Orders of the Day — Far East Prisoners of War (Pensions)
Mr Paul Dean (Somerset North)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for raising this important subject. He mentioned that he is a war pensioner. So am I. Every one who has spoken in the debate has a very real personal interest in this problem.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) mentioned that he is an F.E.P.O.W. himself. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) do excellent work as trustees of the Far East Prisoners of War Fund. I am glad of the opportunity, too, to clear up perhaps a few misunderstandings and to inform the House of the action I am taking.
First, I assure the House that we intend to give every help we justifiably can under the war pension scheme to F.E.P.O.W.s and their dependants, and to all others who have served elsewhere. We are conscious of the hardship and deprivation that F.E.P.O.W.s endured. We are alert to the possible effects on individuals years afterwards. The minds of doctors and laymen are open to the results of research and diagnosis, both that which we have already and that which we shall have in the future. Every case will be looked at with sympathy and a keen desire to give the benefit of any doubt to the claimant. But we must work within the war pensions scheme as laid down in the Royal Warrant. The whole system of preferential rates of benefit for disability pensioners and widows rests on a causal connection between disability and service. Public support for the preferences, especially among the younger generation, could quickly dissolve if we departed from these principles.
I know the president and the national officers of F.E.P.O.W. and many of their members and realise, as has been brought out in the debate, that there are matters which are troubling them. I have been studying this matter in consultation with my senior medical officers and I have suggested to F.E.P.O.W. that we should meet to discuss the matter. I am sure it will be useful for both of us. I do not want to prejudge that meeting by being dogmatic and saying a great deal today because I want to keep an open mind until I have had a full opportunity, after having medical advice, to hear exactly what they wish to tell me.
I recognise that F.E.P.O.W.s feel at a disadvantage in trying to prove that disablement which perhaps took place a long time ago was attributable to or aggravated by war service. There are clearly problems in their minds as to how this can be done, not only for the man but more so for the widow, and it is this which gives rise to the criticism of the so-called seven-year rule. This is contained in Article 5 of the Royal Warrant under which entitlement to pension is considered where a claim for disablement is made or death occurs more than seven years after service has ended. In such cases it is for the claimant to show that this disablement is related to service. However, if he produces reliable evidence which raises reasonable doubt whether his disablement is related to service he is entitled to succeed.
The evidence does not have to consist of official records. Article 5(5) says:
Where there is no note in contemporary official records of a material fact on which the claim is based, other reliable corroborative evidence of that fact may be accepted.
This can, of course, be of particular importance to F.E.P.O.W.s where medical records are often not available for the period during which they were prisoners.
Further, we know enough about the conditions they had to endure to accept that the claimants suffered. They do not have to prove that they endured bad conditions. We accept that immediately.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South said that all claims should be accepted under Article 4. This deals with claims made not later than seven years after service has ended. For claims made within seven years Article 4 relieves the claimant of the onus of proving that the injury on which the claim is based is related to service. It must succeed unless evidence shows beyond reasonable doubt that the injury is unrelated to service. This would be a very substantial change to make in the war pension arrangements and could very well undermine the basis on which the preferential arrangements rest. Furthermore, I do not think that the rule under Article 5 presents an undue obstacle to the claimant. We estimate that there are about 7,000 F.E.P.O.W.s and some 2,700 of their widows and dependants already receive war pensions. This means that a much higher percentage of ex-F.E.P.O.W.s are getting the war pension than of ex-Servicemen who served elsewhere.
The changes that the Government introduced last September mean that widows of badly disabled men who were in receipt of constant attendance allowance at normal maximum rate or higher at the time of death are automatically entitled to war widow's pension without having to prove direct attributability.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye asked whether there could be a specialist panel for F.E.P.O.W.s. I wonder whether the House has sufficiently realised the distinction between what the boards do and what is done at the centre at Norcross. The medical boards do not decide on entitlement. They advise on the appropriate percentage assessment for any disablement that is discovered, but entitlement is decided by the specialist doctors, in conjunction with lay officers, who work at Norcross at Blackpool. It is here that an enormous range of expertise and experience has been built up. This concentration of expertise in Norcross is perhaps more important in dealing with this aspect than the actual composition of the boards.
The hon. Member for Leeds, South, has asked me in particular about some of the wording in the Roehampton report from Queen Mary's Hospital on the results of the survey into the effects of captivity on the neurological and hepatitic systems of F.E.P.O.W.s who passed through the hospital from January, 1946, to the autumn of 1968. I think I can clear up his points to his entire satisfaction.
It was recorded in the draft report originally circulated that 599 cases appeared to have had definite cardiovascular sequelae since release. However, as there was nothing in the body of the report to link the cardio-vascular condition with captivity, and as no special study was carried out of this aspect, the authors amended the words "cardiovascular sequelae" to read "cardiovascular symptoms" in the final proof copy as being more scientifically accurate. They have recently confirmed that the published summary is an accurate reflection of their considered views. Perhaps I should add that two of the three authors of the report are not on the staff of the Department.
Whether the final report said "sequelae" or "symptoms" in no way affects the treatment of individual war pension claims, since if in any individual case it can be shown that there is a link between the cardio-vascular trouble and war service the claim is accepted. I hope that this reassures the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse) mentioned the experience in other countries. I readily admit that in some respects other countries treat ex-F.E.P.O.W.s more favour- ably than we do. If, however, the benefits and the services available overall are taken into account, there is probably not much difference. However, I am studying very carefully the experience of other countries, and there is no doubt that we shall go on learning in this field. I do not claim that we know everything about it. We certainly do not. We have had valuable information from the studies.
The American and Australian reports both showed a significantly higher than expected mortality rate from traumatic deaths during the immediate post-war years and I have made clear in the light of those reports that we are prepared to look again at any rejected claim which may be affected by those findings, if we are sent details of the cases concerned.
I assure the hon. Member for Leeds, South and hon. Members who have raised this matter that our minds are not closed on the point and I look forward very much to having a personal and detailed talk with representatives of this most excellent organisation. I hope that in dealing with it, it will be possible to meet some of the points that have been made. I clearly cannot make any commitment tonight, and the House will not expect me to in advance of seeing those I am to meet, but I have demonstrated our good will and determination to do our utmost to see that F.E.P.O.W.s get every help they can under our war pension arrangements.