HC Deb 31 July 1956 vol 557 cc1353-62

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

1.22 a.m.

Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)

It is unusual to have two Parliamentary Secretaries on the Front Bench for an Adjournment Motion, and I want to express my thanks to them. The presence of my hon. Friends the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health illustrates the interest which these two Departments take in this subject. I should like to thank them and to say that any criticism that I make of matters of major policy does not in any way detract from my appreciation of the personal services which the Ministers themselves and previous Ministers have always given to Members of this House in connection with war pension matters.

It is the end of the term, so to speak, and I want even at this late hour to place on record some of the views of the British Legion and of ex-Service men generally with regard to war pensions so that they may receive proper consideration during the Recess. The main decisions which were arrived at by the British Legion at its conference last Whitsun were numerous, but I propose to refer to only three or four of them. The conference, representing the branches throughout England, Wales and Ireland, decided first of all to adhere to its longstanding policy of asking that the basic rate of war pension should be raised from the present figure of 67s. 6d. to 90s., etc.

That would be an all-round rough justice, and there is a great deal to be said for that proposal. It takes no account of means or employability, it does the same for all proportionately to the extent of their disability, and it is in line with a long tradition of war pensions policy. It encourages work and does not, as do some other methods of compensating people for disability, encourage idleness. Moreover, it has had the assent and support of successive Governments ever since the Second World War ended, for all the Governments concerned have raised the basic rate.

Those are very powerful reasons why the Government should consider that particular proposal, and I hope they will. I would point out that in the last Parliament a rise of 22s. 6d. in the basic rate was made, and if this Parliament were to do the same the figure of 90s. which the British Legion has long asked for would be attained.

Also at the conference a plea was made that the special allowances should be increased. Unemployability allowance, the comforts allowance and the constant attendance allowance are very important additions to war pensions for a limited number of severely disabled men. The conference would like to see them improved to a considerable extent.

I now add an individual plea of my own, that men suffering from two or three disabilities—of whom there are very few, perhaps only a hundred or so in the country—should be specially cared for. There are known to me some men who have lost both their eyes and both their hands and others who have suffered similarly severe disabilities. They may be said to be 200 per cent. or 300 per cent. disabled and the system does not allow them to be properly compensated.

The conference expressed itself in no uncertain terms that the improvement in war pensions generally to which I have referred had been too long delayed. One of its resolutions urged the council of the British Legion to "redouble its efforts" to persuade the Government to do what was thought right. Another used the words that the National Council of the British Legion should "intensify "the pressure." "Pressure" of course means the pressure of persuasion, because the British Legion is a constitutional body which would not wish to use any other method than that of persuasion on Members of Parliament and other people.

It demanded a free vote on the issue of what the war pension should be. I ventured to point out to the delegates that no Government could grant a free vote on a matter which might cost £10 million or £20 million for any section of the community, however deserving, without the Chancellor being in the peril of seeing his Budget displaced, and that we could not very well allow a free vote for one section and not for another. In spite of my advice, which I think hon. Members in all parts of the House would feel was sensible, the British Legion said, "We want a free vote." I mention that to show how strongly it feels that its case has not been properly listened to or dealt with by any Government since the end of the war. That is not surprising, because war pensioners are in a lower place on what I may call the cost-of-living ladder than they should be. Salaries, wages and incomes generally, including incomes from equity shares and professional fees, have risen by a large amount, but the war pension has not risen by a similar amount, at least for the overwhelming majority of war pensioners.

I turn quickly to another point. Most of the motor cars given to the most severely disabled men are seven years old and are beginning to wear out. It is time the Government announced some policy for their replacement. The allowance given to enable a disabled man to maintain his car and to some extent to pay for its running might have been adequate seven years ago but, despite a small increase to take account of the increased cost of petrol, it is no longer adequate. These cars are wearing out and the Government must make up their mind about replacing them. There are also demands that the one-seater tricycle which is a familiar sight in our streets should be replaced by a tricycle made for two.

Turning swiftly to another point—because I know how limited the time is—the Central Advisory Council which gives advice to the Minister of Pensions, or used to give advice to him, has met only four times in the last three years. I think that more use should be made of it and also that a suggestion which I made in the House at Question Time—that the Ministry of Health should be represented on it—should be considered by the Government. Such matters as these tricycles and hospital matters are now being dealt with by the Ministry of Health and, while I do not think that we want a separate Central Advisory Committee for that, it would be a good thing if representatives of ex-Service men's societies, when they go to the Central Advisory Council, should meet both Ministers or their representatives and talk to them about every aspect of ex-Service men's affairs.

Is the figure of 90s. which is asked for too high? The calculations made by the Government show that a figure of 86s., or a little more, would be strictly justified immediately. The Legion does not accept the Government's calculations; its calculations show that something over 100s. is the right figure. I mention that merely to emphasise that the request for 90s. is not outrageous or unreasonable. It is, moreover, something less than the assessment which is put upon disabilities by courts of law when they are dealing with negligence, and although the circumstances are different, the disabilities are the same. I submit that it cannot be right for Governments to measure disabilities with one figure when independent courts of law measure them with a higher figure.

The reforms which the British Legion would like to see would cost £20–£22 million. The time will come—I hope next year or the year after—when large remissions of Income Tax may fall to be made. Should that be so, it seems to me that comparable amounts will have to be given by way of aid and comfort to those classes who do not pay Income Tax. I do not think the figure of £20–22 million is a large figure when that fact and the total national income are taken into account.

During last year the British Legion has adopted a policy of restraint in its pressure upon hon. Members and upon public opinion, and during the next few months that will perhaps be continued. It is very difficult in a democratic society to speak of restraint or of holding back, but nevertheless many wise men in the British Legion have withheld the pressure which they might otherwise have put upon hon. Members to listen to their plea and upon the Government. They have done so because they have felt that the attempt to stabilise the cost of living by calling for restraint all round was worth while. It was particularly valuable to those who live on small fixed incomes.

The time is coming when patience will be exhausted. We now ask ourselves when we may expect the reforms which we think are due to us. We ask that they be assured to us in this Parliament. I cannot tell, and I do not believe that the Chancellor himself knows, whether the inflation will be checked by 1957 or by 1958, but I think it only right to say to the Government that this period of restraint and self-denial is drawing to an end.

The war pensioners are dying off each year at the rate of something between 16,000 and 20,000, and before they are all gone we want to see the proper recompense which we have measured and calculated given to them. We propose on 4th August—a significant date, though it is a pure accident that it should be so—to consider all the proposals which we unanimously passed at our annual conference and to draw up our British Legion plan. We then propose to call together all the specialist ex-Service societies which deal with special groups such as the limbless and St. Dunstan's and the deafened, and so on, and also of the membership societies in the land in the hope that they will all join with us in a united front.

It is our intention, starting as soon as we may be able, to mobilise our forces and to bring such proper and reasonable powers of persuasion to bear upon Members of Parliament and upon public opinion as will create the proper climate in which this claim will be met, if not in 1957 then at least in 1958. I think it only right that the Government should know this and should bear it in mind and study it. I hope that this plea which I make will be listened to not merely by the Ministers present, but will be studied by the Chancellor and the other leading Ministers so that when this Parliament comes to an end we may be able to say that it did as well as the last.

1.38 a.m.

Mr. Alan McKibbin (Belfast, East)

I was present at the annual conference of the British Legion to which my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has referred as the delegate for Ballymacarret. I wish to support my hon. Friend in his plea that the time has come when something should be done for the war disabled and the war widows. I have always considered, and have said so on many occasions both inside and outside this House, that war pensions should not be classed with other pensions, but should be dealt with separately and have first priority. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions and hon. Members on both sides of the House will take the same view.

1.39 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Richard Wood)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has raised these general questions affecting both the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the Ministry of Health, because it is some time since we last debated them. I have the pleasure of the support of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, and she has entitled me to speak on her behalf on the matters that affect her Department.

The first matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale raised was that of the 90s. basic rate pension. This is a demand with which we at the Ministry of Pensions have rightly been kept familiar. I admit that my hon. Friend has made what I always think is an impressive case for the 90s. rate on the basis of the rise in the cost of living. It has been very fairly put by my hon. Friend, who is always zealous, eloquent and persuasive when he speaks as the champion of ex-Service men and their dependants. But I think that he will agree that the question of what the rate should be at present, in relation to what it has been before, naturally depends to a large extent upon the date which we choose as our starting point.

The year 1938 is generally chosen by the British Legion, and to compare the 40s. basic rate pension eighteen years ago with the 67s. 6d. basic pension now, admittedly, in my hon. Friend's words, suggests something like 90s. today. If, on the other hand, we take different dates—for instance 1919—we should be led to a figure rather nearer to the existing 67s. 6d.

I do not imagine that any hon. Member thinks that the basic rate of pension should be decreased if the cost of living falls, but generally, on all sides of the House we seem to take the view that it should bear some relation to an increase in the cost of living. I do not think, however, that it is particularly profitable to make a statistical comparison between the rate of pension obtaining before the war and the rate obtaining today, because the conditions of employment are fundamentally and radically different. Even more important, supplementary allowances have been vastly improved since the last war ended.

The only one of the allowances which my hon. Friend mentioned that existed before the war was the constant attendance allowance, of which the top rate was then 20s. It is now £3. The un-employability supplement was started in 1943, the allowance for the lower standard of occupation and the clothing allowance were both started in 1946, and the comforts allowance was started in 1951 under the administration of the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs). I honestly believe, therefore, that a comparison between 1938 and 1956 is a comparison of two entirely different schemes.

Whatever claims can be made for the ordinary pensioner who is in employment and earning good wages—and I admit that they may be strong claims—no one can possibly deny that since the last war successive Governments have completely transformed the situation for the most needy of all. And I do not think that we should forget that the increase of 12s. 6d. last year, part of the increase which my hon. Friend mentioned, was the biggest single increase that has been made in the history of war pensions. I feel that no Government can possibly be complacent about what my hon. Friend has said and in face of the British Legion's claim for 90s. That claim deserves and has received and will continue to receive the Government's constant consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McKibbin) raised the question of the war widows. I am very conscious indeed of the difficulties which some widows are experiencing at the present time. The Government recently thought that the greatest need was felt by widows with children to look after, and they were able to give a 5s. increase per child, and a similar increase for war orphans. They were also able to give a higher ceiling in the rent allowance to widows with children. But the claims of widows have not only been expressed tonight; they are being continually and forcefully put by the British Legion and others. We shall continue to try and give help where the need for it is greatest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale raised the question of this matter being put to a free vote. I am sorry the British Legion rejected his advice, because this is really a matter for which the Minister and the Government must take full responsibility. It may be a field where they long to do more, but it is not one where they cannot make their minds up, nor where they have any desire to escape responsibility.

My hon. Friend mentioned supplementary allowances. All I would say is that the man with several disabilities—blind and without a limb or limbs—is already receiving quite a respectable sum of money: a basic rate of £3 7s. 6d., probably unemployability supplement of £2 5s., constant attendance allowance of £3; comforts allowance of 10s. and allowance for wife and children of £2 4s. making a total of over £11—in addition to any family allowances he may be receiving—these payments being free of tax.

Nevertheless, I undertake, and the Minister will undertake, to study very carefully the suggestions he has made, because we are both immensely sympathetic to the possibility of improving still further the position of the most needy pensioners of all.

I now come to the questions which are the responsibility of the Minister of Health. The first question was that of the two-seater motor-propelled tricycle. I cannot add a great deal to what my hon. and gallant Friend already knows. The Minister of Health recently saw representatives of the Invalid Tricycles Association, the R.A.F. Association and the British Legion, and pointed out the difficulties in providing these two-seater tricycles, the increased capital and maintenance costs and the time it would take to develop the two-seater tricycle. But he did, as I understand it, undertake to continue to consider the matter, and has not closed the door to this suggestion.

Last week he answered a Question, I think by my hon. and gallant Friend, about replacing the motor cars provided for severely disabled ex-Service men, and said he was examining this question, but was afraid he could not make a statement before the Summer Recess.

My hon. Friend mentioned the maintenance allowance paid to owners. I think he will agree it was never intended to be more than a reasonable contribution towards their maintenance. It will not have escaped his notice that these machines tend to cost less in their first years than later. The adequacy or otherwise of this allowance depends on a certain amount having been put aside before the biggest bills arrive. It seems to me that they do not cost £57 a year at first, although they may cost a great deal more later on.

He also mentioned the question of the Central Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Pensions, and suggested they should hold more frequent meetings. The Minister of Pensions has expressed himself as anxious to leave the position as flexible as possible, and he does not feel justified in calling the members of the committee together, as they are busy men, merely to have a meeting. However, he said that he would certainly arrange a meeting if he wanted advice on any matter, or, if any member of the committee approached him, he would carefully consider calling the committee together.

The last suggestion was that a representative of the Ministry of Health should be included in the committee. My right hon. Friend has consulted the Minister of Health, and the result is that arrangements will be made on an experimental basis for the attendance of an observer from the Ministry of Health at future meetings of the Central Advisory Committee.

I repeat that I am immensely glad we have had this discussion. I hope sincerely that what I have been able to say, and, far more, the way in which both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance try to administer the duties laid upon us, will leave my hon. Friend in no doubt as to our sympathy and desire to do all we can both for the war pensioners and their dependants.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Two o'clock.