HC Deb 28 March 1957 vol 567 cc1481-90

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

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Henderson (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to the plight of a number of disabled persons whom I can only describe as the forgotten victims of the First World War. As the House will know, during 1916 and 1917 several hundreds of civilians were seriously injured during air raids at that time largely by bombing from airships known as Zeppelins.

In 1917, the Government of the day accepted responsibility for making exgratia awards from public funds to all persons injured as a result of air raids where such injuries resulted in permanent disablement and where the disabled person was otherwise not provided for. The awards were based on the then current rates of workmen's compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Acts and were subject to a means test. No payments were made in respect of any application received after December, 1922. As the Minister said the other day, exgratia awards were made to 221 persons, of whom, we are told, only 19 are in receipt of payments.

The highest weekly rate payable to 100 per cent, disabled civilians injured in the First World War under this scheme is only £ 2 a week, and no special allowances are included. Let us contrast that with the weekly payments made to those civilians who were 100 per cent, injured during the Second World War. They are entitled to receive £ 3 7s. 6d. per week as a basic pension, plus allowances.

I am asking the Minister, even at this late stage, to put the civilians injured in the First World War on the same basis as those injured in the Second World War; that these ex gratia awards be put on the same level as the pensions paid today. I should have thought that there would be general agreement that that was the only just and equitable thing to be done.

I would also draw the attention of the Minister to the case of one of my constituents, a Mr. Jones, and I invite the Minister to review this case in the light of what I have said. My constituent, Mr. Jones, resides, and resided in 1916, in the Borough of Tipton. He was injured during an air-raid in 1916 when he was 13 years of age. He lost his right leg; his left leg was badly wounded; and the fingers of his right hand were rendered useless. He received, after some representation in 1923, the "magnificent" sum of £ 129. Since then he has earned an average of £ 2 to £ 3 per week at boot-mending at home and he largely depends upon an unmarried son for support. I understand that he has not been able to receive training, as would have been the case if he had been in one of the Services. Government schemes of those days did not apply to disabled people who had not served in the Forces.

I am, therefore, asking the Government to accept responsibility for making an award to Mr. Jones as from the date upon which he first made his application for an award. It will not require legisla- tion, as the Government have power to make ex gratia awards. It would be just and equitable if he were given an award, even at this late stage.

The total sum involved in increasing the weekly payments to the 19 survivors of the 221 originally awarded— if we include Mr. Jones the number will be 20— and putting them on the same basis as those who were seriously injured and disabled in the second World War, would be no more than £ 5,000 a year. As some of them are coming toward the end of their lives the sum would be a diminishing commitment on the Treasury year by year.

I am not raising this as a party issue. All Governments, from 1917, are involved. I raise it as a human problem— and I believe that the House will be with me— which the present Ministers have inherited. If the Minister is generous in dealing with these pitiful cases he will receive full support from this side of the House.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. James Simmons (Brierley Hill)

The more I examine the case for some adjustment of these awards the less surprised I am at the reluctance of the Minister, in the course of three Questions in which I asked him for information, to tell me what these people really were getting. At last we abstracted the information; a miserable £ 2 per week maximum for the 100 per cent, disabled. No wonder the Minister wanted to keep it dark.

However, it is now established that the 100 per cent, disabled in the First World War, in the category of civilians who were injured, get an ex gratia award of £ 2 a week, with no allowance for wife or widow and no supplementary allowances. To appreciate the niggardly nature of this provision, one has only to look at the contrast of the provision made to civilians disabled by enemy action in the Second World War.

Those are covered by the Royal Warrant and the awards are administered by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I am using them only as a comparison in this case. The 100 per cent, disabled get a basic pension of £ 3 7s. 6d. a week, plus 10s. for a wife and 7s. 6d. for each child, payable in addition to family allowances. They are also entitled to supplementary allowances in the same way as the 100 per cent, disabled ex-Service man.

Details of these allowances are to be found in that excellent leaflet, M.P.L.50, issued this month by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I commend a study of that leaflet to the other Department. In reply to a Question by me on 25th March, the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance said that the ageing allowance applied to the civilian war injured as well as disabled ex-Service men. The most important factor is that their widows qualify for a pension of £ 2 12s. 6d. a week and other allowances, which are set out in another leaflet in the same series issued by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.

The First World War disabled are thus denied benefits which are specially applicable to their condition, for example, the age allowance. All these men are about 65 years of age. I anticipate that the Minister will say that the passage of time since the end of the First World War makes it impossible to assess disability in relation to a war injury received so long ago. I am sure that he has advisers who are as good as those who advise the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and who would not find it impossible to go back over the years in the interests of humanity and justice. With due modesty, I would remind the House that I had a little experience at the Ministry, as Parliamentary Secretary. I recall that in that period we made first awards of disability pension to South African War disabled. That was going back a bit. but there was no bar there.

A perusal of the Annual Reports of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance should put the Ministry of Health on its mettle. The Reports for 1948–49 and 1949–50 show that we were able to make 159 and 170 first awards for war disability pensions to 1914–18 men and that in many cases supplementary allowances were also granted. Under the present Government, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance has continued the good work, as its Reports for the years 1954 and 1955— the latest to be published— show. It is there established that thirty-six years after the end of the First World War first awards of pensions were made to 120 civilian disabled in the 1914–18 war and the following year the number was 95.

I think I have proved by the factual evidence available to all who care to look up these Reports that the argument about the lapse of lime is not valid. There are only 19 of these civilian war victims left. In my opinion, that strengthens the case for a revision of their awards. On the material side, the cost would be negligible and, on the ethical side, we cannot afford to have forgotten men in this country if we are to have a clear conscience. We in this House are jealous of the rights of minorities and tonight my right hon. and learned Friend and I are representing a minority of 19.

I know that matters involving legislation are entirely out of order on the Adjournment, but I do not think further legislation would be needed to bring these fellow citizens within the orbit of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. If that could be effected the problem would be solved, for they would then qualify for the same benefits as those injured in the Second World War. I think that this could be done by Royal Warrant and I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of that course being taken.

10.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) for giving me more than adequate notice of the points that he intended to raise, which has enabled me to acquaint myself with this very complex and difficult administrative matter.

I was delighted when the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that we were all in this together, because two former Ministers on the benches opposite have already spoken and, when the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) spoke, I could not help wishing that he had done a little tidying up when in office, because it would have made my task easier. He will appreciate, of course, that I am not saying that in any malevolent spirit, for, as he knows, the distribution of functions is not a matter for me.

It is rather a curious and anomalous position that I should be replying on this subject, and I hope that the House will bear with me if I go into some details of the past to explain how the situation has arisen.

First, up to June, 1917, temporary assistance through voluntary sources was given to civilians and their dependants disabled in air raids. There were certain funds, such as the Mansion House Fund and the National Relief Fund, which were used for this purpose. The assistance covered allowances for replacement of essential furniture and other necessary expenses, including the cost of medical or surgical treatment or appliances.

The then Prime Minister announced in June, 1917, that the Government had decided to make ex gratia awards of a more permanent nature where personal injury had resulted in death or permanent disablement and where the disabled person or his dependants were otherwise unprovided for. Claims for assistance were investigated by local representative committees under a Government Committee, and the awards were made— this is the important part— on the general principles of the Workmen's Compensation Acts. Those awards were made by the Treasury and administered through the Local Government Board which, as hon. Members will know, subsequently became the Ministry of Health, which is why I come to be here tonight.

In 1919 when the local representative committees were wound up, the Charity Organisation, which is now the Family Welfare Association, took over the investigation and the revision of the claims and the distribution of the awards on behalf of the Government. The Association has carried on that work up till now and, indeed, is still doing so; and I think that this would be a very suitable opportunity for me to express our appreciation of the valuable work that it has done over a not inconsiderable length of time.

Between 1917 and 1922, there were 333 applications for awards received in respect of deaths, and 228 of them were accepted. For injuries there were 422 applications made and 221 awards. Most of those awards were paid off in lump sums, and, by and large, the weekly payments were made only to such beneficiaries as were minors or were not other- wise considered capable of being trusted with the expenditure of capital sums.

It was in March, 1922, that an announcement was made that any new claims or additional claims for compensation for damage or injury sustained through enemy action during the war should be made to the Reparation Claims Department, and we have no information on the extent or nature of claims which were made then to the Board of Trade. They, in turn, were guided by the recommendations made by the Sumner Commission, which was the Royal Commission on Compensation for Suffering and Damage by Enemy Action.

No ex gratia awards on the lines described have been entertained at all since 31st March, 1922. No funds are available specifically for new cases, nor have we the powers to entertain fresh claims. I am advised that the possibility of reopening the scheme was considered twice during the lifetime of the Labour Government and exactly the same conclusion was reached. I feel that I must repeat that, in view of the appeal which the right hon. Gentleman made to me.

By 1951, we reached another stage. The number of recipients of the weekly awards had come down to 25. The amount of payment varied up to £ 1 a week. In that year, it was decided to review those existing awards again, in the light of the Workmen's Compensation (Supplementation) Act, 1951, which made special provision for an increase of compensation payments where an accident was suffered or disease contracted before 1st January, 1924.

This was done, in view of the relationship originally established between the amount of the ex gratia awards and those in the Workmen's Compensation Acts. As a result of that review, in which all beneficiaries were asked to give particulars of their circumstances, the amounts were revised, according to the degree of the injury, the effect on earning power, and the need, which was established according to the resources available to the recipient. Today, there are still 19 awards in payment, which range from 7s. 6d. up to the maximum figure of £ 2 a week.

It has been argued tonight, and argued very well, that the arrangements made for civilians disabled in the First World War are unjustifiably out of line with those made for civilians in the last war. But, frankly, I think that we must look at this from another aspect, also. The circumstances of the two wars were really entirely different. The 1914–18 war was a Forces war; there was little risk of death or injury to civilians in Great Britain. These possibilities were very remote.

On the other hand, in the last war, an entirely different situation had arisen: the civilian population was in the front line with the same degree of risk as a soldier, sailor or airman. It was in recognition of this that the scheme for personal injuries to civilians provided for disablement allowances which corresponded broadly with those awarded to members of the Forces and for administration under full statutory powers.

Mr. A. Henderson

Is it not right that we should take into consideration the very great difference in the cost of living and the value of the £ in 1922, for the sake of argument, compared with the level in 1945, 1951 or 1957? Should we not look not so much at the attitude towards the First World War as against the Second World War, but rather at the economic needs of the two citizens, one 100 per cent, injured and disabled in the First War and the other 100 per cent, disabled in the Second War?

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

If I may say so, that is a very able, but rather specious, argument, because what I am trying to explain is how it is linked to the basis of the workmen's compensation schemes. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman would bear with me a little longer, perhaps he will see what I mean.

From the start, the 1914–18 arrangements were linked with the Workmen's Compensation Act. It is really, after all this time, much too late to alter this longstanding basis, which has, in any event, been accepted by all subsequent Governments. It is fair to say that, and it is rather important to make the point, having regard to the appeal which has been made tonight.

A review of the level of the remaining ex gratia awards is an entirely different question. So far as actual hardship in individual cases is concerned, the present range of services available to the disabled is extremely wide, and they are open to all who require them, including the recipients of the ex gratia awards. There are special welfare services for the permanently handicapped, as no one knows better than the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brierley Hill. There are such special welfare services available for those permanently handicapped, such as the blind or crippled. They, like everyone disabled, can obtain all the benefits of these services. I do not think that it can fairly be said that the present rates of ex gratia awards have, in fact, led to hardship.

Nevertheless, this is a complex issue and I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be glad to know that my right hon. Friend is considering whether, in the light of the fact that there has been a further revision of the workmen's compensation payments under the Workmen's Compensation (Supplementation) Act, 1956, the time has not now come for the level of the few remaining awards to be looked at again. In such a review, we shall, of course, avail ourselves as before of the services of the Family Welfare Association. There have been, in fact, one or two minor adjustments, with which I will not now complicate the issue.

I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept my last remarks in the spirit in which they are offered. We have looked with a very open, and, I hope, generous and reasonable mind at this difficult problem, and that is what we propose to do. I regret very much that it is quite impossible for me and for my right hon. Friend, as it was for his predecessors, to reopen individual cases which were closed thirty-five years ago, but I hope that what I have said tonight will give the right hon. and learned Gentleman the feeling that this matter is being looked at in a right and generous spirit and that I have tried to match the spirit in which he looked at the question tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.