HC Deb 13 February 1947 vol 433 cc665-74

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

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

I wish to raise the question of pensions for disabled discharged soldiers, with special reference to those disabled by disease. We are all familiar with the lines: It's Tommy this, an Tommy that, an Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?; But it's 'Thin red line of 'eroes' when the drums begin to roll. We have been familiar after several wars with the reverse process, but so far as the last war is concerned we on this side of the House are determined that that process shall not be reversed again. I desire to pay tribute to the work that the Minister has done. He has been kindly, approachable and effective. He has increased pensions, he has widened the regulations and introduced a sympathetic treatment into the administration of this matter which was not there before. It is very well that we should remember that when the war started pensions had been reduced below the limits of 1919. When I joined the Forces on 3rd September, 1939, I used to salute four times to collect seven bob for my two kids both of whom were at secondary school.

We have passed from that but there is one narrow and important sphere of this matter in which I find that the regulations are not applied or are not sufficiently flexible, and as a result great hardship, pain and suffering are caused, I want to quote the case of a constituent of mine who is suffering from psycho-neurosis. This case is quite exceptional, because there is no fact in the matter which is in dispute. The whole of the facts are completely agreed. This question of psycho-neurosis is a branch of medicine today which affects very many people. I wish to quote the case of a man of 35, a member of the police force, a reserved occupation, who volunteered for service in the Air Force. He was called up in 1941 and classed as A.1.

It is said that he was a person of exceptional mentality with a very fine record of service. He goes to Canada where he is passed A.1, and he returns in 1942 and is found A.1. He qualifies as a pilot, is passed as a first-class pilot and he flies all over the world. When over the Mediterranean, he crashes into the sea, with a shot through the leg, and is in the water for hours. He is finally rescued by a launch, and, from that moment completely crippled, for the time being, with psycho-neurosis. Not a single fact is disputed, and the doctors from the Ministry of Health have agreed on these facts and that this man will never again be fit for the police force. That is all they say on the matter, and I would like to quote a few words of the findings to the House, because hon. Members will readily see that they can apply to a good many cases: Psychiatric investigation during service revealed his as a zealous, over-conscientious type of individual, a mental make-up which is found in early life. That is all they could find about him—that he was a conscientious type. Had he been found out to have stolen apples at 14 years of age, or bought sweets after eight o'clock at night, or spent more than five shillings on a meal, he would have got a pension. Being as he was, a conscientious individual, they found that he had a predisposition to the disease. They said further that the mental malady from which he was suffering did not of necessity imply a prior history of nervous disorder, but was prone to declare itself in those who have shown during the years high standards of work and conscience—and often a too sensitive and over-scrupulous nature.

Because he showed this high standard and conscientiousness, they said that he had a predisposition to this disease. l have now to deal with the most moving case of all. Hon. Members will know that many cases of disease, such as Parkinson':- disease, which is a branch of encephalitis lethargica, are of such a nature that no doctor can say how they are caused. Medicine being an exact science in the textbooks, they have a variety of names for these diseases, but nobody knows, and nobody can tell how they are caused. In the great research stations of America they are considering environment and food as possible causations of disease. This man got this terrible sentence of death, and it is, indeed a terrible sentence. Where men have been said to have failed to establish that the disease was due to their service, as in this case—the men who manned the tanks in Libya, the men who fought on the dunes of Dunkirk, who served in tropic heat or arctic cold—it is a tragedy that they are not entitled, when they come back, to first consideration of the fact that they served, as physically fit men, for years, and that, when they come out of the Service, crippled by disease, it is for them to have to establish that their condition is due to their service.

They went out willingly, and took the risks of war and all its dangers." Non ille pro cans amicis Aut patria timidus perire. But when they came back they had to face something infinitely worse. I do not want to harrow the feelings of the House in this matter, but it is right that we should appreciate just what it means when a medical man says, "You have longstanding disseminated sclerosis." This is a sentence of death, and it is a sentence, not of rapid death, it is a sentence of long suffering. It is a sentence which means that that man's frame will gradually waste away, and he will be harassed by constant paroxysms of suffering. He has to lie there, awaiting the inevitable. If I could paraphrase what John Bright said in another direction, "From the moment that sentence is pronounced, the angel of death is in the house, and you can hear the fluttering of his wings." There must be times when that man, lying there, helpless and alone, might think that that angel presents the appearance of the vulture standing there implacably, relentlessly, remorselessly, for the prey which has been appointed for him by this affliction.,

These are not matters for light debate, but for broad human dispensations. These men are being driven to seek public assistance, but the difference between public assistance and pension is, anyhow, trivial. But what does it mean in terms of dignity and comfort? These men are sent home and must have care and constant attention, and they must have food and sunlight, and they must be free from worry. But what happens in Oldham, my constituency, where these men are in the loneli- ness of their rooms, with no hospital treatment, because the hospitals are full? They have no rehabilitation treatment, because they have not been passed for pension. They have no constant care from the devoted helpmeet because the breadwinner has been driven by the sheer force of economic necessity into the factory. I have seen them in their little, ill-lit, back bedrooms. They lie there, with dampness showing on the walls, with little light coming through the window, day after day, and all day, waiting hopefully for the relieving officer to come, and waiting for their ultimate call to a pauper's grave. I am telling the House of what I have seen. I have the case paper of a man before me now, who has gone into a public assistance institution since I took up his case, and I might as well say he may be better off there than have to remain in the conditions in which I first saw him.

I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary, in a few, I hope, moderate words, not to talk about appeals to the High Court, because there is no appeal to the High Court in fact, and not to talk about the number of cases that are allowed. These are sincere and genuine cases, and I say to the Parliamentary Secretary—for whom I have the greatest respect and who has been most courteous and efficient in always considering individual cases with great sympathy—that there is nothing to prevent him, in consultation with the right hon. Gentleman, writing a single letter by ten o'clock in the morning which will put an end to these things and will show that, so long as the medical man is satisfied that the man really is disabled and really was fit when he enlisted, he should have his pension. There should be no argument about it.

It has been my misfortune in life to come into contact with many cases of the utmost gravity. Taking the bad cases which I have visualised, I would say with Byron: He, too, was struck and day by day Was withered on the stalk away Oh, God, it is a fearful thing To see the human soul take wing In any shape, in any mood:— I've seen it rushing forth in blood, I've seen it on the breaking ocean Strive with a swol'n convulsive motion, I've seen the sick and ghastly bed Of Sin delirious with its dread: But these were horrors—this was woe Unmixed with such—but sure and slow. These men are entitled to the sympathy and assistance of this House in the most abounding measure and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an answer tonight which means that he is bringing light to those who live in darkness and in the valley of the shadow of death.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Joynson-Hicks (Chichester)

I count myself proud to be able to associate myself with the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) in the appeal he has made to the Minister of Pensions. I would be glad if my constituents could share the results of his eloquence on behalf of his constituents. We on this side of the House are grateful to him for the sincere, impassioned, and very moving appeal. I have not come to the House this evening armed with cases to support him. In fact, the time would not allow me to give further cases. And what necessity is there to do so? The cases which the hon. Member for Oldham has already quoted are as serious as any which any other hon. Member could put forward.

When the hon. Member for Oldham says that the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister invariably meet our appeals on these cases with sympathy, he may be right. But what we are not met with, so far as I am concerned, is any result, or any satisfaction to the constituent. In so far as the case may fall within the strict limits of the regulations, if the Ministry has gone wrong, it may be put right. But in so far as it may not fall within the strict limits of the regulations and rules and the absolute lines laid down, there is no hope of getting help. That is the experience I have enjoyed with the Parliamentary Secretary. Therefore I do hope, and urge, that the Minister will see his way to making some alleviation of the conditions. I sincerely trust that he will bear in mind the appeal which has been made to him to issue fresh instructions to the doctors and to endeavour to ensure that they do not act in future in the hidebound way which has characterized their actions in the past.

10.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions (Mr. Blenkinsop)

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) for raising this matter tonight, for two reasons. The first is that this is an issue in which I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House are deeply concerned. The second is a personal reason—that it gives me an opportunity at long last to speak in this House and from this place. I think that it is perhaps some sign of a greater understanding of the work which this Ministry of ours is doing that we have not had occasion to speak here before.

I would like to point out, first, what is our policy in general cases of disease, before I come to the diseases which the hon. Member has raised with such sincerity tonight. Of all the cases, the first applications for which are submitted to the Ministry, the great majority are of diseases which unhappily are common both to our ordinary civil life and to our military life. In order to be fair to those who put in their claims to us, it is important that we should have some sort of common basis for the treatment of those claims. That common basis, in our view, certainly ought to be a medical one. But let me immediately insist that the narrow medical view is not the view which our Ministry accepts as the one rule. Let me make it clear that any application which comes to us goes to our medical services for their opinion. The doctors are asked to give their advice on whether there is any connection between the man's condition and his service in the Forces.

There is no schedule or list of diseases cut out from our consideration. Some hon. Members have from time to time suggested to us that we regard certain types of disease as outside our consideration. That is certainly not true. We are very careful to insist that every case that comes before us should be considered on its merits, and that medical services, when they give it their first consideration, pay full regard to the actual circumstances of the individual case—the of service of the man, whether he has undergone a severe stress or strain, whether there has been any delay in deciding the nature of the case, and all matters of that kind which might militate in his favour. Very often our medical service calls for further medical evidence from independent experts outside our own Ministry to decide what would be the normal advice on a particular type of case. When the doctors have given their advice, the case then goes to the lay officers of our Ministry. who have the strongest advice from us as to the need for very careful and human consideration to be given to each case. Their approval must be obtained before any decision is conveyed to a claimant.

Despite my hon. Friend's request to me not to quote figures, I would say, in fairness to us, that for the last six months at least, over 80 per cent. of the current applications coming to the Ministry as a consequence of the last war have been accepted without any question of appeal. That suggests that we are treating such applications in a very different way from the way in which they have been treated in the past.

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning to me earlier that he would be raising certain cases tonight. He mentioned the terrible disease of disseminated sclerosis. It is correct, as he says, that the cause of this disease is largely unknown. I am anxious to emphasise that we take the greatest care that individual cases are examined on their merits, and not by a rule of thumb method, as suggested by the hon. Member opposite. We insist that, in all cases, the human basis must be given its full importance. I do not know about all the cases which the hon. Member for Oldham raised, but I know of one which he has brought before us. It is a case in which the war service of the man concerned lasted precisely ten days.

Mr. Hale

Oh, no.

Mr. Blenkinsop

That is one of the cases which the hon. Member has raised with us. This man was on the reserve for some years prior to joining up on 2nd September, 1939, and he was taken into hospital ten days later.

Mr. Hale

After 14 years' peacetime service in the Army

Mr. Blenkinsop

Much of which was on the reserve. The duty of the Ministry is to deal with war service. I must ask hon. Members to realise that we can pay regard only to that part of the service. Even so, the prior service was on the reserve.

To assure hon. Members again that we are not taking any harsh, narrow, medical view in cases of disseminated sclerosis, I would say that out of 1,600 applications for pension for that disease we have granted something over 900 awards. At all stages we are prepared to review any of these cases. In view of the service—if the man has been abroad, for example, and done service—we would certainly take the matter into consideration. Similarly if there had been delay in treatment. We are prepared to give further review and consideration at all stages of appeal, right up to the Appeal Tribunal.

Cases of psychoneurosis have been mentioned by my hon. Friend. The attitude of the Ministry has been changed during recent years. At the outbreak of war, a conference of medical experts under the chairmanship of Lord Horder made certain recommendations, among them being that economic gain should be strictly avoided, as it would hinder recovery. That attitude has been ended by our Ministry, over the last year and a half in particular. In the changes that we made in 1943, and, much more particularly, since the High Court judgment, we have altered our attitude completely on matters of this kind, particularly, in the individual case raised by my hon. Friend. I can tell him that if that case, which I have seen, came before us today, we should certainly give it "attributability".

Mr. Hale

It came before the Ministry. on 9th December, 1946.

Mr. Blenkinsop

If my hon. Friend would care to send the case to me, I can assure him that it will receive very sympathetic treatment. I cannot give him any assurance about the actual level of pension that he might get. I am prepared to say that our Ministry would certainly grant to any case of this sort, of long, hard service, "attributability" rather than "aggravation". We shall have to pay regard to how much disability the man is actually suffering today, and to pay pension in accordance with whatever that disability is. We have 37,000 cases of psychoneurosis for pension purposes. I suggest that that is a sign of our changed attitude on this matter. I am afraid I cannot deal with the other individual case which my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham raised, but I will willingly consider it if he cares to put it before me.

Mr. Hale

The hon. Member has it.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Well, I should be very willing to consider it again. I am only too anxious to. [Laughter.] Hon. Members opposite laugh, but I think it is only fair to say, in regard to the attitude of the Ministry, that a very large number of cases which were refused consideration in the earlier days of the war are now being reconsidered and pensions awarded; and, what is more important, not only are pensions awarded but treatment is provided—which, after all, is what we are most concerned about in the Ministry. and. I am sure, in this House.

I want to end by assuring all hon. Members that we are particularly anxious that they should all co-operate by letting us know of any cases of specific difficulty, in which they think the Ministry has not given full consideration. If the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson Hicks) will raise with me the cases which he says have not been dealt with satisfactorily, I assure him I am anxious, not only to see them but to discuss them with him I think that is the fairest way of dealing with it. Both my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself are anxious that the better reputation which the Ministry is gaining, not only with hon. Members but in the country at large, should be maintained and developed. We are anxious, indeed, that all men who have rendered service to the country, for which they are to be thanked, should be fairly and properly treated by our Minister if hon. Members have any cases of difficulty, not only should they put them before us by letter but, if they are still not satisfied with the answers they get, I shall be only too willing for them to come round to see either the Minister or myself personally about it.

Adjourned accordingly at seven Minutes to Eleven o'clock