HC Deb 08 February 1954 vol 523 cc963-72

10.1 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

I wish to raise the question of disabled ex-Service men's pensions. A redistribution of the national income has been taking place in the past few years. I do not want to make a political debate of this Adjournment, or discuss why this change in the national income is taking place, but one thing is quite certain, that redistribution has not benefited those living on low State pensions and fixed incomes.

The cost of living has been rising steadily since the war. Again, I do not want to discuss the party implications of the rate at which the cost of living has risen from time to time, but one thing is quite certain, every rise in the cost of living hits hardest those living on low fixed incomes. The purchasing power of the £ today as compared with 1939 is 8s. 10d., so that the pension which was worth 40s. in 1939 would be worth today 17s. 8d. It is against that background that I want the House to look at the total disability pension of the ex-Service man.

Before the war these pensions were 40s. The first war-time Government argued that it had been raised to 40s. at a time when the cost of living was higher than in 1939. The cost of living having fallen in 1939, they fixed the total disability pension for the Second World War soldiers at 32s. 6d. In 1943, it was raised from 32s. 6d. to 40s., in 1946 it was raised to 45s. and in 1952 to 55s. If this disability pension were to be made equal to the pre-war disability pension, it ought to be raised to 90s. 6d., and it is this figure that the British Legion say is the rightful due for disabled ex-Service men.

But, even if the pension were to be raised to be made equal to the 32s. 6d. at which it was fixed at the beginning of the Second World War for totally disabled ex-Service men, it would have to be raised today to some 73s. But it is worse than that. I asked the Minister in November last the value of the present 55s. a week pension compared with the 45s. a week pension of 1946. His answer, according to the Official Report of 23rd November was 38s. 6d., which means that to bring the present pension to its value even as late as that in 1946 it would have to be raised to 64s. 6d.

I know that any claim for raising the disability pension has to be matched by other claims equally grave from other pensioners, particularly from old age pensioners and from other disabled men. I know that the Treasury has limited resources. But here on three standards of comparison—with the pre-war pensions, with 1939 and even with 1946—the disabled ex-Service men's pension has been badly cut, and the country ought to do something about it. I cannot see how any Minister can oppose raising it to at any rate the 1946 figure by making the 55s. into 64s. 6d., even if he will not accept the whole of the British Legion claim.

Everybody is familiar with the arguments against raising the basic rate. Ministers rightly bring forward the simple fact that this is not the whole story; that a comparison with pre-war figures neglects other factors; that the disabled man is usually working, and that in work today he gets more than he used to get before the war; that if he cannot work there is an unemployability allowance; that if his job is less well-paid than it would have been but for his injury, he gets an extra hardship allowance; that if he has to have constant attendance because he is so disabled, he gets an allowance for that; and that there is a comforts allowance for many disabled pensioners.

All this is excellent and nobody, particularly on this side of the House, would wish to interfere with the basic principle of giving the greatest help to the most needy cases amongst our disabled. I believe that is a part of the glorious story of the Ministry of Pensions since the war. But the extra allowances themselves suffer because of the rise in the cost of living.

For instance, in November last I asked the Minister the present value of the 35s. unemployability allowance of 1951. On 23rd November he replied that it was worth 31s. 6d., so that the unemployability allowance would have to be raised to 39s. to equal even its 1951 value. So the first point I make is that the scale of supplementary allowances paid to our disabled men in greatest need should be revised, should be revised speedily and should be of first priority on the Minister.

However, these supplementary allowances cover only a small number of disabled ex-Service men of whom there are some 670,000. Of these about 48,000 are totally disabled, and of those about 21,000 receive the unemployability allowance. This number has grown partly because of the generous attitude of successive Ministers and the work of welfare officers in finding out hard cases, but also partly because of the decline in health amongst our seriously disabled men. There are 18,000 who receive the hardship allowance for doing a less remunerative job, 10,000 receive the constant attendance allowance, but only 7,000 get both allowances, and it is this last small group of 7,000, the most tragic and most deserving cases of all, who receive the maximum benefits of the pensions scheme. To get £9 9s. a week a disabled hero must be unemployable, must be bedridden, must have his wife or a nurse in constant attendance on him, and must also have two children. And that £9 9s. is itself being whittled away in value as the cost of living rises.

About 35,000 of the totally disabled are carrying on at work. I am proud to be a countryman of such plucky men. Let us try to imagine how they carry on. For instance, how they manage to travel about London, especially how they managed in the recent freeze-up, how they manage to meet the full impact of a life which able-bodied folk find difficult enough. And what do we mean when we say "total disability"? We mean the loss of two arms or two legs or two eyes or some comparable physical disaster. On this I want to say one or two things. First, the disability pension was not devised to compensate for loss of earnings The 1919 Committee said that a pension should not only compensate for economic disability "but for loss of amenity of life." The existence of the extra hardship allowance proves that the main basic pension is in itself an attempt to compensate for loss of amenity.

I should like to give an example. I know a man who got shrapnel in his lungs in the First World War and it has remained there. Incidentally, this is not rated as total disability and it carries only a minor percentage disability award. He has carried on his profession as he would have done without his wound, but carrying on has meant for him years of anxiety about whether he could fulfil the requirements of his profession, and frequent absences and even grave illnesses. His disability pension was some attempt on the part of this country to compensate him for the happiness and good health which we have taken away from him.

As time has gone on, the real value of the basic pension has declined but bad health or the loss of a limb remain. In fact, disability gets worse with old age. That is why B.L.E.S.M.A. has been pressing for extra compensation for the ageing limbless men of the First World War, who number some 20,000. The Minister knows that a group of hon. Members from both sides of the House have been urging him to meet the claim for extra pensions for the ageing limbless. I hope that he will not say that we must wait until the Rock Carling Committee's Report has been received and fully considered. It does not need a medical report to tell us that physical handicaps are more burdensome to men in old age than when they are compensated for to some extent by the vitality of youth.

That leads me to one criticism of the Ministry itself. The Ministry has been always advised, and properly so, by medical men. But medical men must give a medical opinion. If a disabled man's condition deteriorates, if he has no legs and develops a weak heart, or if it is a tragic case like that raised last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle) and he has lost one leg in war service and the other deteriorates and he has to lose that, the medical men must go on record as saying what is the scientific truth—that if one loses one leg the other does not tend to degenerate. If a doctor gave false medical testimony he would cause much greater general anxiety than the extra pension would give relief to a particular man. But this is not a medical problem, it is a human problem. A man who has lost one leg in the war and then loses another ought to receive 100 per cent. disability pension, whatever the doctors say.

I had hoped to say a few words about the difficulty that disabled people experience, and will experience the older they get, in finding work. I had hoped to say a little about Remploy and to express my disappointment with the recent Report of the Select Committee, who did not seem to know what Remploy was doing, and to press the Minister not only to give support to and expand the provision of Remploy factories but also to urge Government Departments and private industry to give work to these factories where disabled ex-Service men are not only helping to keep themselves but serving their country. I hope that this debate will be an opportunity to remind those who can provide work for disabled ex-Service men how precious and necessary is that atttempt at providing work.

However, I want to give someone else a chance to intervene in the debate, particularly the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser), whose political views on every other subject I deplore but whose work for ex-Service men has made Parliamentary history. I also want the Minister to have time to make a detailed reply. Many of us in this House remember the pledges which we made in 1945 to ex-Service men, and, since the war, both parties have kept those pledges. One old English tradition—that of praising heroes in wartime and putting them on the scrap-heap in peacetime—has gone from this country, I hope for good. But the time has arrived for us to ask ourselves whether we have done enough for the disabled ex-Service man and are doing enough at the present moment. I am one of those who believe that we can never give them what they deserve, but we can get nearer to it than we are doing at present. The most urgent need of all is to improve the lot of the totally disabled, and among them those totally disabled ex-Service men who are unable to work.

10.15 p.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

I am sure the House, the country and certainly the British Legion and B.L.E.S.M.A. will be grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King). I should like to congratulate him on his well informed and eloquent speech. I have promised to take only one minute, because I am sure it would be the wish of hon. Members on all sides of the House that the Parliamentary Secretary should give a full reply.

For my part, speaking as an individual, and speaking for the British Legion, I agree with every word of the plea the hon. Member has made. This is Budget planning time. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer or his assistants will read this speech, mark it and digest it, and that we shall find some reflection of the attitude of the Government and the country in the forthcoming Budget, or at any rate during this Session of Parliament. The real problem for the Chancelloris how to meet all the claims that fall upon him, but this claim is a debt of honour and I am sure that hon. Members on all sides of the House and the majority of people in the country would like the Chancellor to give it a very high priority in his considerations.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Alan McKibbin (Belfast, East)

On behalf of the 18,712 war disabled pensioners, war widows and dependants in Northern Ireland and also the 18,717 in the Irish Republic who have no direct representation in this House, I wish to say that I am in full accord with the claim of the British Legion for an increase in the basic rate for war disabled and war widows, and I know that I am speaking for all the Ulster Unionist Members in saying that we believe that disabled ex-Service men should have a first claim upon the nation's resources. While we recognise what the Government have tried to do, we hope that they will bear our views in mind and give priority to this just claim upon the nation's conscience and purse.

10.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Brigadier J. G. Smyth)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) intervened, if only for a very brief moment, in this debate because he has given such a great part of his life to the service of the war disabled. In my opinion, perhaps the most important of all the things he has done for them is the personal example he has shown of disregarding 100 per cent. disability. That has been an inspiration to the severely disabled, not only in this country but all over the world.

I should like to make it absolutely clear that in my experience of the war disabled—I see a great deal of them in my present job—what they wish more than anything else in the world is to get back into the life of the community and do a useful job. Personally, I think the greatest service any one of us can do for the war disabled is to help them to help themselves.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) for raising this question tonight. I am also extremely grateful to him for the interest he has shown in this work and his helpful approach to these problems during the two and a half years I have been concerned with them in a ministerial capacity in the old Ministry of Pensions and in my present Ministry. The fact that my right hon. Friend and I are so very infrequently called to the Dispatch Box certainly does not mean that hon. Members show any lack of interest in and devotion to the cause of the war disabled. I think it is because we all regard this as a non-party matter in which we all work together.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test raised a number of important subjects. In the very short time which is left, I shall be able to comment on only one or two of them, but I assure him that every single thing he has said will be most carefully considered by my right hon. Friend and by the officials of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

We last debated war pensions just before the merger took place, and considerable anxiety was expressed by people connected with ex-Service associations about how it would work. I am sure most people would agree that it has gone smoothly and is probably working better than any of us thought it would. I wish to pay a tribute to the staffs of both Ministries who have fitted in together, doing everything in their power to ensure that the system worked, and that goes for the offices in London, Blackpool and Newcastle right down to the regions. Our 980 local offices—as opposed to 80 under the old Ministry—have already been a help to pensioners.

I wish to deal with one or two of the points raised by the hon. Member. First of all, with regard to the Rock Carling Committee, in answer to a Question a few days ago I said that the Committee was just completing its clinical examinations of 5,500 amputees. That has taken longer than we expected, but I am certain it is something that we must do with the very greatest thoroughness because the findings of the Committee will be of importance in many other countries all over the world besides being of supreme importance to amputees in this country. We must all hope that the result of the Committee's work will not indicate that amputees are more liable to cardiovascular disorders than other people and that their expectation of life is in any way reduced, but if the evidence is to the contrary we shall have to re-examine the whole problem.

With regard to the ageing limbless pensioner, I would remind the House that my right hon. Friend is responsible for all the disabled, including the paraplegics and the blind, and on present medical evidence there is no reason to regard the disabled amputee as being any different from all the other classes, though it may well be that the result of the work of the Rock Carling Committee will lead us to other conclusions. The hon. Member mentioned the matter of paired organs. As time is so short, I merely wish to say about that at the moment that there are two Questions down to my right hon. Friend for next Monday and I hope very much that by then he will be able to say something useful to the House.

The hon. Member also suggested that the Minister should disregard his medical experts in certain cases. In accordance with the Royal Warrant, the Minister must abide by the decision of his medical experts in purely medical cases unless some serious medical doubt is disclosed by the evidence, when the Minister can consult a medical expert; and, in addition to the independent medical expert, there are the tribunals.

The hon. Gentleman went on from that to the much discussed question of the cost of living and the purchasing power of pensions, which has been discussed on so many other occasions and on which very few people seem to arrive at the same answer. Perhaps I might quote from the debate which we had on 2nd April last year, when the present Minister of State, Board of Trade, who was then the Minister of Pensions, said, referring to what was described as the mixture of the old cost-of-living index and the present retail price index: Adopting that one the relative rate compared with the 40s. in 1919 would work out at 52s. 4d. Comparing the 45s. rate in 1946 the relative rate would be 62s. 3d. But adopting the purchasing power…method the comparable rate to 40s. in 1919 would be 65s. 10d. and the comparable rate to 45s. in 1946 would be 64s. 6d."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1953; Vol. 513, c. 1410.] —which is the figure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

We would all agree that the war pensions scheme must be considered as a whole. The present system was built up during the war and after the war by the Coalition Government, two Labour Governments and the present Conservative Government, and it has to be considered with its special allowances for the badly disabled, the basic rate, the hospital treatment, artificial limbs and appliances, the supply of cars and invalid tricycles, the welfare services and the social services. There have been more than a hundred improvements in the war pensions scheme since 1944–45, at a cost of more than £26 million a year.

We are not in any way satisfied or complacent and, as I have said several times before, the door to war pensions is never closed. We should be very proud of our war pensions scheme, although, as the hon. Gentleman said, the monetary value of the pension is not the same as it was. I was taking the French Minister of Pensions round the other day, and he was quite amazed at our welfare services and the way we look after everything. I hope to go to France and look at their pension arrangements myself very soon.

I do not want my time to run out without saying one word about the basic rate. We agree that the 100 per cent. basic pension today is only worth in purchasing power 4s. 6d. more than it was when this Government took over in October, 1951. That is something which I must acknowledge. This is the time of year when a campaign always takes place for a big increase in the basic pension. I remember in the time of my predecessor in the Labour Government that the same thing happened. I have been rereading the debate which took place in February, 1951, when the same pressure was put upon him. His Government felt themselves unable to make any increase in the basic rate owing to the economic situation, which was quite understandable. In 1952, in a bad economic year, we did manage to make the biggest-ever rise in war pensions, when we raised the basic rate to 55s. and made other improvements which I have not time to mention. We maintain that this was a very considerable advance.

My right hon. Friend will at least give this guarantee, which I know the hon. Gentleman may not think goes far enough. My right hon. Friend sincerely hopes that during the life of the present Government our national situation will improve to such an extent that it may become possible to do something more for war pensioners and their dependants. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me in a debate like this to make any definite statement of importance but there are a number of points that I have not been able to cover and—

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 Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.