HC Deb 19 May 1958 vol 588 cc1063-70

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

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I am grateful for this opportunity to take up with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance the case of Mr. F. W. Hunter. I hope not to keep the House long, particularly at this late hour. On the other hand, I am quite used to speaking at a late hour of the night or an early hour of the morning; and on this occasion I feel so strongly and I think that my constituent, Mr. Hunter, has so strong a case that I do not at all mind having to wait until this hour to talk about it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that in asking for this Adjournment debate I did not do so merely to talk about the case of Mr. Hunter, but in the hope, and, indeed, because of the history of the Ministry of Pensions, in the belief, and almost in the conviction, that my right hon. Friend the Minister would do something about it when I raised the case with him again. I am even hoping that, without having informed me of the fact, my right hon. Friend has reconsidered the case and will do something further about it.

I am in some difficulty because there was an Adjournment debate some time ago on the general question of disseminated sclerosis and there was a bit of difficulty over what was and what was not in order on that occasion. I shall certainly not say anything about the independent Pensions Appeal Tribunal, but I think I must be allowed to mention the history of this case very briefly, as indeed it has been mentioned by the Minister to me in correspondence. Mr. Hunter served in the Forces for about twelve years in all, with a break at one stage, and at the end of that time he was discharged suffering from psycho neurosis. This was later considered and he made a claim on 5th January, 1948, for disseminated sclerosis.

As was reported in HANSARD, Mr. Hunter's claim was accepted by one panel of the Ministry and, years later, in 1953, the case came up again and another panel of doctors turned it down. Later it was referred to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, which upheld the action of the second lot of the Ministry doctors. Therefore, when a final decision was made, Mr. Hunter was put in a different position from that which he had thought himself to be in from 1948 to 1955. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions, on 31st March at Question time, said: As I told the hon. Member in my letter of the 19th March, the decision of 1948 was wrong."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March, 1958; Vol. 585, col. 840.] That raises a very big question. When does the Ministry take responsibility for a wrong decision and when does it not? I should have thought that the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance had always had the reputation, as I said that day, of giving the benefit of the doubt to the claimant whenever possible. Indeed, the former Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Sir J. Smyth) said on 26th April, 1955: There has been a series of very important judgments by the Court of Session and the High Court in recent years on this disease. I would assure the hon. Gentleman that the whole outlook of my Ministry on these matters is, 'Can we give the man a pension for this?'"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th April, 1955; Vol. 540, c. 902.] Mr. Hunter is receiving a pension, but the difference in his pension as a result of the ruling of the tribunal is £4 7s. 6d. per week. At present he gets a 50 per cent. pension of £2 2s. 6d., plus unemployability supplement of £2 15s. and comforts allowance of 10s., a total of £5 7s. 6d. If he were getting a 100 per cent. pension he would get £4 5s., as he is completely and utterly incapacitated as agreed by the Ministry, he would have unemployability supplement of £2 15s. and constant attendance allowance of £1 15s., plus comforts allowance of £1—a total of £9 15s.

I think it is hard that this man should lose that amount of money because of a mistake at the Ministry. It may be said that but for that mistake at the Ministry he would have received less over these years and that this is favourable treatment, but I do not regard that as a very good argument. The fact is that the Ministry told the pensioner one thing and made a decision and then, several years later, said, "We were wrong. We made a mistake".

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has a brief, because it is difficult to talk about such matters without a brief, but I do not in the least want to hear him read a brief, unless he can tell me that very favourable consideration will be given to this case and that he will try to help Mr. Hunter.

May I make a suggestion as to how he might do this? I understand that this sort of case is reviewed every two years. Although it is impossible to change the ruling of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, it seems to me that it is not impossible for the Minister to help my constituent. I understand that he can make a larger award—possibly 60, 70, 80 or 90 per cent. I suggest that he should make it 99 per cent., or, if he cannot do that, at any rate that he should make it much larger than it is now. He should at least cut down the very considerable difference between the £5 7s. 6d. which my constituent now gets for complete disablement and the £9 15s. he would be getting by the original decision of the Ministry's own doctor had that been correct.

12.33 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

When I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) ask his Parliamentary Question a short time ago, the last thought in my mind was that I should be called upon to answer the Adjournment debate if he pursued the course which he then said was in his mind. As it turned out, it was one of the first problems which I was given to consider, because the original date on which the Adjournment was likely to take place was only a few days after I took up this appointment.

I can therefore assure my hon. Friend that I have thought a great deal about it and gone into it as fully as I can. I do not intend to repeat a brief. All the same, certain harsh things were said, although they were not charges, against my right hon. Friend, and I think my hon. Friend will consider it just that I should reply. I was glad to hear what he said about the Ministry's reputation. I do not for a moment want to avoid proper responsibility, but we must distinguish between the responsibility of the independent Pensions Appeal Tribunal set up by the Lord Chancellor and that of my right hon. Friend. In order to make the position clear, I must first speak about this disease of the central nervous system, but I shall speak briefly and I do not intend to go over what has been said about it on previous occasions. Then I shall say something about this individual case.

Every case of disseminated sclerosis has its tragic features and I will in no way attempt to belittle that. One of the tragedies of this age is that this disease has to be counted among those which smite apparently healthy men without warning, by and large resist treatment and still have to be ranked among those diseases of unknown origin—unknown, but yet not shown by statistics to claim any majority of its victims from those who suffer from either war wounds or civil injury.

We do not, perhaps, know a great deal about its origin, but the consensus of medical opinion is that certain things cannot be regarded as giving rise to it. The modern view is to accept the disease as having basically a constitutional origin. Medical opinion says that, where a man develops disseminated sclerosis, it is not likely to be caused by the rigours of Service life. However, since it is the policy of the Ministry to treat the rules as being there if not to be broken at least to be stretched, if they can be, in the interests of the claimant, aggravation has been accepted where it is thought that military service could be connected with the progress of the disease, even if only very remotely. Mr. Hunter's case is one of those which has been so treated.

The burden of my hon. Friend's case is that the Minister's action in changing this entitlement from attributable to war service to aggravated by war service ought to be called in question. My predecessor, in answering the Parliamentary Question to which reference has been made, said, on 31st March, that the original entitlement had been a mistake and one not in accord with accepted medical opinion; it was, indeed, very far from what medical opinion now says. Mistakes are rare, but in a large Ministry like the Ministry of Pensions, with every case being considered as an individual, mistakes do happen occasionally. It is quite impossible that they should not. I hope that my hon. Friend will notice that in this case the mistake was made in favour of the pensioner. It was not a mistake on the other side. It would not be fair to others to leave it undisturbed. I shall not say more than that because my right hon. Friend's action has been confirmed by the independent Pensions Appeal Tribunal.

From this Tribunal, there is an appeal which lies to the High Court on a point of law. My hon. Friend has probably considered this, in consultation with his advisers. Such an appeal would be out of the normal time, but probably not impossible. Mr. Hunter has also made a separate appeal. He appealed against the 50 per cent. assessment, and this, too, was confirmed by a Pensions Appeal Tribunal. This decision was for a definite period, not of indefinite duration, and when it was time to review it, in October, 1957, my right hon. Friend reviewed it at the same rate, 50 per cent., as the Pensions Appeal Tribunal had thought appropriate a short time before.

It would seem that that was the right thing to do, in the absence of medical evidence suggesting any substantially higher assessment. This again, I understand, could be subject to an appeal, although I believe that it is now out of time. I think I cannot add usefully to that at this moment. Of course, my hon. Friend must remember that this review is only of two years' duration, and it will come up again in course of time for further review.

The Ministry is not heartless in these cases. The Royal Warrant provides various allowances as well as basic pension. These allowances are designed to meet the special needs of the very badly disabled. Again, they are elastic and can sometimes be stretched. This case is an example. The unemployability supplement, which is generally awarded only to men whose accepted pensionable disability is the main cause of their inability to work, has been awarded to Mr. Hunter, who is on a 50 per cent. rate, which is lower than average.

The figures my hon. Friend mentioned for Mr. Hunter's pension are correct. I do not know that I can add very much more on this occasion. I have explained how my right hon. Friend is bound by the decisions of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. I have tried to indicate to him courses it is worth his considering with a view to a review of those decisions. I have told him that the period of the present assessment is one of only two years and will again come up for review in the not too far distant future. I hope he will agree, and that all hon. Gentlemen will agree, that sad though this case is, sad though this disease is, whether it strikes a man who has served in war or not, my right hon. Friend in cases such as this wants to be nothing less than just and fair and as generous as the Royal Warrant allows.

Mr. Fell

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for the remarks he has made and for attempting to be as helpful as he can. I wonder if he can tell me whether or not it would be possible for his Ministry, as it has such good will towards all pensioners, itself to reconsider the matter of the 50 per cent., which was arranged after the last review last December, and which has not yet gone to an appeal tribunal. Would not my hon. Friend agree that there is really a case for asking who is to pay when the Ministry makes a mistake? My hon. Friend has been frank in admitting that the Ministry made a mistake. Who is to pay? Will it be the person about whom the mistake has been made, or the Ministry?

Mr. Vane

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said about my reply. It is not just this case, and it is not as simple as he suggests. All the evidence is considered very fully and sympathetically, and he must realise that by the Royal Warrant pensions are payable for disabilities which have causal connection with military service. It cannot be otherwise. Medical opinion is definite about this disease. I have admitted, and my predecessor admitted, that there was a mistake made in this case. These assessments of 50 per cent. come up periodically for revision. Naturally, the figure which is now current would not have been arrived at without the most careful consideration in the light of all the circumstances. As my hon. Friend knows, the pensioner is in a position to appeal against all these decisions to an independent tribunal whose findings are just as binding on the Minister as they are on the appellant, and from the findings of this tribunal there is also an appeal on a point of law, with leave, to the High Court. I referred to that, and suggested it might be worth his while to go into any opportunities which might arise therefrom. I do not think I can add anything more tonight, much as I regret that I cannot go all the way to meet my hon. Friend on the lines suggested.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to One o'clock.