HC Deb 26 February 1997 vol 291 cc311-8 1.29 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise this important debate about my constituent, Mr. Reg Vincent. The purpose of my debate is twofold: first, to consider his old-age pension contributions and secondly to look at the value of his former Rhodesian—now Zimbabwean—police pension.

To put everything into perspective, it is important to consider Mr. Vincent's history. I should like to run quickly through his war service and the years that he spent in the British South Africa police in Rhodesia. In 1940, as a young man of 18, Reg Vincent volunteered for the Royal Air Force. He was accepted into the RAF on 11 June, when France was in the process of falling and Britain was standing alone. They were desperate, bleak times, but, like many other determined, patriotic young men and women, Reg wanted to fight for King and country. That is why he volunteered. He did his basic training and, in November 1941, he was posted to South Africa to help train the South African and Rhodesian pilots and ground crews. He set sail from Liverpool, wearing a red poppy, on 11 November 1941.

In due course, Mr. Vincent was posted to 27 Air School at Bloemfontein, where he served for a number of years. On 20 December 1944, he was involved in an unfortunate and tragic accident. Along with other ground staff, he was working on an aircraft that had been on some trestles. Mr. Vincent and his colleagues had carried out that routine procedure hundreds of times. On that occasion, due to the negligence of the senior corporal in attendance, a trestle was removed prematurely and Reg was crushed under the aircraft frame. Due to the negligence of a mechanic, the tail oleo leg had not been topped up with hydraulic oil, which meant that when the aircraft crashed down on Reg Vincent, the damage and injuries were worse than they would otherwise have been. He suffered bad fractures to his first and second lumbar vertebrae, resulting in him being hospitalised for eight months. For five months, he was encased in a full-length plaster of Paris cast an inch thick. Imagine that in the hot, humid South African climate.

Mr. Vincent has borne the legacy of that terrible injury for the rest of his life. He returned to the United Kingdom after the war, much later than he would otherwise have done. His demobilisation was delayed until 6 September 1946. His great ambition after the war was to join the Kent police. He had set his heart on that, but unfortunately he failed his medical, which was a devastating blow.

Reg then saw some advertisements that were in police stations and other public places to join the British South Africa police in Rhodesia. The Government wanted a large number of service men to seek posts in colonies to take pressure off jobs and housing in the United Kingdom. He applied and had three days in which to agree to take up the post. In those three days, he had to sort out his life and all his personal arrangements before setting sail for Africa once again.

Mr. Vincent arrived just before Christmas 1946. After his training, he was posted to Bulawayo. He then entered a period of tough policing in the former colony of Rhodesia. During that time, he had a number of traumatic experiences, which the Minister knows about. I shall not go through them in detail, save to mention that he shared a room for a while with a sergeant who was charged with a jewellery theft. That sergeant was convicted, but he committed suicide, as did the inspector in charge of the case. We should consider the impact of that on a young police officer who had gone abroad to serve the Crown. At about the same time, his engagement to his fiancée, who was waiting in England to come out to marry him, was called off. He then married a local girl in Rhodesia. Unfortunately, that marriage broke down—although I am pleased to say that he is now happily married again—and he then went through a difficult time in his personal life, the relevance of which will become clear.

We should bear it in mind that this was no ordinary policing assignment. It was a difficult, remote posting where the responsibilities and demands of policing were different from those in other parts of what was then the British empire. In due course, Mr. Vincent was transferred to Umtali, where he served until 1967. He had a distinguished career in the British South Africa police in Rhodesia and was awarded a number of medals, in addition to those that he won during the war.

The unilateral declaration of independence was made on 11 November 1965. We must consider the position of officers such as Mr. Vincent and other servants of the Crown at that time. The British Government—and, indeed, the world—were stunned by that unilateral declaration of independence. The Governor of Rhodesia remained the lawful Government of the colony and issued a directive calling on the judiciary, the armed services, the police and other public services to carry on with their duties, maintaining law and order and the normal functioning of Government services. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, said in the House: I believe that the Governor has made this statement in Rhodesia—that it is the duty of public servants to carry on with their jobs, to help to maintain law and order".—[Official Report, 11 November 1965; Vol. 720, c. 362.] He repeated that several times, as did Lord Pearce, in the judicial committee of the Privy Council.

Before the granting of independence to Zimbabwe in 1980, when Her Majesty's Government re-established the lawful colonial status, the public services had operated under a tacitly accepted compromise in which they retained their loyalty to the Crown and worked under the directive of the Governor, which was never rescinded, but were paid by the illegal regime of Ian Smith. Reg Vincent, like many others, decided to obey the suggestions and instructions of the then Prime Minister to stay in Rhodesia and to maintain law and order. If they had not done so, there would have been a complete breakdown and lawlessness in that country, and the ultimately smooth transition to independence for the relatively successful country now called Zimbabwe would not have been possible.

Reg Vincent left the police in August 1967. After a period as a deputy sheriff, he returned permanently to the United Kingdom in 1982. Rather than coming straight back to the UK, he decided to stay in the country that he loved and tried to help the police in the exercise of their duties.

Let us consider Mr. Vincent's pension contributions. He is now aged 75 and receives 71 per cent. of his old-age pension. He missed the years 1948 to 1968. He first contacted the Department of Social Security overseas branch in October 1974, when he first realised that he should have paid national insurance contributions in the intervening years.

The Minister will be aware that matters relating to the number of contributions an individual makes are decided by the Secretary of State, through a senior officer in the office for the determination of contributions. Reg Vincent had a great deal of correspondence with me and with the Members representing constituencies where he previously lived. He wrote to his Member of Parliament in Wallasey, now Baroness Chalker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies). To cut a long story short, the Secretary of State took the decision on 26 September 1994. There was a formal determination under section 17 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 and the statement of grounds of the decision was published on 19 April 1995.

The decision was devastating for Reg Vincent. It found that there had been ignorance and error which was attributable to Mr. Vincent's failure to exercise due care and diligence. In June 1995, Reg Vincent, a representative of the citizens advice bureau and I met the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is now Secretary of State for Wales. In fact, it was his last day at the DSS, although my right hon. Friend did not know that and nor did we, but we examined the case in great detail and had a valuable and constructive discussion.

The case was then taken over by my hon. Friend the Minister and we had a meeting about nine months ago. On 3 May, he wrote me a letter stating: In his submission of 8 March 1996 Mr. Vincent has indicated that he was prevented from exercising due care and diligence because of his ignorance of the National Insurance scheme and the communications problems which existed in Rhodesia at the time he entered the country. However, reasons as to why he could not exercise due care and diligence are irrelevant as the question to be considered was whether due care and diligence was exercised or not. It took me some time to work out what that meant. Anyone reading it objectively would probably have the same difficulty. The letter concludes: Mr. Vincent did not take any positive action to find out by enquiry the conditions of entitlement to pension. He therefore failed to exercise due care and diligence". I do not accept that. The Minister states that Mr. Vincent has a right of appeal to the High Court. How can such an individual appeal to the High Court when he is not eligible for legal aid and he is aged 75? The trauma, stress and huge expense are prohibitive, so it is not a practical solution.

We have to consider whether Mr. Vincent exercised due care and diligence. The DSS informs me that when the compulsory national insurance scheme was introduced in 1948, there was a huge amount of publicity. All the colonial administrations were told, there were broadcasts and people in public service in those countries were told exactly what the requirements were for participating in the new scheme of compulsory national insurance.

Reg Vincent has assured me that he did not hear the news. He was posted in Bulawayo and then went on to Umtali. He had difficulties in his personal life at the time and was shouldering his responsibilities as a police officer, upholding law and order in remote locations.

We are talking not about a police officer in Australia, New Zealand or Canada where communications were better and there was ready availability of news from the United Kingdom, but about someone serving in remote locations in Africa. Reg Vincent has assured me that he did not receive any information whatever during the period up to UDI. The Minister has accepted that, during the period of UDI, Mr. Vincent would not have heard what was going on in the United Kingdom because there was a news blackout. He asked about the previous period and asserted that Mr. Vincent should have heard about the scheme had he exercised due care and diligence.

I have discussed the matter at great length with Mr. Vincent. He is a man of great honour and integrity. Had he known, he would have taken the relevant steps. He did not know and, as a police officer serving in very difficult locations, he was never given the opportunity to find out. UDI was declared in 1965 and there was a communications embargo. Radio stations were jammed and there was absolutely no way that he could have received the relevant information that would have prompted him to take the necessary steps to make up his contributions.

My constituent has served his country with bravery and courage. During the war, he suffered an appalling injury, the legacy of which he carries to this day and has plagued him all his life. He wanted to join the Kent police. Had he done so, he now would be a relatively well-off retired man with a good police pension. However, he did not. He went to serve the Crown in Rhodesia. He might well have been excused for believing that, as members of the armed forces had their contributions paid, so did the police force who also wore the Crown on their service dress hats and helmets. Incidentally, had Mr. Vincent decided to ignore the Prime Minister's advice to stay in Rhodesia after the declaration of UDI, he would have joined a number of fellow police officers and returned to the UK, and in turn obviously paid his contributions.

We have to consider the circumstances surrounding the case. That is why I am asking my hon. Friend the Minister to review the decision. There is a compelling case for him to send it back to the Office for the Determination of Contribution Questions. I am asking him to show common sense and compassion on a matter within the remit of his Department.

Mr.Vincent also receives a former Rhodesian, and now Zimbabwean, police pension, worth 1,750 Zimbabwe dollars per month. It was worth a reasonable amount in 1980 when the Zimbabwe dollar was worth 80p. Mr. Vincent was getting about £16,800 a year, which is a reasonable pension. Since then, the Zimbabwe dollar has fallen dramatically. It is now worth precisely 4p. So his Zimbabwean pension, instead of being worth £16,800 per year, is worth £1,152. That is a loss of £15,648 a year. The loss of his Zimbabwean police pension since 1980 because of the fall in the exchange rate, in addition to what he has lost by not receiving a full pension here, comes to a staggering sum amounting to more than £17,000 a year. In total, Mr. Vincent has lost some £250,000.

I am keen that my hon. Friend the Minister should consider as a matter of urgency the Government's attitude towards Reg Vincent and the other Zimbabwean pensioners who are resident in the UK. I understand that the figure that we are talking about is approximately 1,800 people, including widows. It is very strange that, when the constitution of independent Zimbabwe was enacted in 1979–80, the Government did not require a public officers agreement, which had been an essential requirement for the granting of independence to other colonies and which invariably contained a guarantee of the sterling value of pensions. I cannot blame myself for that; I was not a Member of Parliament at the time. Nor was my hon. Friend the Minister. The matter should have been considered at the time, looked at during the Lancaster house negotiations and addressed in the drafting of the constitution of the new Zimbabwe.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take up the matter with his colleagues in the Foreign Office—I shall certainly be doing the same. Although from a strictly legal point of view, Her Majesty's Government may have no liability to Zimbabwean pensioners, there is an extremely strong moral case. Under the provisions of the Overseas Pensions Act 1973, the Government took over payment of pensions of overseas pensioners in India and virtually every other former colony. It would have been perfectly legally possible for the Government to enter into an arrangement with the Zimbabwean Government under that Act. Such an arrangement would not cost a great deal of money—probably about £3 million. As we are paying a very large amount of aid to Zimbabwe—we paid about £30 million a year over the past four years, considerably more before then and probably more in the future—I urge the Minister to consider the strong moral case for rectifying the grievance of this proud and honourable man.

I have never raised an individual constituent's case in an Adjournment debate before. It is quite rare for that to happen. I would not do so unless I felt very strongly about Mr. Vincent and believed that he was an honourable, honest man. There is a chance to correct the problem. Mr. Vincent is a proud 75-year-old; he is asking not for handouts but simply for justice.

1.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Oliver Heald)

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has raised the issue of Mr. Reg Vincent with me personally, in correspondence and at a meeting, and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales when he was Minister of State in the Department of Social Security. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his success in obtaining this debate to raise the issue once again. No one could have pursued a constituency case more vigorously. I join him in paying tribute to all those who served so bravely in the second world war. Nobody should ever underestimate what they gave to this country.

It is worth considering first how a person establishes a claim for a contributory pension such as a retirement pension. There are two aspects to it: first, the need to satisfy the statutory conditions appropriate to the benefit, which in the case of Mr. Vincent does not raise any issues, and secondly, the establishment of contribution conditions—that a person has paid sufficient national insurance contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk set out much of the procedure.

Questions of contributions are reserved for determination by the Secretary of State for Social Security. His power to make such determinations is contained in section 17 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Such decisions are made on his behalf by the Office for the Determination of Contribution Questions, which acts under the principles set out in the well-known case of Carltona. The Secretary of State delegates the responsibility to senior officers in the way in which my hon. Friend described. Such determinations by the Secretary of State are binding on the independent adjudicating authorities, and the right of appeal to the High Court lies by way of case stated on a point of law. In a suitable case, judicial review may be sought.

Mr. Vincent was abroad when the present national insurance scheme started in 1948. He did not return to live permanently in England until 1982, although he visited the United Kingdom in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. While abroad, he was not required to pay national insurance contributions, but was entitled to pay voluntary contributions for a retirement pension. No inquiries were made of the Department until October 1974.

There are strict time limits for voluntary contributions. Mr. Vincent was advised that he was entitled to pay arrears of contributions from December 1968, which he paid. He continued to pay contributions until he reached pension age in March 1987. On his 65th birthday, he was awarded a retirement pension at the reduced rate of 69 per cent. An adjudication officer decided that he was not entitled to a full retirement pension because of the deficiency in his contributions, which was at that time thought to have been between July 1948 and December 1968. Mr. Vincent challenged that, and on 23 March 1994, asked the Secretary of State to make a formal determination under section 17 of the 1992 Act. He asked whether he might pay contributions for any weeks in the period from July 1948 to 1 December 1968, and whether he satisfied the contribution conditions for a basic retirement pension.

Before a decision is given, there is a full investigation. The applicant is advised of the facts that the Secretary of State is minded to take into account, and the legislation is set out. The Secretary of State has discretion to extend time limits for the payment of voluntary contributions, but only when the failure to pay by the due date is because of ignorance or error on the part of the insured person and the ignorance or error is not due to any failure on the part of the person to exercise "due care and diligence". Although the wording appears in the 1979 contribution regulations, it replicates wording that has been used since 1967.

Mr. Vincent wrote to the Department in October 1974, but final action was not taken in adjudicating his case until March 1975. The later date was used to calculate the date from which he could pay the arrears. That was wrong; it was an error because the date of application is the relevant date. He was therefore invited to pay contributions for an extra 12 months, which he did and which increased his entitlement to 71 per cent. of the standard rate. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk has said, in September 1994, the question raised by Mr. Vincent was determined: he could pay, and had paid, contributions between 4 December 1967 to 1 December 1968.

A person who is aggrieved by a decision made by the Secretary of State may ask for a statement of grounds, and Mr. Vincent did so. The decision made by the Secretary of State can be reviewed if new facts are brought to his attention or he is satisfied that the decision was given in ignorance of the facts. Mr. Vincent applied for a review and provided additional information, but there were no facts relevant to the issue of due diligence. He did not provide any further grounds to allow the decision to be reviewed.

My hon. Friend made the point about the amount of publicity about the new scheme. When the national insurance scheme was implemented in 1948, very great efforts were made to ensure that individuals who lived abroad were aware of it. A leaflet was published and sent to all the consulates, the BBC was involved through its overseas service in publicising a statement of the then Minister calling attention to the benefits of the scheme and inviting people to write to the Ministry for information, and advertisements were placed in all the major newspapers that were circulated abroad. It has of course been accepted that some people abroad remained in ignorance of the scheme. Mr. Vincent has said that he was unaware of it, and that is accepted.

Mr. Vincent believed that he was prevented from exercising due care and diligence because of the nature of his employment and his family circumstances, but the view taken by the Secretary of State was that due care and diligence had not been exercised between 1948 and 1974. It is the responsibility of the individual to maintain his records. Although the Department tries to make information very widely available, it is not under an obligation to make an individual aware of the legislation. There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Vincent made any attempt to approach either the then Ministry or the Department, either in person while he was visiting this country or by letter to seek advice before 1974, although he had ample opportunity to do so. Legal remedies were available to Mr. Vincent which were not exercised.

I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk may feel that the circumstances are very unfortunate—some tragedy has tinged Mr. Vincent's life—but I do not have the discretion to override, interfere with, or circumvent a valid determination of the case. Mr. Vincent has not suggested that the Secretary of State has exercised his discretion unreasonably or in bad faith, and there is no new—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)


It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapse, without Question put. Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.