HC Deb 16 June 1977 vol 933 cc724-32

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

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, who has just replied to a stimulating debate on commercial vehicle taxation, referred to a simple and honest mistake. It is a simple and honest mistake to which I should like to direct the attention of the House in this debate.

I wish to refer to the quite inadvertent inequality of Government treatment of two groups of people to both of whom we owe a debt of gratitude for their contribution to victory in the 1939–45 war. The inequality is in the small but important matter of special superannuation rights granted for periods of such war work, and it exists between those who joined the Army and those who joined what the late Ernest Bevin called the mining army, which came to be known as the Bevin scheme miners, or the Bevin Boys.

Let me remind the House who they were and how they came into being. They were recruited in 1943 and 1944 to meet the war-time shortage of miners due to nil recruitment and the loss of miners to the Forces during the war years. This mining army wore no smart uniforms and won no medals. As far as I am aware, it was never mentioned in dispatches. However, it faced dangers and discomforts equal to those faced by many Service men.

Recruits were chosen by a lottery based on the last number of their National Service registration number. It was a most resented form of conscription, embracing even those like my constituent, Mr. Beale, who did everything that they could to get ready to go into the Army at the earliest possible opportunity.

So resented was that form of lottery that it was quickly dropped at the end of the war. However, that did not help those who had already gone down the mines. By the end of the Bevin scheme 21,000 miners had served under it, including such eminent public figures as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamp-stead (Mr. Finsberg), Mr. Jimmy Saville and Mr. Eric Morecambe, to mention but three.

Some of the Bevin scheme miners were prevented from going into the Forces even though they volunteered to do so. All of them were given the same assurance, namely, that they would be given exactly the same treatment after the war as those who were directed into or who volunteered for the Forces.

I shall cite five examples to underline the promise of equality of treatment. First, Mr. Ernest Bevin, speaking as Minister of Labour at the Mineworkers' Federation Annual Conference at Blackpool in July, 1943, accented especially the difficulties faced by young men. He said: It is obvious that I shall have to resort to some desperate remedies during the coming year. I shall have to direct young men to the coal industry, but that does not mean they will have to stay in it. We have got to send young people down the mines at younger ages than hitherto—perhaps below the 18s and down to 16. We are determined to treat them as if they had gone into the Army. That promise was restated in a national broadcast by Mr. Bevin in September of the same year. I quote from the Listener of September 1943. It reads: And let me say, too, that young men who go into the mines instead of the Forces will be eligible for the Government's further education scheme in the same way as if they had gone into the Forces. That was made quite clear to all those who were drafted into the mines when they were sent the directive, which is Public Record Office Reference LAB 8 734 X/J.7505. The document reads: Dear Sir, the vital importance of maintaining an adequate labour force in the coalmining industry has been recognised by making underground coalmining employment an alternative to service in the Armed Forces. I quote from another page taken from the Public Record Office, namely, from the records of the Government Committee on Recruitment. In the middle of the memorandum it states: The importance of coalmining has been recognised to the extend of placing it on a par with service in the Armed Forces". Lastly, I quote from the Government records, Keesing's Contemporary Archives 11th to 18th September 1943, which reads: Important changes in manpower allocation between the fighting services in order to strike the balance between their requirements, the making of coalmining an option ranking equally with service in the Armed Services for all men … were announced on August 24th". Therefore, there cannot be any reasonable doubt about the Government's intentions to deal with members of the Armed Forces and the Bevin scheme miners in exactly the same way. There is a sound case to be argued that both categories of men should be treated similarly for any superannuation concession in the same way that they were promised similar concessions on the post-war training schemes.

Inadvertently, the Bevin miners were overlooked when the concessionary orders were drafted, moved so admirably in this House by the present Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hatters-ley), and supported by the then Conservative Government on 28th November 1973. I urge the Government to investigate and put right that oversight.

Mr. Beale was one of those teachers who spent some part of their life as Bevin scheme miners. The reference point is the agreed statement on teachers' superannuation issued by the Department of Education and Science and dated 17th October, 1974. This entitles teachers entering the profession after serving in the Armed Forces to buy in half of their war service for pension purposes at a rate of 3¾ per cent. of a notional income of £200. Evidently this is a very advantageous benefit, and justifiably so. It could cost a considerable amount of money to do this today. Depending on a person's income, it could be as much as £2,000.

This concession established parity of treatment between post-war entrants to teaching and post-war entrants to the Civil Service. The difference is, I believe, that civil servants' pensions are non-contributory while the teachers' pensions are contributory. For both teachers and civil servants this is a special concession —a departure from the principle that war service should be reckonable only if it interrupted pensionable service. I am sure that this is much appreciated by teachers and civil servants alike.

But there is one category—those who went into the mines—who were not given this well-earned concession. I urge the Government to reappraise this anomaly, which must have been inadvertent, and to correct it in order to eliminate the unfairness that nobody could have seen or intended.

In order to help the reassessment I put three questions to the Minister. Should not the Government, dedicated as they are to fairness, be prepared to reappraise past Government actions because of the categorical commitment given by the wartime coalition Government, and Mr. Ernest Bevin in particular, that service in the Armed Forces and down the mines would be treated on an equal basis?

One could take the example of two men who were called up in 1943. One went into the mines and the other into the Navy. Both performed war service as defined by the War Service Act 1939. The previous Under-Secretary in a letter to me confirmed that. Both men were promised identical treatment at the recruitment office, and both were demobilised under the same regulations. If both subsequently entered teaching, the situation is that one now receives a pension concession for that service while the other, contrary to assurances given, does not. Mr. Beale falls into the latter group. Is not the time long overdue to treat these two cases in the same manner?

Secondly, I pick up the points made in correspondence with the Under-Secretary's predecessor. Can she establish that the Teachers' Superannuation War Service Act should be the point of reference rather than the Civil Servants Superannuation Act, thus making the 1974 regulations follow the definition in previous Teachers' Superannuation Acts? After all the assurances to which I have referred, is it right and just to restrict war service, as far as the 1974 order is concerned, to the definition in Section 1 of the 1946 Superannuation Act?

Thirdly, has not a reasonable precedent been established in the way in which assurances about equal treatment have been honoured in granting the same educational grants, the same dependence grants and the same increments? Why on pensions should equal warriors be differentiated? I ask the Minister to consider this question. If the answers cannot be given now, assurances that they will be sought would indicate that the Government are prepared to approach positively the search for a solution to the injustice that I have identified this evening, an injustice that Mr. Beale and some very few others of his colleagues suffer now.

11.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

As the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) indicated in his speech, this is a matter which has been under discussion for a considerable time and has involved a number of my predecessors. However, the matter is not as simple as he and his constituent appear to think, and it is not limited merely to people with Mr. Beale's background. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to explain some of the problems that arise.

The difficulty arises from the nature of war-time employment which may be accepted as war service for the purpose of a teacher's pension. The first important point to get across to the hon. Gentleman and his constituent is that the criteria for pre-war teachers or persons who in the pre-war period were intending to teach are quite different from those for post-war entrants into teaching, such as the hon. Gentleman's constituent Mr. Beale, who had not established, before undertaking their war service, of whatever kind, a firm intention to teach by having been admitted, or accepted for admission, to a recognised course of teacher training.

Pre-war teachers and intending teachers were covered by the Teachers Superannuation (War Service) Act 1939. This defined war service as service in any of the naval, military or air forces of the Crown, but gave the then Board of Education discretion to treat other forms of war service in the same manner as service in those forces. This discretion was used sparingly.

The employment of teachers in capacities clearly directed to the war effort, such as ARP, the Police War Reserve and the Women's Land Army, was accepted without question but, since teaching itself was a reserved occupation for some, other civilian employment was accepted only if it required the teacher's special scientific, technical, or professional qualifications. The field was widened a little subsequently to include service such as that of the Bevin Boys in the mines, to which young men were directed as an alternative to service in the forces. But the 1939 Act applied only to pre-war teachers and to those who before the war had demonstrated their intention to teach.

This was in accord with the principle followed in both World Wars that war service by a public servant should be pensionable only if it interrupted pensionable service. On this principle the war service of a post-war entrant to one of the public services should not be pensionable at all, and this is the starting point for post-war entrants.

However, at the end of the 1939 war, the Government of the day felt that it would be inequitable for the ex-Service men who would be coming into the Civil Service after the war, some of whom would have entered sooner had it not been for the war, to have no pension credit in respect of their war service when those who had been appointed to unestablished posts in the Civil Service during the war could count half their unestablished service for pension. The Superannuation Act 1946 accordingly provided in Section 1 for service in the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Merchant Navy and the mercantile marine, and the corresponding women's Services, also to count in this way as unestablished service.

When the Bill for the 1946 Act was being drawn up, considerable thought was given to the kinds of war service that it should cover. The claims of those who, like Mr. Beale, had been directed into the mines to be included in the Act were looked at very sympathetically, but it was realised at that stage that similar claims could be made by those who had been directed into, say, the ambulance service, fire service or munitions—in both of which the danger of enemy action might have been greater than service down the mines, and indeed that claims could be made by almost anybody in a reserved occupation.

It was also felt that most people could be said to have helped the war effort in some way and in different degrees. It became difficult to draw a line if one went beyond the Armed Forces. It was decided in 1946 to draw the line at those people since everyone was likely to agree that they had a special claim. This line has been strictly adhered to throughout the ensuing 30 years and claims from those who served, for example, in the field in the Polish Army and the Palestine Police have had to be rejected. Although these formations served under command of the British Army in theatres of war, they were nevertheless not constitutionally part of the Armed Forces of the Crown. They were therefore excluded from these provisions. It is therefore not correct to say that there is only a handful of people who, by chance, have been excluded from the Act. The Act has been administered quite restrictively.

The Government in 1946 were prepared for this concession on war service perhaps to be extended to post-war entrants to the other public services as well, but it was not found possible to do so at that stage. Had it been possible, there is no reason to suppose that the same restriction on the sort of war service to be covered would not have applied. On 28th November 1973 the previous Government found it possible in the case of teachers by accepting an official Opposition motion that would have allowed half of all teachers' war service to be credited for pension entitlement, as is the practice in the Civil Service. By relating the motion and its acceptance to the Civil Service practice the Government and Opposition clearly did not intend teachers to be treated differently from civil servants —either better or worse—and the teachers' regulations accordingly defined war service by reference to the 1946 Act. So the position that we are maintaining not only has a more widespread application than one might have thought but has been maintained for the last 30 years.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to a pledge given by the late Ernest Bevin that service in the mines would be regarded in the same light as service in the Forces. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment that there were some 18,000 Bevin Boys altogether, but I cannot say how many of them subsequently entered teaching. Even if Mr. Beale were the only one, however, affected at this stage by the provisions made, once we depart from the criteria of service in the Armed Forces those others in reserved occupations and all those others who do not come within the precise definition of service in the Armed Forces would have an equally strong case for exceptional treatment.

While, like the hon. Gentleman, I regret that people like Mr. Beale are not getting the treatment they might have expected at the time of their service in the war, it is unfortunately the case that the implications of a change of decision would not only go back on the settlement agreed in 1946, which has been sustained ever since, but would have widespread and considerable application to many other groups. The decision to take this stand was made in 1946 when these matters were first considered, and I am afraid that I see no prospect of departing from it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.