HC Deb 08 April 1965 vol 710 cc804-12

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

I wish to refer to the case of Mrs. Marquis. I am pleased to have the opportunity of pleading this widow's case on the Floor of the House of Commons. To read her first letter to me should serve her case well. The letter reads as follows:

"Dear Mr. Mahon,

I am writing to you in respect of the death of my late husband, Chief Superintendent F. K. Marquis, the Deputy Chief Constable of Preston. The following summary will enlighten you, and it is by the provision of this information, that I would hope you may be in a position to render your help and guidance. He died as a serving police officer, and there are certain unfortunate circumstances concerning his service about which I should be glad of your advice.

My husband had an illness which necessitated hospital treatment and an abdominal operation in 1963. It was thought that the trouble had been cleared up, but a medical check twelve months later, in the summer of 1964, showed the necessity for a further and immediate operation. This took place in August of last year, and, owing to his internal condition, a colostomy operation was performed.

Unfortunately, his health did not maintain the improvement which had been expected and the Police Authority resolved, after considering a medical report upon his health at a meeting held on 17th November, 1964, to terminate my husband's police service on medical wounds with effect from 1st December, 1964, when he would have completed 26 years 56 days' police service, and award him a medical pension with commutation of one-quarter of that amount for a lump sum of £3,132 13s. 6d.

My husband died seven days after the meeting of the Police Authority and before their resolution could take effect. Had he lived another week he would have died as a police pensioner. and, in addition to my widow's pension, I would have benefited by the aforesaid lump sum.

I should like to say that the Chief Constable of Preston, Mr. F. Richardson, his senior officers, and the Town Clerk of Preston, Mr. W. E. Lockley, have all been most helpful and sympathetic at all times during the indisposition of my husband and since his death. Both the Chief Constable and the Town Clerk have taken an interest in my welfare and have investigated the position concerning the death of my husband as a serving police officer before his retirement had taken effect.

Everyone has been most kind, and I know that the Town Clerk personally consulted authorities at the Home Office to see whether there was any way in which I could be spared the dual loss of my husband, and his commutation award. The Police Authority is advised, however, that this cannot be done because he died as a serving police officer and the resolution of the Watch Committee was annulled by my husband's death on November 24th, 1964.

My position is now such that it will be necessary for me to take up employment and this I propose doing in the very near future. My pension as a police widow will amount to £324 19s. 1d. from the Police Authority plus 15s. a week from the Preston Borough Police Widows' and Orphans' Fund. As I am under the age of 50, I am not eligible for a widow's pension from the State. I should like to explore every possibility as to whether a more favourable decision could be obtained about the award of my late husband's commutation benefit. If you require any further particulars about the matter. I am sure that the Chief Constable or the Town Clerk of Preston would be pleased to supply them.

In conclusion, I would like to extend my sincere thanks for your kind help in this matter.

I remain.

yours sincerely,

Eva Marquis."

It will be agreed that this is a most intelligent letter from a reasonable person. I have been most impressed from the very start by the dignified manner in which Mrs. Marquis has presented her case.

The gravamen of my complaint is that so literally to interpret the rules governing the Police Pensions Regulations, in this most unusual case and in such extenuating circumstances, constitutes, in my humble, opinion the gravest possible injustice. I have been everywhere, I have seen everyone, I have been treated with the greatest possible courtesy and consideration. Tremendous sympathy has been extended, but, in cases such as this, sympathy is as mustard without beef—it burns without relief.

I am asking for the practical expression of the sympthy which has been expressed so abundantly. It is positively ludicrous and absurd and reprehensible that regulations are so rigidly framed as not to allow the milk of human kindness to flow in a case where there is so much sorrow and hardship. Are we masters of our own house? I have been informed during my endeavours that were it not for possible future strictures from an omnipotent figure known as the district auditor, there would be no obstacle in obtaining a more generous interpretation of the provisions of the fund.

To me and my constituents, that Mrs. Marquis must, for the rest of her life, abide by an adjudication of this sort would appear to be a sin crying out to heaven for vengeance. It has come home to me very forcibly in recent months that it does not follow as a natural corollary that a Member of Parliament is a person with a great sense of responsibility. But 32 years in local government, during which I have been a member and chairman of a watch committee and many other committees, have given me, I hope, a keen sense of purpose and responsibility.

I am not asking for the flood-gates to be opened so that irresponsible claims may be made or met, but I am asking in all humility once more that the regulations be looked at again and that if sanity prevails this widow be given her entitlement of £3,132 13s. 6d., the sum which is being withheld from her because her husband died six days too soon. To my mind, this is a debt of honour.

A unanimous decision was made by the watch committee on 17th November, 1964, and it would have been ratified by the full council at its meeting on 1st December, 1964. There are seven days standing between this widow and elementary justice. Can we, with the widest stretch of the imagination, be expected to believe that that mild-mannered man, the district auditor, is the one who will stand between Mrs. Marquis and a full expression of the justice to which she is rightly entitled? For the life of me, I cannot believe this to be so. I cannot believe that it ought to be so.

Mr. F. K. Marquis was a police officer with an impeccable record. For more than 26 years of his life he rendered devoted service. Today, there are greater rewards and inducements to service in the police forces than ever before, yet, with it all, there is scarcely a police force in the country which is not seriously undermanned. There must be a reason for this. Could it possibly be that, in the hearts and minds of people who might be inclined to serve, there is a lurking fear that, "when the chips are down", in sickness, in injury or in death, they or their dear ones may not receive the consideration they deserve, that in some way or other justice will not always reign supreme? Is it this which is militating against recruitment to our police forces?

This man started on the beat. I have never believed that the punitive approach alone will eliminate crime. In my long experience, I have discovered that the man on the beat is the best antidote to crime. I hope that, as a result of these representations, a change will be made in the inadequate provisions of the Police Pensions Regulations so that a commutation of a quarter of the amount of the pensionable sum, namely, £3,132 13s. 6d., will be awarded to Mrs. Marquis retrospectively.

10.14 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Peter Mahon) addressed the House with deep sincerity, and we all appreciate that behind his appeal tonight there is a fund of good will for Mrs. Marquis. My hon. Friend has pursued this matter with great diligence. In the House, he has pursued me as spokesman for the Home Office. He has come to see us at the Home Office. No hon. Member could have fought harder or more diligently than my hon. Friend has. I gladly pay him the tribute that he has fought for Mrs. Marquis in a manner which does him credit as well as the House of which he is a distinguished Member.

This case is not a matter for our discretion. If it were our discretion to exercise compassion, my hon. Friend would not have needed to pursue us with the diligence that he has. The case of a widow of a man who gives many years of faithful service to the police and who dies as a member— indeed, as the deputy chief constable of his force—is one that is bound to arouse our deepest feelings.

My hon. Friend has correctly told us the facts. The widow's ordinary pension of about £325 a year under the Police Pensions Regulations is being paid. If the husband had lived a week longer, with the result that his own retirement pension would have become payable, about £3,000, representing part of his pension which he had decided to commute for a lump sum, would have formed part of his estate on his death.

There are two things that I must make clear at the outset. The first is that this is a matter primarily for the local police authority. As we have been reminded, the police authority has considered this case sympathetically and in detail but it has not been able to find any way in which it can help. The second thing, as my hon. Friend will appreciate from the correspondence and discussions which I have had with him, is that the Home Office would very gladly advise how Mrs. Marquis's position could be improved if we could see any way of doing so. I know that my hon. Friend says that sympathy is not enough, and I understand his position, but with the best will in the world we cannot ignore the provisions of the Police Pensions Regulations or the facts of the case.

Mr. Marquis had been ill for some time before he died and he was, of course, during this time entitled to sick leave on full pay. It became clear, however, that he would never be able to resume his police duties and the police authority was faced with the need to decide whether his pay ought properly to be replaced by pension. In other words, it had to decide, as it is required to do under the Police Pensions Regulations, the date on which Mr. Marquis should retire on medical grounds.

The decision that he should be retired on medical grounds was taken on 19th November, 1964, and the police authority decided that he should be awarded an ill-health pension as from 1st December, 1964—just a fortnight later. The police authority acted in this case, so it thought and I believe, with feeling for the Marquis family. It accepted his notice that he wished to surrender part of his pension for a lump sum.

Unfortunately, within a week, on 24th November, Mr. Marquis died. The Police Pensions Regulations provide for the award of a pension calculated according to the length of a man's service and his average pensionable pay on retirement. Before 1st August last, a policeman, if the police authority agreed and he satisfied it that he was in good health, could surrender part of his pension in return for a lump sum calculated from tables prepared by the Government Actuary. His pension would then be reduced by the amount which he had surrendered.

As from 1st August, last year, it became possible for the first time for a man who was obviously very sick to commute part of his pension. My hon. Friend would not have been raising this Adjournment debate tonight if Mr. Marquis had died before 1st August, because there would have been no question at all of his having the right to commute part of his pension without a medical examination. The improvement which was introduced last August was made as the result of proposals put forward by the police staff associations. in Mr. Marquis's case no medical test was required under the amended provisions, and his pension, unfortunately, never materialised, because he died before the date fixed for his retirement on medical grounds. There was nothing he could surrender in return for a lump sum. The sad fact is that he died before his pension, and, therefore, his lump sum never became payable.

When a policeman dies in service, whether it be a matter of days, weeks, or months before the date fixed for his retirement, for whatever reason, no retirement pension is payable and his widow and dependants receive the appropriate widow's pension and allowances, if the conditions laid down in the regulations are satisfied. We have given the most careful and specific consideration to this case, but the regulations are quite specific and have to be observed.

The circumstances of a case like this arise from the structure of the police pension scheme which rather differs from some other public service pensions schemes in that the police scheme provides for a pension and an opportunity to surrender part of it for a lump sum, whereas most other public service arrangements provide a lump sum and a correspondingly smaller pension. Again, in the case of a widow the police arrangements provide for a pension, but, except in certain circumstances, there is no provision for converting it into a lump sum. Other public service arrangements provide a lump sum payment to a widow whose husband dies in harness in addition to a smaller pension.

This is not to say that police pension arrangements are less generous than those of other public services. Indeed, in some respects they are more generous than other pension schemes. It is merely a matter of the structure of the scheme and the staff side knows that if it wishes to have a different structure, the official side would be very willing to discuss the matter.

The House will appreciate that this is not a case of interpreting the regulations too rigidly. There are no provisions which would enable this payment to be made to Mrs. Marquis. We have to be careful not to create injustice by the special treatment of a particular case. We must also avoid establishing the principle that if a benefit is not payable under a pensions code, because the conditions for the benefit have not been satisfied, the benefit should be paid extra-statutorily. I know that, with his long and wide experience in local government, my hon. Friend will appreciate this.

This is a hard case in which a police officer died within a week of being entitled to receive £3,000. There will be examples of those who die within a fortnight, or within a month, or within six weeks, or within three months. Where are we to draw the line? Wherever the line is drawn, there will be a hardship case inevitably produced by somebody who would be a day outside.

Therefore, the choice is not before us as to whether we should exercise our discretion. The House has put upon us the responsibility to administer the Regulations and to observe them as fairly and evenly as we can. There is nothing that I would prefer to do than to meet the request of my hon. Friend on grounds of compassion and humanity and of common decency. Any hon. Member holding the responsibility which we hold in the Home Office would, I know, be only too pleased if he could give a favourable reply to the request so movingly presented to the House by my hon. Friend.

This is one of the most difficult cases with which I have had to deal, and I wish in my heart that I could have stood at this Box tonight and given an answer which would bring joy to Mrs. Marquis as well as to my hon. Friend. Unfortunately, there is no legal way by which I can do this. I have to assure my hon. Friend that we have leaned over backwards to try to find a way to help, but it just is not possible within the Regulations as they stand.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o'clock.