HC Deb 23 July 1942 vol 382 cc147-52
16. Captain Sir Ian Fraser

asked the Minister of Pensions whether he has any statement to make as to the Government's intention regarding independent tribunals to hear pensions, etc., appeals?

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)

As the answer to this Question is of considerable length, I propose, with your leave, Sir, and that of the House, to answer it at the end of Questions.


Sir W. Womersley

This Question has again been fully and carefully considered by His Majesty's Government, who remain definitely satisfied that at the present time it is not possible to set up tribunals in sufficient numbers to deal with all the appeals which would inevitably be made. On more than one occasion I have referred to the lack of suitable personnel both for the number of tribunals required and for the additional work which would fall upon my Department. The position in this respect is daily becoming more difficult, and the necessary staff could be obtained only by diverting to this work persons at present engaged upon, or available for, work of immediate national importance.

Careful consideration has also been given by His Majesty's Government to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) that pensions appeals should be heard in the county courts, but, apart from the difficulty which the judges would have in undertaking this serious addition to their already heavy labours, the suggestion does not find favour with any of the bodies which have been consulted as representing the interests of the persons concerned. I have myself discussed this matter not only with my Central Advisory Committee, but also with the British Legion in England and Scotland and with the Trades Union Congress on behalf of civilian claimants to whom a right of appeal would no doubt be extended. Each of these bodies has expressed a strong preference for my proposal to wait until it is possible to set up tribunals on the old lines. I think these views will carry very great weight with the House.

There is one other suggestion which has recently been made to me, namely, that a beginning might be made with one or two tribunals, in order that some appeals might be dealt with. His Majesty's Government have thoroughly examined this proposal from all points of view, but feel equally unable to accept it, as they are convinced, both on general grounds and in the light of past experience, that nothing can give rise to greater dissatisfaction than the appearance of giving a right of appeal which cannot be effectively exercised by all would-be appellants on an entirely equal footing. His Majesty's Government have, therefore, come to the conclusion that they cannot, go beyond the undertaking already given in their name that a full scheme of tribunals shall be set up at the earliest moment when circumstances make this possible. I would again remind the House that statutory tribunals in respect of the last war were not established until late in 1919. Everyone will agree, however, that members of the Armed Forces should not be prejudiced as regards the effective date of a successful appeal because of delay in the establishment of tribunals and I am glad to be able to announce that, subject to satisfactory evidence as to the degree of disablement, a successful appeal by a member, who within six months of discharge made representations to the Ministry as to its failure to grant a pension, will be made effective from the date of discharge.

In cases where no representations were made within six months of discharge, the effective date of any award will be the date on which such representations were first made. Where entitlement arises from a modification of the provisions or the interpretation of the pension instruments, the date of such modification will be the earliest effective date. To defer the setting up of tribunals will, therefore, not prejudice the claimant and will leave staff available for other spheres where they can make a greater immediate contribution to victory.

In conclusion, I would add two points: Firstly, I am taking full advantage of the arrangement under which cases where there is serious doubt or difficulty on a medical question can be referred to an independent expert nominated by the president of one of the Royal Colleges. In no case have I rejected the opinion ex- pressed to me by one of these experts. Secondly, I have asked my War Pensions committees to hear representations from applicants where claims have been rejected. I give careful consideration to the submission of these committees and I think that this arrangement is proving helpful to all concerned.

Sir I. Fraser

May I ask the Minister not to ask the House to believe that the British Legion or his Advisory Committee are agreeable to the statement he has made? In regard to the latter part of his reply, where the Minister refers to what he called the independent medical referees, may I ask him, since he cannot go the whole way, to meet the demand in this House and in the country to the extent of placing these medical referees under the pay and direction of the Lord Chancellor, instead of their being under his pay and direction?

Sir W. Womersley

With regard to the first part of the question, the British Legion in England and Scotland have expressed dissatisfaction as regards referring these cases to the county courts and agree with me that, if they can be set up, it is far better to have a full set of tribunals in operation to deal with these cases quickly, although it is true that they made representations to me in favour of having one or two tribunals to commence work immediately. I stated in my reply that the Government have given full consideration to that suggestion and are of the opinion that it is far better to have a full set of tribunals so that we can deal with these cases quickly, instead of having dissatisfaction between one appellant and another. With regard to the second part of the Question, the medical referees are entirely independant of my Department and are under no pressure from me. I do not think any alternative system to that of asking the Presidents of the Royal Colleges to make these nominations would be more satisfactory.

Sir I. Fraser

Is it not a fact that, whereas the Presidents of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians nominate these medical men, it is the Minister who takes the executive action of appointing them, and it is he who pays them?

Sir W. Womersley

No, Sir. I accept the nominations of the two Presidents without question. I do not ask them to send someone else; I accept whatever nominations are made. These independent medical referees are entirely independant of my Department.

Major Milner

How can the Minister possibly justify the distress of soldiers and relatives who are waiting for a final decision? Some have already waited for three years, and they see no possible end to this. Is it not a fact that the Advisory Committee, the British Legion and everyone else concerned have pressed on the Minister the urgency of setting up these tribunals? Will he not reconsider the matter?

Sir W. Womersley

The hon. and gallant Member knows very well, as a member of my Advisory Committee, that no one is more in favour of tribunals than myself. He knows the difficulty, which has been explained to him time and time again, and he must surely realise that it is not a question of trying to burke the issue. I have announced to the House that these tribunals, without the reservation of "after the war," will be set up as soon as possible. I can assure the House that I shall do everything I possibly can to find the personnel and set the tribunals up as soon as possible, but I am determined, for the sake of the appellants, not to set up makeshift tribunals which will not give fair judgment in these cases.

Mr. McNeil

In view of the special difficulties in Scotland—the long distances which have to be travelled—will the Minister give an assurance that a tribunal will be set up in Scotland very quickly?

Sir W. Womersley

Those with whom I have consulted on these matters in Scotland say they want at least four tribunals, to meet my hon. Friend's difficulties in regard to travelling. I can assure him that Scotland will not be forgotten, and that Scotland will have a full complement of tribunals as soon as I can find the necessary personnel.

Major-General Sir Alfred Knox

How long does the Minister imagine it will take before the tribunals will be set up, and how are these people to receive sustenance until their appeals are heard?

Sir W. Womersley

I can give no idea how long it will be; all I can do is to give the assurance that they will be set up as soon as possible.

Mr. Buchanan

Is the Minister aware that unfortunately an increasing number of persons die as time goes on and that this leaves widows in an impossible position? The longer the delay, the more impossible it becomes for this class of persons to obtain any benefit from the tribunals when they are set up. Will he not reconsider the matter?

Sir W. Womersley

I agree with every word my hon. Friend says, but surely my definite assurance that these tribunals will be set up at the earliest possible moment should be sufficient.

Mr. A. Bevan

What does the right hon. Gentleman mean when he says that he proposes to set up these tribunals as soon as possible, not after the war, but during the war? If the reason for not setting up the tribunals now is because of a shortage of personnel, how does he anticipate that the position will become easier as the war continues?

Sir W. Womersley

I am not in a position to predict what will happen as the war continues. The reason why I made the statement that we should set up the tribunals as soon as possible, without any reservations about "after the war," was because previously it was announced that they would be set up as soon as practicable after the war. I wanted to let hon. Members know that they would be set up as soon as possible. One cannot say what the fluctuations of the war will be, but maybe medical personnel can be spared from the Army; I do not know, but we hope that that may be the case. I want to be in a position to engage these people and set up these tribunals as soon as possible so that we can get on with the job.

Mr. Bevan

The Minister will remember that a year or so ago some hon. Members, including myself, asked him to get on with this matter of appointing an appeal tribunal, and now he makes this statement, which means nothing at all. Will he reconsider the whole matter, otherwise we shall have to take action in the House?

Sir W. Womersley

I do not mind what action the hon. Member takes. The House of Commons is here to discuss these questions, and, so long as we are, surely we can discuss them fairly and squarely. I made the same statement 12 months ago that I am in favour of tribunals. All kinds of expedients for substitute tribunals have been suggested, but, as one who has had considerable experience of this kind of work before I was Minister of Pensions, I say, in fairness to the appellants, that you must have the right type of tribunals and the right type of men and women to deal with the cases, because an appellant will suffer if we have an incompetent tribunal. I have explored every avenue and have listened to every suggestion, and I can assure hon. Members that it is not a lack of desire on my part which has prevented this from being done, but because I am up against a set of circumstances unparalleled in the history of this country.

Sir Richard Acland

If there are not enough doctors now, how are you going to have enough doctors to treat the wounded when you open a second front? It is absolute hypocrisy.

Mr. Graham White

Can the Minister at least give the House an assurance that every possible preliminary plan has been made—in the regions and so forth where the tribunals will be set up—and can he say that the only thing which is outstanding is the appointment of the people to sit upon the tribunals?

Sir W. Womersley

The answer to that question is in the affirmative. That is the only thing which is outstanding. In answer to the hon. Baronet, I can assure him that there are no wounded men waiting for their appeals to be heard. They have their pensions.

Mr. Gallacher

Is it not the case that much of the Minister's difficulty arises from the fact that he limits his selection of personnel to a very few people, instead of taking the great masses of the people and the great numbers of local doctors into consultation?

Sir W. Womersley

I am limited to those who have sufficient knowledge to enable them to deal with these questions. It is necessary to have a legal man to preside—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—and to have a medical man a member of the Board, and medical men must be employed by the appellant and by the Minister in order to present the cases.

Mr. Gallacher

I would be prepared to preside over one of these bodies, and I would undertake to make a better job of it than any legal man.