HC Deb 07 December 1948 vol 459 cc277-88

Considered in Committee.

[Mr. BOWLES in the Chair]

CLAUSE 1.—(Extension of Act to claims arising otherwise than out of war service.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

3.42 p.m.

Commander Noble (Chelsea)

Unfortunately, I was unable to be present during the Second Reading Debate, and there is one point relative to this Clause which I should like to put to the Minister. It concerns the need for Service Departments to work in very close liaison with the Ministry of Pensions in supplying the information needed on behalf of appellants to these tribunals. As the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary know, about two years ago I was very interested in the case of an Army officer who had died very suddenly. I wrote to the Minister of that day—now the Postmaster-General—suggesting that perhaps this was a case where death was due to war causes, but the Minister informed me that this officer's death was neither due to nor hastened by war service. Now, that was not my view; nor was it the view of medical advice that I took; nor was it the view of officers who served with the man concerned.

I therefore advised the widow to appeal to the tribunal, and to seek legal advice. I myself wrote to the general on whose staff the officer had served and, with the aid of the Army List, to practically every officer who had served with the officer at the time. The replies I received showed that this officer had worked very long hours under great strain at a most difficult period of the war. Those replies were forwarded to the tribunal, which arranged for a hearing on a date about 14 months after the officer's death. The hearing was postponed, a week before it was due to take place; the case was then withdrawn by the Ministry and the widow informed that her husband's death was attributed to war service, in consequence of which she received a much larger pension.

I maintain that the information which the widow and I took the trouble to collect could very easily have been obtained and put forward by the War Office itself. As a result of this long delay of about 18 months the widow was caused a great deal of worry, both financially and otherwise. Now that this system is to be applied in peace time to widows and all officers and men, as it applied in the war, I hope that there will be good co-operation between the Service Ministries and the Ministry of Pensions.

3.45 p.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I notice that in replying to the Second Reading Debate the Minister of Pensions said: It is quite evident … that the tribunals shall be constituted independently of the Minister of Pensions, and that they shall consider cases by all the methods that the courts normally adopt to collect and consider evidence. Later on he said: It would be possible to speed up the work by giving very arbitrary and more rapid rejections so far as the Ministry is concerned, but that would be a most undesirable thing to do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November. 1948; Vol. 458, c. 1565–6.] I agree with the Minister, but I would point out that this Bill, which is intended to amend the Pensions Appeal Tribunals Act, 1943, leaves in being the very thing the Minister says he does not want.

I have here a letter, which came to me only late yesterday evening, so that I have not had an opportunity of putting down an Amendment to deal with the point at issue. The letter, dated 8th April, from the Ministry of Pensions to the Polish Combatants' Association, says: Special arrangements have, however, been made under which appeals from members of the Polish Forces against decisions of the Ministry are dealt with administratively. I am not at the moment arguing whether or not the Poles should be treated differently from the British; but I am arguing that the Ministry is apparently saying openly that it has established machinery which has considerable arbitrary powers, and which is under the Ministry itself. That is precisely what the Minister said during Second Reading he did not approve of so far as pensions appeals were concerned.

I imagine that this Bill is simply to amend the Pensions Appeals Tribunals Act, 1943, without specifying in the Title of the Bill what those amendments should be. It will be perfectly in order at a later stage for the Minister to make an Amendment to deal with this specific point. I have heard from the Poles themselves that they are extremely grateful to the Minister for what he has done for them under the Polish Resettlement Act, 1947. They do not complain about that at all. All they complain about now is that they have no appeals machinery such as British pensioners have. They consider that they ought to be allowed an appeal to an independent tribunal in just the same way as members of the British Forces who fought alongside them. I hope that the Minister will bear this in mind. Perhaps at a later stage the Government can arrange to introduce a new Clause to deal with this matter. There is an anomaly at present, which I am certain is contrary to the desire of the Minister himself if he expressed his real feelings during the Second Reading Debate.

Sir Ian Fraser (Lonsdale)

Does it follow from the passage of this Bill and the extension of appeal tribunals to soldiers, sailors and airmen hurt during peace time, between wars so to speak, that the whole procedure for granting pensions to these men, hospitalising and looking after them, will also become the duty of the Ministry of Pensions? In my opinion the Ministry performs that duty far better than the Service Departments ever did, and it would be well for these men that the whole service of caring for them, as well as the conduct of appeals on their behalf, should pass to the Ministry. Since I was not here during the Second Reading Debate I should like now to offer my congratulations to the Minister on introducing this Bill, which I wish a speedy passage.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

I received a circular letter this morning from a lad in Ipswich, I think his name is Baker, no doubt other Members have received a similar letter—who will be adversely affected under this Bill. His claims that those up to 1922 who were in the first world war, or associated with it, will come under the scheme, but that those between then and 1939 will not. He wants to know if anything can be done for him and others who are affected like him.

Lieut.-Commander Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, West)

I wish to say a word on this Clause, which introduces a change that is welcomed by all ex-Service men's organisations interested in altering the procedure for claiming disability pensions. The Minister is probably aware that during the past 18 months, and since the passage into law of the National Service Act, 1947, I have put a number of questions to him and to his two predecessors on this point regarding the right of appeal to a tribunal. For that reason, I am very glad that this Measure has been introduced, and that this Clause will cover not only National Service men, but all the men and women at present in the Regular Forces and those who may join the Regular Forces at some future date. I was unable to be present at the Second Reading owing to a long-standing engagement in my constituency, but since then I have had an opportunity of discussing this Bill with the principal officials of the British Legion in Scotland, which is a separate body to the British Legion in England. They welcome this Clause and trust, as I do, that it will soon be made law.

Professor Savory (Queen's University of Belfast)

I wish to support what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) has said with regard to giving Poles the right of appeal to an independent tribunal. The Minister is well aware that, under the Polish Resettlement Act, pensions are accorded to Poles and that the only discrimination between them and British soldiers is in regard to the right of appeal to an independent tribunal. The Poles are very sensitive on this matter. These men who fought so gallantly at Cassino, without whom Viscount Alexander has said we could not have won the war in Italy, consider that they should be treated on the same footing as the British soldier. I am aware that the Minister said arrangements will be made for appeals to be dealt with administratively, but the Poles do not want that; they want to have the same right of appeal to an independent tribunal as the British soldiers.

Commander Pursey (Hull, East)

It is only right that it should be said from this side that we are entirely in support of this Measure, which is long overdue. I will not go into the question of the organisations responsible for this reform, although certain organisations have been mentioned by Members opposite for propaganda reasons. The reason why this Bill has been introduced is not because of the ex-Service men's organisations, but because we have a Labour Government in power and a Ministry of Pensions which has been more considerate to the ex-Service men and has introduced more far-reaching reforms than any other Ministry during the 20 years between the wars. It is only right that this should go on record, and that we on this side should also place on record our complete support for this Bill and for doing the utmost possible for ex-Service men and their dependants, consistent with reason, common sense and consideration for other members of the community.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

The hon. and gallant Member for East Hull (Commander Pursey) is singular in two respects. He believes he is the only Member who understands the ex-Service men, and the only Member who, either on Second Reading or during the Committee stage, has introduced a party note into our discussions. If he reads the report of the Second Reading Debate, he will see that he is not supported by any of his colleagues. I think the kindest thing is to take no notice of his observations, which are based on an entirely false assumption.

I wish to stress the two points made by my hon. and gallant Friends. I am sure that the Government will give sympathetic consideration to the point put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble), who expressed the need for the facilitation of applications and consideration by the tribunal. I know that there are difficulties in this respect and that the question is a difficult and complicated one. My hon. and gallant Friend quoted the experience he had had with one case, and other Members could give similar examples. There is need for improvement of the machinery with regard to the question of the Poles, and I strongly support the suggestion made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) that something should he done to make their position easier.

The main effect of this Clause is to put ex-Service men of the last war and those now serving in the Army on the same basis as those who served in the 1914 war. As I said on Second Reading, the main lacuna is that the Bill excludes all those who were in the Services between the wars. It is only fair to say that, in advocating further consideration of this on Second Reading, I admitted that there were administrative difficulties, but I support the contention that further consideration should be given from both sides. I have thought the matter over since the Second Reading Debate, and, despite the administrative difficulties, I cannot help feeling that those who served in the Forces between the wars will feel a sense of grievance in being excluded. Many of them took part in arduous active service on the North-West Frontier of India and elsewhere, and I am wondering whether, even at this late hour, the right hon. Gentleman could not see his way, to include them in the Bill.

This Bill marks a further improvement in the system of granting pensions, an improvement which, despite what the hon. and gallant Member for East Hull has said, is not a party matter and has been going on ever since the creation of the Ministry of Pensions. That improvement would be made more synthetical if the men to whom I have referred could be brought into the Bill, and I very much hope that the appeal which has been made on these lines from both sides will be considered by the Minister.

4.0 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions (Mr. Marquand)

When the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) and the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) are in alliance, it is a little difficult to resist them, but I am afraid that I cannot hold out hope this afternoon of making the radical change in the Bill that would be necessary to include the men serving in the Forces between the two wars. We had a fairly long Debate on this subject during the Second Reading, and I do not want to repeat the speech I then made. 1 have considered the matter very carefully since then, in the light of what has been said, but I feel that this would be administratively far too difficult a task to undertake.

I said on the Second Reading that these claims were decided between the wars under a Royal Warrant and a code of pensions entitlement entirely different from that which operates now. Under that code disability had to be attributable to service. There was no mention of aggravation, though I understand some of my Service colleagues have paid pensions where material aggravation was shown.

There was no onus of proof on the Department and no law of compelling presumption. We should have to take over the administration of thousands of cases outside our code of entitlement. I find no one knows the figure of cases which could become the subject of appeals if we were to try to apply to those cases the code of entitlement which now applies, because no one has got a record of all the rejections that were made. It would undoubtedly be thousands, but it is one more example of the difficulty frequently encountered in this Department—when one makes an improvement in the future everyone wants to see it extended to the past. There are times when, with the best will in the world, that proves to be administratively impracticable. This is one of those cases.

We are not proposing to take away from those people who served between the wars any of the rights that they possessed. They can still appeal to the Minister or the Department concerned, and I am sure, in the light of the representations that have been made during the two Debates, that the Service Ministers will certainly be prepared to look again at cases in which hon. Members feel that some injustice has been done. We are not taking away rights from others, but we are conferring rights on men who are serving and are giving rights to future soldiers which will be of benefit to them. In that, of course, I include airmen and seamen. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) for the implied tribute to my Department when he said that it is more satisfactory to have these things dealt with in the future by the Minister of Pensions and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the whole of our administration will apply in future to National Service men. They will be entitled as serving men to all our services, including our hospital service, rehabilitation and our welfare service.

Sir I. Fraser

What about the Regular man?

Mr. Marquand

Yes, certainly, he is included. I meant all men who were serving. I said the National Service man, but I made it clear during the Second Reading Debate that this Bill applies to the Regular volunteer just as much as it does to the National Service man. Hospitalisation and all other such services, including all the constructive services which we provide, will apply to all.

I was asked by the hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble) and other Members whether I could give an assurance that in the future adequate medical records would be available for the tribunals to consider these cases. I said on Second Reading—and I repeat it gladly now—that we shall do all in our power in future to see that adequate records are kept. I do not know about the case to which the hon. and gallant Member referred. Such an incident does from time to time occur, especially when the service took place many years ago and it has been impossible to trace the records. I do not think that many instances of that kind could occur where the service took place comparatively recently. The records are now kept, I am assured, in a very satisfactory way. We have the advantage of the photostat machinery which enables repeated duplication of records and makes it so much easier to multiply records and keep and store them in a satisfactory way. All the Army records are in our possession in a store near our office in Cheltenham.

Commander Noble

May I thank the Minister for his reply on that point? The point I was trying to make was not so much about medical cards as Service records. If, in the case which I have quoted, the War Office had stated the type of job the officer was doing at that time I do not think there was any doubt that the case would have been dealt with much earlier.

Mr. Marquand

While on the subject of records I must pass to the representations made about the Poles. The Polish Forces are dealt with under a special Act of Parliament passed for that purpose, and the main reason why we have not been able to allow cases of the Polish Armed Forces to go through our regular procedure of appeals machinery is that the records in those cases are not available. It is because we do not have complete records for those Forces as we do in respect of our own Forces that we find ourselves unable to provide appeals machinery of that kind.

I hope the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) did not misunderstand what I said on the Second Reading. I then said that it would be possible for me to speed up the preparation of cases for the appeals tribunal by making rejections rather quickly or even arbitrarily, but I did not mean by saying that to suggest for one moment that we would ever make an arbitrary rejection in a case where there was no appeal. We certainly do not make arbitrary rejections in the cases of Polish personnel. On the contrary, we applied to those cases in so far as the evidence was available some profound thought and as careful application of the known criteria as we did to cases arising from our own Forces, and we tried to apply to those Polish cases the law as laid down by the tribunals and the High Court. I am afraid because of the special circumstances surrounding the Polish Forces, and particularly the lack of records, that it would not be possible to apply to them this tribunal procedure.

Major Legge-Bourke

I am grateful for the fullness of the answer given by the Minister on that point, but has he considered the possibility, if not of using the ordinary tribunal machinery, at least of using some independent body to deal with those cases which are different from ours?

Mr. Marquand

I have already explained in the Second Reading Debate that we try to provide such an advantage when a rejection has been notified and an objection made against it, because there is the re-submission of the evidence to another section of the Department. I admit it is the same Department and it is all under the umbrella of my own personal responsibility, but where there is a dispute about a decision then two separate sections of the Department do look at the case. If the hon. and gallant Member wishes his case to be carried further, it can be brought, as frequently happens, to my personal attention or that of the Parliamentary Secretary. We use every possible method to ensure that justice is done.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."—[Mr. Marquand.]

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Basil Nield (City of Chester)

Although some points of importance and interest have been raised on the Committee stage, I have no doubt that the House will gladly give a Third Reading to this Bill, which is clearly calculated to improve the position of claimants to war pensions. I was particularly anxious to say a word or so on this matter for the reason that in 1943 I was able in a small way to help my noble Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) when he and others were pressing for the establishment of these pension appeal tribunals. I recall very clearly two major points from those days. The first was that the tribunal should be completely independent and that there should be a right to go to the High Court on a point of law. The second point was that the burden of proof should be upon the Minister to justify the rejection of a claim.

All hon. Members will have had the experience that these tribunals have worked exceedingly well, and that is largely due, I think, to the confidence induced by the fact that they are independant and appointed by the Lord Chancellor. Also fair and equitable results are obtained by reason of the onus of proof having shifted from the claimant to the Ministry. It seems reasonable and right that we should now extend this right of appeal to those who are injured in war service and equivalent service in peace time, and that is what Clause 1 does.

I have a word to say about Clause 2 which extends this right of appeal to those who are in receipt of what are called in the Bill "ex gratia awards." In the course of the Second Reading Debate the Minister made very clear the nature of these ex gratia awards, but it seems that some misunderstanding might arise and it be thought that these awards are charitable grants. But, if I mistake not, these awards arise in this way—the courts having determined the law on the matter, those claimants whose claims were rejected previously and whose claims would have been accepted if the new ruling had been in force have had these claims accepted by the Ministry. We would all strongly approve of that. It seems reasonable and proper that this category of claimant should also have the right of appeal to the tribunals. In these circumstances I have no doubt that all hon. Members will welcome the Bill.

Earl Winterton

I do not ask the Minister to reply to this, but as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) was good enough to refer to that fact that he and I were associated in 1942 or 1943, I should like to say that at that time we had entirely non-party support for our point of view. I am very glad that this Bill is at any rate to some extent the result of the action taken at that time, and I hope it will work successfully, and be, as it should be, a benefit to war pensioners.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)

Undoubtedly this Bill effects an improvement, and we are all very pleased to have it. I should be obliged if the Minister would keep a watch over the words "any relevant service." Is the work done by coastguards and coast watchers included? I have found during the war and since that claims by people in those categories have met some special difficulties. Even though the Minister cannot give his answer now, perhaps he will be kind enough to look at that type of work and also bear in mind other ancillary types of work such as lighthouse keepers and those who work in the Trinity lightships. I am not quite certain yet that the new rule as to the onus of proof is always quite as strictly observed as one hoped it would be when it was introduced some two years ago.