§ Mr. Speaker
We come now to the third debate, on overseas pensioners. I remind the House that there are 22 debates ahead of this one and that reasonably brief speeches will help. Will any hon. Member in the House who wishes to speak on this topic please let the Chair know?
§ 7.32 p.m.
Mr. Richard Sharpies (Sutton and Cheam)
I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the question of hardship caused to certain overseas pensioners. Before turning to the generalities of the problem, I wish to turn to a particular case which I have raised before in this House and which I make no excuse whatever for raising again. It is a case about which I feel more strongly than about any other case which has come to my notice since I have been a Member of Parliament.
I refer to the case of Mr. Salole, which I originally raised in an Adjournment debate on 26th November, 1968. Mr. Salole is a Somali by origin. He served 25 years in the Aden Police. He was injured and lost the sight of one of his eyes in the course of duty in the riots in 1947. He was awarded the Queen's Medal for Meritorious Service. He retired from the Aden Police in 1963 when he held the rank of senior superintendent of police, the highest rank, I 1287 think, held by anyone not of United Kingdom origin.
When he retired Mr. Salole was awarded a pension of £807 a year, which included the compensation he received for the loss of his eye. I think it fair to say that Mr. Salole devoted the whole of his working life to the service of the British Crown. The fact that he did so and the capacity in which he served in the Aden Police meant that it was quite impossible for him after his retirement to remain in what is now South Yemen. Had he done so, I am assured by those who know him, and who know the country and have served in senior capacities in the British Colonial Service, that he would not have been alive today. He would have been one of the main targets for the terrorist organisation both before and after independence.
What is the position of Mr. Salole today? What is the reward he receives for his record of 25 years' service to the British Crown and the heavy responsibilities which he bore in a most difficult period in the history of Aden? For almost two years now Mr. Salole, living in my constituency, has received not one penny of pension. He does not even receive the form of loan or ex gratia payment which is made to practically every one of his colleagues who served with him with equal rank who were of United Kingdom origin.
A short time ago I had a letter from Mr. Salole in which he said that he works now as a storeman in a warehouse. This is the former Chief Superintendent of Police in Aden. He says:I am in my 62nd year"—he is now in his 63rd year—and feel the strain of my present employment. Besides my single eye, which is considerably losing strength, and being affected by my diabetes, I have just developed hernia. The signs are that, though I have the spirit, my physical frame is giving way and I do not think that it will he long before t will have to succumb to my growing weakness and retire permanently but without the pension that I had so much depended upon. It has certainly been the most unkindest cut of all'This was the case which I raised in the Adjournment debate on 26th November, 1968. I make no personal criticism of the former Parliamentary Secretary. I 1288 warned him, of course, that I was to raise this question this evening. I appreciate the difficult task a Parliamentary Secretary has in answering a debate of this kind. He made three points. He said that the first of the principles on which it is decided whether or not that the British Government accept responsibility for pensions of this kind,is that overseas civil servants, whether expatriate or local, were employed by the overseas Governments concerned and not by Her Majesty's Government. Their pension right, derive from legislation passed by those Governments, and their pensions are awarded and paid by those GovernmentsThere is very little to quarrel with in that as the position stands at present.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the particular responsibility of the South Yemen Government. Here I think there is a very real difference between the position of pensioners like Mr. Salole and those who retired from service in other areas of the former British Colonial Empire. The former Parliamentary Secretary said:It is true that, in the circumstances leading up to the independence of Southern Yemen. our attempts to negotiate a public officers' agreement with the successor Government were unsuccessful. The fact that there was that kind of difficulty does not relieve the Southern Yemen Government of their responsibilities in accordance with the principle that I have just described"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1968; Vol. 774, c. 466–67.]This is of small comfort to people like Mr. Salole. Is it ever expected that the Government of the South Yemen. having got out of their country someone who held a position as he did, will ever honour their obligation in this way? Of course they will not. It is quite unrealistic ever to think that they will do so. In the meantime Mr. Salole has to go without any pension at all. So far the former Parliamentary Secretary was probably stating the position as it was, and, although I disagree with it. I have no particular quarrel with the Ministry about that.
The third ground is the question of the status of Mr. Salole and the attempts which were made by the Ministry not only to avoid the responsibility in a general way for the payment of a pension to someone of this kind but also to exclude him from the arrangements which were made by means of ex gratia payments, on the ground that he was of 1289 South Arabian status and therefore that his position was different from that of people who had been recruited for the Aden police back in the early days well before the Second World War.
Here I regret to say that I had a very real quarrel with the Ministry. When I originally took this question up I was not satisfied with the answer I received in the Adjournment debate. I wrote to the former Parliamentary Secretary. He referred me to the regulations setting out the conditions for South Arabian States. He said this in a letter dated 2nd December, 1968:In the terms of these Regulations, and in the light of the knowledge of his personal and family history, the local Administration"—I ask the House to mark the words, "the local Administration"—deemed Mr. Salole—like his brother, Mr. L. C. Salole, a former Chief Registrar of the Aden Supreme Court—to be of South Arabian status for the purpose of the Public Service. We have no power, and in any case see no reason, to question the validity of this rulingI locked up the regulations and queried that. A considerable correspondence followed. Eventually I received a letter dated 12th December, 1968 from the former Parliamentary Secretary saying this:Mr. A. F. Salole had retired before the 1964 Regulations came into operation and wethat is the Ministry, not the local Administration—had therefore to reach a decision on his status.There is no question, as had been said in the earlier letter and as had been the background to the earlier debate, of the Ministers being bound by a decision which had been taken prior to independence under the 1964 Regulations. The letter continues:We Here advised that the position of his brother, 11Ir. L. C. Salole, had been determined under the 1964 Regulations and he had been accorded South Arabian status. It seemed to us"—that is, the Ministry—that we could not justifiably accord to your constituent a status different to that given to his brother by the local administrationThe regulation applied a fair and rigid system for determining a person's status. It did not depend upon the relationship he had with his brother or any other relative. It provided in the 1290 event of dispute for the case to be heard before a tribunal. This does not apply in the case of Mr. Salole, because, on my asking about these rights and how these matters had been determined, the former Parliamentary Secretary said this in a letter dated 19th December, 1968:We do not know whether the South Arabian Tribunal still exists or whether the 1964 Regulations are still in operation, but it seems unlikelyThat is where the case rests.
In a case of this kind surely the Ministry should have tried to bend over backwards to find a reason for giving what is rightfully due to a person who has served Britain in the way Mr. Salole has. Instead—I say this regretfully, because I have much respect for the Ministry in other ways—I have come to the conclusion, from the correspondence I have quoted and from the answer to the Adjournment debate, that the Ministry has bent over backwards in the other direction, trying to find every possible excuse for failing to pay a pension to this most deserving person. This reflects grave discredit on those who have handled this case.
I do not believe that we can any longer go on treating people who have served Britain well overseas and who have given their lives in Britain's service in this way—there are cases other than that of Mr. Salole—as pawns in a game of international chess. The time has come for us to have a fresh look at the whole of this business and see whether a better solution can be found. Mr. Salole's case is one of grave injustice—I choose my words carefully—to a loyal and distinguished servant of the Crown.
I greatly hope that, perhaps with new Ministers, a fresh look will be taken at the ease. If I do not obtain a fair and satisfactory solution to Mr. Salole's case, I shall use every means open to a Member of Parliament to keep the case open and do all I can to secure justice for Mr. Salole.
Mr. Salole's case raises much wider issues. The more one studies the whole question of pensions for the overseas pensioner the more it appears that the whole problem is riddled with anomalies, depending upon whom the pensioner was employed by, what his exact status was, with which Government he did most of his service, and so on.
1291 At the end of last year I referred to a case which had come to my notice, that of Mr. Sharman, former Deputy Commissioner of Shanghai Police. He retired from that distinguished position in 1946 with a pension of £207 a year. Because he was employed by the Shanghai Police and not directly by a colonial administration, he is excluded, as are so many others, from any increases under the Pensions (Increase) Acts. Borderline cases must be accorded the same treatment as that accorded to others who served in the Overseas Civil Service.
There is the whole question of pensioners' widows. Cases I have been looking into—I shall mention no names; they are not constituents of mine—show that even when the overseas Governments are co-operative it often takes up to a year, with correspondence going back and forth. I know that the Ministry does all it can to keep short the period between the death of the pensioner and the date when the Crown Agents are authorised to pay the pension. Let us think of the position of a widow in such a case who has been dependent upon the pension earned by the service of her husband. I do not believe that we can go on in this way.
I appreciate the difficulties, but I believe that the time has come when we should start to negotiate with overseas Governments for our taking over the responsibility for the former civil servants, the majority of whom are living in the United Kingdom. I believe that, if we were to start negotiating on that basis, it would probably, in the majority of cases, be welcomed by the overseas Governments themselves, even if one had to make some adjustment in the level of overseas aid in order to compensate for the additional expenditure which we would be taking on and of which we would he relieving the overseas Governments.
This policy has been followed by the majority of other Governments who had similar colonial responsibilities. The French have done this right from the start, and I believe that it is the right solution. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give serious consideration to this suggestion, but, above all, I hope that I shall receive some kind of favourable reply about the case of Mr. Salole, about which I feel so strongly.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I am indebted to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) for introducing this topic, which is of great importance. He devoted most of his remarks to a specific case but touched on the general problem. I believe that he is right in saying that unless there is a solution to the general problem of these pensions, the anomalies will persist and become compounded as the years go by.
A former colleague of mine, Mr. Kup, of Fairah Bay College, Sierra Leone, wrote an article in The Guardian in the middle of last year. In reply, I sent a letter to The Guardian expressing general agreement with his views and dislike of the present situation. Rather to my surprise, I received a personal letter from Mr. Walden, Secretary of the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association, who wrote:I was very interested to read your letter in The Guardian of the 4th August and more than delighted to see your criticism of the attitude of Whitehall to overseas pensioners. This association for the last 7 years has been pressing the British Government to take over our pensions, but so far without successIt would appear, therefore, to be the general feeling, at least among a representative body of these people, that a solution along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman would at any rate be acceptable to them. I think that the hon. Gentleman is also right in saying that it would probably be acceptable to the majority of the overseas countries concerned.
It is generally known that this is a peculiar situation. It is unique to Britain. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have never heard of any other erstwhile imperial Power making such strange arrangements for the pensions of its former overseas servants. I can understand the motives which led some Whitehall civil servant to think this scheme up, but I cannot see what principle of equity or common sense was applied to it. Clearly, the arrangement is working in a most unsatisfactory way.
I want to stress the unsatisfactory nature of the arrangement from the point of view of the other countries concerned. I am prepared to take as read the unsatisfactory nature of the situation from the point of view of the pensioners themselves and in the kind of individual case 1293 which the hon. Gentleman cited. I want to quote a comment by the Overseas Development Institute, made as far back as 1964, in its general review of technical assistance. It said:Whether or not it is right in law, one cannot help wondering whether it is really Just that poor countries should have been asked to pay, as the 'price' of independence, compensation to officials appointed by an alien regime. Britain is, in any case, having to give or lend most of them the money to fulfil this obligation; and the complete assumption of such obligations by the British Government would be a farsighted act of statesmanship leading to a much happier relationship in futureI believe that that is so. I understand that about £90 million has been paid in the from of pensions over the past couple of decades. In 1968, in a reply to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Whitaker)—whom I am happy to see on the Front Bench—the information was given that these pension payments were running then at a level of E181 million a year. Of course, they are not all being paid by all the territories.
India made a commutation arrangement in 1955 by surrendering certain sterling balances. It settled the thing there and then. In the case of Palestine, not even Whitehall had the nerve to ask the Israeli Government to stump up for the pensions of former Palestine police and other civil servants there.
The matter became a public issue, in a sense, when Tanzania in 1967 or 1968 refused point blank to go on with the arrangement, which it regarded as unjust and iniquitous. It said flatly that while it would cheerfully pay pensions to any expatriate servants of Tanzania who had served since 1961 and voluntarily entered the service of independent Tanzania, and was happy to honour all obligations incurred since then, it had no intention of carrying on meeting obligations incurred before that date. It said that it was prepared to pay the price of the cessation of British aid as a result of this decision of policy. Tanzania has stood firm on that position ever since. The situation has contributed to some friction and lack of co-operation between two countries which otherwise could work together very happily and between whom, on other issues, as far as I know, a considerable amount of good will exists.
1294 The other territory quoted by the hon. Gentleman was the Republic of South Yemen, which refused absolutely to entertain this arrangement ab initio. The result was that South Yemen forfeited the golden handshake, so to speak—an independence settlement grant of about £12 million which had been envisaged in the negotiations for the transfer of power on independence when the republic was created. In fact, the republic has suffered genuine and grievous hardship from the failure of Britain to implement the full financial terms of the independence settlement because of the quarrel over the pension issue.
So, in at least four territories—India, Palestine, Tanzania and South Yemen—there have been either unilateral or agreed modifications of the general policy. The Government may say that all countries must be treated alike, but they must admit nevertheless that there are precedents in which one side or the other has been forced to introduce a modification of the original arrangement. I believe that it would be statesmanship to admit that the situation is unsatisfactory, both for the countries concerned and for the pensioners, and to attempt a general revision.
In fact, we have, of course, been meeting a good deal of these payments ourselves through loans to the countries paying the pensions. According to a figure I was given recently, in the five-year period 1963–68 this country provided £42 million in loans so that these countries could pay the pensions. Hon. Members may think this a reasonable arrangement but I regard it as iniquitous that the loans should be called "aid". They are included in the aid budget. We solemnly announce that we are giving so much aid when the sum includes money payable by way of pensions to British citizens, many of whom are living in England. Such loans cannot by any stretch of the English language be regarded as aid to under-developed countries in the normal sense in which the word "aid" is understood. It is a complete misnomer to call these loans "aid", and it is high time that the humbug was dropped and we revised the whole arrangement.
The House learned, rather to its amusement, only a short time ago that one hon. Member is interested in this form 1295 of aid and that the pension which, I am sure, he justly and honourably earned is reckoned by the Government to be aid to the developing country in which he happened to serve many years ago.
I want again to quote from the Overseas Development Institute, this time from its review of British development policy in 1966. It said:Britain could further ease the financial problems of some Commonwealth developing countries by assuming the full cost of paying the pensions of former British colonial civil servants. Some African countries have to pay as much as 3% or 4% of their annual budget on overseas pensions. This gives rise to considerable resentment on the part of the poor countries. It is not only right, but makes better sense to assume direct and complete responsibility for these costs than to have to meet them indirectly through loans or budgetary assistance. The cost of such concessions would not be small but to a large extent it would be internal' transfer from the Treasury to individual BritonsI ask the Government to accept that it does make better sense to do this, and to get on with it.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)
I support strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies) has said and also largely what has been said by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). I understand the feeling of the Ministry and, in particular, of the Treasury, that, once one opened the door to those who were locally recruited, there might be no end to those who would have to be supported in one way or another. But I think that the situation of those who served the British Crown in Aden, as it was—it is now South Yemen—is completely different from the situation of those who served Her Majesty in other territories of the Commonwealth which have entered into a public officers' agreement, with this country on achieving independence.
The story of what has happened to Mr. Salole may be repeated with several other individuals. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to enlighten us about that. Let us remember that Mr. Salole is, I understand, in this country only because he was exiled from Aden, which was a thriving place when we controlled it but is rapidly going back to misery and desert.
1296 Mr. Salole is exiled only because he served the British Crown. He is prevented from going back to live in South Yemen. Whether or not we have the power to help, it is time that the Government took that power and helped those who have been loyal servants of this country and have been banished from their homeland because of what they have done for us in the past.
§ Mr. Sharples
Mr. Salole was not exiled or banished from Aden. He left entirely of his own accord, in good time.
§ Mr. Tilney
But there must be quite a number of those who saw the writing on the wall and knew what would happen to them if they remained. There is a danger that this may happen in other territories; we have to accept that. For years I have been urging Her Majesty's Government to do something about taking over the basic pensions of those who were regarded as and ultimately became, Her Majesty's overseas civil servants.
The position really is getting worse rather than better. I understand that there have been considerable delays in Nigeria. I know of one civil servant who has had nothing since last June. I agree that he has arranged for his money to be paid in Lagos and not in this country, to get the benefits of the devaluation of the £ sterling. This was his decision before sterling was devalued. There was another case of widows in Ceylon. In one case of which I know, no pension has been paid for three years because of some discrepancies which have since been put right.
In Tanzania—and I am not mentioning those civil servants now residing in South Africa or Rhodesia, because I understand how the Tanzanians feel about that; I am talking about two cases resident here—there has been an error in the income tax calculated on their pensions and suddenly, in one month, all the arrears have been taken off, so that in one case a pensioner is expected to live for a whole month on £2 15s. 9d. Surely this is utterly wrong. I understand that there is a certain amount of inefficiency in the finance Ministries of the developing countries. We know that in our own Inland Revenue there are immense delays.
1297 I accept that with Tanzania when pensions were refused by that Government the British Government came in to pay them but there was a delay, and there is a general fear among members of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service who have retired that in two months' time, or a years' time, suddenly the money on which they have budgeted and on which they depend, will be taken away and will not be placed to their credit in a bank.
There is another danger, which is that every year in the budgets of developing countries the question of pension payments comes up. This makes the payments to expatriates very unpopular. It might come up in debates for several days running and appear in the newspapers of the developing countries.
This cannot be a good thing because it is not understood. I cannot see why Great Britain, in common with all ex-Imperial Powers, cannot take over the pension, and if necessary cut aid. The accounting of aid is always very difficult. I accept the argument of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), but I also take note that we do not take into account any of the aid that we give indirectly on the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. The whole question of the accounting of aid needs to be examined carefully.
I know that the Minister will say that it is difficult because there are bilateral treaties with all the different Commonwealth countries and after all, the rich can pay. Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hong Kong, those colonies can pay with the greatest ease, as can Malaysia or Singapore. As they are bilateral treaties, I cannot see why this process cannot be done gradually, taking some of the African and possibly Asian countries one at a time, changing the public servants agreement that we have with them.
The principle was given away when we accepted responsibility for the pensions of the Indian civil servants, for Pakistani and Palestinian officers. If these matters could be looked at again it would greatly increase Commonwealth amity. The pension percentage of our aid programme as a whole is not very high. To take them over would remove the fear of many people in this country who have served the Crown very well in the past.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)
You, Mr. Speaker, and no doubt the House will be relieved to hear that in the light of the very clear case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) and other hon. Members, there is very little I need add before we hear the Minister's reply.
This is a matter which the House of Commons has discussed on a number of occasions. It is not long ago since my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) expressed concern from this Bench on behalf of the kind of people whom we are discussing tonight, particularly those who are ineligible for supplements under the series of Pensions (Increase) Acts, because their service has been judged to be of a nongovernmental nature.
My hon. Friend has raised a particular case in which he feels there should be natural concern and those of us who have listened to him believe him to be wholly justified. He has illustrated from this case the general anomalies of which the Minister is no doubt only too conscious and which he will undoubtedly do his best to solve. In the past, we have considered these anomalies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) mentioned Nigeria and the delays there. I want to mention it in a rather different sense. As the House knows, there has been the case of the Nigerian Coal Corporation, which gave undertakings that the terms of service under the corporation would be no less favourable than if the people who entered into the corporation's employment had remained in Government service. It must be extremely difficult to defend the position whereby these people, after this promise had been given, should not receive the full supplements provided by the Pensions (Increase) Acts.
What I ask the Minister to do is to give the whole matter a new look. I hope that he would agree to pay very close attention to the suggestions made by my hon. Friend and by both hon. Gentlemen who followed him. I hope that he will not find it necessary to turn down this proposal completely on the argument that if my hon. Friend's suggestions were adhered to it would remove the clear 1299 dividing lines, which would mean that more and more people would claim benefits with all sorts of unforeseen repercussions.
I believe that to be an argument of administrative convenience. In this case, where we are dealing with intensely human problems it would be an argument which unworthily bolstered up a distinction between one pensioner who receives his pension and others who do not, which many of us, and I think the Minister, who is well aware of the situation, think both unfair and illogical.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Overseas Development (Mr. Ben Whitaker)
I am glad that we have had this debate. We all know that we are talking about a group of people who have given very distinguished service, both to Britain and to the countries in which they served, performing many kinds of jobs. This House has, quite rightly, always been extremely sensitive to their rights including pensions, and how to deal with them, and including not only those who have retired but their widows and dependants following their death. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples) for telling me in advance of the two cases he had in mind so that I could provide as much information as possible.
I would like to add my personal view that there is an especial duty not upon hon. Members but upon the Government to consider with exceptional care the justice of these cases, in that they do not for the most part fall within the province of the Parliamentary Commissioner. It might be easier for their rapid solution if they had been included within his ambit, but that is not a matter for me. I think we would all agree that it does redouble the duty falling upon us to consider their circumstances.
As the hon. Gentleman has said this is not the first time that he has raised the case of his constituent Mr. Sable in this House. He did so in the Adjournment debate of 26th November, 1968, and subsequently the noble Lord, Lord Trevelyan, has raised the general issue of the South Yemeni pensioners in the House of Lords. I have listened closely to everything the hon. Gentleman has said and I will cer- 1300 tainly study the record of his remarks of that particular case, and in general, to make sure there are no points in his speech I may have overlooked.
Having said that I must state that the present situation at law is as was outlined by my predecessor. I will not weary the House by repeating it generally, but the principal situation is governed by two determinate factors, one of which the hon Member outlined. Overseas civil servants, whether expatriate or local, were employed by the overseas governments concerned and not by Her Majesty's Government and their pension rights derive from legislation passed by those governments. Their pensions are awarded and paid, or should be paid, by those governments. The second point which I do not think has been stated this evening, which is equally relevant, is that it has always been the policy of the British Government to regard independent governments who have succeeded former colonial governments as inheriting all their predecessors rights and obligations. This includes liability for public service pensions.
The particular situation regarding the South Yemen is that the South Yemen Government at first paid public service benefits until 31st May, 1968. Therefore they thereby acknowledged the general principle on which the British Government have acted throughout. But, in accordance with a statement they made, they have since declared their intention to default on payments falling due since then—they say, of necessity. Subsequently the British Ambassador made representations to the South Yemen Government about the state of the pensioners. Unfortunately, Britain has not been successful in persuading the South Yemen Government to honour their obligations.
There has been one additional piece of evidence which may be of interest to the House. I was asked whether we should expect the South Yemen Government not to discriminate between certain types of pensioner who may be more sympathetic to the new Government than others. The South Yemen Ambassador to Britain wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph on 13th November last year covering this very point. He ended his letter:Finally, I would like to assure all expatriates who previously served in the 1301 country that my Government regards all civil servants as one and it wishes it were in a position to help them.So prima facie from his statement there is no wish to discriminate between individuals, but the case of the South Yemen Government, as stated by the Ambassador in that letter, is that they are not in a position financially to undertake an obligation which they wish they could undertake.
I am sure that all Members of the House share the great sympathy that I personally feel about the case of Mr. Salole. It is no solace to him if we say that hard cases make bad law. On the narrow point as to the dispute about his status, I should like to invite Mr. Sable to visit the Ministry of Overseas Development and to bring any new evidence which he may like to produce to prove his contention that he has been awarded the wrong type of status. If the hon. Member would like to accompany him and to argue his case before me, I should be prepared to give it fresh consideration without any reflection on the previous consideration given by my predecessor.
As under the legislation my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself will be acting in a semi-judicial capacity in deciding how the law applies to a particular case, it may be best if I express no personal view in advance, but I will bear very much in mind the points which have been raised on the case.
On the matter of the general review, I am happy to be able to give the House the assurance that the Government have already started a review of the whole matter of pensions. I cannot give any undertaking about its outcome, but it has been in progress for several months, and, as my right hon. Friend told the House last week, she hopes to be in a position to inform the House of the results of that review in the near future.
Arguments have been eloquently expressed on both sides of the House for a change in the whole situation. It is right that we should bear in mind the countervailing arguments. The cost of implementing concessions such as have been suggested are very hard to determine. There is the additional difficulty that there might be a standing temptation to any overseas Government to default on their obligations to their own people 1302 in the expectation that Britain would be ready to pick up the bill.
I do not think anybody would wish these matters to be looked at in purely financial terms. We are conscious that human families are the essence of the matter, but this involves the whole principle of our relationship with overseas countries. We must work on the principle that their employees are their employees in every sense. We cannot pay the salaries of local residents employed overseas, and as pensions could be argued to be no more than a form of delayed salary we cannot agree to pay their pensions either.
There is the difficulty that once the precedent is set in any particular direction, there is a danger that Britain might find herself in totally uncharted waters and at the mercy of any Government which might wish to dishonour their own staff and leave the British Government to pick up the bill.
§ Mr. Hooley
Surely my hon. Friend must accept that there is a distinction between the period when these territories were under colonial rule and the period when they became independent. This is the distinction which the Tanzanian Government have made quite clear. I do not see how under present circumstances when these countries are independent they could disown an obligation of this kind and impute it to the British Government.
§ Mr. Whitaker
That is one of the considerations which we will have very much in mind.
I was referred to a second case involving a Mr. Sharman. I think that this is the first time that this particular case has been brought to the attention of the House. He is governed by the fact that the pensions of the former Chinese municipalities are not the responsibility of the British Government because under the Sino-British Treaty of 1943 the administration of the former international settlements in China was made over to the Chinese Government, which in turn undertook responsibility for the official obligations and liabilities of the settlements, including benefits due to former employees. Unfortunately, the present authorities in Peking refuse to honour their responsibilities in this matter.
1303 The whole question whether any supplements should be made to quasi-governmental pensioners was fully debated in the House during the passage of the 1969 Pensions (Increase) Act. I do not wish to weary the House by reiterating what my hon. Friend and predecessor said during the Second Reading debate and in the debates in Standing Committee F at about that time, but I think the hon. Member who raised this case accepts that, given the present state of the law, Mr. Sharman's case falls undoubtedly within this category and that there has been no dispute as to his status in this respect.
Several hon. Members on both sides mentioned the unfortunate delay in various cases. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned the particularly unhappy consequences on widows. If he has any particular case in mind, I will be glad to take it up if he sends me the details, My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) asked me to confirm whether Britain is unique in its reading of its obligation regarding pensioners. I confirm that so far as I am aware Britain is unique in its present policy in this respect.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) recognised the argument against a change in that the flood gates could be opened. He then raised several cases, including one involving widows in Ceylon. Once again perhaps he will be kind enough to send me the details; if he thinks my Ministry will be ab1e to help in raising this matter with the Ceylon authorities, we would be very glad to do so.
The right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) spoke of the hardship and anxiety of dividing lines. It is obvious from the debate that there is considerable difference of opinion as to where the dividing line should be. But equally we must recognise that, wherever the dividing line is now, or whatever it may be altered to, it is inevitable that some people will fall on either side of it and that some people will feel aggrieved that the dividing line does not include them.
Therefore, I much appreciate debates such as this, because they are the best way of exploring whether justice has 1304 been done to individuals and whether they have been judged rightly within the context of the law as it stands at present.
There is nothing that I can add to the question of the general review, except to assure hon. Members that it is being urgently considered by my Department and the Government as a whole. We hope to be in a position to put the results of the review to the House before very much longer.