HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc512-20

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

11.21 pm
Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise in the House the issue of the backdating of war pensions. In the debate, I shall refer to two of my constituents: to preserve their anonymity, I shall call them service man 1 and service man 2, although the Minister has, of course, been given details of their identity and their history. At the outset, I declare an interest in respect of the first of those two constituents: he hand-crafted a dolls' house for my seven-year-old daughter—a beautiful and touching gift, for which I am proud to express my thanks on her behalf.

Service man 1 will be 80 years old in July, but the past 58 of those years have been years of great suffering. Following the evacuation at Dunkirk, mines were laid by our own troops around the south coast as a defence against possible invasion. They were anti-tank mines, not anti-personnel mines; they were designed to destroy enemy landing craft and, when they exploded, they made craters 8 ft deep. During storms, in heavy seas, those mines shifted and service man 1's unit was sent to recover and replace them. They had no mine detectors, only bayonets, as they went into the storm, on to the shifting shingle.

Service man 1 was squatting on his heels, replacing the arming lever in one such mine, with two of his comrades beside him, when the mine exploded. The two men with him were killed. He survived, but was blown 40 yd into the sea. He suffered lacerations to his hands and face and within his mouth; his teeth were blown out at gum level; an injury to his right elbow prevented it from being fully extended; and flash blindness meant that he was without sight for five weeks. His nerves were shattered and he suffered deep concussion, memory loss, frequent nightmares and flashbacks. He was treated for seven months by the leading expert of the age, William Sargant, about whom I shall say more shortly.

On 19 August 1941, service man 1 was discharged from hospital suffering from, among other things, war neurosis—post-concussion, which is better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a chronic condition, whose symptoms include severe depression, awful dreams, flashbacks, aggressiveness, massive mood changes, gross irritability, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, excessive fatigue, headaches and stress-related heart disease. On 15 September 1941, he was discharged from the Army and he applied, of course, for a war disablement pension.

On 18 September, service man 1 was sent Ministry form MPB 240, which stated that, despite the range of injuries suffered, only post-concussion syndrome and the injury to his elbow were to be recognised for war pension purposes. Worse still—bizarrely, even hideously, one might think—the Ministry denied that the conditions were directly attributable to war service and that exploding mine. It said that the war may have exacerbated prior conditions.

In consequence, service man 1 was awarded a partial war pension only, even in respect of the limited conditions that the Ministry recognised. However, worse was to follow. The partial award, made in 1941, was reduced steadily until it was removed altogether in 1953.

Some people may think that service man 1 must have been making a remarkable recovery, but post-traumatic stress disorder is a chronic condition. The available medical records—which I have seen and forwarded to the Secretary of State—show conclusively that service man 1 received medical treatment for the various indicia of the condition in every decade from the date of injury to the present.

After discharge, he was unable, because of illness, to recommence his pre-war trade. He was forced to take a menial job. In 1981, just weeks after seeing his doctor for depression yet again, he was forced to take early retirement on medical grounds from that menial job.

Service man 1 tells me, and I believe him, that he made no miraculous recovery, that he suffered throughout and that he suffers now. He cannot even be treated for cataracts because of feared internal head injuries. Yet from 1941, this brave man received a reduced war pension and, from 1953, no war pension at all.

Some people may say that he should have continued to appeal, year after year. He did appeal, from 1941 to 1955, and was rebuffed. Why? William Sargant, the doctor to whose care service man 1 was entrusted gives us the answer in his seminal work on traumatised world war two veterans entitled "The Unquiet Mind". The book demands greater scrutiny than I can give it today, but in it he states: Just before the declaration of World War II, a group of official advisory experts … decided that war neuroses could best be abolished by simply pretending that they did not exist; or at least that they were not caused by a man's war experiences but by an inherited predisposition or early childhood trauma. So, although we could discharge mentally ill patients from the Army, if they were clearly of no further military use and might relapse when returned to duty, any applications for war pensions on their returning still partially disabled to civilian life were brusquely rejected. Service man 1 was not just a victim of war, of an exploding mine or of post-traumatic stress disorder: he was a victim of official blindness to his suffering.

In world war two, we may not have executed personnel traumatised by the conflict, as happened a quarter of a century earlier, but neither did we give them war pensions. We cannot have expected such men, who were already damaged, to continue to apply for war pensions, year after year, in the face of official denial. Even the loving wife of service man 1, who has stood by him and suffered with him all these years, could not bring herself to apply on his behalf, at further risk to his fragile peace of mind.

In 1996, with the encouragement and support of the Royal British Legion and the organisation Combat Stress, service man 1 reapplied for a war pension. It was then conceded that mistakes had been made, that he had suffered a wider range of injuries than had been recognised all those years before, that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that that was caused by the exploding mine in 1941. That had been denied when he first applied.

A war pension was at last awarded to him again, and even upgraded after the War Pensions Agency found papers that had previously been lost. However, even though it related to suffering that dated from 1941, that war pension was backdated only to 1996, the date of the latest application.

Service man 2 also lives in my constituency. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a regular before the second world war. He was 17. He had excellent eyesight, he was an athlete and he weighed 12 st 7 1b. He boxed at the upper limit of the light heavyweight division for the RAMC team. He was stationed in north China between 1937 and 1939, and he contracted typhoid, amoebic dysentery and other diseases. During the battle of Singapore, his first aid post was bombed and shelled from air and sea. He was shot in the leg, and he suffered a fracture and shrapnel wounds. He was taken prisoner by the imperial Japanese forces. He spent three and a half years in captivity, and he worked on the Burma-Siam railway.

Service man 2 contracted terrible tropical diseases. He was beaten, and he suffered loss of teeth, ruptured ear drums and a broken nose. He was starved; the former light heavyweight boxer's weight fell to under 7 st. He became so emaciated that he was blinded for three months by malnutrition. When he could see, he witnessed depravity—man's inhumanity to man, and sights no man should have to endure. They cannot bear repeating in the House.

On his release, like service man 1, service man 2 suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He returned to this country after the war, after 11 years of unbroken military service. That regular soldier, who had expected to serve for 18 years, was found unfit for further service. He was part of the human debris of war.

Service man 2—a brave man—was subjected to ridicule. Broken, physically and mentally, he was abused and humiliated. In 1946, he changed his name by deed poll to try to bury the traumas of his past.

The very least that service man 2 might have expected was proper treatment by those responsible for war disablement pensions. Yet, in 1946, he was awarded disablement pension in respect only of myopia with astigmatism, malaria and dysentery—just three of the conditions on the list of injuries and conditions from which he was suffering. In 1950, his war pension in respect of the three recognised conditions was reduced to 20 per cent. In 1955, it was reduced to the range of 6 to 14 per cent. In those days, assessments of under 20 per cent. took the form of a small weekly pension followed by a lump sum payment, and that was made in February 1957. For 30 years and more, that was his lot.

Service man 2 had to wait until access to medical records legislation came into force in 1989 before he could scrutinise medical documents he had not previously seen. Afterwards, he presented himself for medical re-examination, and it was confirmed several months later that, in addition to the three conditions previously recognised, he had been suffering from seven further long-standing—I stress long-standing—conditions induced by war. They were bilateral hearing loss; Meniere's disease; shrapnel wounds to his legs; a fractured left ankle; an injury to his pelvis; malnutrition; and, again, post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1990, the seven additional disabilities were acknowledged, and service man 2 was awarded a war pension accordingly. As with service man 1, it was backdated only to the date of latest application—1990.

My two brave constituents were wrongly denied war pensions for many years. Some disabilities were missed, others wrongly stated not to have been caused by war. Post-traumatic stress disorder was ignored, airbrushed out of medical history as if it simply did not exist. We do not need to condemn out of hand those responsible for the errors; they were made in times very different from today. However, in a humane society, we must condemn any system that prevents those mistakes from being rectified now.

My hon. Friend the Minister will known that, until 7 April 1997, the Secretary of State was vested with a broad discretion to issue backdated war pensions in appropriate and exceptional cases. That discretion afforded the Secretary of State the capacity to act and to do justice in appropriate and compelling cases. From that date on, however, the Conservative Government all but removed the discretion.

On 3 February 1999, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he thought it sensible to restore to his Secretary of State the discretion that the Conservatives had removed. He said that the Government would always consider ways of improving the situation … within the Government's overall cost budget."—[Official Report, 3 February 1999; Vol. 324, c. 931.] On the issue of cost, I remind my hon. Friend of two things. First, on this point, all I am asking for is restoration of a discretion to backdate in appropriate and compelling cases. That is not a huge spending commitment. Secondly, as I understand it, the first year of the Labour Government yielded a saving of £53 million on war pensions alone. Even after conceding to the Royal British Legion's demand—which I support—that we reverse restrictions on deafness pensions for ex-service men and women, there must still be money available from that pot to make restoration of the discretion a real and a worthy measure.

I ask my hon. Friend tonight—just as I asked our mutual right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a short time ago—whether he thinks it is sensible to restore to the Secretary of State the discretion to issue backdated war pensions in cases that truly merit it. If not, why not? What conceivable reason could any Secretary of State have for wishing to deprive himself of at least the capacity to exercise mercy, compassion and discretion when fairness compels it? I await my hon. Friend's answer with great interest. I have thought hard about that question, and I can think of no reason whatsoever.

My hon. Friend does not have to go that far—although I implore him to do so—to help service men 1 and 2. After all, they applied for backdating before 7 April 1997. The Secretary of State retains his discretion to remedy the unfairness that they have suffered. It is about discretion—it is not about rigid rules to which there must be slavish adherence. As of 1 April 1998, the then Secretary of State did not even know when the discretion was last exercised or how many times it had been exercised since the general election. I consider that to be a lamentable state of affairs. I also think it begs the question whether past Secretaries of State have acted lawfully.

How can discretion have been exercised fairly and consistently in the past if we do not even know how and when it was exercised? How can we be sure that we have been treating like cases in a like manner? Can my hon. Friend tell me tonight whether the discretion has ever been exercised by this Government? It certainly has not been exercised thus far in favour of either of my constituents.

There has been nothing by way of backdating for service man 1, who was blown up by our own land mine. He was forced to abandon his trade through shattered nerves and to take early retirement by reason of depression. He has received nothing, despite known errors in the way in which his case was handled and despite medical evidence of on-going suffering for nearly 60 years.

There has been nothing for service man 2, who was starved on the Burma-Siam railway and whose post-traumatic stress disorder was ignored. He has received nothing, despite the six other missed long-standing medical conditions from which he has been suffering since the war.

There has been nothing for either of them.

Will my hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State, in whom the discretion is vested, to examine both cases again? Will he ask him to exercise that discretion—a discretion which is still available to him—so as to right the wrongs inflicted on my two constituents? They do not want huge sums of money, but they want the mistakes of the past acknowledged and corrected. They want fairness—a fairness that they have been denied by successive Governments for far too long. I want fairness too: I want it for my constituents. Until we have it, there will be a scar on the soul of this country.

11.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) on securing this debate on such an important subject. The way in which he has made his case tonight will go further to enhance the reputation that he already enjoys as an excellent constituency Member of Parliament.

I begin by paying tribute to those members of our armed forces who have been killed or injured in the service of their country.

Members of Parliament of my generation must remember that the democratic liberties that we enjoy to seek election to Parliament and to speak freely when we get here were kept alive by the sacrifice of British service men and women during two world wars. All hon. Members owe a deep debt of gratitude to soldiers such as my hon. Friend's constituents. I share his belief that those who have served their country and suffered injury should be properly compensated. I do not want there to be any doubt of that in his mind.

My Department is committed to ensuring that decisions about war pensions are made fairly and consistently on the basis of the facts in individual cases and the law pertaining to those facts. The war pensions scheme provides a basic pension or gratuity for disablement due to, or aggravated by, military service, whether in time of peace or war, and a range of allowances that may be paid in addition to the basic pension. The basic pension is currently £111.10 a week, and allowances for severely disabled ex-service men or women can increase that to slightly more than £400 a week. Entitlement to basic pensions and allowances is decided only after advice from doctors appointed by the Secretary of State.

For many years, the law has provided that the date of commencement for a war pension is normally the date of the claim or review that led to an increase in the pension.

However, my hon. Friend raised a question about the discretion for backdating that was vested in the Secretary of State before 1997. The War Pensions Agency observes guidelines that are in the public domain in dealing with such cases. This is a discretionary provision, so each case must be considered on its merits and not according to precedent. Both cases raised by my hon. Friend have been considered in that manner.

My hon. Friend asked whether I believe that the Government should restore a facility to backdate. That facility is there—in 1997, just before the general election, the facility to backdate was changed from one of discretion by the Secretary of State to one prescribed by regulations. However, it is the previous discretionary provision that concerns the two cases that my hon. Friend raised. I am of course aware of his long-standing interest in the cases, which is reflected in the parliamentary questions that he has asked and his detailed correspondence with my noble Friend Baroness Hollis, the Minister responsible for war pensions.

Service man 1 enlisted in the 204th (Wessex) Field Company, Royal Engineers, Territorial Army in 1939. He transferred to full-time service on the outbreak of war in September that year and performed all his Army service in the United Kingdom until sustaining his injuries on 7 January 1941. He received immediate medical treatment and, later, hospital treatment in Deal, Chatham and Sutton. He was discharged from the Army on 15 September 1941 as permanently unfit for any form of military service because of his injuries. He was awarded a war disablement pension from the following day for post-concussive syndrome and a loose body in the right elbow joint, which were the only conditions for which he claimed.

Service man 1 was readmitted to hospital in Sutton in February 1942 for further treatment due to the post-concussive syndrome and blast effects. His file then records several medical examinations over the period from August 1942 to May 1954. The examinations indicated that although still suffering from the effects of his injuries sustained in January 1941, his disablements, when compared with a fit person of similar age, were improving. A final gratuity was awarded in December 1950 for the period to November 1953.

Those decisions about service man 1's war pension entitlement were not taken arbitrarily or in isolation, but based on the facts that were established at the time. Service man 1 sought help from at least two ex-service organisations and had his case considered by the local war pensions committee. There matters rested until 1996, when a further claim was made and a war disablement pension was awarded from the date of that claim. My hon. Friend says that the War Pensions Agency was blind to the needs of his constituent. I regret that I cannot accept that, because it considered properly and fully the claims each time that one was made.

Mr. Stinchcombe

My hon. Friend will know that I referred to an extract of "The Unquiet Mind" by the expert of the age, William Sargant, which I have sent to his Department. He will therefore know not only that we air-brushed out post-traumatic stress disorder from second world war medical history books, but that after the second world war although those with bunions but fit and able enough to fight for their war pensions got one, those who suffered brain damage did not, because they were unable to fight and their families were too ashamed to fight for them.

Mr. Bayley

I have not read the whole of William Sargant's book, but I have read the extract which my hon. Friend has drawn to my attention. The books suggests—my hon. Friend seems to be suggesting, too—that, at the time of the second world war, the Government had a general policy of rejecting war pensions claims made in respect of psychological injuries. I have made inquiries as a result of my hon. Friend's representations and found that, in 1939, £22 million was paid in respect of war pensions for psychiatric illness, largely in respect of non-psychotic conditions, which these days might be described as post-traumatic stress disorder, and that psychiatric illness accounted for 15 per cent. of all conditions compensated by the scheme. So it is not true to say that the Government in the war period sought to air-brush psychiatric conditions out of the war pensions scheme.

Service man 2 was awarded a war disablement pension from May 1946 until February 1957 in respect of disablements from which he was suffering at that time. The level of war pension, as in the case of service man 1, was decided not arbitrarily, but following medical examination. Service man 2 was examined on seven occasions between March 1946 and April 1954. He also exercised his appeal rights. The pensions appeal tribunal—a body totally independent from the then Ministry of Pensions—upheld the decision on the level of disablement, and found that two disablements for which he had claimed were not attributable to military service. By 1955, service man 2's level of disablement was such that he was not entitled to a weekly pension payment, and a final gratuity was paid.

Service man 2 did not make a further claim for a war disablement pension until March 1990. That claim resulted in an award, and the assessment of service man 2's disablements has subsequently increased to 100 per cent. In both cases, the war pension has been awarded from the date of a new claim, which is what the law prescribes, since there was nothing that prevented either ex-service man from approaching the Department at any time during the intervening years and reopening their case.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of war pensions for hearing loss. That concerns two distinct issues. First, the war pensions scheme was amended in 1993 to introduce a 20 per cent. Cut-off, which aligned the war pension rules for noise-induced hearing loss with those for industrial deafness under the industrial injuries scheme. Secondly, in 1996 the Department changed the rules to ensure that only hearing loss due to service attracts an award under the war pensions scheme. War disablement pensions can be paid only for disablement due to service. They cannot be paid for hearing loss that is due to aging or any other non-service cause. To pay a war pension for conditions unrelated to service would run counter to the basic principles of the scheme.

My hon. Friend claimed that the War Pensions Agency has not fully recognised the psychological trauma of the two ex-service men whose cases he has raised. I do not believe that that is so.

In the case of service man 1, his war pension assessment included disablement through service-related psychological injury from the outset, and in the case of service man 2, from 1991 when he claimed for malnutrition and privation with associated nervous features.

In deciding whether there are grounds for backdating a war pension, the medical question that has to be considered is whether there is any mental or physical disablement that would prevent the war pensioner from lodging a claim at an earlier date than he did.

In conclusion, I have studied the files about the cases of service men 1 and 2 and listened carefully to all that my hon. Friend has said about those two brave ex-service men. I congratulate him on the forceful way in which he has argued their cases. He will understand that I have to respond to his constituents on the same basis as for any other claim for backdating a war pension and that I am therefore unable to give any undertakings in either case. Nevertheless, if my hon. Friend submits new evidence that he believes would have permitted the Secretary of State to exercise favourably his discretionary powers before 1997 in respect of either case, I will arrange for that evidence to be considered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.