desiring to take part in the Debate, I will only say that I hope the Minister will be good enough to re-read the report of that conference.
We suggest that while those investigations are taking place, more generous treatment should be given to the applicants for pensions and to those who desire medical attention. In the Coal Bill it is proposed to compensate the royalty owners to the extent of £65,000,000, and the Government have also decided to allocate £10,000,000 in order that the Commission can cover any difficulties which may arise. If it is right to do that in the case of the Coal Bill, a substantial sum ought to be placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Pensions in order that the benefit of the doubt may be given to all applicants for a pension or applicants for treatment. Let me make it clear that under no circumstances do we want this matter to be dealt with on a charitable basis. For too long ex-service men have been left to charitable institutions. They ought to be a national responsibility of the Government, and of the Ministry of Pensions in particular. When ex-service men apply for pensions, if their medical record is such as to show that they should receive pensions or medical treatment it ought not to be left to charitable institutions to deal with the cases. It ought to be the right of a man to claim that, seeing that he served his country, he should receive the treatment which the country would desire him to have.
I cannot approach this question in the detached way of some hon. Members. I always feel that I myself might easily have been one of those men. As I go about the industrial centres and London I see a large number of men begging for coppers, playing musical instruments and walking along the roads in groups and on crutches. Evidentally they have been wounded. As I pass them I often think I might easily have been one of them, or that my dependants might have been in the same position as their dependants. I cannot approach this question in a detached way. I would remind the House of what we owe to these men. I have a copy of a poster in the Imperial War Museum. It was an appeal for Welshmen to join the 2229 Army as pioneers and it is signed by D. Watts Morgan and others. That is typical of the appeals which were made in industrial centres during the War. The men for whom we are speaking risked their all for the country, and now the country desires that the Government should treat them in a worthy manner, and that they ought not to be forced to go on to the streets or to beg from door to door. If only we can get justice for these men they ought to be prevented from going on the roads, because any one with any humanitarian feelings feels a shudder down the back when he sees them suffering as they are. When justice is meted out to them by the Ministry of Pensions those men should no longer be allowed to appear on the streets.
In the last 10 years there has been a reduction in expenditure by the Ministry of Pensions of approximately £24,000,000 and we say that that economy has gone on long enough. I would specifically ask the Minister of Pensions to tell us who it is that is preventing justice being done. When I talk with the Minister I find that he is sympathetic; when I talk with Government supporters they are sympathetic; individual members of the Government with whom I speak are sympathetic; and in the library and in the corridors of this House Member after Member expresses sympathy with our point of view since last I spoke on this question. They say they desire that this, that and the other should be done.
Seeing there is that sympathetic feeling in all parts of the House I repeat, "Who is preventing something being done? Is it the Treasury?" If it is the Treasury, I would remind hon. Members that it is the House of Commons that represents the people, and that it is the Cabinet which is the Government. If it is the Treasury which is holding up this matter, it is time the Cabinet dealt with the issue. Is it true that a policy of economy has been laid down for the Ministry of Pensions? We are all prepared to accept the verdict of a Select Committee on this issue. We are not asking for anything extravagant or unreasonable, only that a Select Committee should be set up to investigate the whole position, investigate the grievances of ex-service men, and the widows of ex-service men in particular. We have sufficient confidence in our case, we consider it so reasonable that we should have no hesitation in 2230 awaiting the findings of that Select Committee.
I do not want to go into individual cases, although I have upstairs a large pile of correspondence dealing with them. The only one I will quote is that of a man who joined the Army in 1898. He served in India and was on active service and under fire on two occasions. This man was on active service all the time from 1914 to 1918. He was wounded in the Dardanelles, and only those who went through the campaign in the Dardanelles can really appreciate what our men did endure there. He was wounded also in France. I have a photograph of the man. When young he was a proud young man, a picture of manhood, a true patriot if ever a patriot lived. Now this man receives 10s. a week old age pension and 5s. from the public assistance committee. He is a broken-hearted man, so broken hearted that he is thinking of applying to go into the institution. It is for such men that we are speaking this morning.
Not only are we interesting ourselves in this matter; a large number of organisations throughout the country are taking it up. I have here the last report of the officers' benevolent department of the British Legion. As did previous reports, it reflects the feeling which we have been trying to present to-day. I have received many letters from branches of the British Legion supporting our attitude. In the Minister of Pensions' own report there is an analysis of the administration of War pensions from 1916, and although I cannot agree with the conclusions I think there is sufficient evidence in the report to show the need for investigation on the lines we suggest. When a person is affected with physical defect or disease he is handicapped in life, especially if he has to depend for his living on manual labour. Only those who have had to depend upon manual labour know how great that handicap can be. Physical defects and diseases, most of which are attributable to War service, affect not only the men in obtaining their livelihood, but their wives and children, and are reflected in mental torture and economic difficulty, for which there is no excuse even in the present state of society, in view of the fact that those men were prepared to risk all.
New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America have a far better administration of war pensions. According to a report 2231 which I have on the subject of Germany and other Continental countries, and to graphs which it contains, our treatment of ex-service men is better than in those countries, but that is not much consolation to us. In this country and the Dominions we set up an altogether higher standard of treatment, and we therefore ask that that standard should be maintained. It is not being maintained in the present pensions administration. I admit that local pension committees, and British Legion branches in particular, as well as many other voluntary organisations, have done, and continue to do, great Work on behalf of these men. The present position is unfair to the sacrifice and the voluntary work that is taking place in the organisations catering for ex-service men, and therefore, in justice to those organisations and to the men for whom we speak, we are not unreasonably asking that during the Christmas Recess the Government should consider the facts that have now been placed upon the records of the House—not only from these benches, but from others—and should see whether sufficient evidence has been put forward to warrant them instituting a Select Committee to investigate the grievances of the men.
§ 1.59 p.m.
§ Dr. Haden Guest
I have risen because I want to put one or two medical points on this matter, and to bring to bear upon the discussion some of my personal experiences. I believe that there must be a large number of men who, if they had chosen to apply for pensions shortly after the War, would have obtained them. Some unsympathetic people used to say that a large proportion of the applicants were "swinging the lead," which is a well-known expression, and denied that a man entitled to a pension would fail to apply for it. That was by no means the case. There was, as everybody who was in the Service knows, a small proportion of expert lead-swingers, but most of those who applied had definite reason to do so. A demobilisation pension was given to some men, much to their surprise. I myself, when I was demobilised, received a pension without asking for it, on the ground of disability. Although I had been A.1. on enlistment I was now B.2, but that was due to the fact that I had recently had an attack of malaria, which passed off.
2232 A great many people who ought to have pensions do not apply for them. There was a certain type of man who would do almost anything rather than apply for a pension. When I acted as medical referee for a considerable time, it was my experience that a number of people were so averse from applying for a pension that they came under the notice of the officials—in that case, myself—only when they were really at the last gasp. I remember very vividly a man who applied at the pensions office in Chelsea where I was acting as medical referee. He came in apologising for coming in, and saying that he did not feel quite all right, that there must be something the matter and he thought he really ought to have a certain amount of attention. I examined him, and wrote a note, folded it and hurriedly passed it to the clerk outside. I said in it: "You must do something for this man at once, under whatever paragraph of the regulations you do it, because he will be dead in three weeks." I was wrong. That man, who apologised for making the application, was dead in a fortnight and not three weeks. He was a very severe case of the after-effects of malaria, which he did not realise. There must be many such people who do not realise what is the matter with them.
There was the similar case, although not exactly for the same reason, of the man who was formerly a Captain in the Guards. His profession was that of mining engineer. After the War, although he had had a severe time in the War, he did not apply for a pension. He had, as a matter of fact, been a bombing officer, and had been blown up on a number of occasions. He had had a great deal of suffering and had been in hospital. He did not apply for a pension when he was demobilised because he thought he could go back to the part of the country where he had been living before and take up a position again as mining engineer at a good salary of something over £1,000 a year. He did not want to live on the country, and therefore did not apply. He was able to carry on his work as mining engineer for only a short time, when he broke down with neurasthenia. He belonged to some of the most famous clubs in London and was well known to Members of this House and of another place, but he gradually went down step by step in the social scale until finally 2233 he reached the point at which I made his acquaintance. [Interruption.] Yes, hon. Members will realise that that indicates very serious degradation.
I made his acquaintance not only as doctor. Having need of a housekeeper for the house where I was carrying on my medical practice, I interviewed a woman who explained that if she was to come as housekeeper she must bring her husband with her. I met her husband, and he explained who he was. I said it was very unfortunate, and asked what was his history, and she told me. This was a gentleman who had been a captain in the Guards, a man earning a large income, who had not chosen to apply. The last I saw of that ex-captain in the Guards who did not apply for a pension was when he was brushing my boots in the kitchen. It does seem to me to be rather a tragic kind of case. I believe there are a large number of people of that kind who ought now to be receiving pensions but who never applied for one reason or another, and I consider that a review of cases of this class, which now must be proportionately more numerous than the other classes of cases, ought to be undertaken.
The question of premature old age is a very important and a very real one. Old age, of course, is a disease at the present time, and a good many people are becoming prematurely aged. Undoubtedly, the men who went through the War and suffered a great deal of shock and stress are now showing signs of that stress. I am not going to weary the House by giving many medical cases, as I might have done, but from my own experience I know of a large number of cases in which men have shown signs of premature break-up because of the strain to which they have been subjected, and it seems to me that, if a Select Committee were to review the question of this premature old age, they would find strong evidence of the existence of a great number of these cases who certainly ought to be looked after. The figures quoted by my right hon. Friend of the proportion of deaths of ex-service men as compared with the proportion among adult men of the same age—16 per cent. in the case of ex-service men, and 7.6 per cent. in the case of men of the same age who had not had that experience—suggest very strongly that there should be an investigation.
2234 I believe that, if the existing ex-service men were medically examined—and I make this as a concrete suggestion—and if they were compared with men of the same age who had not suffered from the same disability, or perhaps had not been through the War, the ex-service men would be found to be suffering from very definite disabilities owing to the nature of their war service. There is no doubt that everyone who went through the War at the front for any length of time suffered from it to some extent. A great many men suffered from it very badly indeed. I believe that on these grounds there is a strong case for a review of a large number of these cases. I believe there is a very large number of what I may call concealed cases of men who ought to be in receipt of pensions and are not in receipt of pensions, and I very strongly support the plea made by my right hon. Friend for the setting up of a Select Committee.
§ 2.9 p.m.
§ Mr. Kelly
I was hoping that an even more rapid method of dealing with the complaints which have been mentioned would have appealed to the Government than that of a Select Committee, but I am prepared to support the setting up of a Select Committee to deal with these matters. I was rather surprised when the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) expressed just a little surprise himself that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner) had shown some heat when he was speaking. I thought he had not shown sufficient heat, in view of the cases that he quoted to the House. I would ask the Minister, whether, in view of all the cases that have been submitted to him, he himself feels happy at the number of refusals he has to make in the cases of men who, as the last speaker related, would not, even though they might well have been entitled to do so, claim a pension, because they did not desire to become pensioners.
I have come acress more than one case of that kind. We now find that, with the methods adopted in industrial and commercial life in this country, with the rush and scramble to make a livelihood, these men are now feeling fully the effects of the service they rendered to the country, and many of them, quite rightly, 2235 feel bitter when the country which promised them so much in 1914, which promised clearly that they and their relatives would be looked after, now turns them down at a time when they are feeling the full effects of the service which they then rendered. I know we are reminded at times that the Royal Warrant does not allow these men to be entitled to pensions because of their refusal to claim, or because secondary causes are found—because there is some other point which brings in some kind of doubt with regard to their particular condition. But, there was no doubt in the statements made in 1914 when the country wanted the men. Those statements were not meticulously examined as to whether there were going to be qualifications in connection with the pensions which would be granted to men who had rendered service to the country. I hope that a Select Committee will be set up, and that it will engage upon its work from day to day in order that a speedy report may be presented.
I want now to deal briefly with a point which was stressed very strongly by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Leeds. It is with regard to the Special Grants Committee. I will try if I can to be temperate in my language, but my experience of the performances of that committee is such that I really cannot understand any body of men and women in this country acting in the way that the Special Grants Committee act in cases which come before them. Not only do they refuse to face the person charged with her accuser, but they will not make known who makes the accusation against the woman. I am sure it will be a surprise to every decent-minded person in this country when they understand that there exists in this land at this time a committee which will accept any gossip, after a little investigation in the locality, against a widow, will believe it, and then will deprive her of her pension. I am not going to refer to cases in detail. It would be wrong to give names in this House, because, once a charge is made against a woman, you have to be very careful not to use her name in public, because of what her neighbours and the public generally will think attaches to her until she is proved innocent. But the Special Grants Committee have decided, I suppose, or someone has 2236 decided for them, that British methods are not those to be applied to the widow of an ex-service man. She is guilty because someone has gossiped about her—guilty even if there is no proof—and then she is called upon to prove herself innocent.
That is not the case when a man or woman is accused even of murder. In the courts of this country a person is treated as innocent until he is proved guilty. He has to be faced with his accusers and witnesses have to give evidence on which there can be cross-examination. Dates and times and places have to be stated, and every opportunity given the accused person of defending himself. With these widows that is not the case. I know of one who has asked time and time again to be faced with her accusers. That case has been going on for 2½ years. During all that time the committee have been taking evidence from various people and trying to clear up the matter. Throughout that investigation there has not appeared anything which I can find which had the slightest appearance of proof of guilt in the case of this widow. Yet she has been deprived of her pension for 2½ years. I found that at one period of the investigation even the record of her family was gone into. I do not know what would happen to Members of this House if in addition to anything that can be urged against them the records of their families were taken into account. I am afraid things would look black for some of them.
In addition to that, I discovered a woman who confessed that she was one of those who had accused this widow of these offences without having the slightest knowledge of them. She said that she was intensely sorry and deeply regretted the fact, and said that she had done it because someone had instigated her to do it out of revenge. When this was put before the Special Grants Committee, despite the fact that the woman declared that she had made these charges falsely, the committee said that the woman had never laid the charge. To-day that widow is still deprived of her pension. I hope that something is going to be done in that case, even if it means a change over of this particular committee. I know of another case which strikes me as particularly bad when one remembers that we are shortly to have a Bill dealing with 2237 penal reform, and are to be asked to make provision in that Bill so that those who have offended once shall be given some method of treatment which will not keep them beyond the pale for all time. This is the case of a woman who made one slip, who was taken advantage of while on holiday. She did not live with the man who was responsible for the child she bore. But she has been deprived of a pension for all time because of that.
It may be that the Government think it right to deprive these people of pensions, but I do not think that Members of this House will think it right that these women should be deprived of pensions and accounted as guilty simply because an accusation is made against them. In all other cases where there has been a lapse the conditions under which it occurred are taken into account. There is one other matter on which I wish to say a sentence or two, and that is in reference to the question of allowances to men under treatment. I know of a case where a man in all probability may have to lose his arm. He has struggled on for years. He paid for one operation himself and did not even claim the treatment allowance to which he was entitled. In that case the Ministry are looking meticulously into his circumstances to see if he has any surplus income and to find out how much treatment allowance can be kept from him. I ask that these men who rendered service to their country which I am sure every Member of this House will admit, should have proper treatment allowance when they go into hospital for treatment. Even though it may appear generous in some cases, that is better than this examination to see how much can be kept from these men. Those are but a few of the points which I should like to put before the House. I ask that these ex-service men and widows should be given the treatment that was promised in 1914, and that the present practices should be abolished.
§ 2.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Dobbie
I do not intend to submit individual cases, although like previous speakers I know of many, because if a comittee of inquiry is set up, that committee will have the opportunity of considering all these cases. The appeal for a committee of inquiry has been endorsed not only by all hon. Members who have 2238 spoken to-day, but, as one previous speaker remarked, it has been endorsed by every Member to whom he has spoken. Such a committee is demanded by every organisation representing ex-service men. I desire to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the way in which he presented his case for the appointment of a Select Committee. I believe that in nearly every constituency, probably in every constituency in this country, there are numbers of disillusioned and disappointed men. In the country generally there are thousands of these disillusioned and disappointed men, who 20 years ago left their homes and their jobs because of a genuine desire to defend what they thought were great ideals. They listened to platform oratory, they listened to the politicians, and they became convinced that if they risked their health and their lives in this cause and in defence of the country, a grateful people would not forget. We have heard stories here to-day which show that the people of the country and the Government have forgotten.
Those men are now believing that nobody wants to be bothered with them or the difficulties that confront them. Those of us who worked with those men before the War, and who live among them now, sometimes believe that hon. and right hon. Members on the other side of the House, with the best desire to do what they believe to be right, really fail to understand the desperate character of the struggle which those men and their families have to live. We are asking a Government that can find hundreds of millions of pounds for preparations for the next war, and millions of pounds to subsidise industry, to give some attention to these people. I am not blaming the Minister of Pensions, because he has his rules to work to. I am challenging every Member of the House, and saying that we have a responsibility, which we cannot place upon any Minister or the Cabinet or any other body, because it is the sacred responsibility of every Member of this House. I am sorry that there are not many Members who seem to-day to be alive to the promises that were made to those people.
We are just breaking up for Christmas, and all of us will be issuing a Christmas and New Year message. Those forgotten men will see those messages confronting them, and I wonder of what they will be 2239 thinking. Every time I have gone home, I have met men with whom I have worked, and whom I have watched after they have come from the War steadily deteriorating. It may be said to me that age and time bring deterioration to anybody, but the result of wounds, and their sufferings from gas and the other inconveniences these men have received, bring about a deterioration fiercer in character and faster in progress than that to which the average man is subject. These men at this Christmas time will be thinking of the past. They will see again the great crowds of 1914. They will hear the silver voice of the orator in their memories; they will remember the pledges made to them, and the circumstances in which they went away. They will remember coming back wounded, and how they were cheered. They will remember that it was then motor car rides and "fags" for them, but that now it is the public assistance committee and rags. They will remember how they were disappointed and disillusioned.
We want a committee to go into the question of the award that was made. I think the whole award is mean and contemptible in character and amount. We shall be told that if it is wrong now, it was wrong in the beginning. Of course it was wrong in the beginning. The award was never adequate for those men. Who can measure the amount of disability suffered by a wounded man? The only man I know who really measures it is the employer, and, at present, with that great devil's army of the unemployed in the country, what chance has the man with a disability pension to obtain employment if the employer knows anything about his disability? And if the employer does not know about it before the man begins the job, he will soon find it out, and it will not be long, as experience has shown, before the man finds himself again in the ranks of the unemployed. There can be no percentage disability pension for a man who has lost a foot, an arm or a leg. He has lost the whole of his capacity to enter industry on equal terms with the young men who are coming along.
Because of all those things, because of the promises made to these men, because of their disillusionment, because of our responsibility to them, for the good name of the country, I would ask the Minister 2240 —I know he cannot give us the promise that he will do those things, because he has not the power—to join with us in the demand to the Cabinet that an inquiry shall take place for the purpose of reviewing the whole incidence of payments to disabled men. I ask him to take this message to the Cabinet, feeling that if he takes his place with us the Cabinet will be sure to agree.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I apologise for intervening at this stage, but I understand that there are one or two other matters of a different character to be raised to-day by hon. Members. I shall, of necessity, be some time dealing with the very interesting Debate to which we have listened. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. F. O. Roberts) and his friends, who have raised the matter of the administration of war pensions, and I share the regret expressed by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Dobbie) that there are so few Members present to hear the Debate. Occasions on which it has been possible for the Minister of Pensions in the last few years to explain the administration of his Department or to defend himself against criticisms which are made in this House, and, often in a less intelligent fashion, outside, have been few and far between. I think it is eight years since the Ministry's Estimate was called for in this House, and on not one occasion since 1931, while hon. Gentlemen opposite have been in Opposition, has my vote been asked for. It is possible that ill-natured and uncharitably-minded persons will infer from that that hon. Gentlemen opposite have not taken that interest in the subject which they might be expected to. To-day's Debate will go some way, at any rate, to remove that impression.
I have listened to a number of speeches and I have heard, what I expected to hear, that there were allegations of general discontent and dissatisfaction with the administration of the Ministry and with the position of the ex-service man—I would here interpose that the Ministry is responsible solely for the disabled ex-service man. These general allegations are very easy to make and very difficult to disprove. I am somewhat disappointed to-day at not having heard more concrete evidence which would 2241 serve to prove not only the general discontent, but that there was any substantial reason for such general discontent. It is true that the resolution passed at the Conference at Scarborough has been quoted as evidence of general discontent, but I have already given to the House a specimen of the evidence and of the statements of so-called fact which were put forward at that conference. Other statements, equally untrue, were used to procure that resolution, and neither I nor, I think, the House should treat a resolution of that kind as satisfactory evidence of general discontent.
What other evidence have we? A number of complaints presented by hon. Members. This year the number of complaints presented to the Ministry by hon. Members of this House totalled 3,129. There are something like 4,000,000 ex-service men. Therefore, the percentage of complaints to the number of ex-service men bears a proportion of.07—[AN HON. MEMBER: "How many disabled ex-service men?"] There are 450,000 disabled ex-service men, but the Debate to-day has taken in a much wider review than the disabled man only, and, therefore, I think that the hon. Member will agree that I am correct in giving the percentage compared with the total number of ex-service men. The percentage of complaints from hon. Members is.07 of the total number of potential complaints, and, that being the case, it is very difficult for any hon. Member in this House, with his own knowledge of his constituency, to say that there is general discontent. It is a matter individual to himself. He receives, and I receive from my division, complaints that entitlement is not given when the complainant thinks that it should be. We all get them, but I do not think that any hon. Member is entitled, from his necessarily limited experience, to come forward and say that, as a matter of knowledge and of evidence, there is general discontent and dissatisfaction throughout the country.
I will give an instance of the way in which hon. Members may be misled. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker)—I regret that he is not present, but I know that he takes a great interest in this matter—[An HON. MEMBER: "He has been present."] He is not present at the moment. He produced about a year ago, at my invitation, a number of cases with 2242 which he was dissatisfied. In 14 of those cases I advised him in each individual case to request the complainant to present himself at the area office, and, as they were all fresh cases, to state his case and, if necessary, be medically examined. To this day 12 out of those 14 complainants have not yet appeared, and the House will realise the difficulty which that sort of thing causes to the Ministry of Pensions. You receive a complaint, but you do not get the opportunity of saying whether or not the complaint is justified. I see that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bromwich nods his head. He has had, no doubt, the same experience. In the case of my own constituency, anyway before I was Minister of Pensions, and in the case of the constituencies of hon. Members, of necessity we only hear one side of the case. We have not all the relevant facts.
The hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith) knows very well of the case which he presented to me a short time ago in which the constituent complained that he had war service between 1916 and 1918, and the hon. Member very naturally put up that case believing in the bona fides of the statement. It so happened, I have no hesitation in saying to this House, that the constituent had forged the certificate. I mention that to show the difficulty we are in unless we know the other side. We have had the question raised just now of the local doctor. It has often been suggested that the word of a local doctor should be final. The hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) made that suggestion, but another case of two or three days ago occurs to my mind. It was a claim for compensation for rheumatism or arthritis—I forget which—and the local doctor stated on his certificate that the arthritis was of traumatic origin due to service in the War. That means to say that it was due to a wound. But, in point of fact, on examination of the applicant's case he was shown to have never served out of England. The whole of his service he spent in the south of England and he was not wounded at all. I mention that to show the difficulty that would arise if the word of the local doctor were the final word on the subject.
§ Mr. Stephen
Surely the man might have received a wound in this country. He might have been kicked by one of the mules.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I agree that he might, but the evidence showed that there was no record of any kind, and the presumption I make is that he was not so injured. The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of the war pensions committees, and I mention that now because it is some evidence to rebut any suggestion that there is general discontent and dissatisfaction. In the last few months I have been holding conferences with war pensions committees up and down the country. I have only had the chairman of each committee to deal with at the conference, because the local committees have a membership of something like 25, and if in a big centre I wanted to see the whole of the committees, first of all they probably would not come, and, secondly, it would be difficult to get a room to hold them, so I have dealt chiefly with the chairmen of these committees. I have seen 60 or 70 chairmen of committees, and I believe that there are 100 more to see. I can assure hon. Members that in not one of these interviews with these chairmen have I met any confirmation of the kind of allegations that have been made here this afternoon, and which have been made outside. I have met, broadly speaking, with the general satisfaction of the administration of the pension system, and no desire whatever to have it turned upside down.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I have no idea what their politics are. They are persons of considerable repute in their own districts, members of local authorities, ex-service men, members of the British Legion and so forth. They are persons of considerable distinction and repute, and there has been no indication given to me at these conferences that there has been anything approaching the dissatisfaction which hon. Members suggest is prevailing. In further confirmation of that I go to the British Legion itself. It is generally agreed that the British Legion is by faraway the body with the largest experience of ex-service men, and its membership is something like 400,000. The only other body of which I can think representing ex-service men has a membership of about 1,200. The British Legion has very highly experienced officials, and is in constant touch with the ex-service men, and is not likely to 2244 give an opinion based upon ignorance or lack of acquaintance with what we are talking about. This is what it says in the last annual report:First claims to pensions"—and that is, broadly speaking, what we are most concerned with—still continue to be submitted and are dealt with by the Ministry of Pensions under the administrative arrangements referred to in previous reports. During the past 12 months, 59 such claims have been successfully handled by the Legion, whilst no case of this nature has, in the council's opinion, been unjustly rejected.I am bound to treat that evidence as important. It is authoritative. When I put that evidence against evidence which is generally of a vague character. I may be excused for giving preference to a statement of that kind. Only the other day, on 25th November, the chairman of the Pensions and Disablement Committee of the British Legion, speaking, I think, in the West of England, said that after dealing with 24,000 cases since he became chairman of the committee, there was only one case rejected by the Ministry with which he was not in agreement. Is it not remarkable that there should have been this experience of 24,000 cases and that only one was a subject of dispute in the final result? How can I, with evidence of that kind in my mind, say that I am convinced that there is the general discontent which is alleged, or that there is even sufficient to justify an inquiry for the purpose of finding out whether there is need for inquiry? It stands to reason that when statements of that kind are made from people in authority, they demolish the contention that there is either grave discontent or any substantial foundation for it.
§ Mr. Stephen
Would it be possible for the Minister to get the British Legion to send a circular to their members containing the statements which he has quoted, so that those of us who seem to have got a wrong impression will not be bothered by those members of the British Legion who, from what we have heard, are, in our opinion, being misrepresented by the Legion?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I have great sympathy with what the hon. Member says. Of course, I am not responsible for the procedure of the British Legion, but I 2245 see no reason why I should not make that suggestion to them, because it is an extremely good one. I have said that most of our troubles are concerned with fresh cases and further claims. On that point I would remind the House of the very sound and wise statement that was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich when he held the office that I now occupy. This is the statement that he made in the House on 18th November, 1929, when he announced the alteration in the over-seven-years' rule:At the present date, more than 10 years since the men were demobilised, cases in which disablement by war service can now be justifiably claimed for the first time are, as is admitted on all hands, few in number and will necessarily become fewer. Old war wounds thought to have been healed but giving trouble for the first time since the War, are readily identifiable and are already dealt with both by medical treatment and pension. New claims in respect of some ailment or disease are the more numerous, but comparatively very few cases"—this in his experience 10 years after the War—are found on investigation to be genuinely traceable to war service.That was the considered opinion of the right hon. Gentleman eight years ago, or 10 years after the War. He concluded:The situation is one that requires to be met by provision for a small and diminishing number of genuine cases only."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th November, 1929; col. 24, Vol. 2.32.]That is an important statement, and, as far as I know, an accurate forecast of what the right hon. Gentleman expected would happen during the administration for which he was responsible. Let us see what has happened. I have here the applications under the over-seven-years' rule and the percentage of successes on entitlement. Looking at the figures for 1930, the complete year for which the right hon. Gentleman opposite and his party were responsible, there were 19,024 new claims. That was to be expected after the alteration in the over-seven-years' rule. It was natural that the alteration should bring in at once a flood of new claims. Of those claims, a total of 1,915, or 10.1 per cent., were recognised by the right hon. Gentleman. That is one in 10. I mention this fact because suggestions have been made that I am less sympathetic and more harsh than has been the case in the past.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I am glad to have that statement. So far as policy is concerned, it will be seen that, from the point of view of the applicants, a more generous result has arisen in the years for which I have been responsible. Whereas only one in ten claims was successful in 1930, when there were 19,000 applications, and therefore a large field within which to exercise sympathy or laxity, in the years 1936–37 the percentage of successes averaged 17.4. In other words, one in six has been successful. That is the largest percentage of successes since the rule was altered in 1929. I can, therefore, claim that during the years for which I have been responsible there has been a larger percentage of successes than in 1930. I hope these figures will be widely known and that currency will be given to them in the country.
The hon. Member for Camlachie raised the question of medical examinations. The right hon. Gentleman opposite was himself responsible for a very beneficial and useful reform in that respect. This year the number of cases referred to independent medical experts is treble the number referred three years ago. I am making much more use of that power than apparently my predecessors did. When the hon. Member for Camlachie said that the independent medical expert should always see the man, I can tell him that he can always see the man if he so wishes. I cannot, of course, compel a specialist to visit a man, nor can I have the man sent to him compulsorily, but there is this point to bear in mind that as a rule, the diagnosis, is not in dispute. The point at issue is the causation of the disability. When there is a conflict between the medical advisers at the Ministry and the local doctor, the independent medical expert gives his opinion as to the cause of the disability. The right hon. Member said that there had been exceptional treatment and consideration for certain cases, but he did not counsel an alteration of the Warrant, although in the same breath he apparently wanted a new Warrant or an addition to the Warrant. I imagine that a new Warrant or an addition to the Warrant would considerably modify the present enactments. What does the hon. Gentleman want done? Does he want us to disregard the medical evidence?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
At any rate he said that we should be more elastic, more lax. That means that, somehow or other, we have to indicate to the members of the medical profession, whose duty it is to furnish me with a certificate before I can come to a decision, that they shall not, as they do at present, honestly and conscientiously tell me whether or not in their opinion the particular disability has its origin in war service, but that they should do something else—that they should be elastic and lax, and tell me something which they do not themselves fully believe.
§ Mr. Silverman
The kind of case we have in mind is where the facts are not in dispute; where a man joins the Army, is passed as fully fit for general service and was at the end of the War granted a pension, and where in 1927 or 1928 his final disability is assessed at 70 per cent. The cause of the disability is a form of heart disease admitted by the Minister to be aggravated by war service. Within two years of that date the man dies of heart disease. His widow gets no pension at all, because the Minister has to say that he is advised by the medical experts that, although he had heart disease, and although it was a 70 per cent. disability and that a man with heart disease might die at any time, the fact that he lived for a couple of years shows that the degree of aggravation caused by war service had long since disappeared, and that his death was due to heart disease not aggravated by war service. It is that kind of case we have in mind.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
The hon. Member must realise that under the Warrant he and I are dependent on medical opinion and advice. I will go into the case he mentions with him, and do all I can to satisfy him that there has been no injustice done.
§ Mr. Silverman
The Minister has had particulars of the case since June of this year, but so far no explanation has been given.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
If the hon. Member will remind me I will look into it again. In these cases I am bound by statute not to grant a pension without a certificate from my medical advisers, and unless we are going to put the whole of our 2248 pension system into the melting pot and imitate what has been done in other parts of the world, we cannot remodel our pension system or issue new warrants or fresh warrants and at the same time keep, as I think we must, the causation between war service and present disability absolutely intact.
§ Mr. K. Griffith
How would the Minister regard it if the form of medical certificate were to say that the present condition is consistent with having been caused by war service, but is also consistent with other causes?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I fully appreciate the point. The hon. Member asks me where does possibility end and probability begin. That is one of our great difficulties. We come across it in the phrase "benefit of the doubt." I have never heard this phrase better defined than in a publication relating to returned soldiers and sailors of Australia in which it is said:Considerable argument has always centred around the meaning of the words 'benefit of the doubt.' In practice it may be said that a 'doubt' must be something more than a mere possibility. It must be something which swings the balance of probabilities in favour of an appellant before he can succeed.That is as good a definition as I know of the "benefit of the doubt." There must be a probability, not a mere possibility and if we required a legal certainty it would mean that two-thirds of the present pensions would vanish.
§ Mr. Silverman
Surely that is not the benefit of the doubt. It says where there is a reasonable inference, not amounting to positive proof, the inference would be accepted in place of proof. That is not the same thing as saying that where there is a reasonable doubt, the benefit of the doubt will be given to the man.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
Quite clearly where the balance of probability is against the man, the benefit of the doubt is not with the man. If the probability of the doubt is in his favour, then the definition clearly sets out the kind of consideration which must tell in the man's favour.
§ Mr. E. Smith
I have in my hand a certificate sent to me by the Officers' Benevolent Department of the British Legion. These are certificates from world renowned specialists and they refer to: 2249the unsatisfactory attitude of the medical advisers on the Ministry towards the opinions of doctors who are in constant attendance on patients for war disabilities and who give certificates in support of claims and even the opinions of specialists who are called upon to examine those patients.Il is that aspect of the question which is causing so much dissatisfaction.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I should like to see that quotation, and perhaps the hon. Member will let me have it. The right hon. Gentleman raised other interesting points, but perhaps he will forgive me if I do not deal with the individual cases he mentioned. I was rather surprised to hear his criticism of the artificial limb centre at Roehampton.
§ Mr. F. O. Roberts
I did not criticise, but I endeavoured to state what I hoped was a question of fact. I think I have praised as highly as I can the limb-fitting centres, and I said that I was rather surprised to get that quotation.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I am sorry if I misinterpreted the right hon. Gentleman, but I will certainly look into the cases which he brought to my notice in his speech. I think it is not too much to say that the centre at Roehampton is probably the finest in the world. At the present time hospitals, insurance societies, miners' welfare committees and other bodies requiring artificial limbs for their associates make use of the Roehampton centre. Although there may be a dispute as to whether a mistake was made in individual cases, I think that generally speaking the House may rest satisfied that everything possible is being done in the way of providing artificial limbs for those who require them.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of partially disabled men, and he and other hon. Members dealt with the position regarding the employment of those men. That is a matter which has been causing me very great concern. There is no doubt that as the years go by it becomes increasingly difficult for men of the age of these pensioners, particularly disabled men, to get work. Hon. Members know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour is experiencing difficulty in connection with the 50 to 55 age group, which is the average age of our pensioners. They are having the same, if not greater, difficulty in getting and preserving employment as civilians of the same age.
2250 Nevertheless, the position is not as gloomy as might be expected. For instance, the Ministry of Labour returns for last October show that there were on the register 28,000 of these partially disabled men temporarily unemployed. That represents 7.4 per cent. as compared with 11.2 per cent. of the general population. Still, I am much relieved to find that the percentage of unemployment among what may be called my clients is lower than it is among the general body of non-disabled persons. I can assure the House that everything possible is being done to prevent that rate from becoming higher and to reduce it, if it can be reduced. I have been in constant touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, and I have put forward this scheme and that scheme for consideration. I have received assistance, as the House knows, from the King's Roll.
Some time ago the House made arrangements by which unemployed disabled ex-service men, in order to qualify for benefit, must have only 10 contributions in place of 30, and by a special arrangement they are kept in medical benefit free; and I give the House an assurance that I am watching the problem of employment most assiduously, and shall continue to do so. The passing of the years is bound to make the problem more difficult, but I am doing all that I can in the matter. The men are carefully classified at the exchanges, and before they come out of hospital, after receiving treatment, the exchanges are notified in advance, so that the men are not kept hanging about and are given the first jobs that the exchanges have to offer. I hope to take steps to make arrangements by which the local authorities can give more employment to these men in light jobs. In this matter hon. Members can help by doing all that they can in their constituencies for these men who find it difficult to get jobs.
I come now to the question of prematurely-aged ex-service men. As I understand it, the object of the British Legion inquiry is to find out whether there is a case which substantiates what is said in private conversation, that a large number of men have suffered premature ageing owing to War services. The right hon. Gentleman quoted some figures with regard to the percentage of deaths among pensioners.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
No, but may I take this opportunity of saying that those figures were not quite accurate. The actual rate of deaths among pensioners during the period in question was 15.5 compared with 10.5 among the civilian population. In other words, it is 45 per cent. above the figure for the civilian population of the same age, and I do not see how that can be avoided, because the pensioned man is ex hypothesi a damaged life and has been compensated for that. But it is rather encouraging to note that, whereas the percentage in this country is only 45 per cent. above the civilian population, in the United States it is 71 per cent. above the civilian population, and in South Africa 77 per cent. I attribute that difference very largely to the wonderful network of social and health services which exists in this country and which is not to be found anywhere else.
I come back to the right hon. Gentleman's point about the prematurely aged ex-service man. It is extremely difficult to pronounce an opinion upon the effect of war service in relation to premature age. There is, in the ordinary sense, no evidence and there cannot be any evidence, to show that premature aging is caused by war service. There are other hon. Members who, like myself, served in the War and who, fortunately, escaped unscathed. We do not know whether we are prematurely aged or not. We hope we are not, but we shall only know when it is too late. It is a subject on which, in my judgment, it is almost impossible to pronounce an opinion. I know that the British Legion have instituted an inquiry and I understand from the "British Legion Journal" that it was found necessary to extend the limits of that inquiry in order to embrace all ex-service men suffering from any disability however caused—whether by war service or otherwise. I have an open mind on the question. I do not know enough about it to be able to tell the House that there is no such thing as premature age brought about by war service, but it is a difficult thing to prove, and I would like to remind the House of what has been said about this matter in the United States where certain investigations have been carried out. An 2252 article in "The American Legion" of December, 1936, stated:Superficially regarded, the World War veterans are not greatly different from the rest of the American population, and might seem a reasonably typical cross-section of the men—and to a lesser extent because fewer of them were in the service, of the women—who were the youth of the Nation in 1917 and 1918. Closer consideration indicates, however, that as a whole they have definite points of superiority—physically because they had to pass rather stiff examinations before they got their uniforms; and mentally, because the poorer intellects were strained out in the same manner. Both physically and mentally most of them received benefits from experiencing months or years of the rigorous discipline of military life. It is true that some bodies and minds suffered impairments which would have been avoided had there been no war. But the net balance is on the other side.As we all know, pensions treatment in the United States does not err on the side of meanness.
§ Mr. Attlee
It will, of course, be realised that America was at war only for a comparatively short time, and that only a comparatively small section of the population there is affected. It is very different when you come to the case of a nation which was conscripted and was at war for four years.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I, of course, realise that fact and I am only submitting that statement to the House as far as it goes. But let us turn to Canada—for Canada was at war from the outset. The report of the Department of Pensions and National Health of Canada dated 31st March, 1936, contains the following:During the past few years many of the allies have noted through their pensions and insurance divisions, that the general health of the surviving members of their Expeditionary Forces is found to be better than that of a corresponding group of civilians, and that the fears which were abroad immediately after the War have not been substantiated, namely, that in general the returned soldier had shorter expectancy of life than a corresponding civilian.That is the opinion of the Pensions Department of the Government of the Dominion of Canada. I am not prejudging the issue—I do not know—but all I say is that the statement that there is any general premature ageing consequent on war experience which otherwise left the soldier undamaged should be taken, I think, with a very great deal of caution. It is a very long way indeed from being proved, and such investigations as have been made rather tend to a contrary 2253 opinion. I think that deals, broadly speaking, with all the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) was rather pessimistic. Perhaps he has been rather unfortunate in his experience in regard to cases that he has brought before the Ministry and has had a lot of bad luck, which I hope will not last, but I think he was a little unfair, or unjust, or hypercritical when he said that he thinks every excuse is taken to refuse a pension to a widow. I assure the House that a phrase of that kind does far from justice—indeed, does no justice at all—to those whose duty it is to examine these cases. If there is a medical opinion that death was due to or materially hastened by the War, there is no question of any excuse.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I hope the hon. Member will be more fortunate in future, and I can assure him that all his cases get: my own personal attention. Now I come to the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner). If ever this Debate was justified, it was justified for the benefit of the hon. and gallant Member for South-East Leeds, because I have seldom heard a speech containing such a travesty of the facts and betraying such a very small acquaintance with the subject of which he was talking. He was attacking the Special Grants Committee, and in connection with that matter I should be interested to know how much experience he has had.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
Then perhaps the hon. and gallant Member's recollection is not quite as clear as it otherwise might have been. What does he mean by saying that a widow has no opportunity of presenting her case, which I understand is the point of his disagreement with the procedure? Let me tell him what happens. If there is reason to suppose that this is a case which requires investigation, the War Pensions Committee acquaints the widow in question with that fact and with the evidence against her; they tell her of the charge 2254 made against her, and they ask her for her rebuttal in writing or orally before the committee itself, and I may say that in two-thirds of the cases in which a lady has been invited to appear orally before the committee, she has not appeared.
§ Major Milner
Do I understand the hon. Member to say that the Ministry notify widows that they have the right to appear and give oral evidence before the Special Grants Committee?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
The hon. and gallant Member quite misunderstood what I said. I said that it is the local war pensions committee, which is charged with the duty—It is all very well for the hon. and gallant Member to wave his hand like that. It is a very grave charge against the war pensions committee.
§ Major Milner
I never mentioned the war pensions committee. I mentioned the Special Grants Committee. I never mentioned the war pensions committee except as a mere channel of communication, it may be.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I am sorry if I misunderstood the hon. and gallant Member. It is common knowledge, I should have thought, that these cases are heard in the first instance by local war pensions committees.
§ Mr. Silverman
Does the hon. Gentleman mean that the local pensions committees hear the evidence on both sides?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
Certainly; the local pensions committee is charged with the duty of investigating and reporting on the cases. The committee is composed of the most reputable people. I gather that the charges are meant for the Special Grants Committee, and that charges against the local pensions committees do not exist, except in the hon. and gallant Gentleman's own mind.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I am sorry if I misrepresented the hon. and gallant Gentleman. The local pensions committee hears the case of the woman in question, who knows that she can give evidence orally before the committee. In the majority of cases rebuttal is confined to writing. When the phrase "accuser and accused" is used, it shows a complete misunderstanding of the whole 2255 position. The war pensions committee is not in the position of accuser and the woman is not in the position of an accused. There is a suspicion and a case for investigation, and it is the business of the committee to find out the facts and to report to the Special Grants Committee. The Special Grants Committee, as far as I am concerned, is a factfinding committee, and if it finds as a fact that unworthy conduct has been committed, suspension or forfeiture automatically takes place. That has been the position even since 1915. I gave the hon. and gallant Member details of the numbers of various cases. They were nearly double the number when his party held office, and, as far as I know, he never raised any point then or charged the Special Grants Committee with being prejudiced and biased, or said there was no confidence in its independence. One of his own colleagues will not be very pleased to hear that. One of the members is the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Jenkins), and the hon. and gallant Member ought to be more careful—
§ Major Milner
I understand that the hon. Member for Pontypool has not been able to attend the committee. He is not, therefore, to be held responsible. The fact that only four out of 14 attend on the average is a commentary on the Special Grants Committee.
§ Mr. Silverman
At what stage of the inquiry, if at any stage, is the woman against whom a charge is made given the opportunity of knowing what is the evidence against her and of meeting that evidence, and before what tribunal does that take place?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
The tribunal is the war pensions committee, which is composed of a number of her fellow-citizens. I agree that it is not a legal tribunal—
§ Mr. Silverman
I am asking at what stage of the proceedings, if at any stage, is the accused woman told what is the evidence against her and given the opportunity of replying to it. As far as my limited experience goes, it takes place at no stage. If it takes place at any stage, the House will be greatly relieved to know.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I do not think the hon. Member is quite correct, because 2256 when the suspicion is first aroused the war pensions committee regard it as their duty to approach the woman in question and acquaint her with the suspicion.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
She is told what the charge is, and she is told that she can make a written reply, or an oral reply, or both, and that if she chooses to do so she can rebut what is said against her. I agree that she is not confronted with witnesses, so that she cannot cross-examine any witnesses.
§ Mr. Silverman
Or know who they are. Is there any other court which would be content with that procedure?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
It is only in a minority of cases that an anonymous letter is concerned. In the case of an anonymous letter the difficulty would be to confront the lady with the writer.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
This procedure may have certain imperfections, but it has continued now through the time of the right hon. Gentleman opposite and through the time of other Ministers. What the hon. Gentleman is asking me to do is to sustitute for this the full-dress procedure of a court of law, with evidence on oath and solicitors and counsel.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
If the hon. Member made that suggestion in his own constituency I am certain that he would be turned down by his constitutents.
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
Perhaps the hon. Member will let me get on with other points. It is quite an error to suppose that on the occasion of a first mistake action against the woman is taken with full rigour. It is hardly ever that that is clone. On the first mistake a warning is given; at the very worst the action taken is the holding of the pension in trust.
2257 I think I have covered most of the points which other hon. Members have raised. The hon. Member for Holland-with-Boston (Mr. Butcher), has put the position rightly in saying that with the lapse of time there is increasing difficulty in establishing the connection between the disability and the war service. The great bulk of the cases nowadays are claims based upon ailments and not upon wounds. The cases which mostly come up for consideration are asthma, bronchitis, heart, and rheumatism cases. Those complaints are, as it so happens, the complaints which are most prevalent in civil occupations, according to the Ministry of Health. There is, in fact, an almost precise correlation between the incidence of those diseases among ex-service men and among civilians. It goes to show that advancing years bring on such diseases in civil life, and that makes my task in disentangling the war causes from civilian causes very much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
I mention that to impress upon hon. Members who bring me these cases that it is not any desire for economy, or any lack of sympathy, that leads to an unfavourable decision. It is due to the fact that it is my business, as being in charge of public money, to be satisfied that I am awarding pensions for disablements incurred by applicants in the War. If I go beyond that, if I am lax, if I do not ask for a reasonable degree of evidence to satisfy me, if I am content with bare possibilities rather than probabilities, I am to that extent betraying the trust which my office imposes upon me, and neither the right hon. Gentleman opposite nor myself would ever consent to engage in practices of that kind. We have to be guided by medical evidence, we cannot be guided by rough and ready evidence of a lower degree. In administering this system with as much sympathy and as humanely as possible, we have to have certain rules which we administer, otherwise there would be chaos. I suggest to hon. Members that it is our duty as far as we can to maintain the continuity of our system. As a rule we do not bring pensions into the vortex of party politics. The right hon. Gentleman has on previous occasions made appeals that the subject should not be treated from the party point of view, and I have always entirely agreed with him. There should be a continuity, and I believe it is because there 2258 has been continuity in policy that our pension system is the most regular and gives far more security compared with any other pension system in the world.
There is one further point. Hon. Members have pressed for an inquiry. I think it would be futile to institute an inquiry for the purpose of finding out whether there was need for inquiry. I have already given what I think is sufficient evidence to show that need for inquiry does not exist at present. As hon. Members know, the British Legion instituted an inquiry about a year ago into the subject of the prematurely aged ex-service man, and it has now been extended to ex-service men suffering from any disability, whether of War origin or not. The Scottish Legion sent out a questionnaire to a large number of its members. I think about 13,000 went out, and the Legion received about 2,000 back, of which, after the winnowing of the applications, some 300 were considered worthy of further consideration. The point is that, shortly after the questionnaire was sent out, the Secretary of the Legion received letters from various parts of the country making inquiries about the granting of a Coronation pension. By means of the Press and of the Legion organ, the Secretary had to take steps to make it clear to all the recipients of the questionnaire that the inquiry was solely for the purpose of obtaining information and was in no sense an indication or a promise of a pension, or that a Coronation pension was to be awarded as soon as the questionnaire was signed.
That experience shows the danger of holding out hopes by the setting up of an inquiry and of raising the same expectations, with precisely the same result as has happened in the case of the Scottish Legion. Expectations were raised by the sending out of the questionnaire; how much more would expectations be raised if the Government, before they were in any way satisfied that any evidence existed to justify inquiry, themselves instituted an inquiry? I believe that the final result would be to cause a good deal of hardship, disappointment and unhappiness among those who had learned of the Government's proposal. For that reason, at this stage at any rate, I see no reason whatever to accede to such a request for inquiry. I have already said that I have an open mind on many of the points, and 2259 I shall await the report of the British Legion and give it my fullest consideration.
§ Mr. MacLaren
It was complained that there was some difficulty, when a case was being reheard, about the sending of the evidence of local medical advisers; how far would the evidence of local practictioners be available, or does such evidence not carry any weight at all?
§ Mr. Ramsbotham
I see all the evidence, including that of the local medical practitioner, and certainly due weight is given to the information given by the local medical practitioner, who has the whole case before him.