HC Deb 23 April 1964 vol 693 cc1681-92

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

12.10 a.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

At this late hour I have the honour and opportunity to introduce a short debate concerning the claims of Regular officers of the Polish Armed Forces who served under British command during the last war.

This debate will be listened to and read with keen interest by many of the men concerned, and none more so than by a constituent of mine who was one of these officers, Major Frankowski. Though now he is 67 and is getting on in years, he is still young and tough in spirit, and he can look back with justifiable pride on a most distinguished record of military service spanning two wars and 34 years, eight of which were spent under British command in the last war. He has been decorated by many countries other than Poland, but I imagine that the Polish decorations must be among the proudest that he carries, for they include the Independence Cross, the Cross for Valour with three bars, the Silver Cross for Merit and others.

Since the end of the war, like others, he has been fighting a different kind of battle. He has been fighting for what he regards as his rights. He has been fighting for nothing less than the dignity of a pension. It is hard to find the exact numbers of his colleagues who are still alive today in this country. I have been given a whole range of figures, but it may well be about 140,000, or it may be very much less. But whatever the exact number of ex-Regulars concerned in this debate, they will all be over the age of 50 and many of them will be over the age of 60. These were men in the Polish Brigade and the Polish Armoured Division—men who took part in the Battle of Britain, who fought with our soldiers in Tobruk and Monte Cassino and Anthem. These were the moments they shared with us, and their colleagues died with our own troops. Many of these men are now in extremely straitened circumstances. These circumstances have been referred to in previous debates. I have particularly in mind a debate which took place in another place on 11th July, 1962.

These men have had to find such jobs as they could. A few of them have managed to maintain their sense of humour anc some of them are members of what they now call "The Silver Brigade". I will not labour this point because is it well known to hon. Members who have studied this subject.

The point I do wish to labour, however, is the fact that these men have had and still have one thing in common. They were Regular soldiers of an army—admittedly an army of a country other than our own—and, as Regular soldiers, they were members of a very great profession. Not only were they members of an honourable profession, but their terms of service with the Polish Army, as with the terms of service with the British Army, assumed that at the end of active employment a pension would have been earned and chat one would be paid.

The history of the creation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, its subsequent developments and the many provisions which have been made by Her Majesty's Government to assist the members of that Corps are well known to hon. Members and I will not at this stage recount them. I want to concentrate solely on the question of the provision of a pension. appreciate that pensions as such were not mentioned in the Anglo-Polish Agreement of 1940, but at that time, as was made clear by Lord Windlesham in 1962 when he raised this matter in another place, the assumption was that these soldiers would be able to return to their own country and hat their own country would then have been in a position to honour the obligations of service.

Then came Yalta. The Yalta Agreement resulted in many of them, including my constituent, being deprived of their nationality. For my constituent it has meant that he has never been able to return to hit country, he has been cut off from his family, his first wife died from cancer without his being able to go back there, he has never seen, apart from years ago, his own son or laid eyes on his grandchildren. My constituent has no country other than Britain to which to turn and we have recognised this through the various schemes of assistance which we have provided, although we have never gone so far as to recognise that a greater obligation rests on us—because we were parties to the Yalta Agreement—to provide these ex-Regular soldiers with a form of pension which they might have got had they been able to return to Poland.

I have the outline of a scheme for the payment of pensions. The pension should not be paid on account of length of service but rather the qualification for receipt of a pension should be the age of the ex-Regular soldier. If the benefits were graded according to rank within the range of from £450 to £650 a year and they were payable to each former Regular on reaching the age of 60, I am informed that the total number of beneficiaries might be about 1,300 and that the total cost would be about £700,000.

If we deduct the savings that would accrue in regard to payments of National Assistance and other forms of benefit that are already available through the existence of the Special Fund, this sum might be reduced to about £350,000. That £350,000 could be further reduced if the category of the beneficiaries were changed—if, for example, the age of receipt of pension were made 65 instead of 60. If that were done, some alternative provision could also be made.

It has been suggested to me that the pension should be paid to those men at age 60 or 65 whose incomes are at a level which would make them eligible now for National Assistance. I am prepared at once to recognise that this is giving a pension label to National Assistance, and those of us who have taken part in the debates on the social services know only too well the difficulty many people find in accepting National Assistance.

Naturally, I have tried to explain to these people that money raised out of taxation and paid to a beneficiary still comes from the same source, no matter what label may be attached to it. But that is not enough to satisfy men in this position. They have pride—a natural and understandable pride—and many of them, greatly distinguished in war, fine serving soldiers, would never turn to National Assistance for succour, no matter how great their need. They want to feel that they are honourably in receipt of a pension, and it is only a pension that is really commensurate with the dignity of their position as serving soldiers of Poland.

There is, at the moment, this fund. There are also other institutions of Poland kept alive in this country and supported by funds which could, and should, be increased, so that these people may continue to preserve their customs and traditions. But what I am most anxious to do—it is the whole point of my speech—is to try to help these men to maintain and retain their hold on something that is much more difficult to provide—their self-respect. I know that my hon. Friend will understand this.

My constituent has a family motto: "Better to die on the feet than to live on the knees." Whatever is done in other countries, whatever have been the difficulties in the past, this is a diminishing band of warriors. The provision of a pension is something we are in honour bound to do, and I strongly urge further consideration of this matter upon my hon. Friend and upon the Government.

12.24 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Kirk)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) has raised a subject that none of us can contemplate without considerable emotion; the immense service rendered by the officers and men of the Polish Army in the last war is something that I hope the people of this country will never forget. As my hon. Friend knows, I was for some time associated in another assembly with the needs of people, not only from Poland but from other countries now behind the Iron Curtain. I got to know very well many of the officers and men from those countries who are now living—and we are very glad to have them in this country. It is an extremely difficult problem, as my hon. Friend recognised in the very moderate speech which he has just made, but it is one to which successive Governments have given very considerable thought.

Perhaps I might illustrate some of the ways in which we have tried to cope with this problem by taking the case which my hon. Friend has raised, that is, the case of his constituent Major Frankowski. We have tried to ensure, leaving aside for the moment the question of the Service pension that any former member of the Polish Armed Forces and, for that matter, any Polish citizen living in this country as a result of the last war, shall be treated in the same way as any British citizen, whether he is a naturalised citizen or not.

Major Frankowski was a Regular in the Polish Forces and served under British command from 27th June, 1940, to 14th November, 1948, the last two years of that period being in the Polish Resettlement Corps to which my hon. Friend has referred. Actually my Ministry has no direct knowledge of him as he made no direct claim for a war pension, and I am very much obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance for the information that I have about the case. I am also much obliged to my hon. and gallant Friend for coming along and giving me his moral support this evening.

The Ministry of Pensions' knowledge of the case was a result of Major Frankowski's evidence to a local appeals tribunal in 1959, to which be was appealing against the disallowance of his claim to sickness benefit. On conclusion of the appeal action, the Ministry called for the relevant Service documents and also obtained a record of his incapacity as shown in National Insurance records since 1948. After considering all the evidence available, it was decided that a claim for a war disability pension was not likely to succeed and that to invite a claim would only raise false hopes. No action was therefore taken.

I should like to stress that it was the Ministry in this case which took the initiative to see if it was possible to find a way to help Major Frankowski with a war disability pension. My hon. and gallant Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary assures me that he would, of course, be prepared to consider now a claim to a war disability pension if Major Frankowski were to make one, but as in 1959 I am advised that he does not think it would have any very great chance of success.

Prior to March, 1959, Major Frankowski had been in receipt of National Insurance sickness benefit, but his claim was disallowed from 20th March, 1959, as he had then received benefit for 312 days and had not paid the 156 contributions as an employed or self-employed person which would have entitled him to benefit without limit of time. He then appealed to the local appeals tribunal which, as required by the National Insurance Act, directed that the contribution question should be referred to the Minister. I think my hon. Friend can see that Major Frankowski was treated as any British citizen would have been treated in these circumstances.

Major Frankowski's record showed that he entered insurance on 5th July, 1948, when the National Insurance Act came into operation. The question arose whether he should have been insured under the former National Health Insurance Acts during the period from 1st July, 1940, to 4th July, 1948. He served in the Polish Land Forces and at 6th September, 1946, he was commissioned in the Polish Resettlement Corps.

Members of the Polish Land Forces were not incurably employed within the meaning of the National Health Insurance Acts and Major Frankowski was not, therefore, insured under the Acts. The position of officers of the Polish Resettlement Corps was regarded as analogous to that of persons granted emergency commissions in His Majesty's Forces, as they were at that time, that is, they were not insurable during service unless they were insured for health or pension purposes on taking up their commission.

As Major Frankowski was not insured during his service in the Polish Land Forces he was not eligible to be insured in respect of his commissioned service in the Polish Resettlement Corps. A decision was given to this effect and as the contribution conditions for receipt of sickness benefit from 20th March, 1959, were not satisfied, the local tribunal had to dismiss the appeal.

This, as I have said, is the problem that arises in these cases. Many of these gentlemen were not insurable under the terms of the Act as it then was, but following the disallowance of his claim to benefit he requalified for benefit following a further period of insurance. He then drew sickness benefit from July, 1959, until he reached retirement age and he now receives a National Insurance Pension at the full rate. He would also be entitled to assistance from the National Assistance Board and I must mention in passing that of course the National Assistance Board pays in addition to the retirement pension what is generally referred to as a supplementary pension because that is what it is intended to be.

To come to the broader question whether these gentlemen should receive war pensions as opposed to war disability pensions which are what I have been talking about, official benefits granted to Polish ex-Service men include the payment of war gratuities and disability pensions and the payment of pensions to dependants when Polish ex-Servicemen died as a result of service. In addition, in the post-war period the Polish Resettlement Corps was created as a unit of the British Army to find suitable employment in this country. The Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 provided special help for these men to integrate them into the life of this country.

As I hope I have indicated in the history of Mr. Frankowski's case, Polish ex-Service men are entitled to benefit under the National Insurance scheme and are eligible for National Assistance in exactly the same way as our own nationals. Ex-gratia pensions were awarded to the commanders in the field of the three Polish Services and to the Army Chief of Staff. Certain ex-gratia grants or loans were offered to other senior officers to help in their resettlement.

This was all done in the period immediately after the war but then there was the argument whether we should or should not grant pensions to regular Polish ex-Service men, which in effect meant Regular officers and senior n.c.os., because most of the other ranks in the Polish Army were conscripts and would not have qualified.

Successive Administrations have considered the suggestion that the pre-war service of Polish ex-Regulars should count as reckonable service towards a pension on a British basis, but they all decided that it would be inequitable, in the light of what has already been done for Polish ex-Service men, to expect the British taxpayer to meet a large bill for pensions in respect of services mainly given before the war to the former Polish Government. Any scheme for pensions on an ex-gratia basis could not be justified as it would mean giving Polish ex- Service men preferential treatment beyond that given to British ex-Service men.

This is the position which we have had to take up and it is the position that has been taken up by other countries which have the same problem, basically the United States, Canada and France. None of these countries, although they make available certain benefits, pay regular pensions to former officers or n.c.o's of the Polish Armed Forces. Although I think that we all recognise the special link between this country and Poland and particularly with those Poles who fought so gallantly alongside us during the war, it would be asking too much of us to give—

Sir. J. Eden

The point which I really wanted to emphasise to my hon. Friend I would emphasise again in the form of a question. Would he not agree that a Regular soldier is right in thinking that at the end of his engagement he will get a pension? If my hon. Friend agrees, would he say to which country Polish ex-Regulars can now turn for their pensions?

Mr. Kirk

This, of course, is the difficulty that we are in. It is perfectly true that regular soldiers and officers enlisting in armed forces can rightly expect a pension at the end of their services provided that something totally unforeseen did not intervene, which in this case it did. If we were to institute pensions for the 1,500 to 2,000 Regulars involved in this it would cost us approaching £5 million a year which would be a fairly heavy charge. My hon. Friend has put forward an alternative scheme on which, of course, he will not expect me to comment in any detail. In any case, as far as I can make out, it would require legislation. I doubt if there is any Act at the moment which would cover it, and therefore I am debarred from commenting in any detail upon it.

I should like in the few minutes remaining to say something about the new measures which we took last year to try to help in this problem. This was the introduction of an annual grant for the relief of distress. Originally introduced in 1963, it was £50,000, but almost immediately it was increased for the year 1964–65 by 50 per cent. to £75,000, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence, as he then was, to the House on 5th February.

Those eligible for help from the grant are Polish ex-Service men, whether they arc ex-Regular or not, who served under British command during the 1939–45 war and who are now resident in the United Kingdom. The term "ex-Service men" covers ex-Service women as well, and there is no requirement that beneficiaries should be naturalised.

The British Legion has accepted the responsibility of administering and disbursing the grant in accordance with terms of reference issued by my Ministry. The Legion has set up an advisory committee to determine the general policy under which payments will be made, and an executive committee responsible for considering and making recommendations in individual cases. The first committee is chaired by General Sir Roy Bucher and comprises representatives of the National Assistant Board, of non-Polish welfare organisations, of Polish associations and representatives of General Anders. The Army Department attend as observers. The executive committee is chaired by a Polish general and comprises representatives of the National Assistance Board, United Kingdom welfare organisations and Polish associations. I am sure it will be the wish of the House that I should express to the British Legion, and particularly to General Bucher, our real appreciation of the additional task that they have undertaken in this regard.

It is impossible to say with certainty how many potential claimants there are, but it has been estimated that there are some 80,000 Polish ex-Service men resident in the United Kingdom. During the first year of operation a little over 2,000 were assisted, some of these by regular weekly allowances and some by lump sum grants to meet some particular crisis which had arisen.

Sir J. Eden

Can my hon. Friend say how many of those were Regulars?

Mr. Kirk

No, I cannot break down the number at the moment. A handful of those were also given a lump sum grant. About 1,500 were also drawing National Assistance.

I should say that the Polish organisations in this country have very generously acknowledged the help which we have given to them, and I should like to quote from a letter to General Bucher front the Polish Ex-Combatants Association in Great Britain, in which they say: The 17th Annual General Meeting of the Polish Ex-Combatants Association in Great Britain expresses to the British authorities and the British Legion their most sincere appreciation for the financial assistance which made it possible to pay grants of money to ex-members of the Polish Forces Abroad who are in genuine need and distress. What we are trying to do to meet this problem is, first of all, to place all Polish ex-Service men in this country on the same basis as any British citizen and, secondly, in order to meet special cases of distress, to set up this fund which, as I say, after one year's work, we increased by 50 per cent., which must be a record for any fund supported out of the British Treasury, in order to cope with sudden emergencies which may arise or to cope with situations where people simply cannot live on the benefits that we can give.

I do not really think we can go very much further than this. While we appreciate the services which were rendered by the Polish ex-Service men to this country, and indeed to the free world as a whole, we also have to recognise that we have a duty to British ex-Service men, to the British taxpayer, and possibly to ex-Service men of other countries also living in this country. I feel that we have made an effort, with the new fund which we have set up, to cope with a difficult situation. We shall certainly be watching it and seeing that the level of the fund is right.

I hope that the fact that we have made this big increase in the fund will be seen as an earnest of our intention to ensure that we: administer it as generously as possible, through the British Legion, in order to help any Polish ex-Service man, Regular or otherwise, who may find himself in distress.

Sir J. Eden

Again on that point, my hon. Friend has said that he is trying to treat Polish ex-Service men on the same basis as any British citizen. But this is not the point. The whole point is that these men should be treated on the same basis as other British ex-Regular soldiers, not as any other citizen. They were soldiers, and it is as ex-soldiers that they wish to be treated now.

Mr. Kirk

I quite appreciate that point, but I do not think that it is a distinction which we can make. We cannot accept responsibility for pensions for those who served in forces under Governments other than our own. There is no precedent, as far as I know, for any country in the world doing this.

Sir J. Eden

To which Government can they turn?

Mr. Kirk

My hon. Friend asks to which Government they can turn—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.