HC Deb 09 March 1972 vol 832 cc1812-22

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

I shall be brief to enable other hon. Members to speak in this debate. Therefore, at the outset I will content myself with two very brief points of fact.

I am a war pensioner in a minor way, but I am not a Far East prisoner of war pensioner. My information on the matter comes from F.E.P.O.W.—I think that most people know what that means—and in particular from Mr. Adams of Poole, Dorset, and Mr. Harrison, the welfare secretary of the Leeds and district F.E.P.O.W., who came and talked to me about the problem.

My concern tonight is the "over seven years" rule, which is the basic provision—Article 5 of the Royal Warrant—under which entitlement to pension is considered where a claim for disablement or death is made more than seven years after service in the Forces is ended. For periods less than seven years, to which Article 4 relates the rule is that in no case shall there be an onus on any claimant under this Article to prove the fulfilment of the conditions —for award— and the benefit of any reasonable doubt shall be given to the claimant. To paraphrase it, after seven years there is no presumption in the applicant's favour. The view which I put is that, because of the particular hardship of F.E.P.O.W.s—the absence of personal records and the lack of check-up on prisoners when they return to this country, unlike the case in Australia and in the United States—they should always be treated as coming under Article 4.

The Under-Secretary has pointed out to me that, in the absence of records, other reliable evidence will suffice—for example, war diaries and evidence from investigations at Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton. Of course, F.E.P.O.W.s get the degenerative diseases common to middle age, and the view of the organisation is that conditions are worse for them. This seems to be the case from evidence in other countries.

An interesting article in the General Practitioner, which I have before me, states: The KZ Syndrome (concentration camp syndrome), the long-term effects of stress and starvation, is not officially recognised in Britain as it is in the Scandinavian countries. Holland, Belgum and France are beginning to take the effects into consideration when awarding war pensions but Britain lags behind. I should like to mention a point, of which I have given notice to the Under-Secretary, which must be cleared up concerning the survey at Queen Mary's Hospital by the trustees, of whom, by the nature of a former office, I am a former honorary president. The hon. Gentleman has said that this is not a survey of degenerative diseases and that it does not show that F.E.P.O.W.s are any more liable to the diseases looked at.

An allegation has been made to me which must be cleared up. Figures are given on the first page of the introduction of the report issued by Roehampton. It has been put to me that page 1, para. 3(a), of the published report refers to cardio-vascular "symptoms", but in the original, of which I have a copy, the reference is to cardio-vascular "sequelae". In para. 3(b) it refers to "symptoms" again, and the original referred to "sequelae". There is a great difference between symptoms and sequelae. It is interesting that there has been no alteration to a later reference to psychiatric "sequelae". It is the same phrase in the final report.

The hon. Gentleman has written to me to say that the summary represents the considered views of the three doctors who carried out the survey. At the very least—I do not make the major case—there was some discussion in the penultimate report as to whether the word should be "symptoms" or "sequelae". From a pension point of view there is all the difference in the world between the two.

Because I want to be brief, I will not go back over the article in the General Practitioner of 4th February, 1972, on the surveys done on Australian prisoners of war.

Why not end the seven-year rule, not just for F.E.P.O.W.s but for all war pensioners, now? For obvious reasons, as I have said before, the number of pensioners is declining. This is one reason for having a Royal Commission on war pensioners. We should review all claims, especially from war widows. In the absence of records, they cannot prove what happened. All medical boards should have doctors with a knowledge of tropical diseases and of the case that F.E.P.O.W.s have put forward. The hon. Gentleman has said that he will meet F.E.P.O.W. This is an admirable step. Given the evidence which is now forthcoming, the case of the Japanese prisoners of war in particular should be looked at again.

11.34 p.m.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

I must declare an interest because I am one of these F.E.P.O.W.s. The only other one who is a Member of the House is my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South East (Mr. Peel), who is abroad.

One out of three of those taken prisoner died in captivity. Of the other two, one has always been rather sick, has not got on well in life, and has been passed over for promotion, and only the third seems to have been a good citizen. All these men are now aged 49 or more.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for raising this subject, particularly after the recent report. We are not treated as are our counterparts in other countries. From my experience of investigating this matter as an hon. Member, I have discovered that many men who suffered shellshock and so on during the First World War seemed all right for perhaps 30 years and then suddenly broke down when in their early sixties. We are getting cases now of F.E.P.O.W.s who are breaking down physically and mentally. For this and the reasons advanced by the hon. Member for Leeds. South, this matter should receive further attention from the Department.

I have been concerned about this whole issue for a considerable time. Indeed, 18 years ago I raised it in an Adjournment debate. At that time I spoke of the need to have these cases examined by doctors who were familiar with tropical diseases. A great deal has been done by Roehampton and we are grateful for the efforts of the people there, but many men in the provinces fear that their local tribunals of doctors do not fully understand their cases.

Is it too much to ask that the Department should enable these men to come to London to attend a panel of specialist doctors who are fully conversant with tropical diseases and this whole problem? It would mean these men receiving only a few extra pounds to make the journey and they would have satisfaction that their cases were being properly judged by men who understood what it was all about.

I make this plea on behalf of these men and the widows of men who were in this position. I am, of course, referring to men who die probably at an earlier age than would be the case had they not gone through this experience. I hope that the Under-Secretary will get his right hon. Friend, who is a man of great sympathy, particularly in specialist cases, to look again at this group of men.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

I am grateful for this opportunity to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) have said from personal experience of this problem.

I recently put some Questions to the Secretary of State on this subject and, frankly, I was thoroughly disappointed with his answers. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that his comments were quite out of character with the Minister, who normally adopts a sensitive approach to problems of this kind. I can only assume that there was an administrative difficulty over which he had no control. I hope that that difficulty has now been overcome.

I want the Under-Secretary to accept that F.E.P.O.W.s and their widows deserve special treatment. We are speaking of men who have suffered torture such as cannot be imagined. The terrible conditions which they somehow survived are beyond description. When I was in Singapore a few years ago I was told stories that not only astounded me but made me wonder how these men managed to survive at all. Their deprivation evokes from the nation a spontaneous response in support of their case, and bearing in mind that it is so long after the war it is clear that we are speaking of very small numbers.

We in this country are not so poor that we cannot overcome this problem. At least we must come up to the standard of treatment that the counterparts of these men receive in other countries, including Australia, America and Canada. A good case has been made and these men have the sympathy of the nation. Those who have experienced what these men went through, those who are connected with them and those who have not had firsthand experience of the problem have all responded in their favour. We look tonight for a similar response from the Under-Secretary.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the Minister would like to catch my eye at 11.45 p.m. The debate must end at 11.56. This means that back bench hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate can all do so, if they each confine themselves to approximately 1¾ minutes. Dame Joan Vickers.

11.40 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

Thank you for that hint, Mr. Speaker. I want to mention two points. First, I went to Singapore in 1945, so I have absolute knowledge of what the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) has been talking about. I saw the men in the camps and hospitals. In many cases they were almost too brave; they wanted to come home to their families and get on with the job.

I pay tribute to Brigadier Sir Jackie Smyth, who is one of those who have fought very hard for them. The hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) and myself are now proud to be trustees of the Far East Prisoners of War Fund. I hope that reconsideration may be given to the conditions, and I support the point about the widows. There are quite a number of them in my constituency. It is very difficult to prove that their husbands died of the treatment they received in the Far East.

On Saturday last I attended a dinner for people in Macassar. One could not have had a more loyal band of men serving this country. They continue their friendship and they continue to help each other. I hope that the Government will in turn give them the extra help they need.

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). We have both had the privilege of representing Her Majesty's Government as trustees of the Far East Prisoners of War Fund. We are as generous as we possibly can be. I hope that the Minister will respond to the plea made in such eloquent terms by the hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for those brave men who served us so faithfully in those far-flung days.

I should like to express my gladness at being associated with the people with whom I served. I was not a F.E.P.O.W. but I am a pensioner of long standing. I remember the gallantry of those men. I am happy to be associated with them tonight.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Woodhouse (Oxford)

The one point I underline to my hon. Friend the Minister is that every one of the concessions which have been pressed upon him by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees)—who has done so well to bring this matter to the atten- tion of the House, as have other hon. Members who have spoken—is without exception already standard practice and common form for the other countries most closely concerned, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Many hon. Members will have received letters from former Far East prisoners of war. I received a letter from the Secretary of the National Federation of F.E.P.O.W. Clubs and Associations. The last sentence of that letter, which I read with the greatest sadness, was this: The treatment and consideration accorded to the British Far East prisoner of war fell far below that which had been received by their counterparts in Canada, Australia and the U.S.A. I hope that after we have heard my hon. Friend the Minister this evening it will not again be possible to write those words.

11.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for raising this important subject. He mentioned that he is a war pensioner. So am I. Every one who has spoken in the debate has a very real personal interest in this problem.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) mentioned that he is an F.E.P.O.W. himself. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) do excellent work as trustees of the Far East Prisoners of War Fund. I am glad of the opportunity, too, to clear up perhaps a few misunderstandings and to inform the House of the action I am taking.

First, I assure the House that we intend to give every help we justifiably can under the war pension scheme to F.E.P.O.W.s and their dependants, and to all others who have served elsewhere. We are conscious of the hardship and deprivation that F.E.P.O.W.s endured. We are alert to the possible effects on individuals years afterwards. The minds of doctors and laymen are open to the results of research and diagnosis, both that which we have already and that which we shall have in the future. Every case will be looked at with sympathy and a keen desire to give the benefit of any doubt to the claimant. But we must work within the war pensions scheme as laid down in the Royal Warrant. The whole system of preferential rates of benefit for disability pensioners and widows rests on a causal connection between disability and service. Public support for the preferences, especially among the younger generation, could quickly dissolve if we departed from these principles.

I know the president and the national officers of F.E.P.O.W. and many of their members and realise, as has been brought out in the debate, that there are matters which are troubling them. I have been studying this matter in consultation with my senior medical officers and I have suggested to F.E.P.O.W. that we should meet to discuss the matter. I am sure it will be useful for both of us. I do not want to prejudge that meeting by being dogmatic and saying a great deal today because I want to keep an open mind until I have had a full opportunity, after having medical advice, to hear exactly what they wish to tell me.

I recognise that F.E.P.O.W.s feel at a disadvantage in trying to prove that disablement which perhaps took place a long time ago was attributable to or aggravated by war service. There are clearly problems in their minds as to how this can be done, not only for the man but more so for the widow, and it is this which gives rise to the criticism of the so-called seven-year rule. This is contained in Article 5 of the Royal Warrant under which entitlement to pension is considered where a claim for disablement is made or death occurs more than seven years after service has ended. In such cases it is for the claimant to show that this disablement is related to service. However, if he produces reliable evidence which raises reasonable doubt whether his disablement is related to service he is entitled to succeed.

The evidence does not have to consist of official records. Article 5(5) says: Where there is no note in contemporary official records of a material fact on which the claim is based, other reliable corroborative evidence of that fact may be accepted. This can, of course, be of particular importance to F.E.P.O.W.s where medical records are often not available for the period during which they were prisoners. Further, we know enough about the conditions they had to endure to accept that the claimants suffered. They do not have to prove that they endured bad conditions. We accept that immediately.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South said that all claims should be accepted under Article 4. This deals with claims made not later than seven years after service has ended. For claims made within seven years Article 4 relieves the claimant of the onus of proving that the injury on which the claim is based is related to service. It must succeed unless evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that the injury is unrelated to service. This would be a very substantial change to make in the war pension arrangements and could very well undermine the basis on which the preferential arrangements rest. Furthermore, I do not think that the rule under Article 5 presents an undue obstacle to the claimant. We estimate that there are about 7,000 F.E.P.O.W.s and some 2,700 of their widows and dependants already receive war pensions. This means that a much higher percentage of ex-F.E.P.O.W.s are getting the war pension than of ex-Servicemen who served elsewhere.

The changes that the Government introduced last September mean that widows of badly disabled men who were in receipt of constant attendance allowance at normal maximum rate or higher at the time of death are automatically entitled to war widow's pension without having to prove direct attributability.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye asked whether there could be a specialist panel for F.E.P.O.W.s. I wonder whether the House has sufficiently realised the distinction between what the boards do and what is done at the centre at Norcross. The medical boards do not decide on entitlement. They advise on the appropriate percentage assessment for any disablement that is discovered, but entitlement is decided by the specialist doctors, in conjunction with lay officers, who work at Norcross at Blackpool. It is here that an enormous range of expertise and experience has been built up. This concentration of expertise in Norcross is perhaps more important in dealing with this aspect than the actual composition of the boards.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South, has asked me in particular about some of the wording in the Roehampton report from Queen Mary's Hospital on the results of the survey into the effects of captivity on the neurological and hepatitic systems of F.E.P.O.W.s who passed through the hospital from January, 1946, to the autumn of 1968. I think I can clear up his points to his entire satisfaction.

It was recorded in the draft report originally circulated that 599 cases appeared to have had definite cardiovascular sequelae since release. However, as there was nothing in the body of the report to link the cardio-vascular condition with captivity, and as no special study was carried out of this aspect, the authors amended the words "cardiovascular sequelae" to read "cardiovascular symptoms" in the final proof copy as being more scientifically accurate. They have recently confirmed that the published summary is an accurate reflection of their considered views. Perhaps I should add that two of the three authors of the report are not on the staff of the Department.

Whether the final report said "sequelae" or "symptoms" in no way affects the treatment of individual war pension claims, since if in any individual case it can be shown that there is a link between the cardio-vascular trouble and war service the claim is accepted. I hope that this reassures the hon. Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) mentioned the experience in other countries. I readily admit that in some respects other countries treat ex-F.E.P.O.W.s more favour- ably than we do. If, however, the benefits and the services available overall are taken into account, there is probably not much difference. However, I am studying very carefully the experience of other countries, and there is no doubt that we shall go on learning in this field. I do not claim that we know everything about it. We certainly do not. We have had valuable information from the studies.

The American and Australian reports both showed a significantly higher than expected mortality rate from traumatic deaths during the immediate post-war years and I have made clear in the light of those reports that we are prepared to look again at any rejected claim which may be affected by those findings, if we are sent details of the cases concerned.

I assure the hon. Member for Leeds, South and hon. Members who have raised this matter that our minds are not closed on the point and I look forward very much to having a personal and detailed talk with representatives of this most excellent organisation. I hope that in dealing with it, it will be possible to meet some of the points that have been made. I clearly cannot make any commitment tonight, and the House will not expect me to in advance of seeing those I am to meet, but I have demonstrated our good will and determination to do our utmost to see that F.E.P.O.W.s get every help they can under our war pension arrangements.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.