HL Deb 02 July 1953 vol 183 cc121-47

3.24 p.m.

THE EARL OF SELKIRK rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Pensions) Order, 1953, reported from Special Orders Committee on Thursday the 11th of June last, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament. The noble Earl said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Salisbury, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper. On February 26 of this year the Prime Minister announced the amalgamation of the Ministry of Pensions and the Ministry of National Insurance and, at the same time, the transfer of certain functions of the Ministry of Pensions to the Ministry of Health and to the Department of Health for Scotland. These proposals were incorporated in detail in the White Paper published on May 13 last, which also included the draft Order to which I am now seeking the approval of this House. Very roughly, the proposals are that the pensions side of the Ministry of Pensions should go to the Ministry of National Insurance (now to be collect the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance) and that the medical services should go to the Departments of Health—that is to say, the Ministry of Health, in England, and the Department of Health for Scotland.

Anxiety has been expressed among organisations interested in the welfare of ex-Servicemen in regard to the effect of this Order, and it is my special task today to allay such anxiety. I should like at the outset to say that I think it is proper to remember that the majority of members of Her Majesty's Government, and I dare say of this House, are themselves ex-Servicemen, and that they fully endorse the views which have been expressed by successive Governments since 1914: that the country owes to war-disabled and bereaved persons, as is their right and proper due, a special obligation. We would not bring forward these proposals unless the Government were satisfied that they would involve no detriment either to the standing or to the quality of services which will continue to be rendered to ex-Servicemen. In this respect I should like to quote what the Prime Minister said in another place on February 26 (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 511, Col. 2317). On the general question of the pensioners and those who have suffered injuries in the war, we regard it on our side as a matter of honour … that their treatment shall in no circumstances be allowed to deteriorate. As I shall endeavour to show, it is fair to say that these people will lose nothing and, indeed, will of obtain a better service in certain particulars.

Let us look for one moment at the position as it is today. The Ministry of Pensions have existed for thirty-six years, and from quite natural causes the work of that Ministry has tended to diminish. While they once had sixty-seven hospitals they now have eight; while they once had 1,600,000 pensioners, they now have 950,000, of whom nearly 50 per cent. are from the 1914–18 war; and, of course, their numbers are necessarily diminishing. The staff of the Ministry, which in 1921 was 26,000, is now down to 9,000, and even this depends on fairly substantial agency work for the Ministry of Health, particularly in regard to the supply of artificial limbs and other appliances. Of war-disabled pensioners who were in hospital in March, 1953, more than half were in National Health Service hospitals—actually 21,000 were in National Health Service hospitals, and about 14,000 in Ministry of Pensions hospitals. Whilst last year there were something of the order of 3,000 National Health Service patients being treated in Ministry of Pensions hospitals, all war-disabled personnel to-day have the benefit of National Health Service doctors, who in most cases treat them in the first place. So that there is already a very considerable exchange of services between the Departments of Health, on the one hand, and the Ministry of Pensions, on the other.

My Lords, it is, I think, important in this respect to remember that in a number of the main blocks of pensions work the volume of work has halved, or more than halved, since the peak period after the war, in 1947. For example, the number of boards of all kinds in 1952–53 was 100,000, compared with 200,000 two years previously. If I may give another example, in 1947 there were some 40,000 appeals to Pensions Appeal Tribunals, whereas by 1952 the number had fallen to 13,000. All this shows that the work of the Ministry of Pensions is declining. The broad decisions of policy have now been settled, and there is not the same justification for high-level staff as there was immediately after the war. As an improvement in the machinery of government, there can be no question that the transfer of functions is the right step to take. No one has seriously attempted to deny this. At the same time, the Government are fully aware that certain questions have been put—first, whether this is the right time to do it, and secondly, whether it is being done in a way which gives the fullest safeguards. I should like now to deal with those two questions.

In regard to timing, I think it is necessary to consider the position of the continuing contraction of the Ministry of Pensions' activities and the implications to other Ministries which are set out in the White Paper. It is intended that these organisational changes will take place gradually; there will be no change in policy; the existing services to pensioners will be fully maintained, and the present pensions staff, and in particular the welfare officers, will continue to be available for this work. At the same time, we must recognise that the National Health Service has now been set up, and the Ministry of National Insurance has got fully into its saddle. When the Ministry was set up in 1944 it had to bring together existing pension schemes, and subsequently had to put into operation the Acts of 1946 and 1948. I think it is fair to assume that the teething troubles of that Ministry are now past. I am not saying that it has not great problems to face—of course it has; but its teething troubles are past. For these reasons, the Government consider that this transference, which is undoubtedly necessary, should be initiated at the present time.

I will now turn to the second point, the manner in which this amalgamation is to take place. I am aware that a number of organisations interested in ex-Service men are anxious as to whether the rights and preferences at present enjoyed by their members, men and women, will continue to be observed. In the first place, there will be no change at all in the pension arrangements: books will be issued, as at present, at the Posit Office, exactly as they have been in the past. In regard to the general question of rights and preferences, may I take a memorandum which I have received from the British Legion of Scotland, because in this certain specific assurances are asked for, and the memorandum, I think, covers the inquiries of a number of other organisations. I will, with the permission of the House, take the points seriatim. The first question that is asked is: Will the preferential position of war pensioners be maintained? On this, I can say categorically that there will be no change of policy with regard to the existing arrangements. The second question asked is: Will the existing priorities in regard to medical treatment be assured? Here again, I can say categorically that these will not only be preserved but, indeed, extended. The war-disabled who need treatment for their war disabilities will receive priority, not only in the existing pensions hospitals but also in all National Health Service hospitals. This is a very important step indeed, and one which I do not think can be overestimated.

The third point raised by the British Legion of Scotland is that the Entitlement Section of the Ministry of Pensions should remain a separate entity. I can give a full assurance that this unit will be retained as a separate entity. The fourth point is that the Welfare Services should continue to do their special work. I have already referred to this matter, and I can give a full assurance that the Welfare Services will be fully maintained and the same personnel will be available for the work. The fifth and sixth points deal with treatment at clinics and residential care scheme. These can, I feel sure, be covered by the full consultation which will take place with interested ex-Service organisations. The seventh point is that "there should be adequate representation of ex-Service interests in the management of hospitals." Here, I can give the assurance that it is intended that ex-Service interests shall be represented in the management of pensions hospitals. Perhaps while I am mentioning hospitals I should say a word about Queen Mary's Hospital at Roehampton, which has such a world-wide reputation, and of which we are all so proud. I will confine myself to saying that I believe the House can rest assured that the present Minister of Health (and I think one can assume the same will apply to any of his successors) is fully seized of his special duties with regard to this hospital, and that there will be no changes without full consultation with the governors of the hospital.

May I now add a word on the question of economy? It is, of course, Government policy to take every opportunity to make such changes in the organisation of Government Departments as will simplify administration and reduce costs. The object of the present proposals, as I have endeavoured to show, is not merely to secure financial economy but to obtain more efficient and orderly administration, from which economy will naturally flow and gradually appear. For example, we have in these two Ministries two large machines for paying pensions—one in Blackpool and one in Newcastle. In both cases, pensions are paid by means of pension order books, the weekly orders being payable at post offices. There will be economies here by bringing these two organisations together, and those economies will not in any way affect adversely those in receipt of pensions. I am asking the House to approve this Motion because it will achieve improvement in the efficiency of the Government machine, which I am sure every noble Lord must regard as a necessary and desirable object. But I will repeat that we should never have made these proposals had not the Government been fully satisfied that they could be carried out without detriment to those of our fellow-citizens who have suffered in the service of their country, and whom we now—and always will—owe so big a debt of gratitude. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Transfer of Functions (Ministry of Pensions) Order, 1953, reported from Special Orders Committee on Thursday the 11th of June last, be made in the form of the draft laid before Parliament.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I have not much claim to knowledge of this matter, save this: that I had the great honour of being appointed as the first Minister of National Insurance, and it was my task to try to build up the organisation of that Ministry. Certainly, whilst I was there we had our teething troubles—we had a colossal job to carry out. Fortu- nately, I had to assist me a splendid staff of experienced people, and we managed to get over our teething troubles satisfactorily. I think the work which that Ministry has done, in the organisation it has established, reflects great credit on the staff of people who—unlike me—stayed on in the Ministry. But I do know something about the work of the Ministry of National Insurance, and I am the last person in the world to be likely to denigrate the work of that Ministry. I am proud of it. My work there brought me into close touch with the Ministry of Pensions, and it was obvious that sooner or later the time would come when the Ministry of Pensions would give way to the Ministry of National Insurance. To my mind, this is all a question of t mine, and I, personally, regret that the Government have taken the view that the proper time is now. I think they would have been much better advised to wait to a later date.

My criterion would be this. I believe you ought, when you effect the transfer, to have the complete confidence of the ex-Servicemen. At the present time, rightly or wrongly, ex-Servicemen are disturbed at what is being done, and, in my view, the mere fact that they are disturbed is, in itself, a reason which proves that this is too early a date to make the alteration which, I agree, sooner or later will have to be made. Had it been left to me, I would have done what I could to postpone this decision for another five years, or perhaps ten. I do not suggest for a moment that the Government are not perfectly sincere in their statement and in their belief that nothing that will be done will prejudice the ex-Servicemen. I accept that statement as a statement of their honest intention and their honest belief. But I am by no means certain that it is right. There is all the difference in the world between having your case looked after by a comparatively small Department where the Minister is really, as it were, the father of his flock, and having it looked after by an enormous Department whose tentacles inevitably extend over the whole country.

As I have paid a small tribute to the office which I had the honour of starting, let me pay this tribute to the Ministry of Pensions—and it is no Party matter at all: it applies to Ministers of all Parties. I think the record of that Ministry is exceedingly creditable. I am old enough to go back to the Boer War and the Kipling song about tambourines and passing the hat round, and I remember when in the First World War we set up the Ministry of Pensions. The Ministry of Pensions have established a friendly relationship between itself and its clientele, the ex-Service men, which I do not think has ever before been paralleled. Without squandering public money, they have administered in a benevolent and tolerant way the schemes which were entrusted to them, and have won the confidence of the ex-Service men. Now that that Ministry is going to come to an end, I do not wonder that ex-Service men are rather disturbed.

Of course, the Ministry of National Insurance will do the best they can to see that people are not prejudiced, but, as I have said, there is a difference between being a child in a comparatively small family and a child in a vast school. Incidentally, when I left the Ministry of National Insurance and went to the Lord Chancellor's Office, I came to the conclusion that there was a tremendous advantage in having a small staff instead of a large one, because one is much closer in touch with things. It is exactly the same here. Moreover, if we pitchfork the pensions administration into the general administration, is there not a real danger that the personal treatment which has existed in the past, and of which I do not think we need complain, will cease? Administration will become a matter of routine and all will be treated alike.

Of course, ultimately there would be some possible saving, and economy is greatly to be desired, but do not let us put it too high. The White Paper itself merely says: This should yield substantial economies in the long run. I hope it will. Had we been perfectly free in this matter and had it not been passed upon, I should have been of the opinion that it was a mistake to do it now. I think it would have been much better not to have done it until we had the good wishes and goodwill of the ex-Service men. Although we accept all that the Government say, that there will be no prejudice, I am not certain that prejudice may not arise in administration. For my part I regret that the present moment is the moment selected for this change, though I admit that obviously the time will come when a change must be made. However, another place has decided this matter, and unless I hear very cogent reasons to the contrary I suppose there is nothing we can do now but accept the decision.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, those of us who are deeply interested in ex-Service work, and who are working day after day for the benefit of ex-Service men and their relatives and widows, view this merger with the gravest concern. We fully accept the assurance given by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, as to the intentions of the Government, but, as the noble and learned Earl the Leader of the Opposition has so rightly said, this is a question of administration; and, moreover, administration of a type touching individuals. It is the personal touch, from top to bottom, which has earned the Ministry of Pensions the solid regard and appreciation with which the ex-Service community feel they can approach the Ministry.

When it comes to matters of public expenditure, of course the interest of economy is at all times a paramount one, but surely this is not the right Ministry to tackle when it comes to saving a comparatively small sum in a way which, as I hope to show your Lordships, cannot fail to reduce the confidence of the ex-Service man in the fact that he is going to get a square deal. Successive Ministers of Pensions and their staffs have earned the very high regard in which they stand to-day. The people with whom the pensioners and war widows come into contact are the lower civil servants of the Ministry, to whom they go when they want something. These officials have been educated to a sympathetic understanding of their problems. The code under which they work is one which has been developed to a high level, and they have learned to understand it through case work. The whole of pensions law has grown up through case work. That is very different from social security. The work of the Ministry of National Insurance is not case work. Should this Motion be agreed, and should this merger take place, officials of the Ministry of National Insurance will have to deal at one moment with insurance cases and at the next with war pension cases, the same official dealing with different types of people under two totally different codes. Of course, he will do his best, but both these codes are intricate, and his main consideration will be with the National Insurance code. He will not find it easy to exercise his full sympathy, his full understanding and his full knowledge in cases of war pensions. That is what we fear, and we fear that, irrespective of good intention, that is what will happen.

In this connection, a particularly disturbing factor is that the present Ministry of Pensions officials who are in day-today contact with the pensioners are largely temporary civil servants. Although they have been in that work for many years, they have not been absorbed into permanent functions. They are the individual officers to whom the ex-Serviceman looks, and who he considers understands him and his problems. If this merger takes place, and the Ministry of Pensions is absorbed, these temporary officials will be the ones who will go when there is a question of any contraction of staff. They will be replaced by permanent officials who are on the staff of the Ministry of Pensions and who have not the background of training in the pensions code—and not only of training in the pensions code, but of training in the sympathetic approach to the individual claimant. That is what we fear above all.

Then there is another important point—namely, the matter of the Minister himself. The ex-Serviceman and the widow have come to look upon the Minister of Pensions as their own personal advocate in the highest circles. When they have a problem, they have someone to whom they can put it forward in a direct manner, someone who has not got other interests on his mind. That is one of the things which causes a considerable degree of contentment, and it is something which the ex-Serviceman will miss greatly. I am glad to hear from the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that the Government have no intention of interfering with the special obligations which the nation owes to ex-Servicemen, and have no intention but that the fullest safeguards of their rights and privileges should continue. However, for the reasons which I have advanced, I very much doubt whether, in practice, they will continue. I regret that on this occasion I cannot accept the assurances of the Government.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will bear with me for a few moments while I make a contribution, arising out of the fact that I was for a time Minister of Pensions. Speaking from my experience in that capacity, I would venture to challenge the view put forward by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, that this is not the right time for an amalgamation. I am not concerned with the amount of saving—I do not think a figure of £500,000 is either here or there; I am concerned with the interests of the ex-Servicemen and the efficiency of the machinery dealing with them. Those of your Lordships who have had experience of being in Government Departments would agree with me, I believe, that the most important thing in obtaining the efficiency of an individual Government Department is to establish in that Department a high sense of morale. From a fairly wide experience of Government Departments, I feel that the morale of the people in the Department is probably the most important thing with which any Minister can concern himself. With a high morale you have an efficient and, above all, a sympathetic administration, whereas if it is absent, you get an entirely wooden, strict, bureaucratic state of affairs. Human nature being what it is, it is almost inevitable that if you hive a Department like the Ministry of Pensions, which by the very nature of things is a dying Department, it is almost impossible, however good the Minister is, and however sympathetic the officials are, to avoid a loss of morale. In the first place, it is difficult to obtain entry of the younger men in the Civil Service into a Department which they know in the normal course of events will not provide them with any permanent future. It is for that reason that I venture to say that this is the time, eight years after the end of the war, rather than in ten years' time, eighteen years after the end of the war, when this change, which has got to come anyhow, ought to be made.

I was Minister of Pensions in 1935, seventeen years after the end of the First World War—just about the same interval of time that the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, would like to see elapse before this amalgamation takes place—and there was no question in my mind that all my Ministerial predecessors had done their best for the sake of the ex-Servicemen, and that they had been loyally supported by their permanent officials. But the mere fact that it was a dying Department meant that, inevitably, the officials had got into set ways, and it required a great effort to infuse a different spirit. After all, the requirements of the ex-Servicemen are not necessarily static. We cannot say to-day what the conditions will be in five, ten or fifteen years' time. We cannot tell to-day to what extent their physical conditions are going to alter, or to what extent the social conditions which their children and wives are going to have to meet will change. I am convinced, from this particular point of view of the efficiency of the Department itself, that now is the time to change.

I pay full tribute to the work of the temporary civil servants, but anyone who has been in a Department, or head of a Department, where temporary civil servants work, knows that from the very nature of things they get older and older. What is required in a Department, for its good running, is a continual bringing in of the younger element, who learn from the experience and teaching of their temporary civil servant elders to be sympathetic—and if they are not, then the Minister at the head of the Department ought to make certain that he gets rid of them. I believe that it is essential to have this continual influx of younger men. Whether in the administrative grade, the executive grade or in the doctors grade, you want continual new ideas and new blood coming in, always inspired, as I am sure both Departments are, with the idea of service and of rendering to these men what we all recognise is their undoubted due, which we all want to see come about. I venture, from my experience, to assure the noble Lord, Lord Carew, that his apprehensions are ill-founded. I believe that once the Depart- ments are merged—and do not forget they will have separate Parliamentary Secretaries—there will not be these difficulties. On the contrary, looking forward to the next ten or fifteen years, when, as I have said, the needs of the ex-Servicemen may be even greater than they are now, I believe that the new Department will be more efficient, and will have greater resources, than if the present Ministry of Pensions were allowed to die in the next seventeen or eighteen years.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I feel in a difficult position, because my two loyalties are strained: my loyalty to my noble Leader, and my loyalty to my Legion. I have the honour to be the chief executive officer of ninety-four branches in my county, with over 16,000 paid-up members. It has been stated that this case has not been put properly to the members of the Legion. I can assure your Lordships that, so far as my county is concerned, they had a perfectly free vote on the question, and they are very disturbed at this amalgamation. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carew, and the noble and learned Earl, the Leader of the Opposition, that we shall lose the personal touch by this amalgamation. I notice that the Ministry with which the Ministry of Pensions are to be amalgamated have 900branches as against eighty of the Ministry of Pensions. I am wondering whether the noble Marquess, when he winds up this debate, could tell me whether it is proposed to use the 900 offices of the other Ministry to deal with the pensioners in those areas, or whether, under an Under-Secretary, the present organisation with the same staff will be allowed to continue to deal with the pensioners' problems as at the present time. I cannot see that happening. Like the noble Lord, Lord Carew, I believe that eventually the members of the staff who have, so to speak, "grown up" with this great Ministry of Pensions to whom we owe so much, and also the Ministers who have been at the head, will be swamped by the men from the Ministry of National Insurance. I am hoping that something can be done to relieve our feelings in this matter. Otherwise the personal touch will be lost. Possibly the noble Marquess can give an assurance that the transfer will be carried through very slowly, in order that the personal touch may be kept.

I suppose, as has already been said by the Leader of the Opposition, we can do nothing about the matter in your Lordships' House. I must say that if it went to a Division, I should vote against this Motion, first, because I believe profoundly that this is the wrong moment, and, secondly, because I have the authority of my members, without any direction from me at all, to try to put their anxiety before your Lordships. But if there is to be no Division I ask my noble Leader to allow me to keep myself free to watch this situation very carefully. There is grave anxiety over this amalgamation, not only among the members of the British Legion but in practically all the ex-Service associations in the country. I repeat that I must leave myself free to watch, and, if we are not satisfied, to try in every possible way to persuade Her Majesty's Government to do something to alter the situation which we believe will take place: a situation in which these men will lose confidence in this great Ministry of Pensions, because it will be swamped in the new Ministry. I myself believe that that will happen.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I feel subject to the same conflict of loyalties that my noble friend Lord Long has just expressed. Like my noble friend, at the present time I am an office bearer in my own county branch of the British Legion, and I have held various offices ever since my own branch was taken over, over thirty years ago, from the Comrades of the Great War. But here I differ from my noble friends Lord Long and Lord Carew. Despite the anxieties which we in the Legion feel, I do not think that we are justified in opposing the Motion before the House. With your Lordships' leave I hope to explain why I take that view.

I believe that it would be quite wrong if one tried to conceal from one's noble friends on the Front Bench that there is a great deal of anxiety in the Legion. A great deal of that anxiety arises from a matter which has not been touched upon so far in this debate, though it was, I think, touched upon in another place. It is that the Legion, as everybody knows, have applied to two successive Govern- ments for an increase in the basic rate of disability pensions, but up to now have met with no success. This is no time to discuss the merits of that case, and I should not be in order if I attempted to do so. But the fact that those demands—as the Legion consider, absolutely just demanls—have not been met, has brought about a state of mind in the Legion which is very material to their attitude on this problem. They feel that they have been turned down by the Party opposite; that they have been turned down so far by the Party on this side. In effect, therefore, they say, "A plague o' both your houses!" I am not associating myself with that view, but that is the view taken by the plain men in blue suits who go to British Legion conferences. Your Lordships may say that it is not unreasonable that they should take that view, having regard to the position they are in at those conferences.

When, therefore, a matter of this sort comes before Parliament and before the public, it is not unreasonable that opinion in the Legion should tend, as a first reaction, to be suspicious, and to say. "Here is another assault on the charter of ex-Servicemen which was laid down in 1920 and as a result of which the Ministry of Pensions was formed. Is this not another attempt to chisel away the special status of ex-Servicemen and to bring us entirely in line with the procedure for dealing with industrial injuries and so forth, and is this not a thing to be resisted on that ground? If we allowed this to pass without any protest we should in fact be selling the pass." So far so good. But it is at this point that I must part company from the line of argument followed by my noble friend Lord Carew and other people, because, if I may borrow a phrase which was used earlier this afternoon by my noble Leader, I think this approach to the problem, as he put it in another connection, is "as much emotional as purely objective."

There is one other thing to be mentioned about this matter, and that is the very understandable fear on the part of members of the Legion that anything will happen to the present set-up of the Ministry of Pensions. Several noble Lords have paid tribute this afternoon to the work not only of the headquarters of the Ministry but of their local representatives—a tribute to what I might call the "over the counter work" of the Ministry of Pensions. I should like to associate myself very strongly with that tribute, because there is no doubt that the Ministry of Pensions have earned the good will of the ex-Service community by their expert handling of the problem in a way which is quite out of the common when one is talking of Government Departments. It is most important that that fund of good will, which has been built up by the Ministry of Pensions over the last thirty years, should not be lost but should be continued.

Now let us come to the second point. Are we going to achieve any of these objects by opposing the Motion now before the House? I do not think so. In the first place, several assurances have been given. When this matter was first brought to the notice of this House by my noble friend Lord Swinton on February 26, I anticipated what would happen, and I asked the noble Viscount whether he would bear in mind how important it was that this amalgamation should not be allowed to affect the claims for improvements in the rates of pensions which were then going forward. My noble friend Lord Swinton—as your Lordships will see in Hansard, if you care to turn it up—met me as far as he possibly could without committing the Government, which of course he could not do on a supplementary question. He said that certainly the claims would not be prejudiced in one way or another.

What is the fact of the matter over this? Surely, it is that the broad question of the treatment of ex-Servicemen does not really depend on the behaviour of the Ministry of Pensions or of the officials in it: it depends on the policy of Her Majesty's Government, whatever that Government may be. If the Government or the Cabinet wish to give ex-Servicemen a fair deal they will decide to do so, and they will see that the Ministry of Pensions have orders in that direction; and the Minister will see that his staff get the necessary instructions. If on the other hand—let us hope that this is an impossible state of affairs: I am sure that it is—the Government were not in favour of giving a square deal to ex-Servicemen, then it would not matter what the staff of the Ministry of Pensions were like, because nothing would happen.

For this reason I fail to see how opposing this Motion will help the cause of the ex-Servicemen—we shall see in a moment what would help that cause. But we have the case that has been put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, and endorsed by my noble friend Lord Hudson, with his experience as Minister of Pensions, that the merger of the two Ministries is at the moment technically justified. If we do not make this merger at the present time, we are told, the administration of pensions, owing to certain factors connected with the structure as regards the staff, will gradually decay; there will be a vicious spiral, because it will not be possible in the ordinary Civil Service way to get recruits. There is, of course, a fence to be taken here. There is a moment when the transfer, if it is made, will cause all the dangers referred to by Lord Carew and Lord Long; but that is a position that will have to arise at some time or other. I understood the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, to say that in the end a change will have to take place; and I do not see that anything will be lost by making the change now, before the quality of the administration of the Ministry of Pensions has deteriorated—which, in my judgment, at the moment it has not.

It may be wrong—I believe it is—not to have conceded the increases in pensions. I think it is also wrong that we should attempt to oppose this Motion; and two wrongs do not make a right. I do not feel that by opposing this Motion we should advance in any respect the cause of the British Legion. But I hope my noble friend in front of me will be able to give the most abundant assurances that can possibly be given to the British Legion, and to all those societies which work with the Legion. Most of those assurances have already been given by Lord Selkirk, but if this transfer takes place, as I believe it should, let it take place in such a way that the British Legion knows that on all sides of this House—and particularly on this side, because here lies responsibility for the administration of the Ministry of Pensions at present—there is every intention that the rights of ex-Servicemen, which are so jealously guarded by the Legion, are fully maintained and are not to be prejudiced in any particular by this amalgamation of Ministries. And, of course, of all these assurances by far the best assurance which can be given would be that the claim of ex-Servicemen for an increase in disability pensions would be treated in a favourable manner. That, I appreciate, cannot be given at the present stage.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, like other noble Lords I have been approached on this matter by the British Legion of which I am myself a member. I recognise and admire the work of the Legion for ex-Servicemen and I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, that assurances should be given to the Legion that the interests of ex-Servicemen will always be kept very high indeed in the policy of this or of any other Government. I am also an ex-member of the Ministry of Pensions Advisory Committee, and I am interested in pension matters generally. I wonder, however, whether the opposition to this merger is justified, for the proposal as it appears is a matter of machinery in distributing pensions—not of rates of pension, services to pensioners, or any matters of that kind.

The ideal might be to have pensions administered by some organisation other than a Ministry—something much more non-official. Government official; are not, as a rule—and it would be difficult for them to be—wholly sympathetic and kindly to those with whom they deal: I fully recognise that such an ideal is impossible and would be quite impracticable. The Ministry of Pensions has been most human and much more sympathetic in its dealing with pensioners in the last few years. I would venture to put the improvement as beginning during the régime as Minister of Mr. Buchanan, who was particularly sympathetic himself, and practical as well, in his dealings with pensioners. Since 1947 there has been a great decline in the number of pensioners and a corresponding decline in the number of the Ministry staff and officials. I am told that there are now only eight Ministry of Pensions hospitals in existence. I believe I am right in saying that in 1921 there were between sixty and seventy such hospitals.

Pensioners even now use the National Health Service very largely, and the work of the Ministry of National Insurance is in many ways analogous to that of the Ministry of Pensions. For instance, in its work it deals with the industrially dis- abled, whilst the Ministry of Pensions deals with the war disabled; and, of course, most war pensioners, being insured persons, are dealt with now by the Ministry of National Insurance. If they are sick or unemployed they are entitled to benefit, and some, for instance, are entitled to old age pensions. Would it not be simpler, better and cheaper if one Ministry were to deal with all these matters? Obviously, to begin with, the numbers of the staff of that Ministry would have to be increased; and many of those accustomed to Seal with Service disability pensions would be transferred to the Ministry of National Insurance for that purpose. Surely that is the answer, at any rate to some extent, to the idea that new men would be sealing with pension matters and that those new men would be unsympathetic towards the pensioners and all their concerns.

As it is, the Ministry of Pensions, I believe, already acts as agents of the Ministry of Health for the supply of artificial limbs and surgical appliances for civilian patients; so that already it is not entirely concerned with Service patients. Then, the Ministry of National Insurance has about 900 offices up and down the country, as compared with some ninety offices of the Ministry of Pensions. This must make dealings with the Ministry by pensioners very much simpler for those who are living in the numerous districts which have not at present a Ministry of Pensions office but which are not far from a Ministry of National Insurance office.

The British Legion contend that this proposed merger will result in a lowering of status of war pensioners and in abolishing any preference for Service over non-Service pensioners. I feel that those objections are very illusory indeed. I doubt if most of us feel that. If the British Legion would devote their energies to pressing for higher rates of war disability pensions—I know they have pressed for this, but they should devote most of their energies to it rather than to protesting against the proposed machinery for distributing pensions—they would have a stronger case; and I, for one, would certainly support them to the utmost of my ability. I think we are all agreed that there are at present too many Government Departments. When I say "we are all agreed," I mean that those noble Lords who are not themselves connected with Government Departments are agreed. It seems to me that this proposed merger is a logical and sensible step to take to reduce Government Departments. I cannot see that anyone will be one penny the worse for it, and the result ought to be simpler, cheaper and no less efficient administration.

If the argument is that the present officials understand and deal more sympathetically with pension matters, surely that argument is met by the fact that, as I have already suggested, there must be transfers from the Ministry of Pensions, in the first place, to deal with pension matters in the Ministry of National Insurance. Another contention of the British Legion is that ex-Servicemen are disturbed by the proposal. It is possible that that is the case, but I am not certain that those ex-Service men would have been disturbed if it had not been suggested to them from quite other quarters that there was some threat to them and to their interests. As regards this proposal, I would merely conclude by saying that my support goes to the Government, and I believe that the proposal is, on the whole, both sound and sensible.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, it was not my intention to address your Lordships' House on this subject, but there is one point of view which has not been touched upon so far. I am entirely in favour of the view that, although the Ministries may have to be merged in future, the present is the most unfortunate time to do it. I take that view for the reasons given by the noble and learned Earl who leads the Opposition in this House, and put by him very much better than I can attempt to do so. However, there is one other point I wish to make. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, seemed to make a claim for this side of the House—to which I do not belong; I am standing here merely for the convenience of speaking—for their good record in the past. I do not hesitate to say that, if one comes to analyse the position, one finds that it is the Party of noble Lords on the other side who, when they were in power, did more for the pensioners than any other Government have done.


I hope that I did not make the suggestion that one side of the House was more forward than another in advocating the cause of ex-Servicemen, because I do not think I did. However, if the noble and gallant Earl will read the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow, I do not think he will find me reported as having said that.


Has the noble and gallant Earl taken into account the very heavy fall in the value of the pound since the steps taken by the Party of noble Lords opposite?


I am trying to get what the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said. To continue now with what I was trying to say before I was interrupted, at the present moment the record of the Government as regards ex-Servicemen's organisations is not a very good one. Your Lordships will remember that the request for a new basic rate for the disabled pensioner was turned down. When the modest sum of 90s. a week was asked for, nothing like that was granted. Then in January the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, introduced in this House a Motion on the subject of officers' pensions. The noble Lord, Lord Schuster, the other day, in a speech which I am sure earned him the gratitude of the Services, again brought up the same subject. Each time, the request made has been turned down with the use of some highfalutin phrase such as the "spiral of inflation." The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, on the other side said that that was ridiculous, that the sum asked for could not cause a "spiral of inflation." We had this again quite recently when we were told of the "danger of inflation," the "risk of repercussions" and various other phrases of that sort. We were told that we ought to recognise the fact that the Government's first object was financial stability, and that we must all hold our hands and not do anything to interfere with that.

The consequence of all that is that a large number of ex-Servicemen think that the Government are saving on them, and this merger will add to that feeling. These men live all over the country among other men. Claims have been made for £200 million more wages in the various industries, not for greater production, because there has not been greater production; not for working longer hours, because at least in one case along with the claim for increased wages, there is also a claim for a reduction of hours. And these pensioners are living with the men making these claims. We know that the Government will give in, to some extent, and that some of those millions asked will go into the wage packets. It will not cause any greater production. Those men will simply keep quiet for a few months, and then more wage claims will be put in. Yet these men who are disabled are grudged that little sum for which they are asking. All this money is being paid away purely because the Government are not strong enough to dig their toes in and say, "You do not go any further; that is all that can be afforded by the country, and you have got to be content with it."

I believe that this moment is ill-chosen to effect this merger because we have not yet attained financial stability. When we have financial stability, then will be the time to go into all these matters. Until we have a Government—I say a National Government—which is strong enough really to produce an economic policy, a wage policy which will be fair to everybody and will give the country a chance of getting on its feet again, let us do away with this scheme; let us stop tinkering with it. Look at what became of the merging of other Ministries. A merger may be an excellent thing in itself but, when it is reduced to this, what does it save?—nothing in the first few years, and perhaps £500,000 later on. A Ministry itself loses its status by it. In another place we were told of the handicap which a Minister who is not a member of the Cabinet suffers by having to get a Parliamentary Secretary to look after pensions. The Secretary has to convince his Minister, and the Minister has to convince the Cabinet. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still, and if a Minister has to be urged on by his subordinates and goes to the Cabinet, he will make a very poor advocate. I suggest that this merger might well be put off for five years. Nobody can say for certain that in five years we shall not be badly wanting a Ministry of Pensions. To-day, we are building up armaments but scrapping the Ministry of Pensions.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess a question before he replies? I understand that the existing special pensioners' hospitals of the Ministry of Pensions are to be handed over. I ask about that with interest, because I have worked in connection with the Ministry of Pensions—I have been one of the doctors who have examined and looked after the men, and I know how very valuable these special institutions have been. The hospital at Roehampton, to which one speaker referred, has a world-wide reputation. It is an extraordinarily good place and I hope there is no question whatsoever of its being liquidated. I assume that nearly all the Ministry of Pensions hospitals will be handed over and will continue their excellent functions as at the present time. I hope, too, that if any special services are required, they will be provided in co-operation and in consultation with the doctors at those institutions.

I refer to this aspect of the matter partly from the point of view of the doctors who are concerned. A very important thing in the lives of the pensioners, and also from the point of view of the Ministry, has been the excellent medical service, as well as the excellent administrative service, which has been given. My own mind is evenly balanced between the possibilities. It might be of some advantage to keep the present organisation going for some time; but if these institutions, which are essentially characteristic of the Ministry of Pensions and have been so for some years, and which have done so much good for the pensioners, are to continue, I do not see that there is any particular objective in putting off the change for any lengthy period of time.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I think it will be generally agreed by everybody who has listened to this debate that it has been an extremely valuable one. In any case, I can assure your Lordships that the Government have welcomed it, because, after all, if any of us has anxieties on one point or another it is far better to have them out and get them answered—indeed, that is one of the main functions for which Parliament exists. The thing that struck me above all others throughout this debate, as I listened to it, was the tremendous implied tribute that has been paid to the Ministry of Pensions. I think in every speech an impression has been given of the entire satisfaction which has been felt by noble Lords, in every part of the House and belonging to every Party, as to the past administration of pensions, and an equal regret that the administration is not to go on under the same Department and on the same lines.

That, of course, is perhaps partly due to a feeling of natural conservatism, with a small "c," which is, I think, common to all British people. On the whole, we like what we have got. But it is due, too, I think, in an extremely large degree, to the admirable and sympathetic spirit with which the Ministry and successive Ministers of Pensions, of all Parties, have carried out their duties. Therefore, I entirely agree that it is not unnatural that some noble Lords should ask why this change is being made—what has happened to make it necessary. The reasons, as your Lordships know, have already been given to the House pretty fully by my noble friend Lord Selkirk, and I am only going to recapitulate them quite shortly. In a word, they are: first, efficiency; and second, economy. I may say that I put those two deliberately in that order, for I think we shall all agree with what was said by Lord Carew in his speech, that in a matter of this kind efficiency must come first in importance.

In saying what I have, I am not, of course, suggesting for one moment to your Lordships that there has been any inefficiency in the Ministry of Pensions. To put it quite simply, it is really that times have changed. With the passage of time since the end of the last war, the number of pensioners is steadily decreasing, and the administrative machinery of the Ministry of Pensions must inevitably be reduced with that reduction in numbers, if it is not to become largely redundant. I think that even the noble Lord, Lord Carew, who took perhaps the strongest line in this debate, would not dispute that general proposition. As my right honourable friend the Minister of Pensions said in another place, during the last three years, so far as hospital treatment is concerned, the needs have been reduced by one quarter; so far as medical boarding is concerned in the last two years, by a half; and the appeals during the last six years have been reduced by no less than two-thirds.

Of course, with a reduction in the requirements there has to be a reduction in the services. There were as I think the noble Lord, Lord Jeffreys, said, upwards of sixty-seven Ministry of Pensions hospitals. Those have already been reduced to eight, and it is becoming more and more difficult to justify some of the smaller local offices. The number of pensioners does not justify keeping them open at all; and yet, my Lords, without them, the personal attention to individual cases would, of course, not he the same as it always has been. I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Long, who said in his speech that he was afraid that by amalgamation we might lose the personal touch. I am afraid that inevitably, if there is not this amalgamation. we may also lose the personal touch owing to the inevitable reduction in the number of local offices. I am sure that point will be clear to him.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, in his very thoughtful speech, said that this was a slowly dying Department, but that it is a dying Department. Conditions have entirely changed since the Ministry originally took over its work. We believe—and I suggest that the objective case is unanswerable—that the change will make for greater efficiency, as well as for a saving of money.

The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, expressed doubts about the timing. He did not, as I understand, question that this might have to be done one day, but he asked, "Why now"? He said that if he were in power he would have put it off. Well, my Lords, I do not really doubt that because, although I do not want to say anything at all controversial, during the last two years, in the course of the many topics which we have had to discuss, noble Lords opposite have suggested that panacea whenever the Government have had to take rather awkward and difficult decisions. The Opposition have always said that it would be wiser to put off the matter, but the Government believe that on occasions it is the right thing to grasp the nettle and take their courage in both hands. And I believe that this is one of those occasions.


It has been the complaint that we have done too much, that we have rushed in foolishly and done those things which we ought not to have done. May I ask for an illustration of the noble Marquess's statement?


The noble and learned Earl will remember our discussions in connection with the return of Seretse Khama and in regard to Central African Federation. I could produce quite a long list if the noble and learned Earl would give me time. He has made an identical speech on several occasions.

In many cases, of course, this change will, I hope and think, hardly be noticed. I assure the House, as I think my noble friend Lord Selkirk has already done, that the change will inevitably be a gradual one. In answer to what was said by Lord Long, I should say that, as I understand the position, it will still be open to pensioners to go to the eighty existing offices, if they wish, and to see the same people that they saw before. But they will, equally, be able to go to 900 other offices of the Ministry of National Insurance if they prefer it. What is more, their appeals will be heard by the same people who heard those appeals before. I would add also, with regard to the question asked by Lord Haden-Guest, that the hospitals will, of course, go on, and will be run, I understand, directly under the Ministry of Health. They will not come under regional boards but will be directly under the Ministry of Health. There is no question, of course, of scrapping the whole staff of the Ministry of Pensions. To a great extent, after the change, while they are needed the same people will be doing the same jobs. That, I think, is an answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carew, when he said, as I understood him, that some officials would be required to deal with completely different cases. That, as I understand it, will not be the position. In a great many of these cases, the same officials as before will deal with the cases. There will be simplification of the machinery, but personnel will not—immediately, at any rate—alter. What will happen is that a certain amount of overlapping which inevitably has occurred should, and I think will, now be avoided.

I do not want to keep the House too long over this question. I have, I think, given your Lordship, quite briefly, the argument for the change which the Government propose. In conclusion, and in answer to what has been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and other noble Lords, I should like to give this assurance on behalf of the Government. It is our firm resolve that nothing shall be done which might be to the detriment of ex-Servicemen. That, I think, is clear from the fact that priority will continue to be given to the war-disabled, both in the Ministry of Pensions' hospitals which remain and in the National Health Service hospitals as well. As my right honourable friend the Minister of Pensions made clear in another place, all the rights, privileges and priorities of ex-Servicemen will be preserved. All statutory responsibilities and discretionary powers possessed by the Ministry of Pensions will be handed over to the Ministers who are now to administer these services. I honour—and I am sure we all honour—the anxieties which have been expressed by the British Legion and others over this proposal. It is a sign of their continuing and anxious care for ex-Servicemen. But nearly all of us in the Government are ex-Servicemen too, from one war or another. We share the feeling and the sense of responsibility of the British Legion and others, and I can assure your Lordships that it will still be our object to see that ex-Servicemen will not only not suffer but, I hope, will even benefit by the change that is now being made.

I hope very much, therefore, that the noble Lords, Lord Carew and Lord Long, who feel—and I quite understand their feeling—a sincere anxiety and preoccupation over this matter will follow the advice which has been given them in this debate by Lord Bridgeman and Lord Jeffreys. There could after all, be no doughtier or more experienced champions of ex-Servicemen that those two noble Lords. I feel certain that, even if Lord Carew doubts, not, I hope, the good will of the Government, but our wisdom, he will feel no such doubts about the two noble Lords to whom I have referred. I hope noble Lords will not seek to divide the House on this issue. To do so, I think might give the impress onto ex-Servicemen that dangers were to be apprehended in the new machinery which I am sure do not in fact exist. That would be a thousand pities. For that reason I ask the House to accept the counsel that has been given to it, and to allow this Order to go forward without any more ado.

On Question, Motion agreed to: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.