HC Deb 16 November 1944 vol 404 cc2230-8

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

3.53 p.m.

Captain Duncan (Kensington, North)

A few months ago I caused some laughter in the House by giving notice that I was dissatisfied with the answer to a Question put by me to the Secretary of State for War before he actually gave the answer. The reason for that was that I had had considerable correspondence with the Minister of Pensions and the Secretary of State for War regarding the case of S.S.Q.M.S. Master Baker Williams, R.A.S.C., who had died after 24½ years' service, and whose widow was given no war pension. The facts of the case are, briefly, as follow. S.S.Q.M.S. Williams joined the Army in 1919 and served in Gibraltar for three years, Shanghai for two years, Malta for three years and with the B.E.F. in France. On his way back from France, in a hurry, he was bombed while in the "Lancastria" and was in the water for some time with a wound which was affected by oil on the water.

He recovered, and some time after that, in 1943, he was coming home on leave from one of the South coast areas when he suddenly fell ill in the train. He was removed from the train at Seven-oaks, in a state of coma, and was taken to hospital, where he died. According to the medical evidence he died from cerebral haemorrhage. His widow applied for a pension from the Ministry of Pensions, which was refused. She appealed to the appeal tribunal, which decided that her husband's death was not due to, or hastened by, a wound, injury or disease attributable to war service, nor was it due to, or hastened by, any aggravation of a wound through war service.

The next thing that happened was that the widow applied to me, and I wrote to the Minister of Pensions. He replied—and I have no quarrel with him—that in view of the fact that a pension had been refused by him, and that the widow had, in the ordinary course of affairs, applied to the appeal tribunal, and had been refused, he could do nothing more. But, he said, in view of the fact that her husband was a Regular soldier with 24½ years' service, he was sending the case to the War Office to see whether a pension could not be given under the Royal Warrant. So the case was passed to the War Office and I was told that I would eventually receive a reply from them. I did, and this is what they said: In Mr. Henderson's temporary absence I am replying to your letter of 16th August which has been forwarded by Sir Walter Womersley about the case of Mrs. A. C. Williams, widow of S.S.Q.M.S. Williams, who lives at 36, Sirdar Road, Notting Hill, which is in my constituency. The position is that a pension for the widow of a soldier below the substantive rank of W.O. Class 1 is issuable only if, among other conditions, his death is regarded as attributable to military service other than war service and occurs within seven years of his first removal from duty on account of the wound, injury or disease from which he died. I am afraid that the death of S.S.Q.M.S. Williams is not regarded as in any way attributable to his service before 1939, and that Mrs. Williams is not, therefore, eligible for an award of a pension from the Army authorities. This widow, who was used to living on an income of about five guineas per week, because her husband was making a compulsory allotment and a considerable voluntary allotment, has now been reduced to living on the National Health Insurance pension, plus help from public assistance. Her actual total income now is £2 7s. 6d. a week, because she is a widow with three children under 14. She is unable to supplement that income by working because her three children are of school age. I think that the State has treated an old servant of 24½ years' service in a way which no private employer would dare to do, and my appeal is that if nothing can be done for Mrs. Williams now something ought to be done for such cases in future.

The first point I want to make to the Secretary of State for War is that something must be done to deal with these cases concerning Regular soldiers of long service, and that in accidents such as this, not attributable to war service, provision ought to be made for their widows and families. The Royal Warrant was referred to in the letter from the War Office. Article 1190 of the Warrant provides that a pension may be given to a warrant officer, Class 1, if death is non-attributable to war service. The yearly rate of pension with compassionate allowance is up to £30 for a widow and up to £10 for each child at the discretion of the authorities. This special rate is given only to warrant officers, Class 1, and it seems to me that Regular soldiers of equal length of service should have their cases considered also. All other ranks except warrant officers, Class 1, come under Article 1196, which I will read: With the exception of the ordinary pension to widows of warrant officers, Class 1, grants of pensions to widows, children or other dependants of soldiers shall only be made when the soldier's death is directly attributable to service and when it takes place within seven years of the wound or injury from which he died or, in the case of death from disease, within seven years, and the death was not the result of injury or illness due to his own fault or negligence. It seems to me that the provision for special treatment for warrant officers, Class 1, should be reviewed and the provision for all others serving in the Regular Army who agreed to serve 21 years or more should be looked into again to prevent this sort of thing happening to my constituents. I would ask the Secretary of State to have a special inquiry into these Articles of the Royal Warrant to bring the pension part up to date to deal with this sort of case, so that we can stand up to our constituents and say that in the future we are going to treat the widows of those who die by accident or disease non-attributable to service in the same way as a private employer would.

I would ask my right hon. Friend to have such an inquiry by an impartial committee as soon as possible—before the war ends. We want a Regular Army after the war. No one knows exactly how it will be composed, but on the assumption that it is partially a conscript Army, there will always have to be a nucleus of long-service parsonnel as instructors and N.C.Os., and those men must be treated well. We shall never get a Regular Army unless we pay them better and have better conditions for their pensions and for their widows. It is on this ground, that we ought to look forward to better conditions for the Regular Army after the war, that I have raised the question. I hope, if my right hon. Friend can do nothing for Mrs. Williams, we shall avoid in future having Mrs. Williams' types of cases coming before us again.

4.6 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Sir James Grigg)

I apologise for not having been here when my hon. and gallant Friend commenced his speech. I was at a meeting a good distance away, but I came as quickly as I could. Quartermaster-Sergeant Williams died of cerebral haemorrhage while serving. He had served for 24½ years and was in receipt of his full pay. After completing 22 years' service, he had exercised his right to draw full pension in addition. The widow claimed from the Ministry of Pensions, who took the view that death was not due to war service; and when the widow took the case to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, they decided against her, and she cannot, therefore, get an award from the Ministry of Pensions. My hon. and gallant Friend now thinks that, although it has been established that death was not connected with service, the War Office should grant a pension on the ground of long service in the Army. The case falls to be dealt with under the Pension Regulations for the Regular Army, and I am afraid there is no shadow of doubt—indeed, by quoting the relevant articles of the Royal Warrant my hon. and gallant Friend admits it—that the Regulations do not provide for a pension in these circumstances. They are, of course, of long standing, and they were, no doubt, well known to the late Quartermaster-Sergeant. They are also in this respect similar for all three Services.

The widows of officers or warrant officers of Class 1, or equivalent rank in the other Services, whether serving or retired, who died from non-attributable causes are under certain conditions entitled to pension. The widows of warrant officers, Class 2, and other ranks are not. The origin of the difference of treatment is of long standing, and it has generally been accepted for many years that it was intended as, an inducement to private soldiers to rise to the top of the tree. Some hon. Members may think the distinction anomalous, and even indefensible, but there is the provision. It has always been one of the conditions of service in the Army and, as such, must have been well known to long-service soldiers. It may be that, when the pension regulations come to be comprehensively reviewed to meet post-war conditions, this is one of the respects in which an alteration is desirable, and I will certainly have it noted as a point for consideration in the general review which will have to take place in time for the conditions of service in the post-war Army to be clearly understood in advance, because it is a matter of common knowledge now that the regular Army, at any rate in the ranks below warrant officer, Class I, has to all intents and purposes disappeared, or will have disappeared in a year or so. Most Regular soldiers by then will have completed their engagement.

That I certainly can and do promise, but I do not see how I can go further than that. Cases of this kind cannot be very frequent, and I cannot say off-hand what repercussions there would be to an amendment to the Regulations, but any proposal for amendment, now in particular, when we are at the climax of the war, would involve discussion between the three Departments concerned and, the Treasury. This being so, it seems to me it is a matter which should be left until the review takes place in connection with the conditions of service for the post-war Army. I do not say that because I take any pleasure in saying "No," but because I have by now acquired a fairly large experience of trying to legislate for individual hard cases. Of course, the pressure to legislate for hard cases comes from a very praiseworthy motive, namely, that of aiming at complete justice in an imperfect world; but realised perfection is, at any rate on earth, a contradiction in terms. It always used to be said that hard cases make bad law. They certainly can make complicated law and so provide fruitful ground for disputation for lawyers and, it may not be out of place to add, civil servants.

I have no doubt that the complicated nature of the pay and pensions Regulations about which hon. Members have from time to time so justly complained in this House, and none more so than the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger), is largely due to this attempt to legislate for hard individual cases. I do not want to go further into this aspect as I have said that the Regulations will have to be comprehensively reviewed to provide for the conditions of the post-war Army. When they are reviewed, I hope that they will aim at and achieve simplicity and stability. Otherwise, we are in danger of getting into a position of which I had considerable experience when I was in India. Shortly after I got to India in 1934 I started off on a crusade, and, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw knows, I started on a similar crusade in the War Office for simplifying the Regulations relating to Government servants. These Regulations were embodied in—I think I have the number right—15 volumes. Some of these volumes were quite small and some ran into hundreds of printed pages. Two of them ran into well over 1,000 pages. They were all alike in this, that there was scarcely a page which was not smothered in amendment slips. If one suggested reprinting, it was made clear that the volumes would be out of date long before the reprinting was complete.

Such complexity makes it difficult to administer any system, but it also leads to those who are governed by the Regulations being under constant uncertainty as to where they stand. When all this has been said, we agree with the hon. and gallant Member in sympathising with the widow in this case on falling outside the Regulations. We would all agree, I think, and I certainly do, that we must review these Regulations so as to see that the number of hard cases which can arise in post-war conditions is as few as possible. We would all agree that, subject to that, the Regulations ought to be as simple and as stable as possible and not subject to constant amendment.

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

We are all interested in cases of this kind and the hon. and gallant Gentleman has done good service in raising the issue. I was pleased with the reply of the right hon. Gentleman, but, having dealt with cases of this kind, I am wondering whether the widow is not entitled to a widow's pension under the Contributory Pensions Act.

Captain Duncan

I stated in my speech that she was entitled to a National Health Insurance pension, plus supplementation from public assistance, which I think is a disgrace.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

The point that has been raised by my hon. and gallant Friend has been, I will not say suitably, but adequately, answered according to the Regulations by the Secretary of State. I do not think that even my hon. and gallant Friend can find any fault with the answer, although he will undoubtedly find fault with the Regulations. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would be good enough to refer to some of the battles royal, if I may call them such, or, at any rate, some of the agitations that I have been persistently carrying on before him for some time. I think that what emerges from his answer is something of which the House ought to take serious note. My right hon. Friend has been good enough to say that he admits that these Regulations, the Warrants and the terms of service of our post-war Army must be attended to—but at some time hence. What I have urged before, and I urge it now with all the earnestness I can command, is that the time should be now and that it should not be left until after the war. As my right hon. Friend has truly said, the whole of the Regular Army is in process of disappearing, some of them unfortunately by casualties, and others by the expiration of their normal engagements.

What is the position? When we come into the post-war world with numerous commitments, and not subject, as we were after the last war, to that ten-years' rule of no major war, we shall go into that period with practically no Regular Army. I ask my hon. and gallant Friends opposite, and I ask the Tory Party, who, as the Prime Minister once said, are supposed to be the protectors of our Constitution, what they think of that statement. Will they not urge on the Minister of Defence—because it is on a higher level than that of the Secretary of State for War—the necessity of getting down now to the recruitment of our post-war defence Forces on which we shall depend? As I said yesterday, conscription is not the answer to this question.

Sir J. Grigg

If I may reply by the leave of the House, may I say, although it is outside the scope of the question raised, that if I gave the impression that this and similar and more important questions of conditions of service are being shoved off till the end of the war, I gave a misleading impression? A great deal of work has been and is being done to formulate proposals for the pay system and other conditions, and that work will go on continuously. All I say is that I do not think that these things will be finally settled except in relation to the recruitment of the post-war Army.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly, at Eighteen Minutes after Four o'Clock.