HC Deb 13 November 1940 vol 365 cc1786-800
Miss Ward (Wallsend)

I very much regret having to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions a matter of dissatisfaction which I feel with the administration of his Department, because he is always so kind and helpful when one brings any cases to him in private, and I also have the privilege of serving on the War Services Grants Committee which operates under the control of his Department, but I find that in regard to one important point of administration very grave dissatisfaction exists, at any rate in my part of the world. I feel that I ought to raise with him publicly the question whether it would not be possible to have an inquiry into the operation of the means test in relation to the granting of pensions to dependants of sons who have been killed in the war. I have noticed that some pressure has been exercised upon His Majesty's Government by the trade unions and other organisations of the Opposition to the late Government, and that an inquiry has been held into the household means test in relation to the granting of allowances to the unemployed, and I thought it would be appropriate if my hon. Friend would institute an inquiry into the operation of the household means test in relation to the grant of pensions to dependants of those killed in the war.

In my constituency I have been into the homes of people who have lost their sons in the war. When I had a few minutes' conversation with my hon. Friend on this subject the other day he seemed to indicate that he had not had a great deal of critical correspondence on the subject from dependants affected by the death of their sons in the war, but I do not think it is entirely right to go by correspondence, because my constituents are very sparing in the correspondence they send to me. I have always been in the habit of visiting very regularly, almost street by street, any of my constituents whom I believe to be in difficulty or in trouble, and while it is almost true to say that I have had no correspondence in this subject, whenever I have gone into their homes I have heard great bitterness expressed at the administration of this particular class of pension. Thus I feel that I am justified in raising this matter publicly.

The House will be aware that the grant of a pension to dependants is based on need. I should say in passing that in my constituency I have not found a single case in which a dependant's pension has been granted. When an application for a pension is made, a note generally goes from my hon. Friend's Department to say that the applicant has established his right to a pension, which means that there was a contribution from the serving son to the home, but that no pension is payable on account of the death of that son unless the family fall into financial or pecuniary difficulties, and that then an application should be made to the Ministry of Pensions and the position will be reconsidered. Of course it is obvious that there must be some merit in this arrangement, in that where there has been no contribution to the upkeep of the parents or the home, and no allotment made, the parents will still be able to apply for a pension should they fall on evil days.

I am pretty good at explaining Government policy to my constituents, but I can say without fear of contradiction that I have never found any task so difficult as to explain to parents whose sons have been killed in this war that in spite of the fact that the son was making, sometimes, quite a considerable contribution to the household it is only if they fall on evil days, when in any event the State would have to accept responsibility, that they will be entitled to a pension from the Government.

I want to quote one or two cases. I have been unable to find on what basis a need pension is payable. I am thinking now of a boy who went down in a submarine. He had made a very handsome contribution to his mother. She was already a widow, drawing a widow's pension. She had two daughters, each earning under £1 a week, and, of course, the girls had to pay travelling expenses out of that money. She had one son of 15, an office boy, earning something like 8s. a week. He also had to pay his travelling expenses out of the money. The woman had had a small legacy out of which she had purchased a house, and she was still making up the balance of the house-purchase money by paying a weekly contribution to a building society. In addition, of course, she had to pay rates.

As her household income stands at present, it is impossible for that woman to remain in that house unless she obtains some kind of recognition of the contribution that was paid from her son during the time that he was in the Service. She has received the usual little note from the Minister saying that the fact has already been established that she is entitled to a pension, but that it will be payable only if she falls on evil days. Would the Minister like to go and explain to her that she must leave her home, which she has bought, and go to live in a smaller house, that, when the years pass and those two young daughters marry, perhaps, and leave home, and the boy grows up and takes on responsibilities of his own, she will be left with a widow's pension of 10s. a week and His Majesty's Government will be graciously pleased to accept responsibility for her and make a contribution to her home? I found the greatest difficulty in explaining to her the basis on which pensions are granted to dependants.

I would quote another case, where the son, at considerable sacrifice on the part of the parents, obtained a commission in the Merchant Navy. During the time the boy was serving his period of apprenticeship the father fell out of employment. These people are a very worthy and thrifty family. In order that the boy need not be deprived of his chance in life the parents kept him, out of their savings. Finally, after, I think, four years, he obtained his commission, and an extremely good job with a first-class shipping company. He made a handsome contribution to the home because he wanted, if he could, to enable his parents to put back into their savings the money which they had spent on him. After nine months of war, he was torpedoed and drowned. The father at the present moment is employed as a driver to the Admiralty. The same answer goes to them, that if the father should lose his employment, if he falls on evil days, if sickness overtakes him and he is incapacitated for work, he will be entitled to a pension from the State, but that, at the present moment, he is not entitled to a pension from the State. There is that man, having spent all his savings, and the family, feeling extremely bitter against the Government, because they say: "Have they no regard for what we tried to do for our son? Now he has sacrificed his life for his country, and there is nothing for it."

I take another case of a widowed mother in which the son was making a contribution before he was called up. Out of that contribution to the home another son was being trained to become a chemist. That mother also is drawing a widow's pension. There is certainly an income going into the home, but it is a very small one. There are other earning members of the family, but they are not in a position to keep up the payment required in order that the younger might qualify in the profession in which his brother hoped to qualify. I did put up that special case, but again a letter has gone from the Ministry of Pensions to say that no pension is payable. I would quote another type of case. It relates to a girl in a miner's family. One son went down on one of our naval ships. The father is a pitman and, from time to time, he works short time. He is in rather frail health and is in receipt of National Health Insurance benefit. Taking his income over a period of months he may qualify for a pension or he may not, but, up to the moment, he has failed to establish his right to a pension, in the eyes of the Minister. It is a difficult position for a man to be continually writing to the Department and saying, "Now that I am drawing National Health Insurance benefit am I entitled at this moment to a pension?" Or, "Now that I am working short time for a period of three or four months during the summer, am I entitled to a pension?" He is employed at a colliery which produces for the home trade. That kind of person does not bother Government Departments as much as I do, and once he gets turned down he thinks that that is the end. I find it extremely difficult to believe that when the Statutory Committee considered on what basis dependants' pensions should be granted they went really fully into the question whether the method which was decided upon would work out in practice. Theory is one thing and practice is another.

I want to get on to one of my pet theories for one brief moment. I have always understood—I think I have understood it from my hon. Friend and certainly from a good many other Ministers—one of the very few things to which I take exception in our democratic system. I dislike intensely the fact that Ministers often have to stand up in this House and defend actions or policies which are being supported by their Departments although, behind the scenes, they have fought a tremendous battle with the Treasury, and lost. I dislike the Treasury psychology intensely. I dislike the method, and I would very much like to see—although I cannot imagine it will ever come my way—the applications that have been made to the Treasury from my hon. Friend's Department, the War Office, or the Ministry of Health for what appear to be fair and honest policies, but which have been turned down by the Treasury.

I would here take the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the regional department of my hon. Friend's office. Whenever I go there I have the greatest possible support from the officials, who are always willing to investigate any case. They are most helpful and do everything they possibly can. They are there, and have human contact with these problems; but here sit those Treasury people. I would like to take some of them round the streets in my constituency and make them explain to the people what they are doing—but not to me, because I say exactly what I think. I am prepared to fight for these people until the death, but I should like to have Treasury people there with me to give explanations.

I must not continue for very long on this particular topic, but I would say this. In this particular form of administration, in this particular decision that was taken by the Statutory Committee which advised the Minister, no account whatsoever has been taken of the reduction in the standard of the home. It does not matter what the contribution was. It is true to say that it might not be justifiable to ask the State to accept responsibility for a single man living at home for the rest of time. I recognise that a son is only a son until he gets a wife. But in this country sons have a deep affection for their homes, and many of them have taken on towards their parents responsibilities which do not run on for years but which have a limit. There are very many sons who have been helping parents to buy their homes for their old age. When the home is bought the son's responsibility ceases. From what I see of the present method of granting pensions to dependants, none of those obligations or responsibilities are ever accepted by the hon. Gentleman. In fact what the hon. Gentleman, on the advice of his Committee, has said is: "Only when you have no other means of support, only"—as somebody very bitterly expressed it to me—"when you are down and out, can you come to the State and get a pension." There are hundreds of thousands of parents in this country who have sacrificed their sons and who will never be down and out; I am very glad to know that they will not, but the fact is that when you suddenly take from them a contribution on which they have relied, in very many instances you seriously interfere with the comfort and the standard of the home.

We all have to make sacrifices—we have been told it so often—and sacrifices will be demanded of us. That may be so, but in relation to war allowances, in relation to the operations of the War Service Grants Committee, so long as the son is alive we try to maintain the standard within reason. Yet when the son is taken away the only standard is "If you are in need." What I resent so bitterly—and I know my constituents resent it very bitterly—is that in any event if one was in need the State would accept responsibility, and there is no contribution from the wealth of this country to those whose sons have made the supreme sacrifie. I am astounded. I have been round home after home where husbands and sons have been lost and I have never heard one word of bitterness. In fact the whole spirit is: "We can bear it if we win the war." We all know that the spirit of this country is magnificent, but I want to take this opportunity of telling the hon. Gentleman that the one tiny bit of bitterness which I do detect comes from the type of persons whom I have been describing.

I know that perhaps to-day I am only one voice speaking, but I believe I have some small understanding of human psychology, and I know that if this war goes on and cases of this kind are multiplied by hundreds and thousands—we pray that it may not be so, but no one can tell what the future may bring—the day will come when the whole of the pressure of this House of Commons will be exerted towards getting an alteration of this particular type of pension. I ask the hon. Gentleman now to institute an inquiry; I do not mind how he makes it or in what direction he makes it, but if he wants any evidence I am certain that many hon. Members will supply it to him. I ask him to see whether the dependants of sons who have been killed in this war are being fairly treated, and if not I should like to go with him to the Treasury and demand that the Treasury does the right thing by those people, and now, without a fight.

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)

May I thank the hon. Lady for introducing this subject, for this reason, that many hon. Members may be under the same misapprehension as she is about the whole subject, and therefore it is perhaps fitting that I should take the opportunity which does not often come my way of explaining what my Department is doing in this direction. The hon. Lady has paid a tribute to the members of my staff in that region in which her constituency happens to be situated, and I thank her very much indeed for that, because I have tried to instil into the minds of all my regional officers the absolute necessity of treating all cases brought to their notice with sympathy and with a desire to help to make a case good when it is a claim for a pension or an injury allowance. I am glad to know that they are carrying out the instructions that I have given.

Before I deal specifically with this question, may I make one reference to the Treasury? I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the Treasury are such hard-backed people as she evidently thinks they are. I have had to approach the Treasury time and time again since I took over the office of Minister of Pensions, and I am bound to say that whenever I have been able to put before them a really sound case I have not found them lacking in sympathy and in a desire to help. When I have had to make any application to them on behalf of parents, as I have had to do, I have found them quite in agreement with the suggestions I have put forward, and they have been prepared to find the money to pay. In these days—and I want hon. Members to realise this before I get down to the details of this particular part of my work—we are dealing with a problem so vast that it is almost impossible even for the Treasury to form any estimate of what the ultimate cost will be to this nation. We are not dealing merely with the Army, the Navy and the Air Force at the moment. My Department is responsible for those three Services and for the Civil Defence Services with a personnel of over 1,000,000 people who to-day are just as much in the front line as the members of the other Services and who at the moment are indeed bringing more claims against my Department than the Services themselves. Then I have the Mercantile Marine and the fishermen. They were not under my Department in the last war. There is the whole of the civilian population of the country—45,000,000 of people—and now added to that is the Home Guard. [Interruption.] I was pointing out the extent of the responsibility which my Department had in connection with the present war, and that whatever concessions I was able to make on behalf of those who are serving in the three fighting Services I must, of necessity, extend to the other Services that are under my control. The House will realise why that is so necessary. In this war the civilian population, the Mercantile Marine and the Civil Defence services are as much in the front line as any of the fighting Services. There has been a good deal of misapprehension about what is known as a needs test. This is not in any way parallel with unemployment assistance or other benefits of the same nature, to which the means test commonly applies, and in connection with which there are certain grievances which are, I hope, to be remedied very shortly.

It would be as well if I briefly explained the system under which we are working, so that hon. Members may understand the difference. The provision for parents' pensions in the Great War has often been cited to me by hon. Members as being somewhat ideal; but when that provision is explained to them, I think they usually find that it was not so ideal as they thought. In the Royal Warrant of 1919 the provision for parents' pension fell under three heads. The first rested solely on pre-war dependency. The extent to which it was adjudged that the parents were dependent on their sons before, was the basis upon which they were paid pensions. That was abandoned because it did not work equitably. The next condition was what was known as a flat rate pension, of 5s. a week. The parent of any young man who lost his life in the war was entitled to that pension.

That did not work well, because in many cases the parents were receiving this 5s. a week, having it included in their Income Tax assessment, and paying it back to the Government. To a person in need 5s. a week was not much, and to a person with several thousands a year it was a mere nothing. The abandonment of that system has enabled me to provide a far better pension for those in need. The money that was being paid out to people who did not require it, is now being paid to those in need of it. The third condition was based on the parent's need and incapacity for self-support. A Select Committee of this House in 1919 went very thoroughly into the whole of the pensions provisions. One of their strongest recommendations was that these three conditions should be wiped away altogether, and that all parents' pensions should in future be based on need: need, broadly interpreted as the reasonable expectation of what the son would have done if he had survived. The first two classes of pensions were abolished 20 years ago, and the amended pension, based on the need of the parent, substituted. For a long period that system has been in operation. I have looked up the records, and I cannot find that there has been any great agitation against the condition then laid down. I found, when I brought in my first Warrant in 1939 and inserted this provision, that there was a good deal of criticism of the term "incapacity for self-support." In interpreting that, one had to establish the fact that either the parents were too old or too infirm to work. "Incapacity for self-support" did not mean that a person was out of employment. In such a case, he might be perfectly capable of self-support if he had the opportunity. During a time of trade depression the parent did not qualify for the pension under this condition. When it was decided to resuscitate the Committee, strengthened by additional members, I considered very carefully the conditions under which parents' pensions should be granted. We have had two naval disasters, which aroused tremendous sympathy throughout the country. Many young men were included in the personnel of those two ships, and we had a batch of applications, which had to be turned down because of these words "incapacity for self-support." My committee advised me—and I agreed with them—that the Warrant of 1939 should be amended, and it was amended in the following way. We abolished altogether the test of incapacity for self-support and thereby—and that is the chief point of the criticism against the system then in operation—embodied in the amended Warrant a different provision. I want the House carefully to note this. It was that in determining need regard should be had to the extent of the support the deceased son gave before and during his war service, and might reasonably have been expected to continue, or, where he did not so give what he might have been expected to give had he survived. As regards the latter portion, it was felt—and evidence was produced to justify that feeling—that there would be many cases—and there are many cases—where parents were not in a position of need and the boy had therefore not made an allotment, his pay being little enough for his own needs. Therefore, if we debarred that parent or parents from receiving a pension simply because there had been no contribution by the son during his lifetime, we might be doing a great injustice, because the parents later on might fall on evil times, and if the son had survived they would naturally have looked to him to give help in carrying on the household. So we really took up the position of the boy himself, and I think that that is the best way in which we can do it. Let me detail to the House the effect of these changes.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Boulton.]

Sir W. Womersley

I was about to show the effect of this change from the 1939 Warrant to the amended Warrant. We have made a complete review of all the cases that were then put up to us, and most of them had been rejected. This review was initiated by the Ministry itself. We did not wait for a fresh application from claimants. We had them all reviewed at once, with the result that in 470 cases an immediate award was made or an existing award was increased. In 717 cases, the applicants were informed that they had established their title, though their circumstances did not justify an immediate award. The full number of cases since the beginning of the present war in which awards have been made is, in round figures, 1,800, and the additional number in which title has been admitted is over 2,200. These figures, while big enough, are comparatively small to what we may expect, particularly if we base our calculation upon what happened in the Great War. I hope that we shall not have to provide, as we did in that war, for many hundreds of thousands, but if we have, I submit to the House that they will all be dealt with fairly and squarely, and that no one really in need will be refused pension.

Let me come to our method of deciding the need. We ascertain the needs of the parents and not of the household, and it is a common experience that sons contribute to a parent's support to the extent of the need of that assistance. The first case that the hon. Lady mentioned was that of a widowed mother. One naturally expects that a son will contribute to the support of his widowed mother, and, therefore, it is that widowed mother that we take as an individual case. We determine the existence of need by reference to a certain standard of income, and, having assessed that need exists, we have to see how far it is being met or should reasonably be met by the immediate family of the parents. Even my hon. Friend will agree that we are not expected to take the place of the whole family. I could quote some remarkable cases. There is the case of a woman in the North of England with seven sons and one daughter. One son was killed in the war. The other sons are in good situations, one of them earning over £700 a year. There was not a penny piece being contributed from the six surviving sons, and, therefore, are we to assume that this one boy, if he had been alive, would have given to his mother as much as the six other brothers were entitled to give or should have given? We have to take into account the position of the man who is killed, and if he is an only son, we take the full responsibility, and if he is one of a family and they are in a position to make a contribution, we look to them to do their share. That is only fair to the taxpayers of this country. The State takes the place of the dead son or sons and makes a contribution such as one would expect that son or sons to have made in the circumstances then in existence.

I want it to be thoroughly understood—and I am sure the hon. Lady will realise this—that this is not a scheme of compensation or of social assistance in the ordinary way. It is a question of the State taking the place of the dead son or sons and seeing to it that a contribution is made where there is real need for a contribution on the lines one would have expected the son to have made. It is clear under the rules of the Warrant that is in existence that pensions can be granted to parents at the same time as they are receiving old age pensions. It is not a question of saying that you cannot have two State pensions in this case. A parent or parents receiving the old age pension can be awarded this pension in addition, which surely is the fairest possible way of dealing with this matter. I am only too pleased personally to go into all the cases that are brought to my notice where it can be shown that there has been a mistake made by those in my Department who have to study them and make an award. There is not a case of which I know where there is real need but what has been met by my Department. I would have liked the hon. Lady to have done what she mentioned in the early part of her speech, and I thank her for what she said then. She found that if cases were brought to my notice I gave them personal and sympathetic consideration. I would have liked to have had the four cases she has quoted in the House to-day brought to my notice. I would have been only too pleased to have allowed the hon. Lady to have seen the papers and, if she liked, discuss the cases with me.

Miss Ward

I brought to the notice of my hon. Friend at least three of the cases I have quoted. Two of the cases have already been turned down. One case is still under consideration, and I hope after what my hon. Friend has said that I may be successful in obtaining the appeal. The other case under consideration has also been brought to the notice of my hon. Friend, and I have still not got a decision. On the basis of my knowledge of how pensions are granted, all the cases that I have quoted will be turned down by my hon. Friend, and that is my complaint.

Sir W. Womersley

It is a queer sort of complaint when the hon. Lady says she is sure they will be turned down. I do not know what faith she has in me and my judgment.

Miss Ward

Two of them have already been turned down.

Sir W. Womersley

At any rate, I have cases from the hon. Lady with me in the House at the present moment. One of these may be the first she mentioned, but I cannot identify the others. I had to get the papers from headquarters, and hon. Members know that Government Departments are not just at one's elbow to-day. However, I am going carefully into these cases.

I want to emphasise this: I am as anxious as anyone in this House to see that justice and fair play is handed out to all those who have to suffer in this war, or may suffer. The position I have to face is of such gigantic proportions that I must, indeed, see to it that where the need is greatest the greatest assistance is given and that cannot be done if we go in for the system which operated so unsatisfactorily in the last war, namely, handing out pensions right and left without any consideration of need. My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the Prime Minister had announced that the whole question of the means test was being thoroughly inquired into, that certain drastic alterations were to be made and that we could expect to have a Bill or a statement on this matter at a very early date. I know there is a Cabinet committee thoroughly considering the question and, personally, I am very glad that the inquiry is being made. I hope that as a result many difficulties that have arisen over the means test with regard to unemployment assistance will be wiped away. I am going to consider very carefully whatever the Government brings forward in the way of dealing with this matter and if I find that these new proposals in any way affect the position of parents I shall certainly alter them. At the moment I cannot see how they will affect the position because we do not take into account, and never have done, matters connected with the means test. Ours is, all the time, a question of the individual need of the applicant. I repeat—indeed, I will make the pledge—that I will consider carefully the provisions that are brought forward and if I find that it means we are in any way administering our particular work differently from the Government's intentions as regards this other branch of Social assistance, then I shall alter the regulations to bring them into uniformity.

In conclusion, may I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity of saying what I have said to the House. I hope that my reply will receive as wide publicity as the hon. Lady's complaints because I feel that I am administering this particular form of pensions work fairly and squarely. I am prepared to stand by what I have done and I repeat again that if any hon. Member has any case where it appears that hardship exists, and will bring it to my notice, I will see that the regulations are stretched as far as they can go, although it is not in my power to break them.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.