HC Deb 03 June 1960 vol 624 cc1886-900

3.48 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

I am most grateful to have the opportunity of raising this question of payments to holders of the Military Medal, but I am rather sorry that it so happens that this subject comes as the last debate on the very last day before the Whitsun Recess. This is not a prelude to an apology to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for cutting short his Whitsun Recess, because I know that, contrary to the belief of the general public, junior Ministers are the hardest-worked people in the world and do not get a holiday anyway. What I am really sorry about is that many hon. Members who signed a Motion about this question and who were anxious to support me today are not able to do so.

In making my own plea for these old soldiers of the First World War, who earned the Military Medal, I should like to say that as a matter of principle I believe that the grant of any monetary award to people who have won a decoration for gallantry is absolutely wrong.

Nevertheless, it has been started, and as it exists all we can do is to see that such monetary awards are given on a basis of justice. The thin end of the wedge was driven in a long time ago, when an award of £10 a year was given to all holders of the Victoria Cross. Even in those early days there was an anomaly, because the award was given only to people who had won it when serving as private or non-commissioned officers. That did not matter at the time, because a very wide gulf existed, financially, economically and socially, between officers and men, but the anomaly grew as time went on.

First of all, the award of £10 was increased to £19 14s. 3d. by various pensions increase awards. Later on, a special grant of £75 for hardship was given, although a very strict needs or means test had to be satisfied before it was given. Much later—in fact, only in July of last year—all the previous awards were washed out, and, instead, one annual payment of £100 was granted to all holders of the Victoria Cross, irrespective of their ranks, or of when they earned it, or of what their means were. That is the point I emphasise; at least the award was put on a sensible basis, namely, that it must be absolutely equal for everybody. The same thing applies in the case of the Distinguished Conduct Medal. There the award of £20 in cash is given to all holders, irrespective of their means, or of when they earned it.

But in the case of the Military Medal the basis is different. I should like to give a brief history of the matter. In 1944, or towards the end of the last war, a general review was undertaken by the Government on the question of the payment of monetary awards to people who had won decorations, and it was decided for the first time that there should be this cash payment of £20 to all people who had won the Military Medal, except that those who had won it when serving a long-service engagement, or had been discharged with a disability pension—in other words, those entitled to a permanent pension—would get 6d, a day extra on their pension instead of the £20 cash award.

The Government, in their very great unwisdom, decided that this award was to be limited to those people who had won the Military Medal after 2nd September, 1939. This debate is on an entirely non-political basis, but I hope that the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton)—whom I am very glad to see has come here this afternoon to support me—will not mind if I say that I consider that the decision of the Government then was even more foolish and more unjust than the decision of the Labour Government in 1951 to raise the retirement pension for some but not all retirement pensioners.

When the Labour Government did that they did at least discriminate in favour of those people most in need. The increase in pension went to the existing pensioners and was denied to those who came of pensionable age after the regulation came into force. But in the case of the Military Medal the reverse was the practice. The people most in need—the older ones—were denied the money. It was given to the young people.

What was £20 to a young man, aged about 30 and demobilised in 1945 or 1946, who almost certainly fell straight into a good job when he left the Service?

He might have earned that sum in a single week. If he had suffered injury due to the war he would get 6d. a day on his pension, which is 3s. 6d. a week or £9 2s. 6d. a year. That would not be much to him, but it would make a great difference to some of the old people. No holders of the Military Medal won in the First World War can now be under 60, and this sum could mean quite a bit to them. It could mean the difference between their having a holiday or not having one.

What is the reason for this injustice and the Government's refusal to rectify it? In a letter to me dated 18th January and in answer to a Question on 17th February, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said that the reasons were both financial and practical. On the financial side, my hon. Friend pointed out that, whereas in the first World War there were no less than 116,000 winners of the Military Medal, in the Second World War there were only 17,000. He went on to say that if the cash grant were to be extended to those who won it in the First World War the cost would be several million pounds.

I should like to know how my hon. Friend arrived at that figure. The Oxford Dictionary gives this definition of "several": "A few; more than two, but not many". Therefore, the very lowest amount the Parliamentary Secretary could mean by "several" was £3 million. If the amount of the award£20—is multiplied by 116,000—the number of people who won the Military Medal in the First World War—the figure of £2,320,000 is arrived at as an absolute maximum for the cost.

We know that in practice the cost would amount to much less than that, because many holders have died, many' of them have no heirs, or their heirs are untraceable, and a number of holders would also be untraceable. In any case, is £2 million, if it is as much as that, too much for us to give when a question of what I maintain is plain justice is involved?

I should like to quote from a letter I received from an old-age pensioner over 70 who won the Military Medal in the First World War. He said: "Fancy quibbling about this small gratuity when we allow all these people from other countries, from west and from east, to come over here and start drawing the dole straight away". Those were not the actual words. If I were to quote them I should most certainly be out of order as I should be using un-Parliamentary language, but that is what my correspondent meant. It is a very difficult accusation to answer. It is certainly impossible to answer it to the satisfaction of the writer.

Having dealt with the financial objection, I come now to the practical objection. In his letter to me, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said this: Apart from the size of the payment which would amount to several million pounds, the administrative difficulties of making the awards applicable to all holders of the Military Medal would be enormous. Our records of present holders of the medal dating from the First World War are very scanty and we would also have to resolve the general question of paying awards into the estates of those who have died since 1918. I do not feel that I can accept those reasons, or perhaps I should say excuses. Are the administrative difficulties really so enormous? Would our civil servants have to burn all that amount of midnight oil to establish these facts? If by any chance my hon. Friend has the information available now, I should be grateful if he would answer these questions. Are not all these awards noted in the Regimental Records Office? They should be easily obtainable. In any case, why should not the onus of claiming the award be on the claimant? Would it not be possible for us to send postcards round to Post Offices which claimants could be given to send in, just as was done in the case of application for War Service Medals for the Second World War?

I should like now to deal with one other objection which one often hears as having been a possible one which counted with the Government but which, very naturally, my hon. Friend would not like to mention. It is suggested that the Military Medal was more cheaply earned in the First World War than in the Second.

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

The figures are quoted as proof of that, namely, that 116,000 won it in the First World War and only 17,000 in the second. I hope very much that my hon. Friend will say very definitely today that the Government were in no sense influenced by that fact.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I should like to thank my hon. and gallant Friend for giving way, because this is such an important point. The Government had no such consideration whatever, and cast no reflection on those holders of the Military Medal who won it in the First World War.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

I am most grateful for that assurance. Perhaps I could develop that point a little more, because I am quite sure that there are many people—indeed, I know it to be the case from the letters I have received—who have that suspicion in their minds.

Anybody who has been in the Services knows, of course, that decorations are sometimes earned more easily by some people than they are by others. That is inevitable, but although there were so many more Military Medals earned in the First World War than in the second, we have to remember that far more men in the Army were serving in the front line for a much longer period in the first war than in the second. As anybody knows, some Military Medals in the first war were earned much more cheaply than those earned in the second, and vice versa. We cannot generalise on the subject. A lot of people will be extremely glad of the assurance which my hon. Friend has given the House that the Government were in no way influenced by this argument at all.

In that connection, I had a letter not long ago from one of my own constituents—Mr. J. T. Ball, aged 73, of 53, Windermere Road, Nottingham, who wrote: Surely, one won on the Somme or in the three Battles of Ypres or in front of Bourlon Wood compares with one won in the last war? Ye gods, when I think of that mud in the 1914 war— When we compare the winners in the one war with the winners in the other, I should like to remind the House of the case of Mr. Jack Foy, of Glasgow. He won the Military Medal and bar in the First World War, that is to say, he won it twice. He has still got bits of shrapnel in his back and arms from the First World War. He is now getting deaf, his eyes are failing and he is 65 years old. He is a typical example, one of those people who are worse off than those who won their medal in the Second World War.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend not to deny justice and equality to these old soldiers. I ask him to agree that they should be given what I think is their full entitlement; that is to say, complete equality with the winners of the medal in the Second World War. I ask that they should have their pensions increased by 6d. a day—those who are entitled to it; that is to say, those drawing service or disability pensions—and that it should be backdated to the actual time when the pension was awarded. That would involve some £200 or £300 in each case, but there would not be very many of them. They are a very small proportion of the number who have won the Military Medal.

While I admit that I do not really expect that last request to be granted, I do ask very strongly that that £20 gratuity should be given to all and to the dependants of those who have died. If it is finally decided that if we do that the country will go bankrupt, and half the Civil Service and the people in the Army Records Office will die of overwork, then I say, "All right, forget about those old soldiers who won the Military Medal and have since died, and give it to the ones still alive". There will not be so very many of them; they are dying off very fast. I received a letter not long ago from the secretary of the Merseyside branch of the Military Medallists' Association. He gave figures—they can only be estimates—to the effect that about 87,000 of the 116,000 holders were still living and that 29,000 were dead. I cannot think how he could have possibly arrived at that estimate. I should say that there is not a chance that there is anything like that number living.

In proof of that I want to quote the figures relating to the V.C.s' Association. There were 633 V.C.s awarded in the First World War. There are 203 holders still alive. I think that that figure is fairly accurate. Less than one-third of those who won the V.C. in the First World War are alive. They are now dying at the rate of about 14 per annum, and naturally that rate will rise very steeply in the future. If we were to put Military Medallists on the same basis—and I think that that would be a reasonable thing to do—we would find that the number still living of those who won the medal in the First World War would at any rate be well under 40,000 and therefore the maximum payment involved would be about £800,000.

With other hon. Members, I made this plea to my hon. Friend in supplementary questions on 17th February, and asked whether the award could be given if it were restricted to those still alive who had won the medal in the First World War. I asked my hon. Friend whether he did not agree that to do this would mean an enormous reduction in administrative work and in cost My hon. Friend agreed with this, but went on to say: Quite apart from administration, the cost would still be very great. Secondly, payment to the next of kin of those who have died was permitted in the regulations in 1945 and it would not be fair to pay it in some cases and not in others. That was followed by a supplementary question by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King). He said very much the same thing. He asked: While it might not be possible to go the whole length of giving the award to the next of kin and so on, could not the hon. Gentleman perform a simple act of justice if he gave the award to surviving holders? My hon. Friend replied: No, it would not be just, in so far as some next of kin would receive it and some would not".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th February, 1960; Vol. 617, c. 1285.] Surely on reflection my hon. Friend will not persist in this view. He is apparently admitting that justice demands that all the holders of the Military Medal who won it in the First World War should get this gratuity, but because we cannot afford to give justice to everybody then we cannot give it to anybody. Alternatively or in addition, it seems to me that he is suggesting that, because it is too much trouble and the Government Departments concerned just cannot be bothered to trace the holders now dead or to check on their next of kin, he will not give it to the survivors.

It seems to me that that is exactly on a parallel with the man who owes his butcher £25 and when the butcher asks, "What about settling this account", says, "I agree that I owe the money and that it ought to be paid, and I should like to pay you. What is more, I have the money to pay you, but, unfortunately, I owe my greengrocer £25 also and I have not the money to pay both of you. Obviously it would be a most shocking injustice if I were to pay only one of you" I do not think that that idea of justice is tenable.

I am not expecting my hon. Friend to give any definite answer to me today saying that he will do as I have asked, although I would be delighted if he did, but I am going to ask him this in all seriousness: in view of what has been said and what will be said in this debate today, will he look at this matter again and think it over, and then see whether he cannot come back to the House at some later date and give some somewhat more heartening news to these old soldiers to wham we all owe so much?

4.10 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

So far as I have been able to ascertain, no epoch-making pronouncement of Government policy has been made today, but the Under-Secretary of State for War has an opportunity of remedying that omission if he will concede the justice of the case which, if I may say so, has been very well made out by the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux).

The first point upon which we must agree—and this is confirmed by the intervention of the Under-Secretary of State —is that the Military Medal has always been awarded for bravery in the field. That is a consideration that ought to be borne in mind. Without any disrespect to other decorations which are awarded for valuable service, these other decorations are not awarded for bravery in the field.

As to the figures quoted by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I think he is on fairly safe ground. I should imagine that the cost of making a £20 grant to all living holders of the Military Medal gained in the First World War would not be anywhere near £1 million. I do not want to add to the complications of the War Office or to create administrative difficulties. I know that it is a measure of rough justice that only those who survive, and not the next of kin of those who have passed away, would get this £20 if the argument were sustained. I know there might be difficulties in the various record offices to extract from the records details of the holders of the Military Medal.

But let me put it to the Under-Secretary in this way. Let us assume that the Government agree to make this £20 grant. In those circumstances, all those who consider themselves entitled to it will be asked to put in their claims. It has been done in connection with other medals that have been given by the War Office. In that way, apart from verifying that the claim is accurate, no administrative difficulties would arise at all. The Military Medal has the name and details of the holder engraved on the edge, so that a man can either produce the medal itself, or his discharge papers, which would indicate that he was awarded the medal on a certain day. In any event, it would be quite easy to verify the details put forward in connection with any claim.

I am sure it is not reasonable to argue that, because a previous Government came to a certain decision, that decision must remain until it becomes necessary to alter the decision by reason of the fact that all these people for whom we are pleading are dead. They are all either old-age pensioners or getting very near pensionable age. If my suggestion were adopted, administrative difficulties need not arise.

I recall an occasion not long ago when the present Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer and I suggested that something should be done for the holders of the Victoria Cross. I suggested during the Committee stage of the Finance Bill that the holders of the Victoria Cross should be exempt from Income Tax. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer knew that it was not in accordance with precedent, but he made that concession and I do not think that anybody has begrudged it.

I ask the Under-Secretary to deal with this matter in a generous way. A good case has been made out. I know that this is a problem of dwindling significance. The longer we wait, the cheaper it will be to give this measure of justice for which we are pleading, but if the Government do it now this small handful of gallant and aged men will have every reason to be grateful.

4.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I should like to thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) and the hon. and gallant member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) who have put so well and so reasonably the case for the pre—1939 holders of the Military Medal. My hon. and gallant Friend holds one of the most distinguished war records in the House, and probably holds more decorations than any other hon. Member.

I would agree in general with him that no cash valuation can be put on gallantry or on the badge of courage. I admit, looking at the question of pecuniary rewards for gallantry, that the whole matter has this anomaly, but I think that my hon. and gallant Friend was not entirely aware of some of the possible anomalies which he could be creating if his request were granted. He doubtless is fully aware of the text of the decisions in 1945 when a number of military, naval and flying medals were given pecuniary rewards which previously did not exist. The Military Medal was not alone, of course. If my hon. and gallant Friend turns to column 1256 of HANSARD for February 1945, he will find that there are a number of other medals for which precisely the same sort of argument could be put forward.

So complicated are these matters, that in the course of his speech my hon. and gallant Friend at one time seemed to be indicating that there should be better retrospective treatment in the payment of 6d. a day for people taking part in the First World War than those taking part in the Second World War. If he reads the declaration of 1945, he will find that it is only after October, 1944, that these additions of 6d. per day are payable. We are, therefore, discussing a matter of considerable complexity. There are other matters besides finance which affect our giving a financial reward to those who gained the Military Medal before The ground we have covered this afternoon has been well dug over in the last fifteen years. All the arguments ably put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend have been discussed and answered many time before. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have corresponded with me on this question and I think that the position of the War Office should be made clear.

Perhaps I can rehearse something of the history of this award. The Military Medal was introduced in 1916, that is, two years after the commencement of hostilities. I have had the interesting experience of finding the very letter which Lord Kitchener wrote to His Majesty King George V in April, 1916. The Military Medal was to be awarded for individual or associated acts of bravery in the field". Although at that time there were other awards which carried a monetary benefit, none was to be attached to the Military Medal. In the First World War, some 116,000 Military Medals were awarded.

After the 1939–45 war, a number of changes were made to pensions and gratuities connected with decorations earned on or after 3rd September, 1939. One of the changes brought in was to make the Military Medal carry with it the same benefits as accompanied the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which had long carried a gratuity of £20 or an addition to pension of 6d. a day if the holder were granted a pension either for service or disablement arising from his Army Service. These changes were announced in the House by the then Prime Minister in February, 1945. It was then made clear that they applied only to medals won after 3rd September, 1939.

I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT for 27th February, 1945: In respect of all awards for service since 3rd September, 1939, the recipients will, if living, be eligible retrospectively for the new gratuities and will be eligible for the new pensions as from 1st October, 1944"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 1259–60.] The reasons for the decision taken in 1945 to restrict the award of benefits to those who gained their Military Medals after the beginning of the Second World War were financial and practical and they are the reasons which have been defended by Governments of both political complexions since 1945.

As the right hon. Member for Easting (Mr. Shinwell), said when Secretary of State for War in 1949 The Military Medal was given in both wars for individual and associated acts of bravery in the field. Awards for service since 3rd September, 1939, carry financial benefits, but awards for earlier service do not."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st February, 1949; Vol. 460, c. 221.] Exactly the same argument was put forward by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), my predecessor as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for War in 1950, when he said: The various changes in the provisions for the grant of pensions and gratuities to the holders of gallantry decorations and medals which were made in 1945, and which included for the first time provision for pecuniary awards in respect of the Military Medal, were intended for application only in the case of decorations and medals earned since September, 1939. There was no intention of giving retrospective effect to the provision. Apart from other considerations, the cost of doing so would have been prohibitive."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 175.] As my hon. and gallant Friend pointed out, the difference between the numbers is very great. About 116,000 Military Medals were awarded in the First World War and a mere 17,000 in the Second. I reiterate what I said a few minutes ago when I interrupted my hon. and gallant Friend. It is not a question of distinguishing between the gallantry or courage of those who served in the First and those who served in the Second World War. Indeed, as one who fought in the Second World War and who has read about the First World War, I am certain that the conditions under which our soldiers had to fight in 1914–18 must have been considerably more fearful than anything we had to experience in the last war. This is a question of the financial and administrative ability of the Government and their inability to take a retrospective step.

Before coming to the actual sums of money involved, I might even go so far as to say that it is not unlikely that, when the question of financial reward for Military Medal holders was considered at the end of the Second World War, if it had been thought that no difference could be drawn between the medallists of one war and those of an earlier war, there might well have been no financial reward at all.

I think that hon. Members will agree that there is, too, a world of difference between making an award retrospective to the beginning of a war just finishing and extending such restrospection to a previous war which had finished some twenty-seven years earlier or, as it would be today, to a war which finished forty-two years ago.

It is, of course, not possible to estimate exactly what would be the cost of making the Military Medal holders of the First World War eligible for the financial reward. The term I used was "several million pounds", and my hon. and gallant Friend said that "several" is any figure over two. I will not go into semantics with him—

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

I said, "A figure not less than three".

Mr. Fraser

The figure put forward by the right hon. Member for Easington, when Minister of War, was about £2¼ million for the £20 bonus. In addition, of course, there is the very large capitalisation of the 6d. a day pension, which could run into a very large sum of money. It would certainly be some millions of pounds, for besides making payment to surviving First World War medallists, it would in all equity obviously be necessary to make payment to the estates of those who have since died. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend would not suggest discrimination between those living and those who have died.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

I was suggesting justice for some if it could not be for all.

Mr. Fraser

Quite apart from the financial objections, the administrative difficulties involved in making these payments further retrospective are much larger than my hon. and gallant Friend suggests. The War Office certainly could not handle the work involved with its present organisation. There is no doubt that we should need a considerable extra body of staff to undertake the researches and checks involved. Perhaps I may point to a few of the difficulties.

In the first place, we no longer know the addresses of those who survived or of the next-of-kin in respect of those who have died. Except in the case of those who are drawing pensions, we should have to depend on applications. Even for the pensioners there is no short cut, and it would require checking through the whole list of medallists and examining whether each is or is not drawing a pension. Such an operation would involve not only the Army Pensions Office and the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance but also various member countries of the Commonwealth. In the case of those who had died there would be special difficulties, especially after the lapse in many cases of a considerable period of time.

These are considerable difficulties, apart from the general principle, which I must resist, of returning to the idea of a retrospective act. I have drawn attention, and do so yet again, to what has been said before in the House and to what has been written in many letters to hon. Members on both sides of the House. When the Prime Minister made his announcement in 1945 there was never any intention that these payments should go further back than 3rd September, 1939.

The financial and practical reasons which prompted that decision have been Aired and reiterated on numerous occasions and defended by Governments of both major political parties. Those reasons, I believe, are as valid today as they were fifteen years ago and, while in no way belittling the bravery of those who earned this medal in the First World War—and I am happy to have had the opportunity afforded to me by my hon. and gallant Friend to correct any false impression on this point—I cannot agree that it would be wise and proper to make any change in the conditions of this award.

Mr. Lipton

Does not the hon. Member agree that many of the difficulties to which he referred would disappear if he limited the concession to making a £20 grant to all those surviving holders of the Military Medal who put in a claim for it?

Mr. Fraser

I have dealt with that point already.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock, till Monday, 20th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 31st May