HC Deb 15 December 1950 vol 482 cc1569-78

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Wilkes (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

The question I wish to raise during the next few minutes is that of the non-payment of gratuities to the dependants of deceased soldiers. I must confess that I was very surprised when I learned, as a result of a case which arose in my own constituency, that if a soldier who has signed for a short-term engagement should die within only a few days or a few weeks of the completion of his term of service, not a penny of the gratuity which was offered to him as one of the inducements for him to sign on would go to his estate, to his widow or any other dependant. It is forfeit entirely to the State.

It is the general principle about which I am concerned. The Minister knows all the facts in the case which I am about to mention, which is of a constituent of mine who joined in December, 1946, on a three-years' short service engagement and died of natural causes in September, 1949. That is three months short of his engagement but, of that three months, some 48 days were due in various leaves, so that he was only five or six weeks short in effective service, although it would make no difference if he had been only five or six days short.

I wrote to the Minister and suggested that the need of the widow and dependants for the gratuity is more urgent than ever in view of the fact that the bread winner has been lost to the family. If the soldier had survived to the end of the three-year period he would have received £100 gratuity. I pointed out that, indeed, the gratuity was more urgently needed than if the soldier had survived to complete his term of service.

I suggest that, as a matter of fairness, it would be much better if a proportion of the gratuity were paid to the dependants in all cases, depending upon the amount of the service completed. For example, if a man joined for three years and died after two years' service, his dependants should receive two-thirds of the gratuity. It seems to me that that is fair and reasonable, but the Ministry do not see eye to eye with me at all. I have had a reply from the Ministry as follows: I have looked into the case, but I am, afraid I can only say that the Royal Warrant governing retired pay, pensions and gratuities, published in Army Order 18 of 1949, specifically provides that, if a soldier dies while serving on a short service engagement, a gratuity will not be admissible. I recognise that this may seem hard on a widow. Thus, the hardship is admitted, and surely it is part of the Minister's duty to mitigate hardship, especially when it can be done at negligible expense, for the number of soldiers who die within a few days, weeks or months of completing their short service engagement must be very few indeed and the amount at stake must be very small. The Minister continues: It must he remembered, however, that such a proviso"— that is, that dependants do not get anything— is a common feature of pensionary and other non-effective awards. The analogy which the Minister attempts to draw with pensions and superannuation awards simply does not hold water for a moment, because pensions and superannuation awards are based on an actuarial basis whereas, I take it, the gratuity is not based upon any actuarial basis at all. Gratuities are simply something offered to soldiers or potential soldiers as an inducement to them to join the Service.

I suggest to the House that the fairest way of regarding these gratuities is to regard them as something offered to the soldier or his dependants in return for the soldier volunteering to place himself entirely at the disposal of the State for three years, five years, seven years, or whatever period it may be.

It seems a little hard on the family that merely because his service is cut short by a few weeks through no fault of his own his dependants should suffer and the State should profit thereby. I hope the Minister will be able to say today that, after considering the matter, he will adopt the very reasonable suggestion I make—that, in the event of a soldier dying within the period of his service, gratuity awards should be made to the soldier's nearest dependants based upon the actual proportion of the amount of service the soldier has served. I hope the Minister will be able to announce that this afternoon.

4.11 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

I want to support the plea made for some reconsideration of the undoubted hardship that arises when a man serving under a short service engagement dies before the period of his service expires. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central (Mr. Wilkes) has pointed out, and as was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War in the letter to which reference has been made, I know that the legal position at the moment is that the next-of-kin of the man is not entitled to any portion of the gratuity whatsoever.

That is provided for in Army Order 18 of 1949. But if that Order is studied it provides an additional argument in favour of the plea put forward, because it points out quite clearly that if a man serving for a short service engagement: is invalided or is compulsorily discharged otherwise than for misconduct or inefficiency, before completing the full period of his short service engagement, he will receive a gratuity proportionate to the portion of his short service engagement which he has, in fact, completed. The second class of case in which a pro rata payment is made and to which I want to refer is this: If he is discharged at his own request before completing the full period of his short service engagement, he may he granted at discretion a gratuity not exceeding the amount proportionate to the portion of his short service engagement which he has, in fact, completed, provided he has satisfactorily completed at least one year's service on that engagement. The position now is that if a man is invalided out or compulsorily discharged because his services are no longer required, or discharged at his own request, he gets that proportionate part of his gratuity to which he would be entitled if he had completed the full term of service. If a man is ill and knows he is dying and asks to be discharged no doubt the War Office will release him, and in those circumstances he would get the proportion of the gratuity to which he would be entitled under this Army Order. If he dies so quickly that he is unable to notify the authorities and have a medical examination and obtain his discharge, he gets no gratuity at all. That is completely indefensible, and I urge very much the need for consideration of the request that has been put forward.

It may be, and no doubt is the case that the number of people affected in any one year is comparatively small. Presumably that is why this matter has not been raised in the House. That is an additional reason why I think the Government could afford to be generous. After all, it is cheap economy to say that the Government should have the benefit of such a man's service by the proportion of service he has been able to do and get out of their liability altogether if he dies. At the same time, the Government are quite willing to pay a proportion of the gratuity if his service is terminated in any other way than by death through natural causes before his period of service expires.

I very much hope that my hon. Friend will give this matter his favourable consideration. I know it may involve an amendment of the Royal Warrant, but surely the Royal Warrant is not so sacrosanct a document that it cannot be altered or amended when a real case of injustice is brought to the notice of the War Office. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will find it possible to announce a reasonable concession in this case.

4.16 p.m.

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

When my hon. Friend first drew my attention to the case in which he was interested, I gave it most earnest consideration, and I have since very carefully considered the general principle that is involved in this matter of payment of gratuities. We have to look, first of all, at the nature and purpose of the gratuity. It is payable both to men on short service engagements, as was this particular man, and to men serv- ing on a normal Regular engagement which is, of course, for a much longer period of years.

I think that we may say that it has two purposes. It is partly one of the inducements to get a man to enter the Service at all, and it is partly to meet the problem that he faces when, at the end of his period of service, he returns to civilian life and when he may have to look round and consider what kind of employment he is best suited for. After a man has for a number of years been a Regular soldier, there is often a considerable problem of readjustment, and it is in great measure to meet that problem that the gratuity is provided as one of the benefits he can obtain if he becomes a Regular soldier either on a normal Regular engagement or on a short service one.

That explains the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) as to why, if a man terminates his services prematurely, owing, say, to ill health or some other reason satisfactory to the military authorities, we do, as he said, in those circumstances pay him a proportion of the gratuity, because the problem of his return to civilian life is there. We are in that way meeting one of the purposes for which the gratuity was established, and we should undoubtedly be doing him an injustice if, when the man was there with his personal problems to be solved, we did not pay him a proportion of the gratuity which he hoped to get when he joined the Service.

Mr. Wilkes

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but would not he agree that the need of the dependants becomes very much more urgent if the breadwinner soldier dies before the completion of his service?

Mr. Stewart

I will come to the point of the needs of dependants very shortly, but what I want to establish at the moment is that the fact raised by my hon. Friend, that we do give a proportion of the gratuity to the man himself when his service ends prematurely in certain circumstances, is not necessarily a logical ground for saying that we should adopt the steps urged by my hon. Friend. In that case the man himself, for whom the gratuity was intended is there to receive it.

That brings me to the central point of the argument which we must grasp. We must distinguish between the provision that is made for the man himself and the provision that is made for the dependants. I ask my hon. Friend to consider that the gratuity—and this is made very plain to a man the moment he enters the Service—is one of the benefits provided for him and not for his dependants. I do not think the word "injustice" can be used at all in this connection, because when a man joins the Service it is made very clear to him that the gratuity is not payable if his death occurs during service. There cannot be any question of injustice or of breach of faith here.

That leaves us with the point raised by my hon. Friend about the need of the dependants. Let us look at what provision is made, in the event of death, for a man's dependants. In the first place, if, of course, death is attributable to service, then there are the ordinary pension arrangements. I think that my hon. Friend is aware that in this particular case it was decided by the Minister of Pensions that death was attributable to service, and the widow is therefore in some measure provided for. So my hon. Friend's argument has shifted from this particular case.

I cannot quote a case in question, but we can imagine cases where death has occurred and was not, as it was in this case, attributable to service. It is worth while noticing that it cannot be charged against the Service Departments that they leave the widows and dependants uncared for if death is attributable to service. With regard to the death that is not attributable to service, it will be appreciated that serving soldiers and men from the other Services do fall within the ambit of the National Insurance Acts. Therefore, again, it is not as if the dependants will be left uncared for even if death is not attributable and a Service pension is not payable.

There are some classes of Service men to whose dependants a pension may be payable in case of non-attributable death for example, officers and warrant officers. Class 1, who have a certain number of years' service behind them. These pensions are subject to a test of need, but it is very generously drawn and the proportion excluded from getting them on this ground would be very slight.

I would suggest to my hon. Friends that if it were possible to do anything on the lines which they have in mind, they ought to consider whether the provision now made for the payment of pensions to the widows of Service men who died from non-attributable causes ought not to be extended beyond the present limits. That is at present under discussion. It would be a large and far-reaching scheme to adopt, and it is, of course, open to question whether the men in the Services themselves would on balance feel that it was desirable for them to contribute to such a scheme.

It seems that an extension of that kind might be desirable not only to meet the kind of case supposed for this argument but on various other grounds as well. I think that if it were done at all, that is the way to do it, and not by using the gratuity which is not intended for the dependants at all, and which is entirely bound up with the needs of the man himself.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

Does the hon. Gentleman include the possibility, which is more than a possibility and is in fact a probability, that a man embarkes on a short Service engagement in the knowledge that he is going to be paid a gratuity because he wants the gratuity not for himself, but for the purpose of educating his children or providing some benefit for his family which he otherwise could not possibly provide?

Mr. Stewart

That is so, but the man knows when he enters the Service that the gratuity will not be payable to his dependants if he dies during that service. If, therefore, he has planned to use the gratuity in that manner, for his family, with his eyes open, taking a risk, he cannot necessarily claim that the Service Department must rescue his dependants from the difficulty if the risk which he has deliberately taken does not come off.

My hon. Friend said that if this concession were made, it would not cost very much. He knows how difficult it is for any Minister, and particularly one connected with the Service Departments, to refuse any proposal or concession relating to the dependants of employees of the State. He knows also, that this is not the only example of requests that may be made for the spending of public money, and it is not, therefore, a sufficient argument to say that this particular one would not cost very much. Surely what one ought to consider is: Is there a case in justice for spending money in this particular way? Nor can we restrict the application of it quite as much as he suggests. There would be, of course, the application not only to the War Office but to the other Services. In some cases the provision for gratuity is very considerable indeed. There is a particular scheme in the Royal Air Force that would involve them in a good deal more expenditure on this side than the War Office.

My hon. Friend said that we ought to consider the case where death occurred within three months of the man completing service. As he knows, once we concede that, some successor will be speaking on an Adjournment debate on behalf of an ex-Service man who has died within three months and two days.

Mr. Wilkes

A much better plan would be to adopt the suggestion I have made, that a pro rata payment be paid in proportion to the amount of service.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend suggests that a pro rata payment should be paid, but—

Mr. Wilkes

I do not see why not. If a man joined up for three years with £100 as an inducement to serve, and he died within a month, then one thirty-sixth should be payable.

Mr. Stewart

It is made clear when the man joins that the sum is not payable if he dies during service—the intention is to help him when he returns to civilian life. Nor can I accept the view that we can regard pensions and gratuities as in entirely different categories in this respect. Exactly the same argument in regard to the hardship to dependants could be advanced where a man has died very near to entitlement to pension. The sum of money involved would be much more considerable. It would mean that the financing of the pension scheme would take on a different colour if such a proposition were adopted. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, except in so far as I am able to say that we are considering the possibility of meeting the needs of dependants by some provision of a pension scheme. I can say nothing more definite about this at this stage.

In conclusion, I draw attention to one other point. The proposition is that a proportion of the credit should be paid to the man's dependants. In the case of a man with no dependant, the money would presumably be disposed of in accordance with the terms of his will to people who might not need it. It would be unreasonable to make such an arrangement.

I ask my hon. Friend to believe that we have considered this question very carefully. We feel that no injustice is being done, and that in this case proper provision is being made for the dependants. I think we are right in preserving a distinction in principle between a gratuity which is part of the entitlement of the man himself, and such provision as may be made for his dependants.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Tuesday, 23rd January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.