HC Deb 25 October 1972 vol 843 cc1289-95

7.58 p.m.

Mr. Robert Taylor (Croydon, North-West)

I count myself very fortunate to be able to initiate an Adjournment debate upon what is the last possible occasion of this Session of Parliament. I am indeed grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army for his presence this evening, because I know full well the heavy burdens which he bears in his responsibilities for our serving troops, particularly those in Northern Ireland. I also know that he was in Gibraltar 36 hours ago; so I am most grateful for his speedy return.

I think it would be unfortunate if this House could concern itself only with the affairs of those of our serving forces and ignore injustices to those who retired many years ago. I seek to convince my hon. Friend this evening that my constituent, Mr. Ernest Denyer, suffered an injustice when he retired from the Army many years ago.

My constituent comes from a family which has served this country with great distinction at considerable personal sacrifice. He is the sole survivor of four brothers. At 92 years of age that might not seem to be remarkable, but the other three all lost their lives nearly half a century ago as regular serving men. In addition, my constituent's only son lost his life in 1942 while a prisoner of war and as a result of Japanese barbarities and war crimes. Therefore, he is the sole survivor of five male members of his family and, although happily his own record was not so tragic, it is one of unmatched service.

He joined the Army as long ago as 6th March, 1899. It is perhaps of interest to the House to know that he has a clear recollection of lining the route in the Mall for the funeral of Queen Victoria. Immediately following this, he served in the South African war and was awarded the King's Medal with four clasps. During the 1914–18 war he served in Egypt, and in 1917 was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, which gives him a small annuity. He was discharged on 25th January, 1930–42 years ago. At that time he had completed no fewer than 30 years and 326 days of exemplary service in the Army.

I wish now to draw attention to the terms of service as he understood them when he enlisted, and for the convenience of the House I propose to refer to his pension in terms of the old currency. He joined the Army on the basis that, provided he served for the minimum of 21 years, for each year completed as a private or lance-coporal he would receive a pension of 1½d. per day; for each year that he served as a staff sergeant he would receive a pension of 3d. a day; and for each year he completed as a warrant officer class 1 he would receive a pension of 4d. a day. This was subject to the then regulation that soldiers could not serve after their 45th birthday, but towards the end of his service the age limit was raised to 50. In the event, my constituent, all these years ago, served four complete years as another rank enabling him to obtain a pension of 6d. per day, which is four times 1½d., for each completed year. He served six years as a staff sergeant, entitling him to a further 1s. 6d. per day—six years at 3d. He served six years as a warrant officer class 2, entitling him to another 1s. 9d. per day; and he served 14 years as a warrant officer class 1, which gave him an entitlement of 4s. 8d. a day.

It is not disputed that, on the terms of his engagement, his service created an entitlement to a weekly pension on retirement of £2 18s. 11d.; and that, he understood, was the position when he retired. The pension which he was awarded was £2 15s. To many of us the difference between those two figures may seem to be very small, but it is not small to my constituent. He maintains—and I think that this is understandable—that he would never have re-enlisted for the further period of five years if there had been any suggestion that the additionl service was not pensionable.

I think that the House will agree that it is unlikely that a man of 45 years of age would re-enlist for a further five years, thus prejudicing his chances of employment on discharge, if he had already reached a maximum pension, or thereabouts. That is the point of this case—that he was induced to serve for a further five years and at the end of that period he found, to his astonishment, that that extra period did not entitle him to an increased pension.

I wish to emphasise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that my constituent has no complaint about the way in which his pension has kept pace with inflation. Indeed, he is grateful to successive Governments for the way in which his pension has moved, and not least for the 18 per cent. increase which took place last year. But that is not the point. His concern is that at the advanced age of 92, in the evening of his life, he realises that his pension will be cut by two-thirds on his death and his widow's income will be drastically reduced. In addition, his widow will lose the annuity which he receives for the Meritorious Service Medal.

He is therefore fighting this case on a question of principle—that he was induced to re-enlist for five years without knowing that those extra years service would not increase his pension. He has suffered under a sense of injustice. His case was taken up by my predecessor as Member for Croydon, North-West, and now, as a last effort, I bring it before my hon. Friend. If the claim were conceded, he would receive a back pension of about £690. But he is not concerned with the back pension. What he seeks is the annual increase to which he believes he is entitled which, allowing for the increases for inflation, would amount to £36 per annum.

There can be few left who served in the South African war. There can be few left who re-enlisted for the additional five years service under the misapprehension that it was pensionable service. That was not explained. The point has been made time and again in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will have some encouraging news to give tonight and that my elderly constituent, now approaching his 92nd birthday, will find that the fight which he has conducted for so long has not been in vain.

8.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Robert Taylor) for raising this subject. It is true that I returned from Gibraltar not many hours ago, but I think that this debate, and the manner in which it has been opened so eloquently by my hon. Friend, serves to remind me and others of the importance which we in the Army rightly attach to the welfare of those who serve in it as well as to the welfare of those who have given their best to the Army in the past.

It is very important, as my hon. Friend said, to ensure that justice is done and is seen to be done to those who have honourably and courageously served their country in the armed forces. As my hon. Friend pointed out, his constituent and family have given great service to our country and Mr. Denyer's case deserves the most careful and sympathetic consideration.

The facts, as I understand them, are these. Mr. Denyer served in the Army from March, 1899, to January, 1930, and attained the rank of warrant officer class 1. He has the great distinction of being a veteran both of the Boer War and, World War I. Over the years Mr. Denyer has had a good deal of correspondence with the Ministry of Defence about his pension and it is clear that, despite previous explanations, he is still suffering under a sense of grievance. I am grateful, therefore, for this opportunity tonight to set the record straight.

As was made clear by my hon. Friend, the basis of Mr. Denyer's complaint is that he believes, mistakenly as I will endeavour to explain, that his original award of pension under the 1919 pension code was related to a maximum age limit of 45 years, that the age limit was subsequently increased but that that increase was not reflected in the pension rules and that therefore his last five years of service to the age of 50 were in effect non-pension-able.

Perhaps I could first clear up the question of the age limit. The maximum age limits for compulsory discharge of warrant officers class 1, which were contained in the Royal Warrant for pay, appointments, promotion and effective pay in 1922, and which varied between age 45 and age 60 depending on the category of soldier concerned, were the same as those in the previous Royal Warrant of 1914 and were unchanged in 1930 when Mr. Denyer was discharged. There was thus no change in the maximum age limit affecting Mr. Denyer before the introduction of the 1919 pension code and Mr. Denyer's discharge.

I turn to Mr. Denyer's pension entitlement. A soldier's pension entitlement is governed by the terms of the pension code in force when he goes to pension, in this case the 1919 code. The 1919 pension code provided for soldier's pension based on rank and the number of years completed reckonable service from the age of 18. There was no upper age limit, but the total pension entitlement was subject to an over-riding maximum pension which was scaled according to rank. For a WO1 the maximum pension was 55s. a week and this was the rate of pension which Mr. Denyer received on his discharge. It was and remains the correct basic pension applicable to his rank and years of service, and he received the same pension as any other WO1 discharged at the same time with the same rank and service.

It is a common feature of most pension schemes in the public sector that they contain provision for an upper limit to the award. Nowadays the maximum is often expressed in a different way, for example as a percentage of pay. There is nothing unusual about such a provision. It can have the effect that the last few years of service of a long-serving soldier may not add to his pension entitlement.

Mr. Denyer had earned his maximum pension by his 28th year of service. Although Mr. Denyer may not have been aware of the full provisions of the Royal Warrant—Army Order 325 of 1919—when he agreed to serve beyond his 21 years, he nevertheless benefited considerably from the improved terms of that Warrant and from the extra service which he gave. Had he taken his discharge in 1920 when he had completed 21 years' qualifying service and five years as a WO1, he would have received a pension of only £1 17s. 11d. a week, compared with his award of £2 15s. a week. If he had continued to serve and taken his discharge in 1930 with an award of pension under the previous pension code—that is to say the 1914 code—he would have received only £1 11s. 6d.

It has been claimed—and I believe that Mr. Denyer feels this strongly—that when the Pensions Increase Bill of 1971 was introduced an undertaking was given to make good deficiencies in past pensions. It has been suggested that Mr. Denyer's complaint about his alleged five years' unpensionable service constitutes such a deficiency. I should like to be able to accept the argument but I am not able to. First, Mr. Denyer was not deprived of pensionable service, and I cannot agree that the over-riding maximum which applied to his pension was a deficiency or an anomaly. Secondly, I remind the House of the main purpose of the 1971 pensions increase Measure which was set out in the White Paper on the Pensions Increase Bill 1971. Briefly, its aim was to make good the loss of purchasing power of the original pension. It was not the intention of the 1971 Act to alter the conditions under which the pensions were originally awarded.

It might be suggested that we should take the opportunity of the pensions review to look again at the rules affecting Mr. Denyer's position and pension. I am afraid that here again I must disappoint my hon. Friend. I cannot undertake this. First, as I have explained, I do not accept that any shortcoming in the rules has been demonstrated. Secondly, the pensions review will be concerned only with the rules affecting those going to pension after the effective date of any new scheme, and it would be contrary to practice and certainly most unfair to other pensioners, of whom there are many thousands, to change retrospectively the rules embodied in the 1919 pension code which ran right up to 1940. In other words, it is not just a question involving Mr. Denyer, it involves thousands of other pensioners.

Perhaps I may conclude by explaining exactly how Mr. Denyer's pension has been made up over the years. Mr. Denyer was awarded a maximum pension of 55s. a week from 26th January, 1930 which attracted increases of 5d. a day when he reached the age of 55, and a further 4d. a day at the age of 65. In addition, in 1959 he was awarded an annuity of £10 as a reward for his long and meritorious service in the Army. As a result of the various pension increase Measures, his award, including the annuity, has been increased to its present level of £602.11p a year. It will be further increased to £661.72p from 1st December, 1972 as a result of the 1972 pension increase Measure.

I hope, but I am not sure that my hope will be fulfilled, that what I have said tonight will satisfy Mr. Denyer that at least he has not been unfairly treated over his pension. I have looked into this case most carefully. I can assure my hon. Friend that his constituent has received the full pension to which he is entitled and which he has undoubtedly earned by his long and valuable service.