HC Deb 26 April 1949 vol 464 cc47-54

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Bowen (Cardigan)

I beg to move, to leave out from "That," to the end of the Question, and to add: in the opinion of this House it is desirable that a Royal Commission shall be set up to inquire into the present position relative to war pensions and allowances and as to their adequacy under prevailing conditions. The reason I have the privilege of raising this matter in the House is that I was fortunate in the ballot. It certainly does not arise from the fact that I possess any specialised knowledge or any remarkable practical experience of the administration of war pensions arid allowances. There are many hon. Members who have had far greater experience of this matter than I have. The reason I selected it as a subject for discussion today is that it is a matter on which I feel very deeply, and I am convinced that the proposal put forward in the Amendment is the only right and proper method of dealing with the situation as it exists today.

The subject to which I wish to draw attention is one which has been discussed in this House on a number of occasions within the last twelve months and in another place as recently as two months ago. Since it was last discussed in this House, those of us who are interested in the subject—and I do not think there are many Members who are not—have had an opportunity of contacting our constituents, of meeting representatives of ex-Service men's organisations, which have taken a prominent part in bringing this matter to the attention of the country as a whole, and of contacting in particular pensioners themselves. I have lost no opportunity of discussing the details of their domestic position with the pensioners with whom I have come in contact. I feel that that applies equally to Members of the House as a whole and particularly to those who have indicated their intention of supporting the Amendment. My experience in that direction has reinforced my belief that what we are asking for in the Amendment is reasonable and proper.

I hope that I shall be forgiven for referring to one matter of a general character; that is, the atmosphere in which a Debate of this kind should be conducted. I think that the statement of the Prime Minister today—I am not referring to the supplementary questions which followed his statement—particularly with reference to the gallantry of our seamen on H.M.S. "Amethyst," should create the atmosphere which is proper in discussing a question of this kind. The First Sea Lord sent a message to the crew of H.M.S. "Amethyst," which was quoted in the Press yesterday. He said: I have greatly admired your fortitude. You are all much in my thoughts, and everyone is doing his best for you. That very fine message, sent to those men in the particular situation in which they are at the moment, is a message which might have been sent to many, indeed, probably to most, of the 750,000 men whose position we are considering today. We are dealing with the position of persons whose fortitude we certainly admire and who have been much in our thoughts. The sole motive which I have in moving an Amendment in these terms is to see that we do our best for them.

I mention this because of the developments which have taken place on previous occasions when this subject has been raised. I think that at the proper time it will be perfectly in order to discuss whether a particular party has discharged its responsibilities towards ex-Service men—whether the Conservative Party, the Socialist Party or the Liberal Party has been foremost in discharging that duty—or whether a particular party has failed to discharge its duty, but I respectfully suggest that on this occasion we should try to avoid a purely partisan discussion of that kind. In saying that I would add that what has been done by the present Government during recent months is, of course, relevant. It is relevant to consider whether everything possible has been done and whether, therefore, there is any need for further inquiry into this matter. Another matter which has been raised in the past has been the position and integrity of an ex-Service organisation—I refer to the British Legion—and whether or not it has any political bias. I hold very strong views indeed on that matter, but I appeal to hon. Members not to allow a discussion of this subject on its merits to be side-tracked by an issue of that kind.

Another matter is how far a comparison with the pensions and allowances paid to those injured in industry is relevant. It would certainly be deplorable if this Debate were to become a harangue on whether we are treating those incapacitated by wounds while serving in the Forces better, as well as or far worse than those injured in industry. One point which has been raised on previous occasions is the special arrangements which have been made with regard to the miners. The sole relevancy which I would pray in aid in this connection with regard to the position of persons who have been injured in industry, is the fact that in certain industries—the mining industry, in particular, has been mentioned, and it applies to many other industries—the employer and the worker have both realised that the basic sum paid in respect of injuries is in the present circumstances inadequate, and that some form of substantial supplementation is necessary.

I come to the question whether an arrangement of that kind should be made with regard to ex-Service men. The position of the industrially injured concerning supplementary allowances is relevant in so far as it manifests awareness on the part of the employer and the employee of the inadequacy of the basic arrangements. During the last two years at least, the ex-Service organisations, the public as a whole and Members of this House have had in mind the question whether there should be an investigation into the adequacy of war pensions and allowances by an independent and expert body outside the Ministry itself. I think the House as a whole would agree with me that, certainly amongst the ex-Service organisations themselves, there is complete unanimity on this point; the ex-Service organisations are united in demanding this inquiry.

Mr. Parkin (Stroud)

No one has asked for it.

Mr. Bowen

Does the hon. Gentleman say that no one has asked for it?

Mr. Parkin

Will the hon. Member say which ex-Service organisations have asked for a Royal Commission?

Mr. Bowen

I will deal with that in one moment. [Laughter.] I see no reason for reckless hilarity.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

The hon. Gentleman is dodging the column.

Mr. Bowen

I am not dodging the column at all. What I said was that these organisations are united in asking for an independent inquiry and I repeat it. If anyone wishes to challenge that statement, I will give way to him.

Mr. Parkin

Is it right for an hon. Member to come here and claim the support of ex-Service men's organisations for an Amendment which he has moved, when that Amendment does not in fact ask for the sort of inquiry that those organisations asked for last year?

Mr. Bowen

I do not wish to pursue that point, because I do not think it is relevant to the matter with which I am dealing. I repeat what I said, and my challenge remains: the ex-Service organisations are united in asking for an independent inquiry into the present position. It may assist hon. Members opposite to follow what I shall say later if I now make clear that I do not consider that there is any magic in a Royal Commission, or in any particular form of inquiry. Provided it is an independent inquiry outside the ordinary Ministerial machinery, carried out by appropriate independent persons, that is all I ask for. A conference meeting in the Minister's home town only yesterday manifested its attitude towards this subject. I refer to the British Limbless ex-Service Men's Association conference at Cardiff. Quite apart from the ex-Service organisations themselves, some 270 Members of this House put their names to a Motion demanding an inquiry.

Mr. Tolley (Kidderminster)

A Select Committee.

Mr. Bowen

I am grateful for that correction. The Motion asked for a Select Committee, an inquiry into the position with regard to pay and allowances. Some 270 Members, drawn from all sides of the House, put their names to that Motion. I do not believe they did that irresponsibly; and in particular I do not believe that hon. Members opposite did so without a full sense of responsibility in the matter. If I remember rightly, they have some reason to have a sense of responsibility in putting their names to documents.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

What about the hon. Gentleman's own sense of responsibility?

Mr. Bowen

I did not need to be reminded of mine. I am sorry to digress like this, but hon. Members are tempting me and I am rising to the bait.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)

The hon. Gentleman is doing the tempting.

Mr. Bowen

I thought I could not possibly have made a more innocuous statement: 270 Members, and in particular Members opposite, were honest and sincere, and acting as responsible Members of Parliament, when they put their names to that Motion. I do not wish to withdraw that statement. Those Members who did that did so—I certainly did—because they believed in what they were putting their names to; it was a reaction to their contacts with their constituents, their correspondents, and the information they received through charitable and other organisations with which they were in contact; that is to say, it was a product of their collective experience in many directions. That has certainly been my experience.

I mention all those matters simply to show that at the moment those in receipt of war pensions and allowances—and indeed ex-Service men as a whole—are deeply disturbed about the present position and feel that there should be at least a proper independent inquiry into the matter. Leaving entirely on one side, for the moment, whether they are right or wrong in coming to that conclusion, in my submission they have come to that conclusion. I have visited, in particular, British Legion branches; I was present at the National Conference for Wales in Llandrindod, and it is perfectly clear that this demand for an inquiry into the present position because of dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs does not spring from the top at all, but is the product of agitation by the rank and file.

Lieut.-Colonel Hamilton (Sudbury)

Did the hon. Gentleman get these representations from the British Legion branches, and possibly from others in his constituency, before the British Legion started its campaign on this subject, or were they since since that campaign started?

Mr. Bowen

I have been getting them since 1946. That is the operative date in my mind.

Mr. Hale

They have increased since the campaign.

Mr. Bowen

I agree; they have persisted. The most important matter which has exercised their minds, to which they have drawn specific attention and on which there has been no change whatsoever, is the basic pension. There has been a growing feeling since 1946. My experience has been—that of other hon. Members may be different; it varies in areas—that the officers of branches of organisations have been far more restrained in this matter than the rank and file. As far as their demands are concerned—I do not say there is an attempt to run contrary; far from it—certainly it is not a question of their working up enthusiasm which did not exist before. The contrary is the case. All I say is that today there is that frame of mind on the part of the pensioner and the ex-Service man, and whether it arises from good, adequate or inadequate grounds, I am satisfied in my own mind that the most effective way to do away with it is for the Government to institute an independent inquiry. If that is not done, there will be a persisting sense of dissatisfaction.

Commander Pursey (Hull, East)


Mr. Bowen

It is certainly there to-day, and it will persist unless there is an inquiry.

Mr. Parkin

It has died down.

Mr. Bowen

It certainly has not died down. I have been in branches in the last month or two, and that is certainly my experience as far as Wales is concerned. No doubt we shall hear from those who have hail different experiences. In the observations I have made I have tried to avoid contention as far as possible, but it is quite clear that the subject is one on which there is sensitiveness. This is no sectional matter; it applies to everyone, although it may apply in different degrees. Those of us who are interested in the welfare of ex-Service men, particularly those who support this Motion, feel strongly about this matter. The organisations connected with them feel strongly. On the one side, there is obviously a danger of excessive zeal and enthusiasm because of sensitiveness in relation to a worthy cause. On the other side, there is a natural sensitiveness on the part of the Ministry when any suggestions are made that everything possible is not being done. The Ministry and the Government are naturally sensitive if any criticism or attack is made that everything possible for the ex-Service men in relation to pensions is not being done. We have a mutual sensitiveness on both sides.

Mr. Hale

Will the hon. Member tell us what he hopes to get from a Royal Commission? I think that there are many grievances, and I want to say something about them if I have an opportunity to do so in this Debate, but a Royal Commission on pay and allowances, such as the 1920 Commission, could do no more than ascertain the cost of living, which we know, and make recommendations about a basic scale, which we are competent to make. What is the ambit of the proposal and what are the terms of reference the hon. Member suggests for the Royal Commission? Would it deal with some of the very real grievances, or is this to quell a public opinion which, so far as I know. does not exist?

Mr. Bowen

I hope to deal in full with what the hon. Member has in mind. Whether or not there are any grounds for an inquiry, the easiest way to do away with any sense of grievance is to have an inquiry. Secondly, the easiest way to show that everything possible is being done for the ex-Service men is to have an independent inquiry to consider the matter on its merits.

I come now to the practical objects of an inquiry. There can be no doubt that what has really given rise to this movement which seeks to persuade the Government to hold an inquiry of this kind is the conviction that if such an inquiry were held, it would lead to an improvement in pensions and allowances payable to persons at present in receipt of them. It is not part of my case today to argue what improvements should or should not be given.

Commander Pursey

Are there any at all?

Mr. Bowen

I certainly think so, and I will mention a few in a moment. There is certainly the belief that if an inquiry were held, it would result in a recommendation for improved pensions and possibly allowances. I do not want to detail various matters which those of us in favour of an inquiry think the tribunal should investigate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I do not know why Members opposite should be so uneasy about this matter.

Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)

Because they decided to withdraw their names.

Mr. Bowen

There are several matters. For example, B.L.E.S.M.A. has put forward some eleven points. I have had letters from members of organisations that tell a pitiful story, and I will refer to one in a moment. The most pointed grievance is in regard to the basic rate and the adequacy or otherwise of the 35s. payable to an elderly widow living alone.

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