HC Deb 20 November 1947 vol 444 cc1469-76

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

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Baird (Wolverhampton, East)

I want to raise tonight the case of one of my constituents who has died, and whose father is residing in my constituency now—the case of the late Corporal Mannion. I am raising this case because I believe that the treatment it received by the War Office has resulted not only in severe hardship to the parents of the deceased soldier, but also because a great point of principle is involved in it. Corporal Mannion joined the Army on 4th January, 1932. His health was then A.1. He served until nearly the end of 1937, when he was discharged with tuberculosis. During that time he was examined by medical officers in the Army 13 times. At each of these examinations he was found to be A.1. He was discharged in 1937 with tuberculosis, when it was stated that his disease was not attributable to his Army service. In January, 1938, Corporal Mannion put in his first appeal for a pension. His first letter was addressed to the War Office on 5th January, 1938. His appeal was not decided until December, 1938–10 or 11 months later. He appealed again in January, 1939, when the War Office said that his letter was lost. He appealed again on 18th June, 1939. It was not until he wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in 1940, that his appeal was granted, and it was antedated to June, 1939, the date of his last appeal.

My argument is that the pension of that soldier should have been granted, not from the date of his last appeal, but from the date of his first appeal. The case of the War Office is this: That pensions are payable only for current maintenance, that it is impossible to antedate a pension to the date of a man's discharge or the date of his first appeal. For 18 months this man, whose illness was afterwards finally attributed to war service, was unfit to work. He was in a sanatorium for part of this time, and was dependent on his parents for his upkeep. Was it right that the War Office should refuse to accept liability? The War Office said that it was impossible to antedate the appeal in this case, because during these two years the grounds on which the appeal was made were changed. Corporal Mannion first argued that his tuberculosis must be due to change of climate, because he had been in India, and then argued, later, that his tuberculosis was brought about by contact with another soldier who had the disease.

Here is the case of a simple soldier. He was a healthy man when he joined up, and during the seven years of his life he gave to the Army he was time and time again declared A.1. Suddenly, he finds that he has tuberculosis and is pushed out of the Army. He is bewildered; he does not know what caused his disease. He first makes the suggestion that it was caused by change of climate. After he has made his first appeal he hears that one of his old comrades, with whom he was billeted for a considerable time, has died of tuberculosis and his appeal on these grounds is accepted. The War Office argue that they cannot antedate this appeal because it was not a continuing appeal, that the grounds of the appeal had been changed. That, I suggest, is splitting hairs. My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State said, in a letter to me: You ask whether the appeal was continuous. If there had been a continuous exchange of correspondence, we should probably not have regarded the letter first mentioning contact as a fresh departure. But the appeals were continuous. The only long delay was when the War Office took ten months to decide the first appeal. But the weakest argument of the lot was the suggestion that the pension was granted on slender grounds. The ex-Secretary of State argues in his letter that there was some doubt, and it was decided to give Corporal Mannion the benefit of the doubt that existed and award him a disability pension. You will appreciate that the pension was given on somewhat slender grounds. I submit that a pension is either granted or not granted. If it is granted these qualifications should not be introduced at a later date.

The sum total of the whole case is the fact that when the appeal was granted the soldier was dead. His father is an invalid and almost confined to bed, but he is fighting this case on principle, because he realises that there are many thousands of ex-soldiers in a similar position. I believe that the decision of the War Office in this case was wrong. If the Under-Secretary proposes to argue that according to the regulations it is right for him to make that decision, then it is time the regulations were changed. I am afraid that quite a number of Socialists who have gone into the War Office as junior Ministers have before long been dominated by the bureaucrats and themselves turn out to be better bureaucrats than any. I hope that will not happen to my hon. Friend.

I have a copy of a letter headed "Sunday Pictorial" addressed to my constituent. It is dated 1941, and it says: It seems to me that as the War Office has admitted their liability for a pension in the case of your son it should date from the date of his discharge on medical grounds. It is signed "F. J. Bellenger." Another letter sent by my right hon. Friend when he became Secretary of State for War says exactly the opposite. I believe that there are many cases like this, which Members of Parliament get at the present time and which, judged by bureaucratic, standards are turned down. We must judge these cases in the spirit of humanity. I am convinced that if we judge this case in a spirit of humanity a pension will be granted, not from the date of the last appeal, but from the date when the man contracted tuberculosis and was invalided out of the Army—admittedly as the result of his Army service.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

I think we shall all sympathise with the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Baird) who has raised this case. There is nothing which excites our sympathy more than a claim for a pension for an ex-Service man, particularly when, as in this case, the ex-Service man has died from the disability which is under consideration. There are few tasks more unattractive to anyone who stands at this Box than to contest such a claim. Anyone who does so has to realise that if a claim of this kind were not judged in accordance with certain general rules and guiding principles, the whole administration of the matter would fall into confusion and would defeat the very end of humanity and justice which we are seeking to serve. As this is a case of some complication, I would ask the House to bear with me while I refer again to the mere skeleton of facts and dates.

This soldier, the late Corporal Mannion, enlisted in January, 1932, and was discharged invalided out of the Army in December, 1937, suffering from tuberculosis. He then made a claim. He made it very fully, and in repeated letters, and advanced various reasons why he felt that his disability was attributable to his service. Those reasons were not, in sum, convincing and his claim was rejected, as the hon. Member has said, in December, 1938. At that point, so far as we can judge, the late Corporal Mannion for the time being abandoned the matter, and raised it again, this making a second appeal, in June, 1939, through the British Legion. He then said that it had since come to his memory that he had served with a man who was discharged with tuberculosis, and that he had lived in the same room as this man just prior to the man's discharge owing to the complaint. That is the "contact" letter referred to, and the new ground for supposing that Corporal Mannion's disability was due to his service.

Mr. Baird

Does the hon. Gentleman deny that a letter was sent by the late Corporal Mannion in January, 1939?

Mr. Stewart

I am coming to that point. No one, unfortunately, is in a position to confirm or deny that, because the only person who could do so is the late Corporal himself, whose evidence we cannot have.

Mr. Baird rose

Mr. Stewart

I am aware of the point which the hon. Member is going to make. I am about to deal with it. Certainly, no letter was received by the War Office between December, 1938, when the first appeal was rejected, and June, 1939, when the second appeal, advancing this new piece of evidence was made. We have since received from the father of the late Corporal Mannion what was claimed to be a copy of a letter sent to the War Office by the late Corporal Mannion in January, 1939. We have acknowledged the receipt from the late Corporal Mannion's father of this copy, but the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton is mistaken if he thinks that we have at any time admitted receiving the original letter from the late Corporal Mannion in January, 1939.

Mr. Baird

I have a copy of a letter acknowledging receipt of letters of the 15th and 22nd August, 1941, which says: I forward, in response to your further request, a copy of Mr. George Mannion's appeal, dated 31st January, 1939. This was signed by Lt. J. G. Morgan Owen, Lieut. Governor and Secretary.

Mr. Stewart

Yes, but my hon. Friend will see that that refers to a copy—

Mr. Baird


Mr. Stewart

—of Corporal Mannion's appeal, dated January, 1939. We agree that we received in 1941 a copy of that appeal made by Corporal Mannion in 1939, but what we have never received, nor admitted receiving, is a copy of the actual appeal in 1939. What we have acknowledged is that, in 1941, we received a copy of an appeal and that copy was dated 1939, but we did not receive—and this I must emphasise—that appeal in 1939. What we acknowledge, therefore, is the receipt of something in 1941 and not in 1939.

Mr. Baird

This is the letter; I will read it again: I forward in response to your further request, a copy of Mr. George Mannion's appeal dated 31st January, 1939

Mr. Stewart

Yes, the operative words are "copy of an appeal dated 1939." Certainly we received in 1941 a copy dated—as doubtlessly was the original appeal—1939—but what we did not receive in 1939 was the appeal itself. It may be that Corporal Mannion gave it to somebody else to post for him, or that something else happened, but unfortunately, of course, we cannot ask him. We did not receive a communication between December, 1938, and June, 1939, and we have, therefore, a clear break in the continuity of the correspondence. What starts in June, 1939, is a second appeal. Indeed, in the correspondence from Corporal Mannion, and his father as well, there appears the phrase "second appeal."

It is quite clear, then, that we are dealing, from June, 1939, onwards, with a new appeal bringing forward a new piece of evidence. That appeal was ultimately successful shortly before Corporal Mannion's death, and the pension was granted payable from June, 1939, that is to say, the date of the initiation of the second appeal; the successful appeal. In this case, which it is agreed, is a sad and moving case, we granted the pension from the date of the initiation of the successful appeal. A pension in that manner is in accordance with the general rules and principles observed not only by the War Office and Ministry of Pensions but, I believe, in some cases by other pension paying departments. The second point is what is the justification for that general rule? My hon. Friend referred to a phrase in the correspondence he had had with the ex-Secretary of State in which it was suggested there were but slender grounds for the granting of the pension. I would agree that is not relevant to the subject we are discussing, but if my hon. Friend will search a little more closely in the letters from the ex-Secretary of State, he will see he agrees that that point is not relevant to the main issue and is only brought into the correspondence to rebut the suggestion that the matter had been treated in an ungenerous manner. I think we may set that point aside.

What are the reasons for this general rule? One is that the purpose of a pension is for the current maintenance of the disabled person, and that is an argument against allowing an indefinite period of arrears to accumulate. The second consideration is that sometimes a claim is made and not sufficient evidence is adduced, so that the claim is unsuccessful. It may then—and this is not an exaggeration—in some instances be renewed on fresh evidence after a gap of say 10, 20 or more years. If, therefore, we do not stick to the rule that the pension is payable from the date of the initiation of the successful appeal, we should be accepting an unlimited liability. It will be agreed that when we are handling public money, which is to be applied to the payment of pensions, we have to be careful not to accept unlimited liability which might endanger the finance and arrangements of the whole scheme.

There is a further difficulty. Take, for example, a claim that is made in 1920. Insufficient evidence is adduced and the claim is rejected. It is renewed 10 years later in 1930 with new evidence, and on that new evidence is granted. It is then suggested by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton that we ought to make the pension payable from the original claim in 1920. What does that mean? It means that we should have to ask ourselves over the whole period from 1920 to 1930 what is the cause of the illness and what was the degree of disability throughout the whole period 1920–30. We should be creating as it were out of the past, and possibly out of non-existing evidence, the history of the case in order to judge what was the degree of disability, and what was the amount of arrears that ought to be paid.

If we look at the reasons for the rule we must come to the conclusion that even if its operation in some cases may seem hard, it is, in general, a rule that we could not abandon without the very greatest (hesitation. I would submit, therefore, that in this case we have proceeded in accordance with a general principle and that there has been no question of discrimination against this soldier or his heir. Secondly, there are solid reasons for a general rule or principle; and, thirdly, it is a rule and principle observed not only by the War Office, but by the Ministry of Pensions and has been subject to careful consideration in the past. I would ask the House to believe that this is not a case where a Department is dealing hard-heartedly with a pension claim, but that it has acted after careful consideration of the facts and with a broad regard for its responsibilities.

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.