HC Deb 12 November 1973 vol 864 cc210-20

12.52 a.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

Mr. McKie, who is one of my constituents, is a teacher and the headmaster of a Roman Catholic School in Burnley. Apart from war service he has spent his whole adult life in the teaching profession, and it is about his pension rights that I rise to speak tonight.

It has long been acknowledged that war service should count towards a teacher's pension. Indeed, the regulations are so widely drawn that it is not only a person who taught before the war and went back to teaching after the war who is credited with contributions throughout the whole of his war service. A man who spent only a week in teaching before the war and who went back to teaching after the war is also credited with contributions. Indeed, a man who spent no weeks in a college or in teaching before the war but who had been accepted for entry into a teachers' training college before the war is also credited with contributions.

The reasoning behind that approach was explained by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary in a letter dated 14th September this year. It is that a person who applied to enter a college before being called up had thereby demonstrated a clear intention to enter the teaching profession and had shown that, but for the war, he would have entered the profession earlier. All that is fair enough and easily understandable. Bearing in mind the Department's reasoning and its policies as so explained in that letter from my hon. Friend, I should like now to refer to what has happened to Mr. McKie.

Between 1933 and 1939 Mr. McKie taught in a well-known school in Ceylon. During that period he obtained a teaching diploma and also an external degree at London University. In August 1939, before the war broke out, he decided to return to this country in order to obtain a teaching post here. He left Ceylon in the August and arrived here on 3rd September, the very day on which war broke out. He made what can only be described now as a very sad mistake. Instead of applying for a teaching post and then waiting to be called up for one of the Services, he decided to volunteer for service. If he had taken a teaching post, for which he was well qualified, for only a fortnight, all would have been well. Because he did not do so and because, rather than wait to be called up, he decided to volunteer for the Royal Air Force, he is now told that none of his war service is reckonable for pension purposes.

Mr. McKie is not suggesting that his Ceylon service should be reckonable for pension purposes. He is not suggesting that because he was teaching in Ceylon for six years before the war he should be put in the same position as a person who was in pensionable teaching service in this country between 1933 and 1939. He is saying that it is patently absurd that he should be put in a worse position than a person who merely applied for entry into a teachers' training college in 1939 and that he should at least be put in the same position as such a person.

One has only to state the position in the way I have done so to recognise that it is a complete absurdity and, now that the position has been explained to my hon. Friend, I am sure he will do his best to put matters right. I do not ask him to do that tonight. Obviously he will want to look at the machinery involved and to examine carefully what would have to be done to put matters right.

To make the necessary changes so that justice may be done to Mr. McKie is nothing like as difficult or as big a task as it might seem at first sight. In a letter to Mr. McKie sent by the Ministry on 21st May this year, it was stated categorically that the Minister was bound by the terms of the Teachers Superannuation (War Service) Act of 1939 and, although this was not said explicitly, the inference from the letter was that Mr. McKie was asking for the impossible, suggesting that an Act of Parliament should be repealed to suit his convenience.

That is entirely incorrect. I spent an hour or two in the Library of the House investigating the position. It turns out that the position is entirely different from that which seemed to be suggested by the Ministry at that juncture.

The 1939 Act was repealed in 1965. The 1965 Act was repealed in 1967. The 1967 Act was repealed in 1972. Somewhere along the line a great change in the law was brought about. Instead of the criteria governing those to whom war service should be credited for pension purposes being written into an Act of Parliament, the law was changed drastically and the matter was put into the hands of the Minister, who by regulations alone could determine who should have his war service reckonable for pension purposes and who should not.

The matter has nothing to do with the 1939 Act. It has nothing to do with any Act. It is within the power of the Minister to put right this obvious injustice tomorrow by regulations if he is so minded. There has been a torrent of regulations during the past few years. There has been the bundle which I have before me during the past 18 months. It seems a bad argument to advance—this was the original argument advanced by the Ministry—that it is far too difficult to make any change in the criteria laid down in the 1939 Act. We know that month after month during the past two years there have been regulations made by the Ministry which change various responsibilities of the Ministry and which change criteria.

I cannot believe that the effect of changing the regulations would be that the Minister would be besieged by persons claiming reckonable service. Three of four of my hon. Friends and two or three Opposition Members have approached me. They have indicated that there might be one or two of their constituents who would be affected by a change in the regulations such as I suggest would be proper. By meeting the point which I am making, the Minister would not be opening the floodgates for hundreds and thousands of people.

Not every day do we come across a man who taught in a school in Ceylon for six years and who arrived back in Great Britain on 3rd September 1939. As I say, he was put in a disadvantageous position compared with a man who had just entered training college on 2nd September. It is not every day that we come across such a case. All that the Minister has to do is to give effect by regulations to that which he acknowledged in his letter of 14th September to be the thinking behind the 1939 Act—namely, that, if a man can show that there was a pre-war intention to teach in a pensionable service, his war service should be pensionable.

Clearly my constituent can prove that that was his intention. He had never done another job in his adult life. He left Ceylon in August 1939, not to come back to this country to join up. He did not know any more than I did when he left Ceylon that war would break out. Clearly he left Ceylon to return to this country to continue to follow the only career which he knew—namely, teaching.

It is clear that my constituent meets the criterion laid down by the Minister in his letter of 14th September. He was a man who before the war expressed an intention to teach in pensionable service, and by the Minister's own standards his war service should be pensionable. That service can be made pensionable by the Minister, not by coming to the House and asking for the 1939 Act to be amended but by laying the appropriate regulation to put right the obvious injustice.

I do not ask my hon. Friend to give me an immediate reply. I ask him to recognise the common sense and the obvious justice of what I have said. I ask him to recognise the obvious injustice of depriving a man of the pension rights which are afforded to others who, no more and no less than Mr. McKie, expressed by their conduct in 1939 their intention to return to teaching after they had served their country during the course of a war. Please let us get things right as soon as possible.

1.5 a.m.

Sir Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I merely wish to add that I see no reason on earth why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary should not be able to say something encouraging tonight. This type of case has been argued almost ever since I first came to the House. It is about time that the Secretary of State reached a decision about it. It is a just case and it should be honoured.

1.6 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I should first like to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) on raising this issue. He is known as a most zealous constituency Member. He is one of the Members of this House who is always deeply concerned about any possible injustice to his constituents, and he has been deeply concerned about the question of Mr. McKie.

As my hon. and learned Friend said, we have been in correspondence about this case. I must say that I have some personal sympathy for Mr. McKie. He has been a borderline case. The facts of his distinguished career as a teacher and his volunteering to serve in the Armed Forces have been graphically outlined by my hon. and learned Friend. Whatever sympathy I may feel, I cannot go against the law.

It is true that Mr. McKie first entered pensionable teaching service in the United Kingdom in October 1945. He had been a teacher before this in Ceylon. The operative phrase is "pensionable teaching service". Immediately before his entry into pensionable teaching service in October 1945 he had been for almost six years, since November 1939, in the Royal Air Force. This sequence of stages in his early carreer is decisive in the matter of excluding his RAF service during the war from pensionable reckoning. It means that he did not satisfy the single fundamental condition of the Teachers' Superannuation (War Service) Act 1939.

That condition was that a teacher's war service could be covered by the teachers superannuation scheme only if it interrupted his pensionable teaching service under that scheme. Mr. McKie was not at the time under the scheme. He may have been under some scheme in Ceylon; I do not know. In any case this is irrelevant for the purposes of that Act.

Mr. Waddington

Is not my hon. Friend ignoring one rather important point which I raised? What on earth has the Act got to do with it? It was repealed years ago. What is all this business about the procedure being that there must be an interruption of pensionable service when the Act which has been repealed had written into it something very different from "interruption of pensionable service"; namely, a provision that a person would be entitled to his war service being reckonable if he had been accepted for teacher training college? That man's war service did not interrupt his pensionable service.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I appreciate the zeal with which my hon. and learned Friend champions the right of his constituent, but had I been allowed to continue uninterrupted I was about to come to that point.

My hon. and learned Friend is a little unfair to imply in regard to the letter things that were not meant to be implied. We knew the Act was repealed, but the Act continues to apply to those affected by its provisions when it came into operation. It is necessary to appreciate in its historical context the strictly limited purpose of the Teachers' Superannuation Act. The Act was passed on 5th September 1939 to safeguard the pensionable position at that time of teachers who were in or who would be called into the Armed Forces as a result of the outbreak of hostilities two days previously.

My hon. and learned Friend sketched rather dramatically the alternative that might have been open to his constituent if he had obtained a position as a teacher. It is true that had he done so we should not now be having this debate. But this is a rather hypothetical situation, because could he have obtained a post in that situation when there was no shortage of teachers at that time and he himself was imminently likely to be called up?

The Act accordingly provided for war service to be pensionable in the case of a person who, in order to undertake war service, had ceased to be employed in pensionable teaching service. The same principle was embodied in corresponding arrangements made during the same period to deal with the pensionable position of other public employees, such as civil servants and local government officials, whose careers were interrupted by war service. There was never any intention that service in the Armed Forces should be made pensionable in the case of every person who had been employed in pensionable service of this kind or might become so employed at any other time.

It has been suggested that, in the light of his training and teaching employment overseas before joining the RAF in November 1939, the denial of pensionable reckoning for Mr. McKie's service rests on an over-strict interpretation of the Act. I am afraid, however, that that view does not accord with the facts. Some teachers enjoyed in this connection a concession which was not available to other public servants.

This brings me to the second point raised by my hon. and learned Friend. Because of the need for intending teachers to undergo courses of two or more years of professional training, the 1939 Act provided for the war service of students already embarked on recognised teacher training courses to be pensionable from the time when, but for the war, they would ordinarily have begun pensionable teaching employment, thereby acknowledging their formal commitment to enter teaching. But that exception does not invalidate the basic principle, which remains that of the interruption of a pensionable career which had already begun. It is merely an extension of that same principle. Trainee teachers to whom this concession was made did not escape the operation of the principle, nor did the concession violate it.

The facts of Mr. McKie's case clearly do not in any way fit the requirement that, to be pensionable, war service must have constituted an interruption. Before he joined the RAF in November 1939 Mr. McKie had taught exclusively in Ceylon, where he acquired the qualifications upon which, when he later began teaching in this country, he was accorded the status of a qualified teacher.

It would not be possible therefore to argue, in relation to his entry into the RAF in November 1939, that he was postponing completion of a training course which in the ordinary course of events would automatically have been followed by employment pensionable under the teachers' superannuation scheme. Of course, as a teacher from overseas he did not, by joining up, interrupt employment which was so pensionable.

This is not to deny to Mr. McKie the sympathy which he feels to be his due. I have already expressed the view that to a certain extent I accept that, because it is a borderline and hard case; but there are many thousands of teachers whose war service before entry into the superannuation scheme is not pensionable and many others who, even though they may have been in pensionable teaching employment at some previous time, are unable to reckon their war service as pensionable because they were not so employed immediately before joining up.

Mr. Waddington

My hon. Friend said that it was rather artificial to talk about the possibility of Mr. McKie obtaining a teaching post when he got back to this country in September 1939. Does he or does he not agree that, if on 4th September 1939 Mr. McKie had been accepted for entry to a course for a teaching diploma in this country, he would have had the whole of his war service reckon-able? If he accepts that as true, what is the justice of the case being put forward by the Department and what is all this talk about the Act when, acknowledging the justice of my constituent's case, the law can be altered not by amendment of an Act of Parliament but merely by the Minister laying a regulation tomorrow?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I acknowledge the force of my hon. and learned Friend's remark, but the facts are that Mr. McKie did not take the action which he has described. He did not enter a course of teacher training or inscribe himself for it. Therefore, he does not come under the provisions of the Act which applies to those who did at that period.

Common to all the groups is the fact that they were not within the strictly limited groups of teachers whom it was the Government's intention to benefit by legislating in September 1939. There cannot have been a man, woman or child living at that time whose life would not, to a greater or lesser extent, be affected by the upheaval of war. Indeed, other considerations entirely apart, it would clearly have been beyond the capacity of any Government to provide by legislation that everyone should be put for all purposes in the position he would have occupied if there had been no war. The purposes and effects of the Teachers' Superannuation (War Service) Act 1939 were the limited and purely practical ones of establishing the rights of a defined group of existing employees.

My hon. and learned Friend dealt with a particular case in his constituency and was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Sir Gilbert Longden), who placed it in the wider context of the whole general issue, which affects a great many people, of whether war service should be reckonable for teacher's pension purposes and, if so, under what conditions.

I am sure that both my hon. Friends will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given an undertaking to the National Association of Schoolmasters to consider whether the war service of post-war entrants into pensionable teaching service, which is really the category which encompasses Mr. McKie, might count as to one-half for pension. I cannot say more tonight than that she is considering this matter. Consideration is still proceeding with care and thoroughness. I cannot at this stage hope to indicate the outcome, but were this to be favourable the position of Mr. McKie would certainly be alleviated.

I should also point out that it is or will be open to Mr. McKie next year, if he wishes, to buy in at full cost past years of war service and so raise his pen sion. Although I cannot give the kind of assurance for which my hon. and learned Friend asked this evening, the door is not entirely closed. My right hon. Friend is considering the matter and, whether her decisions be for or against, my hon. and learned Friend will be among, the first to be informed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past One o'clock.