HC Deb 29 October 1965 vol 718 cc577-88

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

3.34 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

In congratulating you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, on your present office, may I say that today you have to hear of a case of gross injustice. It is rather appropriate that the hon. Member on the Government Front Bench should be the former Member of Parliament of the lady I am to talk about. I hope that you will regard what I have to say in terms of serious injustice. We are very fortunate to have the Parliamentary Secretary to reply. If the Minister were to have replied I would have used much stronger language than I shall use about this case. It is a very unfortunate case, a very difficult case, and I hope that the Ministry can think of some way round it. I think that they could use more flexibility in dealing with such an exceptional case.

Mrs. Walters, who is 71 years old now, is an employee of the Foreign Office. To that extent alone it seems that the Government should think about her case, as she is one of their employees. Her life is an astonishing mixture of romance and suffering. She was in a Soviet labour camp, and her case is one of sheer bureaucratic gobbledegook. I do not know whether this is a Parliamentary expression, but I hope it will be accepted. This is a very hard case of sheer bureaucratic nonsense—that is perhaps a better expression.

This debate arises from an exchange between myself and the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance on 12th July, when I raised the matter in the presence of our late Speaker. A more than usually evasive set of answers were put forward then by the Minister. My Question was: Why Mrs. Mary A. Walters, aged 71 years, who was unable to complete her National Insurance contributions owing to being a prisoner for nine years in a Soviet labour camp, has been refused a retirement pension; and whether she will make a statement. Miss Herbison said: My information is that no claim for retirement pension has been made in this case, but I am afraid one could not succeed because Mrs. Walters, who had never previously been insured here, was already over pension age when she returned in 1956. The question whether she might be assisted in some other way does not arise at present as I understand she is still in employment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1965; Vol. 716, c. 27.] The Minister must have known the true facts of this case and she must have known that Mrs. Walters was employed by the Foreign Office and was going to be retired. As to the question of whether this point had been raised, or any claim had been made, this is splitting hairs to a ridiculous extent. Her Member had raised this case several times before. I think that was a most evasive way of answering my Question. The Minister was asked again by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) whether she would take action in unfortunate cases like this where people have been prevented from contributing. All she said was: I am extremely concerned about cases such as that of Mrs. Walters … it is strange that this matter has been brought to the Floor of the House only at this stage when this lady could have been having her retirement pension if the hon. Lady's hon. Friends believed in her case before this time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1965; Vol. 716, c. 27–8.] If the Minister believed that, surely she believes that this lady should have a pension. If we on these benches should have done it, then she should have been given a retirement pension.

Mrs. Walters' case is exceedingly strong; it is quite exceptional. There can be no other person in this country claiming a retirement pension who has been in a Soviet labour camp and unable to contribute. Those Members who receive the Sun newspaper will have seen the cartoon at that time in which two Soviet guards were shown talking to each other and one was saying to the other, "Don't shoot her; she is only going out to pay her National Insurance contributions". This is funny in a way, but this lady went through a terrible time. Those who have read Gerard Tickell's "Miss May", published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1958, will know how serious this case is.

The Minister seems to be under the impression—I do not know why—that the present Government can ignore awkward questions by private Members for two reasons. The first is that the matter was not raised by an hon. Member, especially one on these benches, with the previous Government. This argument has very few merits, if any merits at all. The fact that one Government has not done something does not bind another Government not to treat a case on its merits.

The second argument seems to be that the last Government did not do anything about this case and therefore that the present Government are absolved from all responsibility. I do not believe that that is so. Governments are not bound one by the other in this way. If there is a genuine and exceptional case involving the National Insurance Act, action should be taken.

There is power under the National Insurance Act, 1946, to take action. There is no question that a large number of people have qualified for and received modified pensions on special grounds. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that that is true because I went into the position when I tried to introduce a Bill. I should be out of order in mentioning the subject of legislation now, but at that time I tried to introduce a Bill on this subject in connection with people older than Mrs. Walters.

The facts are these. Mrs. Walters and her husband were arrested by the Nazis in 1943. She was married to an Austro-Hungarian diplomat at that time. She did not have much chance of escaping the rigours of the war and suffered a very great deal. For this she has received from the Government £136; that is all. I assure the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that the point will be raised again in a different context. The hon. Gentleman will know of my interest in the problem.

When Mrs. Walters came back to this country and returned to Vienna in 1945 or 1946—the exact date does not matter—she was arrested by the Soviet Secret Police because she was looking for her husband. She therefore spent nine years, Vorkuta, one of the worst and nastiest concentration camps of all. We in this until 1956, in a Soviet labour camp at country have nothing to compare with the filthiness of concentration camps, but this lady was put in an S.S. concentration camp when she was arrested before and this time and later sent to the Vorkuta labour camp of the Soviet Union.

This is an exceptional matter. I know that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is a very humane person who understands these problems. There has not been a previous case of a woman who has been detained in a labour camp and thereby prevented from paying her contributions. One of the numerous academic arguments that could be used is that Mrs. Walters was above pension age in 1956, but what does that matter? Suppose that she had been arrested at a different time? Exactly what difference would that have made? She was detained by the Soviet labour camp authorities and could not possibly pay her contributions.

This is an amazing story. What is the Ministry's answer? Does the Minister have no authority or no kind of flexibility in administering its pension scheme? What would have been the position if Mrs. Walters had returned earlier? If, for example, she had returned in 1943 or 1945 and avoided the Soviet labour camp, would she have been eligible? This is an important point. The answer surely must be that she would have been eligible. If that is so, the use of duress and force majeure in this case against this woman should certainly have induced the Minister, who is extremely inflexible in these matters, to have given her a retirement pension.

We know quite well that in 1956 Mrs. Walters did not have that opportunity. What will the Ministry now do? Will it ignore this matter? Does the Department say that a person who was detained in a Soviet labour camp until 1956 will have no benefits whatever when she could have contributed on her return to the United Kingdom before she was arrested? Is that what they are doing today? If it is, it is going to be a very serious matter. It will be further pursued in this House, and on both sides of the House, I very much hope, because we cannot have the National Insurance Acts used in a way which excludes such personal and individual cases.

As I say, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is a very humane person. He will know that this lady has got very little money. There have been rumours that she has capital, and so forth. Well, I have been into that. The size of her capital would not have prevented her in recent years from being above National Assistance level, or in the future. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman really will think about this again, and I hope that he will also look at this as a totally exceptional case. There really cannot be another case of this kind in existence in the whole of the United Kingdom.

I want to finish because the Joint Parliamentary Secretary must reply, but I want to say that it is a pity that the Minister did not see me about this. There was a clash of facts here, a clash of interests and emotions, but the fact is that she ought to have talked to me about this. She was approached several times during the past three or four months, during the Recess. There was no reason why she could not see me. I have no party interest in this matter whatsoever. I want to make that quite clear. I do think she ought to have done so. I hope the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will give me an explanation of this extraordinary story and why the Minister did not interview me about this.

3.52 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Mr. Norman Pentland)

The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has deployed his case with his usual sincerity and forthright manner, and I want in a similar fashion to attempt on behalf of my Ministry to approach the points he has raised in his speech. Let me make it clear at once that nothing which I am going to say this afternoon should in any way imply that either my right hon. Friend or myself has not got tremendous sympathy for Mrs. Walters in her present situation. I want to make that clear.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should feel that he has not been treated with courtesy by my right hon. Friend, but this is a matter in which the facts are not in dispute, and, apart from the demands on her time, my right hon. Friend took the view that the proper place to discuss the issues in the case of Mrs. Walters was on the Floor of the House of Commons and not at any private meeting.

I must also say that I am afraid that none of the points which the hon. Member has raised in his speech today presents any new issue at all so far as the National Insurance position of Mrs. Walters is concerned. I must stress and underline the National Insurance position. Therefore, my reply cannot be favourable to Mrs. Walters. The relevant facts about Mrs. Walters's position and the reasons why she cannot qualify for a National Insurance retirement pension have already, as the hon. Gentleman knows, been fully set out in correspondence with those, including the hon. Member, who have taken up her case from time to time over the years. Nevertheless, it may assist the House if I now outline them.

I should like at the beginning to dispose of the idea that this is in any way an issue into which party politics have entered, or indeed should be allowed to enter. Politics do not come into this at all. As the hon. Gentleman said, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, North (Mr. George Rogers) first raised this matter with the previous Government about five years ago, in 1960, and received the answer which has been given by both Administrations—both the hon. Gentleman's and my own—on every subsequent occasion on which this matter has been raised. As a matter of fact I shall give the same answer today, and I therefore stress that I am not implying in any way that this is an issue in which party politics are involved.

I propose to deal briefly now with the relevant provisions of the National Insurance Scheme and the salient features of Mrs. Walters' case. As we all know, the National Insurance Scheme is a contributory scheme, and to qualify for a retirement pension a person has to satisfy certain contribution conditions in addition to the condition that he has retired or has reached the age at which he can be treated as retired.

These conditions require that the insured person must have paid 156 contributions between the date of entering the Scheme and minimum pensionable age, and to have a yearly average of contributions paid or credited over his insurance lifetime of at least 13 before any pension is payable at all, even at a reduced rate. That answers the question raised by the hon. Gentleman with regard to what I believe he was thinking in reference to the 1946 Act. This lady is not entitled under the Scheme to have any pension at all, even at a reduced rate.

Mr. Neave

One must say something about the fact that this lady was detained by the Soviet authorities in a labour camp against her will and against her control. What is the answer to that?

Mr. Pentland

The hon. Gentleman will probably find the answer as I refer to the facts as they are known to my Ministry.

The relevant facts with regard to Mrs. Walters are few and straightforward. This more or less comes to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the book which has been written about Mrs. Walters' experiences abroad, and without in any way implying that I accept uncritically everything that is said in that book, I think it is common ground between the hon. Gentleman and myself that Mrs. Walters apparently went abroad in 1946 to look for her husband, who was a Hungarian diplomat. She was still abroad on 5th July, 1948, when the National Insurance Scheme began, and she did not return to this country until 1956.

According to our records Mrs. Walters was born on 17th February, 1894, so at the time of her return in 1956 she was over 60, which is the minimum pensionable age for a woman. Under the provisions of the National Insurance Act and the Regulations she was therefore no longer eligible to become an insured person. That is why she has never paid, and could not pay, any insurance contribution.

Perhaps I should clear up what may have led to some misunderstanding. The hon. Member referred to the Question that he put to my right hon. Friend on 12th July. In a supplementary question he referred to the fact that Mrs. Walters was paying contributions. The only contributions which she has paid are the Industrial Injuries contributions of a few pence a week which all people in this country must pay when they are employed.

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. George Rogers.]

Mr. Pentland

The contributions which she has paid since her return in 1956 are not National Insurance contributions. The Industrial Injuries Scheme is separate from the National Insurance Scheme, and Industrial Injuries contributions are not relevant to the National Insurance position. This must be emphasised in order to clear the hon. Member's mind about the contributions which Mrs. Walters is now paying and has been paying in the past.

Mr. Neave

Will the hon. Gentleman say why this is relevant? She was detained until 1956 beyond her own control. To say that she was above pension age because she was detained beyond her own control and released when Bulganin and Khrushchev came here in 1956 seems ridiculous. What is the point? Could not she be given a pension backdated to the time when she was arrested?

Mr. Pentland

The hon. Member must be patient. I am coming to certain issues which are involved in the aspects of the matter that he is trying to draw me upon. I am trying, in sequence, to explain the position under the existing Acts.

As the Minister said in her reply to the hon. Member's Question on 12th July, Mrs. Walters has not actually made a formal claim for a National Insurance retirement pension. The hon. Member accepts that. I do not wish to rest the case on that technicality. It is quite clear that in view of the fact that she has paid no National Insurance contributions she cannot possibly qualify for a National Insurance pension, since she cannot satisfy either of the conditions for a National Insurance pension to which I have referred.

I now come to the main point that the hon. Member is putting forward. When he talks of flexibility he means that the Minister either has power or should have power to be flexible about what is already the law of the land. As he will know, however, retirement pensions are not awarded by the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. They are awarded by the statutory authorities, who act independently of the Minister. It must be fully understood that my right hon. Friend may sympathise with the circumstances of an individual case, as we both certainly sympathise with that which we are discussing this afternoon, but the Minister has no power to intervene in these decisions. She has no power to make exceptions, or to award pensions, on compassionate grounds or grounds of hardship, to anyone who is unable to qualify because he or she cannot satisfy the conditions laid down in the National Insurance Act and Regulations.

That is how the law stands. One could argue—and this was the main content of the hon. Member's speech—that the provisions of the Act and Regulations should be changed. That is an understandable point of view. But, Mr. Speaker, you will very quickly call me to order if I attempt to discuss any proposal which would involve legislation, and this would. May I merely say that such a proposal to cover this type of case would raise very wide and difficult issues and would mean changing the whole contributory basis of the National Insurance Scheme.

Mr. Neave

May I rise again?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot appeal to Mr. Speaker to allow him to rise. If he intervenes any more in the debate, it is by courtesy of the Minister who is trying to reply to him.

Mr. Neave

Mr. Speaker, this is the first time that I have had a reprimand of that kind, and no doubt I deserve it. Will the Minister give way and allow me to intervene for a moment?

Mr. Pentland


Mr. Neave

Has not the Minister power under the 1946 Act to give modified or reduced pensions in exceptional cases? Has that not been one of the major issues in this Parliament, is it not possible in the present case, and has the Minister not got the discretion that I seek?

Mr. Pentland

To the best of my knowledge, the Minister has no jurisdiction at all to do anything in the present case under the Act of 1946 to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because Mrs. Walters has paid no contributions at all. She cannot be given a reduced pension.

Mr. Neave

She was in a Soviet labour camp.

Mr. Pentland

I know.

Mr. Speaker

I must ask the hon. Gentleman, who was listened to in silence, to listen to the reply.

Mr. Neave

I accept that.

Mr. Pentland

Surely the hon. Member realises that, within the terms of the Act and regulations as they are at the present time, the Minister has neither the power nor the flexibility to grant, even on compassionate grounds or grounds of hardship, any pension at all under the present regulations.

I was saying that to cover the present type of case would raise very wide and difficult issues. Here again, in order to keep within the rules of order, we are not allowed to deal with that today.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his Bill which again we are not allowed to elaborate upon and keep within the rules of order. I would merely say in passing that his Bill would have made no provision at all for Mrs. Walters, and the subsequent Bill which was moved in another place by the noble Lord, Lord Colville, would not have covered Mrs. Walters for any benefit at all. I must say that these are the types of cases which amplify the weaknesses of that particular Bill.

So much for the National Insurance aspects, and I now come to the question which the hon. Member has referred to today of what provision is going to be made for Mrs. Walters when she comes to retire, as I understand she is due to, next February. So far as social security payment is concerned, although she cannot qualify for a contributory pension, it is possible that she may be able to qualify for National Assistance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that will depend upon her resources, and I understand that that possibility has already been drawn to the attention of Mrs. Walters. On the question of the Government's responsibility as an employer, I cannot speak from personal knowledge, but I have been in touch with the Foreign Office, by whom Mrs. Walters has been employed since 1956 as a temporary civil servant, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It was the Foreign Office whom the hon. Gentleman originally approached about a pension for Mrs. Walters.

I understand from the Foreign Office that they have no trace of any record that Mrs. Walters was employed by them in any capacity prior to 1956. When she retires, as she will next year, Mrs. Walters will be paid a normal Civil Service gratuity, which will be based on her nine years' service since then. But the Foreign Office—I must impress this on the hon. Member—cannot accept that it is under any obligation to provide Mrs. Walters with any other payment for her services apart from this gratuity. That is the information which I have received from the Foreign Office.

I should also mention that I am informed by the Foreign Office that Mrs. Walters has applied for a payment under the scheme established to assist victims of Nazi persecution, but here again, as far as the Foreign Office is concerned, it has not been established that she is eligible for any such payment from that scheme.

Mr. Neave

The total sum received by her is £136 from that fund for Anglo-German settlement—in 1963. It is a very small sum, and I will take that up on a different occasion. Will the hon. Member say why he feels that a person who is in a Soviet labour camp should not be able to benefit when she was completely unable, physically, to contribute? I do not understand what he means—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot make his speech over and over again by way of intervention. His intervention must be brief.

Mr. Pentland

I have attempted in my own way, while it may not be clear to the hon. Member—and I am not criticising him for that—to explain the position, and to point out that under the law as it stands my Ministry can make no provision for a case such as that of Mrs. Walters. That is why I keep insisting that while it might be argued that the regulations need changing—such an argument would be understandable—we cannot discuss this afternoon on this narrow issue of how this case arises what jurisdiction the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance ought to have to use flexibility in giving a pension to Mrs. Walters. We cannot do that as the law stands.

Those, very briefly, are the facts as known to my Ministry. I know that the hon. Member has pursued this case of Mrs. Walters, with whom we all sympathise, with great vigour and sincerity. We all accept that. But I am afraid that I can give him no other reply than that which I have given this afternoon on the facts as they are presented to us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Four o'clock.