HC Deb 26 April 1944 vol 399 cc893-902

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Pym.]

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

On 16th March I put the following Question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions: Whether he will consider instituting a fund from which pensions can be paid in cases of proven necessity to the dependants of members of the Armed Forces killed while on active service through their own negligence or misconduct. To that Question my right hon. Friend returned me this answer: I do not feel justified in adopting my hon. Friend's suggestion. As he is no doubt aware I have power, in those cases where payment at the full rate would not be justified, to make a modified award. It is only in exceptional cases that I am constrained totally to withhold the grant of a pension."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 36th March, 1944; cols. 389–10, Vol. 398.] I should like to give the House a picture of the instance which has inspired my interest in this subject. About 10 years ago there lived in my division a small family of Scottish folk consisting of father, mother and son. I do not wish to give their names, but will refer to them by the letter "A." The father had served in the Royal Navy, and I think he must have been a man of some character because I understand that at one time during the last war he was personal servant to Admiral of the Fleet the late Lord Jellicoe. About the time of which I am speaking things were not very bright over here, and the father got the chance of going to South Africa as house steward to the Governor-General. He talked it over at home, and he decided to accept it. He hoped to save enough money to provide for his old age and that of his wife. Unfortunately, through an oversight or omission on his part, he ceased to be a National Health contributor.

After he had gone, the boy joined the Army in order to see the world, as so many youngsters were then exhorted to do. He was only 15½ and was a well setup lad. He over-stated his age. He soon saw active service in Palestine. After some years his father fell ill and died in South Africa. During his illness, the boy allowed his mother 10s. per week. At the father's death, the widow found herself without a widow's pension. Shortly afterwards, early in 1941, came the news that the boy had been killed in the Middle East. The whole armoury of fate seemed to have been directed against this unhappy woman. She waited for a pension in respect of her son. Nothing happened. She then applied for it without avail. Then she turned to me. I was convinced that there had been some oversight on the part of the Ministry of Pensions and I took the matter up with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

Was she back in Britain by this time?

Mr. Smith

She had not gone abroad. She had remained all the time in my division. The father and the son had gone abroad. I received the following letter from the right hon. Gentleman's Department: As you are no doubt aware, the primary condition of the award of pension in respect of a member of the Forces dying from wounds or injury is that death can be certified as attributable to service. There is a further provision concerning misconduct on the part of a member, to which I shall refer later. As Mrs. A. says that her son was killed in action, I think it may be taken that, so far, everyone has kept the facts from her, out of consideration for her feelings, and when you have read what follows I think you will agree that it would be undesirable to add to her distress by going into details at this stage. The letter goes on to say that Private A., on the night of Saturday, 10th May, 1941, was a member of a party of soldiers who had stayed in a canteen in Egypt until closing time. Then subsequently, on their way back, I have no doubt a little merry, a little elevated, they came in contact with a sentry. The sentry challenged them three times, but in spite of that they took no notice. He fired, and Private A.

and one of his comrades were killed. This letter goes on to say: The high military authorities which considered the evidence given at the inquiry state that no blame could be attributed to the sentry, and they were further of the opinion that the party of men intended to interfere with a guard in a camp other than their own. Private A. was not on duty at the time, and no grounds can be found upon which it would be possible to regard his death as attributable to his military service. This being so, I am very sorry that Mrs. A. is not eligible for a dependant's pension from this Ministry. The letter goes on to explain at some length that Mrs. A. has the right to appeal, but that if she exercises that right there is not the smallest chance of success. It concludes by expressing the right hon. Gentleman's great willingness to see me and discuss the case with me.

I went to see the right hon. Gentleman, and I told him that I considered that the tragic farce of keeping the mother in ignorance of the true fate of her son for 2i years had gone on long enough. I volunteered to see her and tell her, as gently as I possibly could, the true story. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to leave the matter to my discretion. He went on to say that there were unofficial ways and means by which he could help her. Therefore, I went to see her. I found her to be a fine type of Highland Scotswoman, aged 58, ill, wan, recovering from a very serious operation. She is living in one room in somebody else's cottage. She works as a part-time, very nearly a whole-time, domestic servant. Her wages—she probably is not up to heavy work—amount to £1 per week. She walks three miles to her work every day and three miles back in the evening. She has to pay her lodging and part of her board out of that £1 a week. I told her as tenderly as I could the story of her son. She was silent for a long while. Then, she said, "I suppose if they say so it is so. He was na' like that at home. He was a good son to me." She then said that she would not, of course, press her claim for a pension. She thanked me very touchingly for having told her the truth. I asked her if she had any other relatives. "Yes, one son." But for 20 years he had been estranged from his father and mother, and, she said, "I couldna' and wouldna' look for help from him." I suppose I ought to have mentioned those two deadly words, "public assistance." But somehow I could not; and, anyhow, she was not the sort. As I walked away from that house there floated back into my mind an old Greek epigram which I learnt at school, and which means, roughly translated, "The gods have dealt ill by you." I submitted my report to the right hon. Gentleman. I concluded with these words: I very much hope that you may find it possible to assist her from some fund or other, for, indeed, hers is a tragic case. She has lost both husband and son. Both of them contributed to her support and now she is entirely without any sort of pension. I commend her most cordially to your good offices. Here I should like to pay a tribute to the kindness, the courtesy, and the sympathy of the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, if words were golden, my unhappy constituent had been a well-provided woman. Unfortunately, they are not. Under the date 25th February, I received the following letter from the right hon. Gentleman: Following the receipt of your letter of 31st January, I arranged for further inquiries to be made into the case of Mrs. A, in order to ascertain whether she could be given a grant from the King's Fund. As a result you will be glad to know that I have been able to authorise a grant of £5 5s. from the Fund "—

Mr. Kirkwood

£5 5s. a week?

Mr. Smith

No, a grant of £5 5s. —out of which £2 5s. is for clothing and shoes, and £3 for extra nourishment, to be disbursed at the rate of 5s. weekly for 12 weeks. This grant will be paid through my chief regional officer at Tunbridge Wells. When I received that letter, I felt that I would rather have given that poor woman £5 5s. out of my own pocket than that she should have received such a pitiful donation, in such tragic circumstances, from a Fund calling itself the King's Fund. That letter proves two things: it proves that she is insufficiently fed and that she is insufficiently clad. Wordsworth said that there is one fate worse in life than being a Prodigal's Favourite, and that is to be a Miser's Pensioner I do not charge the right hon. Gentleman with meanness: nobody who knows him would do that. He is circumscribed by the resources of the Fund. I understand that they are not very great. But the right hon. Gentleman is a member of a very rich Government; and I suggest to the Government that it is a bad thing for any Administration to be associated with an action which, to those who do not understand fully its limitations, must appear mean and contemptible. If generosity upon a suitable scale is impossible, it is sometimes better not to be generous at all. I have no time to argue from the particular to the general, except to say that we all know the arguments —arguments of discipline, the arguments of honour—weighty arguments, I admit—which can be urged against a larger and a more liberal outlook and approach to this problem. But we in this House, who are, after all, the representatives of the people, are brought into contact with the human side of these things. We see the reverse side of the medal. I 'know that this poor woman has suffered quite as much as if her son had died winning the V.C. Indeed, I know that she has suffered infinitely more, and to that mental suffering there must now be added a lifetime of physical deprivation. I know that lack of food and clothes are lesser evils than the loneliness and the sense of shame, but they make the loneliness and sense of shame all the harder to bear. They sharpen the knife. The last question I wish to postulate is this. Are we justified, in considering these cases of death as the result of culpable negligence or misconduct, in making a whipping boy—for that is what it amounts to—a whipping boy of the poor offender's poor dependants? For my part, I think not.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

We have listened to a very moving appeal from the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith). All I want to do is to say that, on the facts as given by the hon. MOM-her, this case ought never to have been turned down by the Minister of Pensions.

Mr. Bartle Bull (Enfield)

It ought never to have been brought up.

Mr. Brown

I say it ought to be brought up, because it should never have been turned down. The Minister of Pensions, under the Royal Warrant, has authority to give a pension where death is attributable to military service. If this man had not been in military service at that particular place, at that point of time, he would not have died. I argue that this is a clear case of death attributable to military service, and that, therefore, the Minister has no right whatever to reject that claim.

Mr. Bull

Does the hon. Member not think that we ought to look after the dependants of those who die properly in action before we look after these cases?

Mr. Brown

I have not said a single word against looking after the relatives of those who die in action. For my part, I have taken some share in trying to get other people to do that. I say that, on the facts as revealed to this House, this case ought never to have arisen.

The Minister of Pensions (Sir Walter Womenley)

I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) for the reasonable way in which be has put his case, which was certainly very eloquent, but not quite in accordance with the facts as they are given to me. We shall have to balance that up afterwards; we cannot argue it across the Floor of the House. I will give the facts of the case to the House as I understand them. First, I want to make it quite clear what my powers are in awarding a pension where there has been misconduct. Whenever war pensions have been debated in this House, those who pleaded for an extension of pension benefits to those who meet their death, not by ordinary military service, but because of accidents and so forth, have always said quite clearly "We do not want to include misconduct in this; we do not want to condone misconduct in any circumstances." That has been the general feeling.

Mr. Kirkwood

We are appealing for the dependants.

Sir W. Womersley

If the hon. Member will allow me, I will read from the Warrant: The Minister may withhold, cancel or reduce an award which may be, or has been, made under this Warrant in respect of disablement or death of a member on military service in any case where injury or disease on which the claim is based was either caused or contributed to by the serious misconduct of the member, or any case in which the death of the member was caused by or attributed to. Let me make it clear that it is not attributable to service in any circumstances whatever, and that is the finding of the military court, and I am bound by that decision.

Mr. W. J. Brown

It does not say that the right hon. Gentleman "must" but that he "may."

Sir W. Womersley

I know, and I have to deal with cases on their merits, and I have dealt with them on most sympathetic lines, as many hon. Members can testify who have brought cases to me. In the case of a wife where there have been extenuating circumstances, I have exercised the Royal Warrant to the fullest extent. It is well known that during my administration every consideration has been given to these cases, but one comes across cases where it would be wrong on my part not to deal with them in the way that I have had to deal with this case. The hon. Member for Ashford has stated his case, and I want to give my story, as I got it from the military records and from the evidence of witnesses. I am very reluctant to spread the details of these cases, and I try to settle them with hon. Members privately and come to a decision. I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford that this poor woman in question has to suffer certain hardship because of the loss of her husband, and a boy is killed, and it adds to her anxieties to know that he was killed in circumstances which were not altogether honourable.

Let me give the full story. This man, as the hon. Member said, was a Regular soldier with six years' service and must have known what it meant to be on sentry go and the duty of a sentry. He was with some companions and they left a canteen—there is no question about it, they were under the influence of drink—and made towards the entrance of another camp belonging to another unit altogether, where the sentries had been specially warned not to allow anyone to approach the camp. There was no excuse for a Regular soldier along with other companions to make what appeared to be an attack upon this camp. He knew his business. Boys who have joined up recently would have been entitled to some consideration because they would have had no military experience. These men were challenged by the sentry and ignored the challenge and advanced threateningly towards him. This was the evidence at the court of inquiry. The sentry fell back, repeated his challenge twice, and then he did the right and proper thing—he fired a shot into the air as a warning. No one could say there was not sufficient warning given by the sentry, but as the men continued to press on, he had no alternative but to fire in their direction, and, unfortunately, the result was fatal. I cannot think that the House would feel that the death of this man really could be described as being attributable to his military service.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Why not? Who supplied the drink?

Mr. Bull

Not the Army, that is certain.

Sir W. Womersley

No, and they were certainly not compelled to take it.

Mr. W. J. Brown

Ministers occasionally have a drink and we do not shoot them.

Sir W. Womersley

If, after having had a drink, I attacked the hon. Member in a way that was menacing, and he did what he was instructed to do, acting as a sentry, I would be to blame and not the hon. Member.

Mr. Manning (Camberwell, North)

But the Minister surely realises that it is the mother for whom we are trying to get something done?

Sir W. Womersley

Let me come to that. There are many cases quite as bad as that and I could give more extracts from the court of inquiry, but I do not want to press it too hard. Really and truly, however, it is one of the worst cases I have ever had to handle since I have been at the Ministry. Realising that the parent or the widow cannot help it if the man does something wrong, I go to the utmost extent in the consideration the law allows me to give them. There is a little point here which I shall have to check up with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, because the latter would have led me to believe that the father was alive at the time the boy died. The distress of this woman is not caused by the loss of her son but by the loss of her husband, because he had allowed his insurance under the National Health Insurance Scheme to run out and had not taken advantage of the offer made to all persons who had been insured in 1937 to become voluntary contributors. Her trouble is that she cannot get a contributory pension from the Ministry of Health. An attempt has been made, but his insurance payments had lapsed, and therefore he was out of benefit and she is in this very difficult position. There again I shall have to check up with my hon. Friend, because I want to get this quite clear. My evidence is that this boy never contributed anything whatever. We shall clear that up but, as I say, there is no evidence that he made any Army allowance. The hon. Member says he did, but the military authorities ought to know. However, we will have it checked very carefully.

As I say, according to our records there was no contribution from the boy at all and possibly, when the father was alive, there was no need for it. If the report I have is correct, the father died at a date later than the boy. If the mother had been able to get a contributory pension in the ordinary way there would not have been the difficulty she is experiencing now, because she would have got supplementation when she reached the age of 6o, and therefore the ordinary social services would have worked for her benefit. But, in spite of the fact that there is no contribution made, we ignore that factor—though it is a factor in determining the amount that shall be given, because after all we have to take into account, according to the Royal Warrant, what the boy had allowed. But where there is no allowance we still make allowance if there is a need for it, and that is a point which we watch very carefully in dealing with these cases.

My contention is that this woman's trouble really comes about because her husband was not an insured man at the time of his death, and therefore she has not a pension because he was not in benefit. If my facts are not correct and if my hon. Friend can check them up with me and we find that the boy did make a contribution, or if it is true that the father died before the boy and he was a widow's son at the time he was serving, we will go into the matter again. I want to make it quite clear that in dealing with all these cases the utmost consideration and sympathy are exercised, but there are certain cases where it is absolutely necessary in the interests of Army authority, that we should take into account this gross negligence.

It being half an hour after the conclusion, of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order of the House of 25th November.