HC Deb 06 November 1952 vol 507 cc444-54

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

Before I bring the notice of the House to the aged limbless, I think I ought to declare my interest. For 35 years I have been wearing an artificial leg supplied by the Ministry of Pensions. One may say therefore that I am wrapped up or strapped up in my subject so far as tonight's discussion is concerned. I feel, therefore, that I am qualified from experience and knowledge to speak on this subject. I know that hon. Members in all quarters of the House are as one in recognising the nation's debt to our war disabled. It is an issue which is above the battle in politics, and I approach it tonight in an entirely non-partisan spirit.

The Ministry of Pensions has evolved down the years from a Ministry whose aim was to save the taxpayer at the expense of the war disabled to a Ministry that today pesters the pensioner to claim his rights. A Labour Minister of Pensions, by personal letter, asked every war pensioner, "Are you sure you are getting all you are entitled to?" His Conservative successor, by the same method, again asked the ex-Service men war pensioners, "Are you still sure you are getting what you are entitled to?"

We are all agreed that we are today, irrespective of which party is in power, dealing with an enlightened and humane Ministry. We have an understanding Minister and a sympathetic Parliamentary Secretary, who suffer from the same disability as their predecessors in having very few Parliamentary opportunities of letting the House know about the good work the Department is doing. It was mainly for this reason that I decided that instead of taking an opportunity to let myself go on a rollicking attack on some Minister—probably, someone from the War Office—who was vulnerable, I would today try to initiate a friendly discussion with my friends at the Ministry of Pensions. I have chosen this subject because of my own personal experience.

In World War I 45,500 of us suffered amputation of one or more limbs. We are a sadly diminishing number: 24,500 of us survive; our average age is 62; we are dying off at the rate of 1,000 a year. My contention is that with increasing age the burden of wearing an artificial limb increases and that the strain occasioned must have an adverse effect upon the general health of the limbless man, thus causing him a further loss of amenity.

This question of loss of amenity is most important. Succeeding Ministers of Pensions have gone out of their way to emphasise that the war disability pension is given for loss of amenity and that earnings do not come into the picture at all. It is a question of capacity to enjoy life as an ordinary human being, and the extent to which this is affected decides the amount of compensation. That is the basic policy of the Ministry of Pensions, underlying the Royal Warrant.

Unfortunately, the limbless are the exception to this rule. They, and they alone among the war disabled, are tied to a fixed table of assessments. In this table they are carved up like a carcass of beef and assessed at so much an inch. No regard is paid to the worsening of their condition. A limb cannot grow again, but it can shrink, and it is "no more inches no more pension" so far as the limbless man is concerned.

When my generation got their artificial limbs the scientists were still experimenting. The limb surgeons lacked the experience which two world wars have given to their successors. The last limb supplied to me by the Ministry of Pensions is less than half the weight of the original one I had in 1917. I, and my contemporaries were dragging around for years heavy, cumbrous limbs which have not to be endured by the limbless of the present generation.

My stump is too long and it gets sore and painful because of its length. The limb surgeon who amputated it did a good, clean job and saved as much of my leg as possible. In the light of more modern experience, he would have given me a shorter stump and more comfort. In considering the present position, we must recall that the 1914–18 ex-Service men and war limbless did not have the advantages of modern methods of surgery and improved medical treatment.

For them were none of the excellent schemes of rehabilitation and resettlement available today. Only those who have contacts with ex-Service men know the enormous value of those schemes in giving new hope and fresh encouragement to face the world in spite of disability. We lived through an age of industrial depression, and very many of us had to take heavy and unsuitable jobs with an artificial limb that was a terrible strain. My generation were denied the 1945 allowances for wife and children, and many of them suffered acutely from excessive unemployment. I would be the last to denigrate the wonderful advances in artificial limb construction, or deny the miracles of rehabilitation, but I would stress that the "Baders" are the exceptional cases and that the majority of those who provide newspaper stories are the new generation of limbless who started with the advantages which we were denied.

The British artificial limb is the finest in the world, but anyone who tries to persuade a limbless man that it is as good as the flesh and blood member he lost must think that it is his head that is made of wood and not his limb. Artificial limbs are very poor substitutes for human limbs, and there must be greater strain and discomfort from artificial limbs with advancing years. There is also loss of ability, activity and amenity. Go to the places where limbless men forgather, such as the Home for Limbless at Blackpool, and see their worsening condition and the visual evidence of the deterioration of the limbless man. The visual evidence of the deterioration of those men is there.

I am sometimes told that I am not a good example in putting forward this case. In spite of unemployment and economic difficulties in my early married life after the first world war and my position in the social scale, life has dealt lightly and kindly with me. I have a fairly buoyant temperament but, after 35 years of wearing an artificial limb, my mobility is lessened and I get pain and considerable trouble with my one leg. I can only put it down to the extra strain of 35 years on it.

This brings me to the question of the Rock Carling Committee, which has not yet reported. I shall not use any information I may possess as a previous Parliamentary Secretary or as a member of the Minister's Central Advisory Committee. I regard that as confidential. My approach to this is purely exploratory and in order to seek information. That Committee was appointed during the Labour term of office to inquire into the long term effects of amputation on the expectancy of life of the disabled.

I want to ask the Minister if its terms of reference could not be extended to include the long-term effect on the general health of the limbless and its effects, in the case of single amputations, on the remaining leg. Further, I want to know how many ageing, limbless men have been seen and examined by the committee or by the Working Party which prepared the data and statistics for the committee. If the findings of this committee are only based on case papers and statistics, I submit they will not give us a true picture.

The success of the Ministry of Pensions in recent years has been due largely to the welfare service, the children's service. The human personal touch has been the secret of their success and of the fact that limbless men in our day have a brighter prospect and more hope than those of my generation. Therefore I claim for the ageing limbless who, after all, are all battle casualties, at least equal treatment with the sufferers from duodenal ulcers who may never have seen active service. They can have their pensions raised if their conditions worsen. We cannot. I, and those I represent, greatly appreciate the fact that the Minister is with us tonight to answer this debate. It is evidence of the importance he attaches to the subject and to his great personal interest in those whom he and his Ministry serve.

In conclusion, I have two definite suggestions to make. The first is that the limbless of the First World War should receive increased compensation for a disability with increasing age through a special allowance related, but additional to, their fixed pension. Secondly, that those suffering from single amputation of the leg should be given consideration for motor car, motor-propelled tricycle, or assistance in purchasing the same if it is proved that their mobility is seriously impaired as a result of their single amputation.

I know there are others who desire to say one or two words in this debate, but I cannot end without saying that as I came through St. Margaret's Churchyard this morning I saw and saluted the phantom army represented by Flanders poppies and little crosses. Of those slain we said: At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. Let us remember also those who survived World War I.

10.15 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I am sure that all those who have heard or who will read the words of the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) will be moved by his sincerity and will remember also the service that he rendered in the Ministry when he was Parliamentary Secretary. In this debate, lasting only half an hour, I cannot say more than a few very brief sentences. I support the claim that the hon. Member makes that increasing age adds to the burden of disability. He will not mind if I say that that is true of all disabilities.

Mr. Simmons

Hear, hear.

Sir I. Fraser

I should, therefore, like the Ministry, if they cannot make all our war pensions up to the figures which some of us think they should attain, to consider whether they could not make a beginning by first raising to the appropriate figures the pensions of those who have attained a certain age and to whom, therefore, the disability is much more hurtful and much more arduous.

In the last 10 years, successive Governments have added some £22 million to the annual cost of war pensions, less, of course, the depreciation which has taken place annually as a result of deaths. But the basis upon which war pensions are paid, especially for the great majority of partially disabled men, amongst whom will be many whom the hon. Member had in mind, is now such that for most of these men the compensation they get is lower than we meant it to be and almost lower than it has ever been, because of the fall in the value of money. The nation still owes it to these men that their com- pensation be adjusted to the present value of money. I thank the hon. Member for raising this matter tonight.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. L. M. Lever (Manchester, Ardwick)

I deem it a privilege to be associated with the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) and the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) on behalf of the limbless ex-Service men, and particularly the ageing limbless ex-Service men. My hon. Friend has in his moving way put the case forcibly and so cogently as to leave no doubt in the minds of either side of the House as to the need for redressing this long outstanding grievance.

I should like in the very short time at my disposal to point out that the cost of granting a special allowance related but additional to the disability pension paid in accordance with the "Table of Assessments for Specific Injuries," to which my hon. Friend referred, to the 24,500 ageing limbless survivors of the 1914–18 war would be in the region of only £400,000 for the first year and less for each succeeding year.

Unhappily, their numbers have decreased by 5,700 over the past six years, so that it is not an increasing liability. It is a diminishing liability of very small financial dimensions, which I feel that the country would not begrudge to that section of the community who are now in the evening of their days.

The British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association have rendered great service, not only in terms of pleading throughout the years for the limbless ex-Service men—it has been my privilege to be associated with them right from their inception—but have maintained a happy sense of fellowship for this great band of loyal veterans who have faithfully served their country.

I want to ask why British limbs should be worth less than other limbs. Australia pays 48s. to 54s. a week (British currency) for the loss of an arm with amputation through forearm, or the loss of a leg with amputation below mid-thigh, to just below the knee, for ex-privates. Belgium pays 105s. a week, Canada 76s. a week (British currency), France 81s. a week minimum, New Zealand 45s. a week minimum and South Africa 60s. a week. Yet we in Britain only pay for this category a sum of 33s. a week. I think we are entitled to ask as Members of this honourable House serving the people of this country why are British limbs worth less than the limbs of others who have served whether in the dominions or other countries?

Without elaborating, I wish to make a special plea to the Minister of Pensions, who I know, with his Parliamentary Secretary, has received us sympathetically on previous occasions, to ensure that at any rate something is done, whatever our financial difficulties, for the ageing limbless ex-Service men. Theirs is a chance which is being reduced by the passage of time. When we make this plea to the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, I am sure that they will answer in the affirmative and do justice not only to all limbless ex-Service men but at this juncture to the ageing limbless ex-Service men who are passing through a difficult time in the evening of their days. Let us do what we can for them as quickly as we can.

10.22 p.m.

The Minister of Pensions (Mr. Heathcoat Amory)

The hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) has raised a matter this evening of great importance and, I think he will agree, of some difficulty. He has done so, we shall all agree, with great clarity and great restraint. I wish we had longer time to discuss this important question.

The proposition the hon. Member has put to us is that the present system of assessment is unfair to the ageing limbless and some addition of pension should be paid to compensate them for increased handicaps. We know that the hon. Member himself lost a limb in the service of his country, and he speaks from first-hand knowledge. For that reason and for others, we treat what he has said with the greatest respect. I have particular reason for feeling extra sympathy with those who have lost a limb, because I had my thigh shattered by a German bullet and very nearly had my leg cut off by a German doctor, but I had the luck denied to the hon. Member and his comrades who lost a limb, and I know how much reason I have to be grateful.

Because time is short I shall not quote many figures. I have seen a statement somewhere implying that the 24,500 limbless of the 1914–18 war have not had their assessments altered at the top at all, and somewhere I saw that they had not had their pensions increased. Of course, that is not so: their pensions have been increased and as a result of the Hancock Committee 6,700 of them did in fact have their assessments raised. The basic principle of our pensions scheme is Article 10 of the Royal Warrant, which said: The degree of disablement shall be assessed by making a comparison between the condition of the member of the Force disabled and the condition of the normally healthy person of the same age. I want to stress, "of the same age." That principle has been regarded as sound by Parliament for many years. That is the background of this proposition. The hon. Member explained that he thinks that the scheduled assessments are inappropriate for amputation cases as age advances and that the difference between a fit man and a disabled man is in the case of elderly people wider, and the burden and strain and the discomfort is greater. As a layman, I would say that one cannot help feeling that there is some substance in that. On the other hand, of course, there are people who say, "No, the difference is wider in the case of a young man who wants to lead a more active life."

The question is how much difference there is and if it is enough to justify some special compensation; and, if so, should that be given in a general way or on an individual basis? I am sure that hon. Members will realise that I have the responsibility of seeing that relative justice is done between all categories of pensioners. It is extremely difficult for me to discriminate in favour of one category unless, in view of this basic principle, I have some medical evidence on which I can act. My difficulty is that at present no such medical evidence is available to me.

The Hancock Committee, to which I referred, was an Inter-Departmental committee presided over by Judge Hancock in 1946, which produced some evidence. They considered this question of the aged pensioner, and they said they had considered whether the effect of any of the injuries specified in their proposed schedule varied according to the age or sex of the injured person to an extent that would justify different assessments for old or young people. Their conclusion, so far as the factor of age was concerned, was that it is not possible to establish that the functional effect of any injury depended so directly on the injured person's age as to render it practical or desirable to fix different assessments for different age groups. That Committee's findings do not help us much to do what the hon. Member has suggested.

The hon. Member then referred to the Rock Carling Committee, which was an outside independent committee of specialists appointed by the last Government and presided over by Sir Ernest Rock Carling. I hope that that committee will report to me within the next two months. I am very much looking forward to that report, because I think that it will shed light on one or two aspects of this problem.

I am afraid it is too late for me to do what the hon. Member suggests and extend the field of their investigations now, because I am anxious to get that report at the earliest moment. The hon. Member asked me whether that committee are examining individual pensioners. I think not. The object of that committee was to draw on the experience of these distinguished specialists in their ordinary work. I do not think that they are examining individual pensioners.

Our present policy is, of course, as far as ever we can, to deal with each individual case on its merits. It is not true that no amputee can get an increase in his assessment. The ordinary scheduled assessments are for normal uncomplicated cases. Where there is anything like sepsis or stump trouble or any other complicated factor, the case is reviewed, and an increase is given, if justified. Pending more positive evidence, I think that is the right path.

Can we improve our present procedure? Let us look at it and see. It may be that a wider view should be taken of the question of complications; I do not know. Let us look at that. I do not want to finish by merely saying that this matter will be kept under consideration, or even under active consideration—or even sympathetic consideration. Some of us know what that means in the mouth of the Minister.

I wish to go a little further than that and say what I think is the best way of tackling this matter. First, I wish to wait for the Rock Carling report in two months' time and study the position then in these limited aspects. Then if I find that there are any questions unanswered to which we ought to get answers, I will try to find some way of getting answers to them. Thirdly, I think it would be worth considering whether a special boarding of a sample of the 1914–18 amputees might tell us something which we do not know at present. The question of the extension of the categories for motor-tricycles, which the hon. Member has mentioned, is one with which I shall not have time to deal but I shall bear his remarks in mind.

I hope that I have said enough to show that I have far from a closed mind on this subject and that I want to do everything possible to ensure that relative justice is done between all categories of our disabled men.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half past Ten o'Clock.