HC Deb 01 May 1986 vol 96 cc1183-8

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

9.23 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I declare a pecuniary interest in the subject that I bring to the attention of the House. If the Government respond favourably to the debate I, as a retired member of the overseas civil service with wartime service in the Royal Air Force, will be a beneficiary.

I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) will be successful in intervening before the Minister replies to the debate. I am authorised by my hon. Friends the Members for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) and for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) to say that they are unable to be here but support what I am about to say.

The Colonial Service, now called Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service, together with the Indian Civil Service and the Sudan Civil Service, was responsible for the government of the British empire. Although recruited by the United Kingdom Government in London, its members were employed and paid by the Governments of the colonies to which they were assigned. They served the British Crown and British interests abroad in many different capacities, as administrators, accountants, engineers, policemen, educationists and in other professions. They worked under all sorts of adverse conditions of climate and health, often with primitive accommodation and usually without even the normal amenities of civilisation. The consequence was usually shorter careers, early retirement and shorter lives. They endured those conditions because, to be a member of the Colonial Service, with its personal challenges, dangers and adventures was worthwhile and a reward in itself. They were the instrument of Britain's contribution to the welfare of its overseas territories and they were proud that under them the standards of government, law and order and justice were raised to levels never known before, and in some cases since, in the countries concerned.

Although almost all its members were graduates and professional men and women, specially selected for their jobs, the Colonial Service was always the most neglected of the British public services. Its pay and pensions were comparatively low, being fixed according to the relative poverty of the colonies providing them and often influenced by hostile local politicians.

That does not matter so much now, when most of them are retired, but what does rankle with those who were first appointed to their colonies after serving in the second world war is the British Government's refusal to include in their pension computation an element on account of their war service. All the other public services in Britain—the Home Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service, the Armed Forces, the police, and even the teachers—have their war service taken into account when their pensions are calculated and paid. Only the Colonial Service—the Overseas Civil Service—does not. Members of the other public services who were appointed after service in the war get credits for that war service in their pensions on the simple ground that they should not suffer in their pensions compared with colleagues who did not serve in the war.

The reason for that distinction—it might almost be called discrimination—is simple. Members of the Overseas Civil Service were, technically speaking, employed by colonial Governments and no colonial Government was obliged, nor was any Government after independence expected, to pay the pensions of their expatriates beyond that appropriate to their actual service in the colony. Her Majesty's Government alone had the power and responsibility to pay the comparatively small sum involved but have always refused to do so, although the claim has been considered at the highest level. What my right hon. Friend the Minister of State now tells complainants is: As you know this matter went forward to the 1983 Public Expenditure Survey where it received very careful consideration. I am afraid we were forced to conclude that it would not be possible to accommodate such a large and continuing commitment among the numerous claims on available resources. I am sure you will appreciate the overriding need to contain public expenditure: this is an example of the hard choices the government has to make. Given the continuing need to contain public expenditure it would not be right for me to hold out any hope that the position will ease, and that I might be able to reopen the issue in the foreseeable future. I quote from a letter recently sent by my right hon. Friend.

The cost of what my right hon. Friend called "this large and continuing commitment" has been estimated by my right hon. Friend's Department at £3 million a year, and the number of people eligible at 4,600. These are probably over-estimates. In any case, the money could easily be found in savings elsewhere. A sum of £3 million, for example, is less than that now being wasted on the net cost of issuing dog licences. It is less than the cost of many unimportant items in the Government's research programme. No account is taken of the clawback in income tax. The number of people involved is declining every year with the deaths of the people concerned, most of whom are elderly. On the other hand, the small sum involved in each case could make a significant difference to the comfort of men and women in their declining years who served their country exceptionally well.

9.31 pm
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words to support my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), who has raised this subject on the Adjournment debate.

This anomaly was first brought to my attention by a constituent who is a member of the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association. Since that time I have been extremely interested in the matter. I cannot agree with the Government's technical excuses for not treating these pensioners in a similar way to other public servants with regard to war credits. The Government have a moral duty which they should accept with good grace.

Relatively speaking, the amounts of money involved are extremely small but they would make a great deal of difference to the pensioners concerned. If the sums were granted to the pensioners, they would feel they had been treated in an equitable way in comparison with the other public servants. I agree with the cogent arguments presented by my hon. Friend and I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the matter.

9.33 pm
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Some of our most distinguished citizens will share my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for raising this question on the Adjournment.

The unwillingness of successive Governments to recognise, for pensionable purposes, the war service of colonial civil servants is a regrettable, deplorable, failure. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will acknowledge that the time has come for the Government to accept that they must shoulder these undoubtedly strong moral obligations.

The colonial civil servants were recruited by the Government and were servants of the Crown. They have as much right to recognition as other servants of the Crown—home civil servants, officers of local government or teachers. They bore the burden and the heat of the day, and they served often in the most arduous of conditions. They made considerable personal sacrifices, born out of dedication and devotion. Their services are overdue for recognition.

We should also acknowledge that the end of the empire in the 1950s and 1960s meant for some, termination of their career and considerable difficulties in finding new employment and further pension opportunities. That strengthens the moral argument in favour of our case, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond to it.

There has certainly been discrimination. There is no conceivable reason why the Government should draw a distinction between colonial civil servants and others. On a technical level, it is arguable that they were not employees of the United Kingdom. Government, but, as I have said, they were recruited by the Colonial Office and were servants of the Crown. That factor should be regarded as paramount by the Government.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is altogether too honest and benevolent a man to ignore such considerations. I hope that he agrees that the sum involved in putting right that wrong amounts to about £3 million and that, in all the circumstances of today, the Government should be willing to find it.

9.35 pm
The Minister for Overseas Development (Mr. Timothy Raison)

The House has listened carefully to the arguments put so clearly and directly by my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), and for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). Obviously, this topic is not discussed very often in the House. However, expenditure on Colonial Service pensions accounts for about £140 million this year. Incidentally, that is about one tenth of my Department's total expenditure, and the administration of those pensions to some 46,000 people is a major task of the Department.

I and my officials devote considerable time and effort to dealing with the questions raised on behalf of overseas pensioners by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, by other hon. Members and by the Overseas Service Pensioners Association; and rightly so. Of course, I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington about the quality of the work carried out by our Colonial Service. Its reputation will not be forgotten, but it was nevertheless good to be reminded of it again tonight. We are rightly proud of it.

There is no disagreement on the basic point that the people involved have rendered great service to the United Kingdom, and, in particular, to the colonial territories in which they were employed. In my job there are inevitably many pressures on me to find new sums of money. That applies to overseas pensioners as well as to the general demands in connection with the aid programme. I receive a steady stream of letters, asking for more money for one thing or another. I am talking about not just the wide range of Overseas Development Administration activities but pensions too.

Over the years, the Overseas Service Pensioners Association has been active in proposing either that the field of people who benefit under the arrangements should be widened or, alternatively, that the benefits should be improved. War service credit for post-war entrants to the Colonial Service is an example of the second kind. We have always tried to give it very careful consideration. The argument that my hon. Friends have put tonight was put with equal vigour to my predecessor, the late Sir Neil Marten, and myself. I fully understand the substance of the case—that, since the concession had been extended to the main British public service groups in the 1970s to bring them into line with the Home Civil Service, it should in fairness be granted to overseas pensioners as well. It has also been argued that the cost of doing this for overseas pensioners—the figure of more than £3 million a year has been quoted previously and again tonight—is insignificant. But that cost could run for many years.

It is worth remembering that there are two types of war service credit. The first applies to officers who were in pensionable public service employment immediately before military service in the second world war, and whose careers were interrupted by the time that they spent in the armed forces. The war service of that group of officers counts in full towards their public service pensions. Colonial and United Kingdom public servants enjoy equal rights in that regard.

The second type of war service credit applies to officers who entered public service immediately after demobilisation. United Kingdom officers are allowed to count half of their military service for pension purposes. This puts them on a par with civil servants who were taken on during the war years on an unestablished basis.

The war service concession for post-war entrants was granted to United Kingdom civil servants in 1946. and to the main United Kingdom public sector groups, such as police, firemen, prison officers, teachers, Health Service workers and local government staff, in the 1970s. These arrangements, however, do not extend to colonial public servants, whose pensionable service was reckoned only from the date of their appointment to the Colonial Service.

It is difficult at this time to establish precisely why war service credit was not extended to the Colonial Service immediately after the second world war. Such evidence as there is suggests that wartime conditions of service in the Home Civil Service and Colonial Service were judged not to be on a par, so there was no automatic justification for treating officers in the same way.

In the case of the Home Civil Service, the original concession in 1946 was introduced to remove an anomaly which would otherwise have arisen between war-rime entrants and post-war entrants to the Home Civil Service. The Superannuation Act 1935 provided that the unestablished service of staff who subsequently became established without a break in service should reckon at one half its length for superannuation purposes. Recruitment to the Home Civil Service during the war was on an unestablished basis. Those who stayed on after the war would have been at an advantage, therefore, compared with those whose entry to the Civil Service was delayed by their war service. The 1946 Act simply provided that ex-service men and women should be treated no less generously in this respect than those who had entered the Civil Service during the war.

As I understand it, the same anomaly did not arise in the Colonial Service or, at any rate, did not arise in anything like the same degree. The terms of recruitment to the Colonial Service during the war varied from territory to territory and according to the particular discipline. Recruitment during the war years was also on a very much smaller scale—about 200 appointments a year, compared with 1,200 to 1,500 a year after the war.

This serves to underline the point that colonial pension scheme regulations did not, and should not, automatically mirror those of the United Kingdom public service. The provisions differed in several respects, often to the advantage of the overseas pensioner. For example, overseas pensioners have a retirement age of 55 rather than 60 and their pensions are inflation-proofed from that age. Unlike home civil servants, they can choose, within limits, how much of their pension may be commuted. They had the right to retire at independence on compensation terms which were by no means ungenerous. Many officers were able to pursue successful second careers having retired from overseas service. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington is an example. It is difficult to arrive at a comparison of the relative worth of benefits from different superannuation arrangements, but I think that it would be generally accepted that the provisions for former Colonial Service officers, taken as a whole, are a fair recompense for past service. In some respects, the terms for the two categories differed. In certain respects, the colonial servants received favourable treatment.

It was against this general background that in 1983 we looked into the question of war service credit for post-war entrants to the Colonial Service. The conclusion then, among many hard and difficult choices, was that the resources could not be found. That remains the position. The Government are committed to the firm control of public expenditure. It is an unavoidable consequence of our policy that many claims, many of them worthy in themselves, for extra resources of one kind or another cannot be accommodated.

It has been argued that the cost involved is minimal. I cannot accept that. Although the figure of £3 million has been cited in the debate, and was cited by us in 1983, my Department has carried out more recent work, based on a random sample of pensioners' records, which has shown that the costs could be significantly higher—perhaps £5 million to £6 million a year. Those are sample figures. I am not claiming that they are exactly right, but they indicate a higher figure than that cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington. It must be accepted that sums of this order raise public expenditure implications for the programmes for which I am responsible. Additional resources would have to be found if war service credit were to be granted to Colonial Service pensioners.

There is strong feeling on this issue. My hon. Friends have put the case tonight and, over the years, I have received quite a lot of correspondence on it. I hope that my hon. Friends will recognise our concern to strike the appropriate balance between the need to control public expenditure and demands on my Department and the claims of overseas pensioners for enhanced benefits. I believe, as I have tried to show, that, on the whole, overseas pensioners are by no means ill-served by the arrangements which successive Governments have put in place over the years and by the scale of the provisions now made for them. I am afraid that I have to say that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington has argued his case cogently and I accept that there is strong feeling on this matter, I am not able to give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he has asked.

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