HC Deb 04 December 1962 vol 668 cc1144-8

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision for rehearing of applications for Service disability pensions, for amending the law in connection with onus of proof and limitation of time in relation to Service disability pensions, and for matters in connection therewith. During the years when there was a Labour Government we had a great many discussions on what was generally called the "Fit for service, fit for pension" rule. A good many undertakings were given, and we had at that time a surprising amount of support from hon. Members of what was then the Tory Opposition. However, the Royal Wax-rant has for a considerable time contained in two complicated Articles a provision which has been variously interpreted and which has undoubtedly introduced very real hardship.

By Article 4, the Royal Warrant provides that an applicant for a disability pension shall not have the burden of onus of proof so long as the application is made within seven years of termination of the relevant period of service. Article 5, in dealing with claims made after seven years, provides for no such limitation.

The result has been that, where an applicant has delayed making application, often for most honourable reasons—often because he is still able to continue employment and does not want to apply while he is able to continue—it is said, in regard to a whole range of diseases of unknown origin, that he must fail to establish his claim. If, for instance, he is suffering from Parkinson's disease, from disseminated sclerosis, from multiple sclerosis, from muscular dystrophy, from schizophrenia, and so forth, it is said that, because medical science has yet failed to establish the cause of those diseases, the applicant cannot discharge the onus of proof and show conclusively that the cause of the disease was the relevant period of service.

On 14th November last, I raised on the Adjournment the case of Joseph Blakeman, who suffers from schizophrenia. I do not wish to recapitulate what I then said, but it seems to me that this case is a classic example, for very many reasons. Appropriately enough, the Guardian to-day has an extremely interesting, informative and fascinating article about some aspects of schizophrenia.

I put the case of Blakeman, quite shortly, as an example which strongly supports my argument. Blakeman is a man of complete honour and integrity. As a young man, he sought to train himself for clerical work. He took a secretarial certificate and had established his position as a chartered secretary, subject to one failure in economics, which he hoped to put right. The war came, and he saw service. His was not dishonourable service. He was with the Eighth Army, in one of the two brigades which Field Marshal Montgomery asked to be sent out to reinforce his troops at E1 Alamein. He was with the Eighth Army right through from E1 Alamein to the Italian campaign and the termination of his service came at Padua only after a period which he spent in hospital.

It is true to say that few medical experts would hazard a precise guess as to the absolute predisposing causa sine qua non of schizophrenia. Nobody knows. I made some observations the other day about the worry, misery, fears and apprehensions introduced into Blakeman's family when they were told that the Ministry was pleading that this was a hereditary disorder. Of course, the word "hereditary" has very little significance nowadays. Now that we have the really modern science of genetics, we know that disorders due to genetic causes have little relation necessarily to the health of the parents at all. They may be due to spontaneous seminal mutation or to a failure of mathematical regularity in seminal union. They may not be related to any condition in the parents at all, but may be caused by a curious spontaneous unforeseen reaction at about the time of the conception of the child.

The article in the Guardian deals principally with the subject of psychotomimetics and the effect of some synthetic chemicals upon amino acids and the metabolism of the patient. There is the astonishing statement that I millionth of a gram of a recently produced synthetic chemical can produce psychotomimetic symptoms of mental disorder. In this state of uncertainty, it is monstrous to try to put the onus of proof of the origin of a disease upon the applicant for a disability pension.

The facts about Blakeman are that in 1943 he went into hospital in Palestine, with meningitis. After being there for some time, he was released, but he went back again with meningitis. Every medical man whom I have consulted about this case says the same. I have talked it over with many. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) is in his place, and I know that this is his view. Every medical man, on hearing the facts of this case, says "Oh, yes. This is a classic chain of causation. If a person has encephalitis following meningitis, the usual course is meningitis, encephalitis, schizophrenia."

Blakeman was deprived of his pension by a particularly brutal application of the rule. An effort is now being made to deprive him of his unemployment benefit and of his National Health Insurance benefit also, but, as one aspect of that matter is still technically sub judice, I shall have to refer to the matter again when a judgment is given, the terms of which are, I think, inevitable.

Today, I do not wish to be controversial. I raised the question with the previous Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. I mentioned the serious matter of a whole range of diseases being covered by the rule. I was asked to attend for an interview, and I was told there that a further medical report on Blakeman would produce results. I have a medical report, but I have been told by the new Minister that I misunderstood the whole thing, that no one said that at all, but that I had been sent for in order to discuss the matter and all that was said at the actual interview was that, if I got some more information about the hospital in Palestine—which has ceased to exist—I might be able to put the claim again.

I do not blame the Parliamentary Secretary. He comes with a brief, but, on the occasion of my Adjournment debate, with a gallantry which was not unsuspected but with a lack of discretion which was rather surprising, the hon. and gallant Gentleman battened down the hatches, clapped on all sail and navigated astern—it is possible to sail astern in those circumstances—into waters in which angels usually fear to swim [Laughter.] This is not a case for humour, for laughter; it is a tragic case.

I shall not go on to particularise what may well follow, because I have some concern for the feelings of the men to whom I am relating my case. My proposed Bill is quite simple. I do not believe that, with the Whips off and with a free vote, any hon. Member would disagree with its two quite simple proposals. The first is that the limitation on pensions as it is operated under Articles 4 and 5 of the Royal Warrant shall be applied only if the tribunal believes that justice must be served by applying it, or if it feels that there are reasons in the delay which are to the discredit of the applicant or prevent the Minister from answering. No one has suggested that there is anything wrong or improper in that.

My second proposal is purely declaratory. It is that, in cases of that kind or in any disablement case, the applicant shall have the right to have his case reheard on new or more recent evidence. That is all. I believe that to be the state of the law today. But, of course, unless the House declares that to be the situation, tribunals will continue to feel themselves bound by the decision of the previous tribunal except in exceptional circumstances.

I ask for a declaratory statement of the law to make the matter clear. I ask for a provision which, in equity, has always applied to all pleas of the Statute of Limitations, but which, in equity, no gentleman ever puts forward unless he can support it by reasons to the effect that the limitation was applied for special circumstances and that those circumstances really existed.

That is the application that I humbly submit to the House. I hope that hon. Members will give me leave to present my Bill in order to do justice to some of those who survived the war but did so in circumstances of very real and exacting hardship.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr Leslie Hale, Mr. Fenner Brockway, Mr. Fernyhough, Mr. Dingle Foot, Mr. Michael Foot, Mr. Charles Loughlin, Mr. Charles Mapp, and Mr. Walter Monslow.