HC Deb 09 March 1955 vol 538 cc577-86

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

Three weeks ago six hon. Members from this House visited the Forces in Germany. During the course of that visit other hon. Members and myself received every courtesy from the British Army of the Rhine. Together with two other hon. Members, I had an opportunity of seeing 20 or 30 wives of serving officers, noncommissioned officers and private soldiers. One of those wives told us a story which at that time I found difficult to believe.

The story was that her husband—I forget whether he was a non-commissioned officer or a private—serving in Germany, has been informed that he is serving at a home station but that if his widowed mother or mother-in-law went to live with him and his wife she would be informed by the Ministry of National Insurance that she was living abroad. We therefore have the most extraordinary position that a soldier is told he is at home and his mother or mother-in-law, who may be in the next room, is told she is abroad and is not therefore entitled to any pension.

From the Minister of National Insurance I have received a list of countries in which benefits are payable and the extent to which they are payable. It is a peculiar thing that the only grant which is payable is a death grant. Under certain circumstances, apparently, the death grant is payable in all parts of the world.

When the National Insurance Scheme was instituted, the Government, I am sure quite rightly, considered that people who left the country of their own free will took the advantages as well as the disadvantages of so doing; but a soldier who is called up under the conscription system in this country and is then sent abroad is in a completely different category from the civilian.

When I came back from Germany, I made some inquiries, not unnaturally, of the Ministry of Pensions and was in- formed that the reason that these dependants of serving men in Germany—and, for that matter, in other parts of the world—were not in receipt of any payments or benefits under the National Insurance Scheme was that it was forbidden under Section 29 (1) of the National Insurance Act, 1946.

Wishing, as far as a private Member can do, to try to right a wrong, I then introduced into the House a National Insurance (Amendment) Bill which sought to cover this very narrow point. I had hoped that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend the Minister might support me in that venture, but I was to be disappointed. It was at that point that the Departmental machinery, which is weird and wonderful in its ways, set out to say "No" in as many and as different ways as possible.

My Bill, as it was opposed in the House, was prevented from having what we back benchers might term easy access to the Statute Book. What were the reasons which the Department—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples): On a point of accuracy, can my hon. Friend say when his Bill was opposed and by whom?

Mr. Langford-Holt

I was careful to say that it was opposed from having an easy access to the Statute Book. By that I mean that what is known as a Second Reading—

Mr. Marples

My hon. Friend said that his Bill was opposed in this House. All I ask is, by whom and when was it opposed?

Mr. Langford-Holt

I will put it this way. An unopposed Second Reading was taken exception to by hon. Members on, I regret to say, this side of the House, and the same hon. Members took exception to three Bills, none of which bore any resemblance to each other. I make no further point on that.

I am sure that the Government could not be opposed to the purpose of the Bill. What were the reasons which my hon. Friend has in mind why the Bill should not be given a Second Reading and why this small point should not be taken any further?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

Is this a discussion of legislation?

Mr. Langford-Holt

No, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. You will understand shortly why this matter which I am discussing does not involve legislation. We are discussing a historical fact rather than proposed legislation.

When I put down some Questions on this matter, my right hon. Friend the Minister stated in the House that an agreement was shortly to be reached with the German Federal Government on this matter. If it has taken all this time to reach agreement with the German Federal Government, it is also true to say that since 1945 we have been the occupying Power of the zone of Germany to which I am directing attention. It is also true that since, I think, November, 1946, that area of Germany has been deemed by the War Office to be an area of home service, at any rate to some extent, in the proportion of, I think, either one-third or two-thirds.

On 28th February, I tried to get from the Minister the exact date on which the negotiations with the German Federal Government were instituted, and I should like my hon. Friend tonight to state the date on which those negotiations were started. I asked my Question but did not get the answer I wanted. I was told when the negotiations might finish but not when they had started.

A further point is that we have been in occupation of Germany for 8½ years, and during that time the soldiers serving in Germany have been told that they are serving at home and at the same time their wives and families and dependants have been told they are abroad. I do not blame my hon. Friend or his right hon. Friend, or indeed their predecessors, but these are years during which something could have been done and nothing has been done. I should like to know from my hon. Friend what is the present position of troops under N.A.T.O.

I understand, according to an answer which my right hon. Friend gave me last week, that in France the troops' dependants can get retirement pensions but not widows' pensions. I believe that in Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, should N.A.T.O. decide to send forces there, they would get nothing whatever, except, of course, the death benefit under certain circumstances. Supposing—and this is not beyond the bounds of possibility—our troops were sent to any other N.A.T.O. country, what is their position? Have they to wait 8½ years before anything is done?

Lastly, what about the position in the Channel Islands, which for many purposes are part of the United Kingdom? According to the information given to me, troops sent to the Channel Islands are considered by my hon. Friend's Department to be abroad. The first answer to this problem was that there is an agreement in the course of conclusion with the German Federal Government. The second reason given was that the Bill which I was going to introduce—and I think that this is the point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, which you had in mind—was not necessary in any case because the powers to make regulations already exist. The answer to that is exactly the same as the one which I have just stated, that these powers must have existed for 8½ years when we had complete sovereignty, certainly in our own zone in Germany. Why have not these powers been used? I am quite sure that if my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend had been aware of this point they would have thought that it was a trifle unfair, to say the least of it.

Finally, I am a little curious to know, because, I have looked through the reply and the list of countries and the extent to which the provisions of the National Insurance Act apply, what is the position with regard to old-age pensioners. They are very relevant to this argument, and they were not mentioned.

Mr. Marples

Does my hon. Friend mean retirement pensions under the 1948 Act, or old-age pensions which are non-contributory?

Mr. Langford-Holt

I mean old-age pensions which are non-contributory. They do not come directly under the Act to which I am referring, but that is a question which I should like my hon. Friend to answer if he can. A further point is this, and I implore my hon. Friend to deal with it. because it was impressed upon us while we were in Germany. One of the greatest difficulties is a sense of injustice in the Army in Germany because the troops feel that they should not be regarded as serving in home stations because they do not consider they are serving at home. It may be that from the point of view of posting it is necessary for the Army to consider these soldiers to be serving in home stations, but it passes the bounds of logic when one Government Department says that they are serving at home and another Government Department says they are serving abroad.

The sense of injustice which results in B.A.O.R. is very real, and I urge my hon. Friend to right it at the earliest opportunity. I implore him not only to introduce regulations to cover B.A.O.R. as and when negotiations are completed, but to consider introducing regulations to cover the whole of Her Majesty's Forces when they are serving in stations overseas through no fault of their own—because they have no desire to serve thousands of miles away from their families.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider introducing at an early stage regulations covering all these people, and all stations to which they are sent to serve overseas by one of the Service Departments. I ask my hon. Friend to believe that I do not introduce this matter for the sake of introducing it, or for the sake of starting a debate at this time of night. I do so because I and my hon. Friends saw that this was one of the senses of injustice, many of them unreasonable, which were felt by the British Army of the Rhine. This situation was one which I and my colleagues all agree was felt to be illogical by the men. I believe that all my colleagues also feel, as I do, that it is illogical and that something should be done about it.

10.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) for raising this rather complicated subject tonight. I am personally grateful to him because, no matter what Government introduces them, all systems can be improved, and imperfections pointed out form the basis of any improvements that may be made.

My hon. Friend visited Germany a few weeks ago and found some soldiers suffering under a sense of injustice. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) has been concerned with this matter, though on a rather broader basis, for some considerable time. The House must get this controversy into its right perspective. I may be slightly out of order in making the first point, which is that no Government action blocked any legislation which was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury. I want to make that quite clear.

The second point is the question of what classes of persons are affected in this matter and what classes are not affected. The classes of person who are not affected are the soldier who is sent abroad, wherever he may go, his wife and his children. They are not affected in any way. The benefits of the Welfare State, or their equivalents, are available to them wherever the soldier may be serving. It may be Germany. It may be any place which is classified as an overseas or a home station. For this purpose it does not matter. These benefits are still available to the soldier, his wife or his children, wherever they may be. It could be in the United States, in Korea or in Africa. They receive the equivalent of the National Health services, family allowances and so on. My hon. Friend said that he saw 20 or 30 wives. None of them, nor their husbands or children, were adversely affected because the husbands were serving in that part of the world.

Mr. Langford-Holt

Can my hon. Friend say, for example, whether the wives who are in that position in Germany receive free milk? I am informed that they do not.

Mr. Marples

I was speaking generally. They may not receive a particular small section of the welfare services, but broadly they receive the equivalent of the welfare services in this country as far as possible. If my hon. Friend has in mind a case where they do not receive that equivalent, I hope that he will send me details. I promise that I shall look into them.

Who are the people affected by the observations of my hon. Friend? Not the wife or child but the other relatives of soldiers serving abroad—the uncle, aunt, sister, brother, parent, grand-parent and so on. They are the ones who do not get retirement pensions or widows' pensions if they go abroad to some station overseas. That is the point which my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Langford-Holt

It goes a little further than that, because the Government of which the hon. Member is a member say that the soldier is serving at home. And because it is a home station and the other members of the family are there with him, they are not entitled to anything under the National Insurance Act.

Mr. Marples

So far as the immediate family of the soldier is concerned, that is, his wife, his children—

Mr. Ede (South Shields)


Mr. Marples

I do not know about that without notice. I should have thought that if the soldier was responsible for the upkeep of his step-children, he would get the equivalent of the welfare services, but I would not like to commit myself. I will go into it for the right hon. Gentleman if he so desires. So far as the immediate and close family of the soldier is concerned, it does not matter whether he is overseas in Germany or on a home station—he gets the equivalent of the welfare services; the Army children get free milk and meals in the Army schools. I will go into that point and write to my hon. Friend about it and clear up the matter so that there may be no misapprehension.

Mr. Garner Evans (Denbigh)

If I may interrupt, it is only dried milk.

Mr. Marples

I will go even into the question of the type of the milk provided, but I hope that my hon. Friend will not ask me to go into the category and pedigree of the cow which produces the milk.

This is a most complicated subject. The welfare State was started in the 20th century and it is difficult to avoid the anomalies that necessarily occur. It is bad enough when a British subject is resident in Britain, when Mr. Smith says that Mr. Jones next door gets something he is not entitled to. It is even more complicated when people go abroad, because they say that they ought to get their pension wherever they go. It is easy to find evidence to prove that a certain person is injured. It is just as easy to find other evidence to prove that the same person is not injured, but curiously enough it is not found. I think it would be better if we discussed this problem against the background of the rules and regulations of my right hon. Friend's Department in this connection because a distorted impression is produced if a specific remark is taken out of its context.

Let me now deal with people in this country who settle abroad for good. First, if they go to any part of the Commonwealth, they get all the benefits. And in "any part of the Commonwealth" I include India, Pakistan and, by special arrangement, the Irish Republic. So, as far as that is concerned, the benefits of National Insurance may be awarded to a citizen who goes to those countries.

Mr. Ivor Owen Thomas (The Wrekin)

Does the hon. Gentleman by that mean that by special arrangements with the Governments of these countries their equivalent benefits are granted to these people who go abroad, rather than the benefits payable by our Government?

Mr. Marples

The benefits are payable because of Regulations made by my right hon. Friend under Section 29 of the National Insurance Act, 1946. The Commonwealth countries are exempted from the normal ban that benefits are not paid when people go abroad. If a person from this country who was entitled to a retirement pension went to Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, he would get the benefit to which he was entitled when he left this country. That is by virtue of the Regulations made by my right hon. Friend and not by reciprocal arrangements between this country and any Commonwealth country.

If a person from this country goes to a foreign country, two positions may arise. First, if there is a reciprocal arrangement between this country and the foreign country, that arrangement would decide what that person received. For example, we have reciprocal arrangements with Switzerland, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and those arrangements decide what a person receives abroad in those countries.

If there is no reciprocal arrangement between this country and the foreign country, the person would not get the benefits normally payable in this country. There are exceptions which might cover the cases which I believe that my hon. Friend has in mind. If a person goes away for six months and comes back to this country, he can draw his six months' retirement pension on arrival in this country. If he goes away for a year or less, he can draw six months' pension on returning. If he goes away for more than 12 months, he cannot draw anything on returning. For extended holidays it is a very generous provision.

In the short time that is left to me, I should like to say a word about reciprocal arrangements. I am sorry that I have only a short time in which to deal with what my hon. Friend will agree is a very complicated subject. Foreign countries have nationals living here as we have nationals living in foreign countries. We are always willing to enter into reciprocal arrangements and to try as quickly as we possibly can to start negotiations and conclude them. But it takes two parties to make an agreement and sometimes—

Mr. Langford-Holt rose

Mr. Marples

I cannot make a comprehensive reply in such a short time if I am subject to these interruptions. I do not mind interruptions, but my hon. Friend must not complain if I do not make a comprehensive reply.

One of the first considerations is that we want to pay pensions to our citizens settled in other countries. Negotiations were started with the Federal German Republic in 1950. It is hoped that an agreement will be signed within a matter of weeks. If it is signed, that will give my hon. Friend what he wants. Pensions will be given to all the relatives living in Germany when this agreement with Germany is signed. We have many such arrangements with foreign countries. We have them with France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and—an odd thing—with Australia. It was not necessary to have such an arrangement with Australia, but by it the Australian Government generously agreed to raise the level of pensions that we give in this country to the level of pensions they give in their country.

We have to pay attention to a tendency which may be seen over all Europe to confine benefits to the country where they are given. If a; person leaves a country, normally he is considered to have left the benefit. Europe is tending to consider the Welfare State as a public service. Countries are saying that they have a duty to look after the people within their own territory. The French call it—and I hate to add another word to the jargon, especially with the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) present—territoriality of social insurance, as against personality of social insurance. In other words, it is the duty of the particular State to look after the people within its boundaries.

When the agreement with Germany is signed, I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied. There have been difficulties—this applies to the previous Government as well as to us because they started the negotiations—and there is bound to be difficulty with Germany. First of all, what is the status of Berlin? Secondly—

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 eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.