HC Deb 02 November 1954 vol 532 cc339-48

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

10.11 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)

When I heard that I had secured this Adjournment debate, I was very delighted, because I knew that I would have the opportunity of making a very bitter attack upon the War Office, and I meant to pursue that course. I meant to use all the most bitter adjectives that this House would allow me to use. I meant to be particularly vindictive, and I think that I was justified in my attitude at that time. But, alas, my wings have been clipped.

The fact of the matter is that today the Secretary of State for War has made an announcement in this House which has certainly taken the wind out of my sails. That announcement will go a great way towards satisfying the main demands of Mrs. Arno and of all those people who, like Mrs. Arno, are victims of the Korean war. I think that I had better say a word or two about Mrs. Arno and what she really represents in this discussion.

Mrs. Arno was the wife of Fusilier Arno of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Her husband was reported missing in the battle of Happy Valley on 4th January, 1951, almost four years ago, since when Mrs. Arno has been in the same position as the relatives of the 101 people who were missing in the Korean war and the presumption of whose death had until today not been accepted by the War Office.

Today is the first time that Private Harry Arno has been presumed dead since 4th January, 1951. Of the 101 people who were missing in the Korean fighting, 24 were married men. Ever since the prisoners were returned, 24 wives have been left in doubt. They have not known whether they were wives or widows. The problem is all the more complicated because of their domestic responsibilities.

During the last four years, Mrs. Arno has been paying insurance premiums on the life of a dead man. Harry Arno should have drawn the money on an endowment policy at the beginning of this year, but up to now his wife, as his next of kin, has been unable to draw that money because the War Office would not accept the presumption of the death of Harry Arno. Mrs. Arno, in common with many of the other widows of these missing men—I know this from letters which I have received—is in a position to remarry, but has been unable to do so because, until today, the War Office has said that she is still a wife. I think that is a very difficult situation for Mrs. Arno.

One cannot over-estimate the domestic disturbance which she has suffered. I do not want to go into all the circumstances, but the last letter I received less than a month ago from the War Office still appeared to indicate that the War Office was not going to accept presumption of the death of these men in Korea. I am very glad that the War Office has changed its mind and that the announcement has been made today.

I had intended coming to this House today breathing fire and slaughter. I cannot do that now. The change in the attitude of the War Office has, I believe, been due to the fact that there has been a new Under-Secretary at the War Office who was as bitter in his invective against the War Office, because he had one of these cases in his constituency, as I was before he became Under-Secretary.

I know the circumstances of the reported deaths of many of these men. In passing, let me say—even if I put this in its most ridiculous form—that I believe the time has come in war, with modern high explosives and atomic shells, when, in order to prove the death of a person who has been blown to pieces in action, the War Office will require the evidence of at least two solicitors and one doctor, or else widows will be wives in perpetuity so far as the War Office is concerned.

I want to thank the Under-Secretary for what he has done. I know that he has applied himself most diligently and conscientiously to his task, and I believe that the results which have been broadcast to the country today are the result of the work that he has done and will be satisfactory to the relatives and the wives of the missing men in Korea.

There is, however, an outstanding problem for Mrs. Arno. In 1951 Mrs. Arno came to me because the War Office informed her that after 17 weeks the Army pay and allotment that she had received from her husband would be discontinued in favour of what the War Office call a continuing allowance. The continuing allowance is exactly the same as a war widow's pension. Mrs. Arno had been receiving £4 0s. 6d. a week Army pay and allowances. The continuing allowance is £1 for any widow under 40 years of age without children.

I made representations 3½ years ago. I will not say as a result of those representations, but by a remarkable coincidence, the War Office at that time decided to continue the Army pay and allowances. They did that until March of this year. In March of this year the Army pay and allowances were discontinued, and the continuing allowance of £1 commenced—a difference to Mrs. Arno of £3 Os. 6d. a week. According to the circumstances of these 24 widows, there have been varying reductions in each case.

This is the point that I want to raise. How can the Government logically or morally refuse to grant retrospective pay from March until the time that death is presumed, by reason of the losses that these people have suffered through the withdrawal of Army allowances? I understand that it is the responsibility of the War Office and not a matter for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

It would, therefore, seem that whilst during the last six months widowhood has been denied these women through lack of presumption of death, widowhood has been accepted as a fact by the War Office in terms of payment to them. That ought to be corrected. I understand that the Treasury may be nigger in the woodpile. If so, I shall never cease to fight to get retrospective pay for these widows up to the date—that is today—that the War Office has presumed the death of their husbands.

In pressing for that, I feel that it is the least we can do for these widows who have suffered so much domestic unhappiness by the loss of their husbands and as a result of War Office treatment in regard to payment. I have gone into this matter very closely. The War Office say, in effect, that a missing man is either a prisoner, or he has been killed, or he has deserted. The War Office knew in March of this year, when it discontinued the Army pay and started the continuing allowance, that these missing men could not come back. It had a pretty good idea that most of them had been killed. The only basis on which the continuing allowance was begun, therefore, was desertion.

I know that the Under-Secretary will not agree with me on this, and I am sorry that, in an Adjournment debate, we have only a limited time. If we could have had a discussion to and fro I think that I could have proved to him from his own brief that the basis of the continuing allowance in such circumstances is desertion. That, I say, is the crowning insult to the men who fought for freedom in Korea. To cut their pay before one is prepared to presume death does not redound to the credit of the War Office. I am not blaming the Under-Secretary. I thank him for all that he has done. I hope that he is prepared to go forward to press this matter with the Treasury until we get satisfaction.

He may say that these widows can seek redress in court, but it is a scandalous thing to say that relatives of British soldiers should have to seek recourse to a court of law to get common justice from the War Office. If the Under-Secretary says that, then I hope that one of these widows, wealthy enough and with enough public spirit, will take court action and set a precedent of success. On this question of the payments to the widows of the heroes of Korea, I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that he will take this case to the Treasury, so that, apart from recognition in terms of payment, common justice will be done to these widows of our Korean dead.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I intervene, though only very briefly, because I have been in correspondence with the War Office since January, making representations regarding a similar case—that of Mrs. Garner, also of Sheffield. I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend not only for raising this matter tonight, but for the vigorous way in which throughout he has pursued his representations. Although we had a very satisfactory answer on the general subject this afternoon, I venture to say that, but for the representations made by my hon. Friend and others, we would not have had that answer.

I join with my hon. Friend in thanking the Parliamentary Secretary for what he had done since he took office, but I cannot allow the occasion to pass without saying that the War Office has been dismally slow in coming to what seemed to most of us to be an obvious conclusion. The consequence of that delay and dither has been a great deal of anxiety and concern to these ladies. Mrs. Garner has some small children and has been in the difficulty of not knowing what to say when they asked, naturally enough, "When is my daddy coming home, too?" I feel that the War Office initially was not prepared to take this very human problem seriously enough.

We are not at all satisfied upon the question of pay. Mrs. Garner's pay was reduced in March last and, as my hon. Friend has said, the War Office was trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it was saying that these ladies were not widows but wives, and, on the other hand, in a matter where it could have helped by continuing to pay them as wives, it said, "No; on our calculations you must be widows."

If that state of affairs is not brought to an end immediately, we shall constantly raise this matter in the House. In addition, we shall insist upon retrospective payment up to today's date, when the War Office has at last agreed to presume that these gallant soldiers have been killed.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

Since we resumed after the Summer Recess the War Office has told me that there were about 24 of these widows. We only knew that they were widows at three o'clock this afternoon. Up to that moment to the women, to us and, I assume, to the War Office, they were still regarded as wives. They have been treated as widows only for the purpose of payment, although from the circumstances in which these men were missing it seemed to be obvious that they were either prisoners or were dead.

When Korean prisoners of war were returned from enemy hands it was obvious that these men were no longer prisoners. It may be that the Under-Secretary will tell us that the Government could not get any information from the Chinese. If that be the case, I suggest that they had no right at all to reduce the payments they were making to these women.

The case I have in mind concerns a Mrs. Foster, whose husband was in the Royal Ulster Rifles. She had a reduction of more than £3 in her pay. She has young children, of an adolescent age, whom she has had to rear and try to educate. Her husband was posted as missing. She did not know where, and no assistance came from the War Office, but it reduced her pay by more than £3 a week. It seems only common justice that, now that the War Office has reached the conclusion which it announced today, these women ought to be given the payments they were entitled to right up to the present moment.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give us some satisfaction about these payments, in the same way as his right hon. Friend satisfied us about the agreement of the War Office to regard these men as dead.

10.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

As my right hon. Friend announced in the House this afternoon, the decision has now been taken to presume the death of about 100 officers and men hitherto posted as missing in Korea. These included Fusilier Arno and the other two soldiers mentioned by hon. Members opposite.

Before I go any further I should like to associate myself with my right hon. Friend's expression of sympathy for the next-of-kin. The House will realise what painful suspense and uncertainty they have had to endure, and I can assure hon. Members that the chief concern of the War Office has been to bring that uncertainty to an end as soon as circumstances permitted. I repeat "as soon as circumstances permitted."

While thanking the hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom) for the kind things which he said about me, I would hasten to assure him that they were unjustified, because this decision would have been reached even if I had not arrived at the War Office when I did. Equally, as I hope to show in a few moments, it could not have been reached sooner.

First of all, to clear up any misapprehension that may still exist on this subject, it might be useful if I were to say a few words about the procedure adopted by the Army in cases of this kind. The procedure is that the military authorities on the spot are responsible for posting a soldier as killed, wounded, prisoner of war or missing.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Or a deserter.

Mr. Maclean

Or as a deserter in certain circumstances. That posting is done at the time that the soldier becomes a casualty. If subsequent information is received which justifies the transfer of the missing soldier to some other category, that is killed or prisoner of war, the records are amended and the next of kin informed accordingly. If, on the other hand, further information is not forthcoming the possibility of presuming death has to be considered.

In the course of his remarks the hon. Member for Brightside made reference to and criticised the practice of stopping the payment of allowances to the next-of-kin before death is presumed. I think that it would be a good thing if, in order to make this decision more readily comprehensible, I were to explain, first, the normal procedure, that is, the procedure that was adopted up to the Korean war, and, secondly, the special procedure which has been adopted during and since that war.

During the Second World War the treatment of a man posted as missing was as follows: for a period of four weeks full pay and allowances remained in issue. The part of these emoluments which had been paid to his dependants, for example, marriage allowance and pay allotment, continued to be paid, the remainder of his pay being credited to his pay account. After four weeks, the emoluments paid to his dependants continued but no further pay was credited to his account. This went on for a period of 13 weeks, making 17 weeks in all, since the soldier in question had been posted as missing.

If, at the end of 17 weeks, nothing further had been heard about him, the payment of marriage allowance and pay allotment to his dependants ceased and was replaced by the so-called continuing allowance, at the same rate as the pension which would have been payable to his dependants in the event of death.

The logic of this procedure, which presupposes that the normal machinery for reporting prisoners of war was functioning properly—that is, we were told reasonably soon through the Red Cross or through a neutral country who had been taken prisoner and who had been killed in other cases—was that if no news of a man had been received through these channels after 17 weeks, the likelihood was that he was dead. I say the likelihood, not the certainty. There would, therefore, be no further justification for continuing payments from public funds on the same basis as if he were alive. Instead, this payment was dropped to pension rates and when evidence was finally produced of his death, or his death was presumed, these payments were continued in the form of this actual pension payable to his dependants.

After evidence was produced of his death, or his death was presumed, as it has now been presumed in the case of these missing in Korea, the Ministry of Pensions took over and a pension was paid to his dependants in the ordinary way, if they qualified for it. In the rare cases in which a man in this category was later shown to be alive, at once retrospective payments were made of full pay and allowances——

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom

Unless he deserted.

Mr. Maclean

If he qualified. Unless he was a deserter, that is perfectly true.

That was the procedure which obtained during the whole of the 1939 war, but, early in the Korean War it became apparent that one of the main premises on which it was based would not, in fact, be fulfilled. In view of the extraordinary conditions prevailing and of the attitude adopted in this matter by the enemy, the period in which one could hope to obtain firm news of any missing man was frequently very much in excess of 17 weeks. Because we did not hear of a man after 17 weeks that did not in this case prove anything, whereas, in the 1939 war, if a man had not been heard of either as a prisoner of war, or if his body had not been found, the likelihood was that he was, in fact, dead.

For this reason, in the Korean War it was not reasonable to assume the probability of death after this period. Therefore, in these circumstances it was agreed that full payments of marriage allowance and pay allotments to the next-of-kin, the dependants, should continue until things became clearer. Once an armistice had been concluded and as the repatriation of prisoners progressed, the situation gradually changed. A number of cases were cleared up either by the discovery of that the man in question had actually been a prisoner of war all the time but that his capture had not been notified, or alternatively, that he was dead.

But, even after the repatriation of prisoners of war had been officially completed, there still remained a number of cases of officers and men who had not been repatriated as prisoners but of whose death there was still no firm news and, meanwhile, to whose dependants marriage allowance and pay allotments were still being paid. As there was by now very little hope that any of these men could still be alive, it was felt that the continued payment in full of these emoluments would no longer be justified and the decision was accordingly taken to discontinue them, replacing them in cases where pension would have been payable in the event of death by a continuing 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.