HC Deb 16 June 1942 vol 380 cc1485-94

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir J. Edmondson.]

Mr. Lawson (Chester-le-Street)

Hon. Members will remember that last week I raised on a Question to the Minister of Pensions the case of parents who have been receiving allotments from their sons, and who, on their sons being killed in the service of their country, lose the allotment and receive no pension. I think that most hon. Members will agree from their own experience that there is growing up in this country among the parents of men who have been killed and who are not receiving any pension because of the needs test, with which I shall deal, a great sense of wrong and injustice, not only because of the wrong done to them, but because of what they think is the ingratitude of the State. I have received a whole bundle of letters which, in addition to my own experience, show the depth of this feeling and the point of view of the people who have suffered. It is well known that a young man will make an allotment—it has been done in a great mass of cases—of 7s. and in some cases twice as much owing to the status of the man, because they feel that their parents need that help in their home. The payment of the amount is continued until they lose their lives in the service of the State. I cannot do better than read a letter from the many striking and intelligent letters I have received from parents. This parent says: The Minister of Pensions, Sir Walter Womersley, may be right so far as saying that 5s. would not compensate him for the loss of his son. It would not compensate me. It is a bitter enough pill to swallow for any mother to lose a son in such a manner after the years of care and attention she gives him. She watches him grow into young manhood and, as in my case and many others, sees him put into a training ship. We start them at 14 years of age with pocket money for the first year of their training as they receive no pay. Then, as the lad advances, after two or three years he proudly says, 'I can make you a voluntary allotment, Mum,' and you gladly accept it, with the feeling that the boy is standing on his own feet and is anxious to give you a little help that makes such a vast difference in the long continuous strain of living from hand to mouth. You feel a secret security in this weekly allotment. Then, again, as the lad advances he does not always raise his allotment. It is not always convenient for him, but now and again he sends a postal order, knowing how acceptable it will be. War not only robs us of our sons but also of that security which they have created. We do not wish to sell our sons; no amount of money can soften a mother's grief but as we have to stand the loss of our sons in a matter of fact way so should a pension be paid, to be accepted in the same manner. That is, surely, a small tribute to a son's memory from his own country. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House have been receiving similar letters. The Minister had said that the Select Committee of 1920 took the view that to justify the grant of a parent's pension a test of need, broadly interpreted, should be satisfied. Well, in spite of many things which have not happened, and which I want to see happen, the social outlook of this country has been revolutionised since 1920. What is the Minister's test of need? The lad who allots 7s. out of 14s. a week, leaving himself only a few shillings for his life in the Service, is a good lad. Is he not the test of the need of his own parents? The Minister talks about his statutory Advisory Committee. Will he tell us their view on this matter? Are they unanimous? I think we are entitled to say to the Government that in our experience a great wrong is being done to many parents in this country. A great sense of injustice is not only prevailing but is developing. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that if the Government think they will stand pat upon the answers given to Questions on this subject in the House, they are making a very great mistake. Not only will this House have something to say about it, but I am sure from the developments which are taking place outside, that the people of this country will have something to say about it as well.

This being an Adjournment Motion, I must be careful that I do not go too far, but I should like to feel the sense of the House on this matter and give the Minister an opportunity of replying. Letters have rolled in from parents that reveal not only a sense of injustice but a great sense of loyalty to this country and to its cause. The letters of these humble people, some of whom write in a crude manner, reveal how deeply they are committed, not by words like statesmen, but in their hearts to the country's cause. It is a wrong and an injustice on the part of the Government to take advantage of that loyalty and the sense of justice which is deep in the hearts of our people in order to deny them some little payment for what they have lost. I say, and a good many say with me, that the least the Government can do is to give, at any rate, a minimum flat rate to these people, if only to make up in some measure for the money they have lost through the loss of their sons. Not only do people say that they have lost their sons and their allotments, but they feel that there is a sense of ingratitude on the part of the Government—"You have had our sons, you have had the best of them, you have treated us as hardly as any employer would treat us, but we are humble people from obscure places, nobody seems to know about our troubles, and the Government do not seem to care."

The Government ought to pay these people some little amount. I have mentioned 5s. I dealt with this matter at the outbreak of war and said I thought the Government ought to pay a minimum allowance in all cases. The Government say, and the right hon. Gentleman will say, "We admit the claim for pensions, and in case of need you can apply to us." There are some people who have applied and have had pensions according to the standard of need set up by the Ministry, but immediately they have risen above the standard the pension has been taken away. I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman about a case which was what mainly fired me to do something about this matter. It was a case of parents who lost a son who was torpedoed. He had hardly got to shore one day when he sailed again, and within 24 hours he lost his life. The Government refused any pension, saying that the incomings of the house were above the standard test of need. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman two or three times about it. As the result of a bombing incident recently two people in a house were made idle for a few weeks. Have they to make application for a pension on the basis of their loss and then have it taken away in a few weeks' time? What is the good of a system like that?

The right hon. Gentleman ought to begin to take this matter more seriously. We have a good deal of respect for him, and I think it is the respect he has in the House which has enabled him to get away with a good deal more than would have been possible with other representatives. He may say that the Royal Warrant will have to be changed. I am quite prepared to have the Warrant altered, if that is necessary. One thing, however, is certain. This House will see to it that justice is done to these mothers and fathers, and will not consent to leaving large numbers of people under a sense of ingratitude, which undoubtedly prevails at the present time. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will have something more encouraging to say upon this matter than on the last and previous occasions.

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womersley)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Lawson) will agree that in giving answers to Questions and Supplementary Questions on this subject one cannot give the whole story to the House. I hope that he will not charge me with giving insufficient information last week. I tried to do my best in the short time available. I should like to assure him that I have given very serious consideration to this matter from the first day I took over my present position. The matter has been considered in all its aspects. It has been discussed, not only with my Advisory Committee, but in the Office, and I have gone very deeply into the subject. I am with the hon. Member up to the hilt when he says it is absolutely necessary that the Government should prove to the country that they are handing out justice to the parents of these boys who have lost their lives. It is because I honestly believe the system at present in operation is giving real justice to the people of this country that I am here at this Box to defend it. I think it is just as well that I should give the House the history of the whole question of parents' pensions.

The Royal Warrant of 1919 was brought into operation after the last war and after the Ministry of Pensions and the Government had had an opportunity of studying closely this pension question. That Warrant was brought in with the object of remedying many anomalies and putting on one side many anxieties. It has been regarded and has been referred to on many occasions by representatives of ex-Servicemen as a model. In that Warrant parents' pensions could be awarded (a) if dependent on the soldier for a reasonable period prior to the war—I want the House to note the word "dependent"—or dependent prior to enlistment if later than the commencement of the war. That is, where enlistment was after the outbreak of war, any increase in dependence due to war circumstances was explicitly excluded from consideration; (b) if at any time either or both parents was or were wholly or partly incapable of self-support through age or infirmity and pecuniary need; (c) where the soldier was under the age of 26 at the outbreak of war or date of enlistment, if later and the soldier was unmarried and no pension or allowance was made in respect of a child or dependant, then a flat-rate pension of 5s. could be awarded irrespective of pre-war dependence, age, infirmity or pecuniary need. In 1920 a Select Committee of this House was set up to consider the whole of the pensions administration and Regulations. Although that is a long time ago, I am bound to say on my close study of the findings of that Committee that it did its work extremely well, and just at the right time.

There is no question that the Committee did its work thoroughly well, and it is a good guide. I do not say that I should agree to stick to everything that it did. I must judge things in the light of my own experience in administering the Department, but this is what they said, that, as the result of the triple system of parents' pensions, there were inequalities as between one parent and another which caused irritation and hardship. They definitely recommended that the whole system should be reconsidered as early as possible with a view to revision and assimilation of all three classes of cases on the basis of need, broadly interpreted, that is, a reasonable expectation of what the son would have contributed had he lived, and they added: We believe that it is only by some such plan that the present inequalities can be remedied. The recommendations of that Committee were adopted by the Government of the day, and after 1st April, 1922, all new awards of pensions to parents were conditional upon the claimant being able to show that he or she was wholly or partly incapable of self-support and in pecuniary need, and that is the system that has been operating since 1922.

Mr. Lawson

In fact, the bulk of the pensions which were settled before that were decided upon the contribution the man made, which is a different thing.

Sir W. Womersley

No. There were three classes of pensioners and three conditions that had to be fulfilled. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is very concerned about the 5s. flat-rate pension. I have not heard any complaint about the way in which we award the other pensions.

Mr. Lawson

The Select Committee altered the order.

Sir W. Womersley

That may be. I am not responsible for that. In the 1939 Warrant the provision relating to parents' pensions was based entirely, and without qualification, on the two conditions of need and incapacity. In the light of experience, and after consultation with my statutory Advisory Committee and with representatives of ex-servicemen, I came to the conclusion that it was wise to make some alteration to that system, and I introduced in the 1940 Warrant material improvements. The condition of incapacity for self-support was removed, and full effect was given to the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1920 that pensions to parents should be awarded on the basis of need, broadly interpreted, as a reasonable expectation of what the son would have contributed had he lived. Accordingly, recognition is given to all suitable cases to the pre-war and the prospective dependence of the parent or parents of the deceased son. Further, the minimum and maximum pensions were increased, because the fact that we have abolished this 5s. minimum standard pension, irrespective of whether the parent is earning £10,000 a year or £3 a week, has enabled me to give more generous pensions to those who are really in need of them, and I think that is the real test. Whatever money the House votes for this particular purpose, I maintain that it is better to spend it on those who are really in need of help rather than that it should be spread over quite a number of people who in many cases that I could quote—any number of cases—are above the Income Tax limit, have to include the 5s. pension in their Income Tax returns and with Income Tax at its present rate get really only 2s. 6d. a week out of it. I really cannot see that there is any injustice to a parent in that position.

Mr. Lawson


. Sir W. Womersley

Give me a chance.

Mr. Lawson

But will the right hon. Gentleman explain how in these cases the sailor, soldier or airman decides in his own mind that his parents are in need of his help? What is his standard?

Sir W. Womersley

The hon. Member is an old gunner, like myself. He knows a good deal about the private soldier. He knows a good deal about the good lad who does think something of his parents. I agree that in the case that he mentioned, where the boy had been an apprentice and the parents had made great sacrifices for him, that boy felt it was his duty to repay them, and those parents will be repaid, but not in exactly the same way as the hon. Member suggests. They have this guarantee, that if and when they are in need—and it is not a needs test on the basis of some of those in the other social services—the pension is there for them. It is there, guaranteed for them, if in their later years they find themselves dependent. One would expect that when they were in that position even if the boy himself were then married, he would if he could afford it make some contribution to them.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)


Sir W. Womersley

Please give me a chance. I have an important thing to say.

Mr. Griffiths

This is very important.

Sir W. Womersley

And this is important, and I have only a few minutes left. The parents of a married soldier who are actually dependent upon him to a substantial extent for a reasonable period before his death are, under this scheme which I have adopted, eligible for consideration for pension, and I submit that that in itself is something worth while. Even if there is a pension being paid to that man's widow and his children we can pay a pension to his parents if it can be shown that there is need. As a result of the improvements made in the 1940 Warrant I am satisfied that the present principles on which parents' pensions are based are sound, and that there is no justification for the automatic award of a pension to a parent or parents solely because they have lost a son irrespective of their needs. Every parent whose claim to a pension has been established and in whose case pensions cannot be paid on the ground that need does not exist is informed that further application may be made. They have established their right to pension, and where adverse circumstances manifest themselves then the pension will be paid.

I should like to say that hon. Members must bear in mind that quite definitely a pension awarded is really an annuity for life. When a son is making a contribution to his parents it is only a temporary contribution. He may get married and find he is not in a position to continue the payment, but if a pension is granted by the Government so long as these conditions are fulfilled the pension is an annuity for life, and is a far more valuable thing than an allowance for a short period. A parent, realising that if the need arises—

Mr. J. Griffiths

All through the Minister has spoken of "need." We have all kinds of other needs tests and we know what they are. Will he tell the House what is the test by which he judges need?

Sir W. Womersley

I judge it on this point. If a parent is working at his own trade and earning the standard rate of wages I should say that he has got a standard income coming into his house. That is a very simple way of dealing with it. If on the other hand he is sick and cannot follow his occupation and has to depend on his ordinary sick pay, or if he has had a long term of unemployment and has to depend merely on unemployment benefit, and that looks like being permanent, as in the case of a man who has got on in years, then we regard him at once as being in need. I think we have there a fair standard of measuring these things, and I ask hon. Members to give this matter far more consideration than they have. It is not such a simple thing as it sounds. It would be easy for me to say—

It being the hour appointed for the adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.