HC Deb 05 March 1953 vol 512 cc693-704

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

10.12 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

It is a strange—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should pass from the Chamber quietly. There is still business to be done.

Sir D. Robertson

It is rather a strange coincidence that this debate should follow the great defence debate which we have had today, when we have been reviewing preparations for another war which, we hope, will never come about, because the case that I want to ventilate tonight concerns the sufferings of a soldier of the First World War and the human misery which flowed from it through the neglect of a Government Department created specifically for the purpose of looking after men like him.

I learnt of this case when I was in my constituency in January. A local county councillor, who is also a member of the North of Scotland Pensions Committee, raised it with me, and although I was severely pressed for time he said that I ought to go and see this man. I said, "That is not my job. That is the job of the Ministry of Pensions." "But," he said, "they are not doing it. They never have done. No one has visited him for 30 years, neither a welfare officer nor a medical officer, and he is in a very bad way." So I went and visited the man.

He was a soldier in the 1st Cameronions. He went through the war and lasted until the great attack on Kemmell Hill, on the Franco-Belgian border. He took a heavy load of shrapnel in the thighs and his right leg was amputated close to the trunk. He took three very bad wounds in the left leg—I have photographs which reveal how serious they are—and one of them has been an open and unhealed wound for over 30 years. It requires dressing with surgical dressings twice in every period of 24 hours. How the man has lived through it all I cannot imagine. It has been largely due to the devotion and skill of his wife and to his personal cleanliness. He has an open wound the size of a duck egg in the upper part of his thigh. The shell came out in the buttock from behind, and that has to be dressed in this fashion twice daily.

Of course the wound should have been grafted with new skin. In 1919, after the man had been in hospital at Barnet and transferred to Erskine, a very noted surgeon sat on his bedside before he was discharged and told him that that should have been done. But it was not done, and when the Pensions Tribunal met in 1922 at a period when economy was important—I would not dispute that for one moment. but I hate to think that it was at the expense of a man like this—he was awarded a 90 per cent. pension.

This was a man who was totally disabled, a man who could not walk across this Chamber but could only hobble, and then probably only once a week or once a month, a man who has been confined to his kitchen for 30 years. He had a 90 per cent. pension leaving him £2 9s. 6d. to live on and to maintain his family and two children. There was 9s. extra for the wife, making the total £2 18s. 6d. This noble woman who dresses the wounds daily had to augment the family income by taking in lodgers. All credit to her; they needed to do so to live.

He endured that and had an artificial leg. I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary can tell the House how many times, if ever, that leg has been adjusted? He cannot wear it as it is so painful. He suffers from sciatica of the stump in addition to his other sufferings. He sits by the fireside all day and cannot do the things that other men can do. Another generation has grown up and there has been no visit from a Ministry of Pensions or welfare officer for more than 30 years until this local councillor raised the matter in June, 1952. He suggested a 100 per cent. pension should be paid and after much correspondence, it was eventually agreed that it should be paid.

At the same time he applied for a constant attendance allowance—that has been required for all these years. But that was denied after much correspondence and a visit by a welfare officer, who did not go to see whether the man was well or not, but to try to find some means of evading payment. [An HON. MEMBER: "Shame."] These are the facts as I saw them when I visited his home, and I could not get them out of my mind for days. I saw a lot of wounds and saw many men killed in the First World War. Not many of those who had been in the front lines came back. This man came back badly mutilated and the Ministry of Pensions grossly neglected him.

On my return to London, I sent a memorandum to the Minister of Pensions giving all the facts and sending a copy of the Questions I had put down. I ended my letter with these words: I am putting down a Question on the Order Paper today with reluctance, but I feel that your Department must be taught that this kind of thing will not do because no other British ex-soldier must be treated in such a fashion. If you would like to see me about this case. I will be very glad to meet you. That was on 29th January. The Minister did not call on me. I thought he would as it might have prevented the ventilation of this case. He preferred to act as the mouth-piece of officialdom of his Department by putting up a case which is wholly unjustifiable. I will not attempt to read all of it, but it is on the record and hon. Members may see it in the OFFICIAL REPORT for 3rd February, 1953, at columns 1659 and 1660. I asked: whether he is satisfied with his Department's treatment of the Sutherland ex-soldier he knows of, who was wounded in 1918, his right leg amputated above the knee and discharged from hospital over 30 years ago with an unhealed wound on his left thigh, requiring two surgical dressings a day; who does the dressings; and how many visits were made by his Department's doctors and welfare officials in all the years to 1952. Here is his answer: In 1922 the ex-soldier in question was awarded a pension at the 90 per cent. rate for life. At this time the wounds on his left thigh were reported to be healed. They never were healed. This is interesting. A second ago I was dealing with 1922. It goes on: In June, 1952, a member of the Local War Pensions Committee reported that the pensioner's condition had considerably deteriorated within the previous three months." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd February, 1953; Vol. 510, c. 1659.] Thirty years had gone by and they had not visited him or taken the slightest step to find out the state of his health. I will not read any more; it almost makes me ashamed to read it. The excuse of the Department is that they had no knowledge; nobody told them about it. This huge Department of State costing the taxpayers £7,500,000 per annum for wages and salaries and motor cars for officials and administration, with head offices in London, Blackpool and Edinburgh, and other centres, with scores of other offices, chief offices and district offices, has got to wait to be told about a man in this state.

I have here a letter from Mr. Simpson, the eminent surgeon responsible for Sutherland. I asked him what he thought of the case, and he writes as follows: Thanks for your letter about this pensioner and for all you are doing to help him. Obviously a constant attendance allowance is very necessary in this case. I have known him for over 30 years, but have not been asked to see him professionally for a long time until recently. His present condition is indeed sad, and his nursing at home is practically a full-time job. It is true that the only radical treatment possible is skin grafting of the wound of the thigh. Thirty years on he says what another surgeon said in 1919: This could only be undertaken in a hospital, and would mean prolonged and specialised treatment with full co-operation of the patient. I am afraid he would never face up to this as he has a real fear of being away from his surroundings, and will not even consent to attend hospital as an out-patient. This mental attitude is not new and is part of his disability—a direct result of his war wounds. He and his wife are not the 'complaining kind.' Indeed, it seems that now they are actually blamed for carrying on for many years without complaining! Are these not arresting words? The whining kind with very little wrong with them get all the attention, but disabled men like this man who have lived in pain and poverty for all these years gets nothing because he did not write to somebody about it or complain to his Member of Parliament.

The letter goes on: An occasional visit by a welfare officer would surely have been possible, to review all the changing circumstances of the case. I did not realise that visits of a welfare officer had always to be asked for. If this is correct, I cannot understand how Ministry officials can keep in touch with a seriously disabled pensioner such as this man.—Yours sincerely, B. Soutar Simpson. I said just now that no welfare officer ever visited this soldier, but one did visit him some days ago. I got the following letter from the local councillor dated 25th February. It reads: I learned that a welfare officer had called upon them yesterday morning without notice to them. The wife was annoyed with him as he came with a definite purpose of extracting an admission that Robert was carrying on a market garden job—a 90 per cent. disability pensioner, minus a leg and a running wound in the other. Could an assumption be more fantastic. They are evidently very shaky on the grounds of unemployability, due to lack of investigation and gross negligence over many years. Again, the welfare officer went not to see to the well-being of the patient but to save a few shillings a week.

I charge the Ministry of Pensions with gross neglect. I charge them with the betrayal of their own Act in failing to care and provide for this soldier who has endured a life of pain and poverty. There is very little that they can do now, but they must pay the difference between 90 per cent. and 100 per cent. for 30 years. I will let them off the interest, but they must pay the amount which legally and morally they are liable to pay to this man, because he has never done one day's work.

They must pay a constant attendance allowance for 30 years, or for as long a period as this has been going on, and they must pay £1,000 compensation for neglect. No one should be allowed to get away with this treatment of a human being, and especially of a soldier who served and suffered for his country. If they do not do this I shall be compelled to advise the soldier to sue the Minister under the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947, for breach of statutory duty.

I said earlier that it never would have happened if the Minister had come along and said there was no defence to this—and there is no defence. But he preferred to bluff it out as a mouthpiece of officialdom on the Floor of the House of Commons. The words which I am using tonight have been very carefully chosen. I looked up the Act which created this Ministry and the opening words said that the Minister could be sued and that he could sue. This was amended under the Crown Proceedings Act.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is not briefed to meet the rightful and just demands which I have made, I hope that he will be able to make an announcement that they will be met in a few days. otherwise, however much I dislike saying this, every step that I can take to proceed against the Minister will be taken.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

I wish to express our general sympathy with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) in the case which he has brought forward tonight. While party politics divide us, this kind of case unites us on the ground of common humanity, and there is obviously underlying the case—though I know that the Minister has still to make his reply—one of those human tragedies which unites Members of all parties in this House. We are most anxious that the hon. Member, the pensioner and the Ministry of Pensions shall come out of the case well.

My own experience of the Ministry has been good. I must say in honesty that, while I have had to write again and again to Ministers of my own party and Ministers of the present and past Governments, without exception I have found officials and Ministers taking the greatest possible care in the most human way that I have known any Ministry do in dealing with the cases which I have brought to their notice. I must not discriminate between one Minister and another. There has been consistent humanity in the review by Ministers of cases which I have brought before them. I pay the tribute to the present Minister that he has been as helpful as any Minister that I have known.

We have had the information given by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland on this case, however, and we have all felt that something went wrong somewhere. There has been a lack of contact, or something has slipped somewhere, whether at the local level or the Ministry level or somewhere between the two. Somebody possibly ought to have brought the case to the notice of a Minister years ago and did not do so. We feel that this is a case that deserves the greatest generosity and kindliness from the Minister and the Department. I hope that we shall have an assurance that everything will be done to give this pensioner everything that is due to him and, if possible, even a little more.

10.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions (Brigadier J. G. Smyth)

I need not tell my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) how very much I sympathise with the gallant soldier whose sufferings he has described to the House. I am only sorry that my hon. Friend should have put the case in such an intemperate way. It very much spoiled the case from the point of view of the man whom he was attempting to help. Had it been put in a more temperate way, I feel he would have done his constituent a great deal more good.

It is very easy to cloud a case like this with sentimentalism. That would be only too easy. But what we have to do—as my hon. Friend said, it was the reason why he put down a Question in the first place—is to try to ascertain whose was the blame for the neglect that took place and how we are to prevent it happening again. My hon. Friend has also added a claim for compensation.

This is actually a criticism of our welfare service, of which we in the Ministry of Pensions are very proud, and justly proud. The service was started by our predecessors five years ago, and it has gone from strength to strength. This is the only accusation of neglect and inhumanity that I have had or heard of since I have been in the Ministry.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

It is not the only case.

Brigadier Smyth

It is the only accusation of neglect and inhumanity that I have had since I have been in the Ministry. I am certain that it is an exceptional case, particularly in Scotland. I recently paid a visit to Scotland, and I met many hundreds of pensioners and visited many hospitals, and I found the welfare service in Scotland to be of a very high standard indeed. It is because of the pride that we have in our welfare service that I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised the case and given us a chance of going into it.

The first point I want to make is that we have nearly one million pensioners on our charge and that it is quite impracticable to visit them all. Some of them are in constant touch with the Ministry, and we try to visit all the 100 per cent. pensioners as often as we possibly can, every year if possible. Mr. Fraser was not a 100 per cent. pensioner; he was a 90 per cent. pensioner. But we must rely on the pensioner himself or his friends or his family to let us know if he is in any sort of need. We have made that abundantly clear time and again in the many communications that we have sent out to pensioners.

The hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons), in his time at the Ministry, sent out an "Are you sure?" pamphlet. The other day we sent out an "Are you still sure?" pamphlet which went to every pensioner, stating that it is in his own interests and in the national interests that he should take full advantage of the facilities which exist for the treatment of his pensionable disability and that it is important that he should not allow his condition to get worse for lack of proper attention. It also explained what steps should be taken to get all the treatment that the Ministry can give.

I agree with my hon. Friend that between 1922 and 1952 the man had little contact with the Ministry. He drew his pension. My hon. Friend asked about his artificial limb. Mr. Fraser had it repaired five times during that period, and he put two queries to the Ministry. However, I agree that during the 30 years there was very little contact with our medical officers.

Sir D. Robertson

Was there any?

Brigadier Smyth

By correspondence, yes. I do not deny for a moment that Mr. Fraser's condition would have been improved by a course of hospital treatment.

It is extremely remarkable that there was no association between this man and the Ministry when one understands that Councillor Grant, a member of the War Pensions Committee, says in a letter to my hon. Friend that he was intimately acquainted with this man for 22 years, and yet on no occasion did he take the trouble to inform our medical officers that he was sick and that he wanted attention. Mr. Fraser had been attended by his own doctor, but he never informed us at all that he had been seen off and on by the surgeon at the local hospital.

Sir D. Robertson

But never by the Ministry of Pensions.

Brigadier Smyth

There are one or two points I should like to mention. First of all, there is the man's mental condition. I do not blame him for that. It is only natural that he should have felt like that, but he did not want hospital treatment in 1952 when we found out about his condition. He absolutely refused to go into hospital to have his leg looked at, and he much preferred having treatment in his own home by his own wife. The surgeon my hon. Friend has quoted said, "I am afraid Fraser would never face up to hospital treatment as he has a real fear of being away from his surroundings."

Sir D. Robertson

That is in 1953.

Brigadier Smyth

We must rely in the Ministry on the pensioner, his friends, the war pensions committee and the local authorities generally to inform us if any pensioner requires any special treatment. My hon. Friend entirely misquoted what this man is now receiving. I think it is a great pity that my hon. Friend should have been so inaccurate as he was as to what this man gets from the Ministry.

Sir D. Robertson

I quoted the pension that this man got from 1922 to 1952.

Brigadier Smyth

My hon. Friend did not quote the figure correctly because he did not include the retirement pension that he gets from the Ministry of National Insurance. [Interruption.] I think I might be allowed by my hon. Friend to reply to the case he put forward. My hon. Friend has had a very good innings himself. This man gets from the Ministry of Pensions £4 10s. ——

Sir D. Robertson


Brigadier Smyth

He gets it now, but he has a retirement pension of £1 12s. 6d. with a wife's allowance of 6s. At present he gets £6 8s. 6d. I admit that the 25s. constant attendance allowance was not received by him until my hon. Friend drew attention to his condition. As I have already said, we have very few complaints about our welfare service, and this is one for which I certainly would not apologise. I sympathise entirely with the condition of this very gallant soldier, but had any of his friends made any gesture in his support we should have done everything we possibly could to help him. In conclusion, I should only like to make one point about the future. The Prime Minister the other day announced the amalgamation of our Ministry with the Ministry of National Insurance. I am quite sure that with that amalgamation we are going to give an even better service to the war disabled than we have done in the past, because the Ministry of National Insurance has 900 local offices as opposed to the 80 of the Ministry of Pensions. In that new amalgamated Ministry we shall hope to strengthen and improve the essential human links with the war disabled. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity of replying about this case, but I am sorry that he would not allow us to make any inquiries before he rushed forward with this Adjournment debate, and I am sorry he made his case in such an intemperate way.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

If, in fact, some of this man's friends had communicated with the Ministry presumably something would have been done for him long ago. If it has not been done because somebody who might have been able to mention it did not do so, it still remains a fact that this man has been harshly treated, and, therefore, could something not be done to put that right?

Brigadier Smyth

It is rather difficult to answer that question. This man was pensioned at the 90 per cent. rate in 1922, and what his condition was between 1922 and 1952—he is now 68 years' old —one cannot say. All we can say is that from the moment when we had a report that his condition had deteriorated we raised his pension to 100 per cent., and that was dated from the date on which we had the report.

Mr. Burden

Can my hon. and gallant Friend say if consideration will be given to this point?

Brigadier Smyth

Of course, I will consider points brought to me, but those are the facts of this case.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

If my hon. and gallant Friend's Department was in correspondence with the man, why was he never visited during the period of that correspondence?

Brigadier Smyth

The correspondence was not about the man's ailment but about the wife's allowance——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Nineteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.

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