I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."
I am sorry that after so extremely interesting a Debate on an all-important subject that I have to draw attention to another matter; but I want to bring before the House and the Minister concerned a not less interesting matter to the bulk of the people of this country and perhaps even more absorbing to them than the subject we have been discussing. I refer to the administration of pensions during the past year. I want in examining that administration to do it in no spirit of carping criticism, or petty or party spirit. I have always tried, in approaching this subject, to do so in that spirit which the subject merits; and of one thing I am certain that until recently I would yield to no man in my admiration of the system which has been built up in this country by co-operation between the humblest worker and the other classes in the State, right up even to the Pensions Minister. The system has been built up out of a state of almost incredible chaos and confusion, and it reflected very great credit upon the people of this country.
Within the last year an Act, has come into operation which has very definitely clamped down the enthusiasm of people all over the country, enthusiasm characteristic of those who co-operated with the Pensions Ministry during previous years. When the Pensions Act was going through this House the outstanding fear which some of us expressed, and which was forced clearly upon us, was that the sympathetic spirit in which our people tried to atone for the wounds and the suffering of those who suffered, and their dependants, was going to give way to a cool, calculated officialism, at the behest of economy so-called. I think that outlook has been justified by the facts. I do not criticise an official because he is an official, but what I do say is that pensions are a particular and peculiar subject which need for their successful administration the whole-hearted co-operation of the best citizens in the towns and villages of the country, and not only that but the use of the experience of these people, and indeed every experience, as all are essential to the successful working of the system.
The Pensions Ministry, I know, may say to me that the bulk of the officials who are now operating are ex-service men. I should like, however, to retort to the representatives of the Ministry on the Front Bench that whether or not the bulk of the higher-placed officials are ex-service men, that at the present time the pensions system is simply a great machine run for all material purposes by a comparatively few officials and a Minister who dominates the Committees and the whole of the pensions machinery, and who, in his turn, is dominated by a so-called economy about which we hear so much. We said when the Bill upon which the system is worked was going through this House that the inevitable result on the whole system would be, in face of the fact that we were going to have wider areas and lesser powers, that the administration of the whole system would practically pass into the hands of the higher officials, and of the Pensions Minister himself. As a proof that this has been so, I want to quote a circular which has been sent out by the Liverpool War Pensions Sub-committee. This clearly expresses the experience of most local committees upon this subject.
The fashion of the Pensions Ministry now, as one gathers from letters and so on that one receives, is to interfere with old and accepted interpretations of Royal Warrants, and at the same time with old and accepted methods of administering the pensions. Hence the Liverpool War Pensions Sub-committee has had reason to draw the attention of the Pensions Ministry and to every Member of this House to what is going on. May I mention a very important alteration which has been made in the Royal Warrant, and which, if allowed by the House to continue, will not only hinder people from getting pensions in the future, to which the House and the country will think they are entitled, but at the same time will deprive thousands of people, who at the present time have pensions, of the pensions they are receiving.?
There is a Clause in the Royal Warrant in Article I and also in Article 24 which deals with roughly the same subject. There is an article which makes it quite clear that a man who is married after his removal from duty may get his pension and his wife cannot receive a pension. That Article was laid down for some clear reason of experience, and the reason was that men who were convalescent and had been removed from duty were getting married, and in many cases it seemed as if the State was accepting an obligation which it had no right to accept. This was the accepted interpretation up till the present time. If a man had been permanently removed from duty—the House will mark that— that is the interpretation that has been worked upon up to 26th June this year— if a man had been permanently removed from duty before he was married, then his wife did not receive any pension. Let me quote a case given by the Liverpool War Pensions Sub-committee. This man was married in 1917, and served 14 months after that. After leaving the Army he received a pension, and his wife, or widow, subsequently received a pension for 31 years until in April of this year she suddenly found the pension stopped. The Liverpool committee wanted to know why the woman's pension was stopped, and they were told that the man had been removed from duty 14 months before he was married. He had been in hospital in Salonika. That was his first removal from duty, and although he had served 14 months after that, the inter-pretation was accepted, and although the woman had been getting the pension for 3½ years, it is now accepted that the period was taken from the man's first removal from duty and, therefore, no pension was paid, or is paid. If that system is likely to be carried, it means this: In those hectic days, when the young men used to be sent by tens of thousands back to this country, they were admitted to hospital, and people visited them, and when they were convalescent they were admitted to the homes of both rich and poor. In those days many young men came in contact with ladies, and they got married. It was very difficult to avoid that fate under the conditions in which they were placed, and a man must have been a miracle to have avoided it. What happens? In the instance I have given the man went out and served some years. He was wounded once, and more than once, after he was married, but, according to the Minister of Pensions' interpretation, this man's wife, if she is now receiving a pension, can be deprived of it because he was married after his removal from duty. That is the only logical interpretation one can place upon depriving this woman of her pension. It means more than that. It seems to me that there may be widows who may be deprived of their pensions because they were married after the first removal from duty. I want the House to note what has taken place. This interpretation of the removal from duty has been accepted as a permanent removal for the whole period of the War, and afterwards up to April of this year.
In April this year the officials in the Liverpool area deprived this woman or her pension on the ground that she was married after the first removal from duty. On 26th June the Minister of Pensions, probably finding that he was in difficulties, made an Amendment in the Royal Warrant. I have here the Royal Warrant of 21st June, which was laid on the Table on 26th June, and this was three months after the Committee had given their interpretation. Who is in charge of this matter? Are the officials in charge or is it the Minister himself? I think it will be found that the whole system is now in the hands of a comparatively few officials who dominate the whole show in harmony with the Minister of Pensions who is more concerned about economy. The Minister of Pensions has had compliments paid to him from this side every time there has been a debate on this subject, but in the light of my own experience, I am not prepared to bandy compliments with the right hon. Gentleman for the simple reason that interpretations of this kind are going to have a very bad effect as far as the bulk of these men are concerned. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman means to insist upon that interpretation or not. I do not know whether he fully understood how far it would lead him when he took that course, but I am certain that if this interpretation of the Royal Warrant laid on the 26th June of this year is accepted, hon. Members of this House will find themselves up against a wholesale system of depriving women of their pensions because it is alleged that they were married after the first removal from duty.
Take the whole question which has been raised by the Liverpool Pensions Committee. In the first place, there is the question of the seven years' limit, and I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman is considering that matter. He was quite right when he stated in the Debate on the Bill that this system had been endorsed in previous Acts, but there were very grave doubts expressed at that time in view of the fact that we were coming nearer to the time when the limit would operate. At that time very grave doubts were expressed as to whether it was not going to bring very great hardship on the men. I said at the time that I did not care whether the period was seven or seventeen years, if it could be proved that a man was suffering on account of this particular service, that man had a right to consideration.
It makes it all the more necessary that the Warrant should be overhauled, in view of the fact that 60 per cent. of the pensioners are being paid for disease rather than for wounds. That means that the bulk of the men who are suffering and being paid pensions, are suffering from diseases which take some time to work themselves out, and, although the Minister of Pensions has said that there are only twelve suffering through this time limit up to the present time, it is quite obvious that there is going to be more and more men who will come into this category, and that ultimately the State will be compelled to face the situation with a view to a revision of the Act and the Royal Warrant.
This special circular from Liverpool deals also with the cancellation of the education grants. I cannot understand why, in cases where education grants have been made, the children should have their education interrupted because they have been deprived of that grant in the midst of their education. I do not know whether this is being dealt with by the Minister of Pensions or not, but it seems to me, even if there has been a mistake and reason for doubt, that it is something akin to a crime, when a man has been killed, to assume that his children would not have been educated had he been alive. In this way you are breaking in upon their education just at the time when they are beginning to feel the full value of it.
I will deal now with the question of the deduction made from pensions by reason of grants made to the pensioners by local organisations. It is becoming quite the fashion wherever contributions are made by local organisation to count them as income, and thus make it impossible for the people to get a pension to the full amount to which they are entitled. If there is an organisation in a particular division paying 5s. a week to a pensioner that is counted as income, and the pension is deducted from that amount. There is another side to this question. I have several cases of this kind in my own area, and it is obvious that this practice is becoming increasingly common. Here is the case of a woman whose son has died, and he was about 24 years of age. This boy enlisted when he was 17 years of age. He served several years and was wounded, and this year he died. Now the pension officer wants to know how much is coming into the house. The father is scarcely receiving enough to keep himself, and the youngest son is not keeping himself. There are two or three other 'boys, and there is the mother, and for five of them there is not more than 50s. a week coming into the house, and yet they are deprived of a pension because they are above the line of pecuniary need.
That boy went away from home at 17 years of age, and is there to be no compensation for the bringing up of a son who has to go away from his home under those conditions. Here is the position. These people have been caring for this 'boy. They have not been receiving enough to support him, and now, when he dies, there is to be no pension because they are above the line of pecuniary need. I could give case after case of this description, and the result of all this kind of thing is that men and families are being sent to the guardians, the local authorities are protesting against being deprived of powers to deal with these questions, and the guardians are also protesting against people being sent to them for relief who ought to be supported out of the funds of the State. If this system is to continue without the hearty co-operation of the people, it is going to lead in the long ran to the expression of views which are not desired by the people of this country. If the Minister of Pensions desires to economise, let him say so plainly. If he says that he cannot pay pensions, let him say so at once, because that is far more honest than limiting pensions and cutting them down by new interpretations of the Royal Warrants which have been accepted for years. That would be far more honest than putting into operation regulations which have certainly violated accepted definitions and interpretations of the old Committees. It seems to me that there is very grave need for overhauling the entire system.
I have not said anything about the Pensions Appeal Tribunals. All I desire to say about them is that in many districts people very seldom go to them, and they are losing faith in them. There is no value in going to such tribunals, because the system and the spirit now dominating the administration of pensions is altogether out of harmony with the desires of the people of this country. I say that it would be far better for the Minister of Pensions to take a firm and candid course, and if he wishes to economise let him do it straight and above board without all these equivocations we see expressed through Royal Warrants and various regulations. The right hon. Gentleman may say, "Well, the facts are so and so." I do not see how he can get out of the case, in view of the position in which he has been placed by the new interpretation of the Royal Warrant on the question of removal. But this fact remains that it is having a bad effect in the country and on the minds of the people.
The right hon. Gentleman may speak eloquently, he may make a good case as far as he is concerned, but the fact remains that people are being deprived wholesale of pensions, and this is telling in the country. I hope the right hon. Gentleman can explain the action taken on legitimate lines, but I hold that a. very definite investigation is required into the administration of our pensions system, especially under this new Act. Unless the right hon. Gentleman can challenge the statement put forward and illustrated by thousands of cases, unless he can do so by means of an inquiry, then I am afraid the spirit of unrest is going to operate generally in the country. I do not relish raising matters of this kind continually. Every time we ask questions about pensions we are simply inundated with letters from all parts of the country in regard to similar eases. I think the right hon. Gentleman will do me the credit of admitting that I seldom put questions down on the Paper. To-day for the first time for many months I had two, but I always send my cases direct. It is becoming of very little use doing that now in view of the attitude taken tip by the Department, but I feel it my duty to raise this question to-day because if this new system is allowed to operate with its soullessness, its cruel, calculating methods of putting people down and using the guillotine upon them, then I say the whole country is going to be permeated with distrust, and the result of his administration will be that one of the finest systems in the world will be thrown into chaos and confusion, it will be surrounded with suspicion and distrust, and will ultimately prove not simply unworthy of this country but unworthy of the spirit with which the country has faced the question since the inception of the pensions system which followed on the wounds and sufferings of the War.
I beg to second the Amendment.
I realise that the responsibility of the Minister of Pensions is a heavy one. I want to assure him, and I think I can do this on behalf of all those whose names are associated with mine on this Motion, that we have no desire whatever to increase the weight of his burden. Indeed, my desire, at any rate, is, if possible, to lighten his task and to enable him to escape from the evil consequences that are growing rapidly and are the inevitable result of the ill-considered policy upon which the Ministry has now embarked. The Minister of Pensions is responsible to this House for that policy. I want to say what I have to say briefly and frankly. The right hon. Gentleman has an individual responsibility to this House, but I should like to believe that that responsibility is shared by every Member of the House, and that the matter of pension administration is not merely a House of Commons responsibility but a national responsibility. I shall also speak briefly because I am anxious to hear the statement we are to get from the Minister in regard to the Present administrative situation. I think I can even now at this early stage of the Debate anticipate some of the things we shall be told to-night in order to justify the Ministry's present attitude to wards ex-service men.
I speak from the point of view of ex-service men, and I can assure all those hon. Members who take an interest in this question, that amongst the ex-service men to-day there is a most serious and growing feeling of unrest and suspicion with regard to the Ministry's methods of administration. From my point of view, I conceive that those suspicions are justified. I can hear the right hon.
Gentleman, when he speaks to-night, expressing, as he did on the last occasion when this subject was under discussion, his personal sympathy with the ex-service men and their dependants. But something more than sympathy is needed in this matter. I can readily believe that when he speaks he will be able to justify, out of the provisions of successive Royal Warrants and various Pensions Acts, every step he has taken in regard to changes of administrative methods. But if he is to rely on the terms of the Pensions Acts and the terms of Royal Warrants for justification of what is being done in the field of the administration of pensions, he will have justified completely, in my opinion, the very serious charges that are being made against that administration to-day. This matter of pensions is not a matter of the movement of a soulless, mechanical administrative machine groaning under legal enactments and under legal provisions. I know the official mind worships administrative rules and administrative regulations, but I do suggest that in this matter it would be better business and sounder economy to pay less attention to the letter of the law, and a little more attention to the spirit which should animate the administration of such a matter as pensions. I say it would be good business and good economy, as I cannot bring myself to the point of view at which one accepts the possibility that the recent changes in administrative methods are due to financial pressure from the Treasury. I do not believe that anyone will stand up and say that the taxpayers' pocket should be protected at the expense of the ex-service men and their dependants. We have to tolerate attacks whether we like them or not on the status of workers through the medium of the unemployment exchanges. We have to tolerate, even if we disapprove them, attacks on the status of workers' children in the field of education, but I can hardly believe it to be possible that we are now prepared to say that, in this matter, money, and even national money, should count in the scale against the interests of the ex-service men. We owe those men a bigger debt than we can ever hope to repay in money.
Let me try to state in a few words what I regard as the essence of this pressing administrative problem. Have hon. Members any knowledge of the position of local pensions committees at this moment? If they have they will agree
with me when I say that the position of members of these committees is steadily becoming intolerable. The local committees are becoming simply machines for the registration of Ministerial decrees, and it is just because the administrative machine has developed into a highly centralised legal machine that this trouble has arisen. There is a widespread feeling amongst ex-service men and amongst pensioners that the Pensions Ministry is a soulless, mechanical, official machine, and that it is making it its first business to place obstacles in the way of ex-service men in regard to their getting benefits rather than otherwise. My own experience teaches me that these obstacles exist. My strong feeling is that they need not exist and that the network of legal obstacles and Departmental rules and regulations, which have to be surmounted before claims for pensions are admitted and granted, should be swept away. The human element should count far more than the merely official and Departmental element. Of course the official mind will not accept the soundness of what I am saying. Perhaps at this stage I could remove any idea there may be in the mind of any Member of this House that the protest I am now making is made from a party point of view, or in order to score a mere political point at the expense of the Ministry. I have here in my hand a memorandum issued by one of the largest local pensions committees in the country, and I propose to quote just one paragraph from it in order to show what these committees are thinking with regard to this centralised administration. This is a memorandum from the Bristol Committee, and it reads:
My Committee feel very strongly about these matters.
The matters referred to are those upon which I have been commenting to-day—
We suggest that if economy is to be practised it should not be at the expense of men who have been made physical wrecks through War service. We do therefore ask for more sympathetic treatment of these men. We shall be obliged if the Committee will give some explanation of their change of policy. We ask for reconsideration of these matters which are giving rise to strong protest both from the men concerned and from those who have to administer these Regulations.
I could read further extracts from this Memorandum if necessary. What I want to insist upon is that local committees throughout the whole country are in more or less open revolt against the situation as it now exists, and the general grievances which were commented upon by the last speaker are, throughout the whole country, multiplying at a very alarming rate. I do not want to take up the time of the House by dealing with specific cases, because, if I did, the objection might be urged that I was dealing with exceptional cases, and that that is not a fair method of attack on the Ministry. I have dealt with scores of similar cases. I have particulars here of typical cases in which grievances arise purely on the ground of inefficient administrative methods; and the biggest difficulty, in my judgment, that we have to face and surmount at the present moment is the difficulty of breaking down this centralised administrative organisation, and vesting in the local committees a much larger measure of control than they have at the present moment. The local committees are far more capable of dealing with cases on their merits than a centralised authority. I know something of the manner in which eases are now dealt with by the Ministry. I have here documentary evidence which shows that cases passed by medical boards as eases in which the disability was due to or aggravated by War service have been considered by the Ministry at headquarters, and the decision of the medical authorities turned down. On what ground could such a decision possibly be reached? I could give, not one case of this sort, but many. The trouble is that the decisions are reached, I am certain, not always on medical grounds, not always even on the ground of the man's medical history, but in very many cases, I am afraid, on legal grounds, on interpretations put on a man's case and on his disability by people who look at these cases purely from the official and Departmental point of view.
I could occupy a great deal of time in detailing the grounds of grievance which ex-service men have to-day. I will take one as a sample of what ex-service men are enduring to-day, and I would ask the House to consider whether the difficulty that. I indicate in this matter is one that should be tolerated any longer.
This Memorandum of the Bristol War Pensions Committee draws attention to the trouble. It points out:
If a man allows 12 months to elapse before making a claim, it is invariably concluded that the disability has been contracted since his discharge, although the man has struggled through this time, hoping that his health would improve, and only appeals when he has completely broken down. If a man, however, during service, contracts tuberculosis and has been in hospital, he gets turned down as having contracted the disease before joining, although his medical record shows that he was class A on taking up service in the Army.
These tuberculosis cases are, in my opinion, the very worst type of case that we have to consider in this matter. The Ministry seems to be straining every effort in order to prove that tuberculosis cases are constitutional, that the tuberculosis is not the result of war service; and if, unhappily, a man after demobilisation allows even a few months to elapse before he reports his disability, the Ministry rejects his claim on the ground that he has contracted the trouble since demobilisation. Not one case, but hundreds of cases of that sort, have been turned down by the Ministry, and what does that indicate? I do not question the medical judgment on individual cases, but I do seriously say that this indicates that the Ministry, in its Regulations, is now putting difficulties and obstacles in the way of men claiming benefit and getting what, in my judgment, is their due. The Liverpool memorandum has been referred to. Does not that memorandum, without discussion of its merits at all, indicate that this trouble is far more widespread than the Ministry at the present moment appear to realise?
I want before I sit down to say just a word in regard to the position of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. Like the last speaker, I have hesitated many times before advising constituents of mine who have consulted me to avail themselves of the right to have their cases considered by the Pensions Appeal Tribunal. I have had a suspicion for a long time that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal is much more useful to the Ministry of Pensions than to the ex-service man. It is useful to the Ministry of Pensions in this respect, that cases turned down by the Ministry are referred to the Appeal Tribunal, the claimants are urged to appeal to the tribunal, and the Ministry is able to wash its hands of responsibility for the cases being turned down, even although the Minister will tell us tonight that be has no control whatever over the tribunal's findings. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, and I suggest that we should get from the Minister what I think would be of some value, namely, a promise that for the future the decisions of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal shall not be the rigid unalterable decisions that they have been up to now. The Minister says that he has nothing to do with them. He has nothing to do with them in a statutory sense, but is it not a fact that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal is here as an institution through which the Minister of Pensions is able to whitewash his Department and to escape from his responsibilities? I agree that it is an independent authority in the sense that it is not under Departmental control; but the Minister of Pensions knows full well that claimants whose eases have been turned down by his Ministry are recommended to go to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, in order that their cases may be fully and finally considered, and he has no responsibility. I should say, however, that the nation has a responsibility for what is now being done by these tribunals. At any rate, I should hope that this would take place, and take place soon: that, where new evidence can be secured to substantiate a case, the decisions of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal shall not be regarded as final and binding, but that cases, even if they have been before the tribunal, shall be capable of being re-opened and reconsidered on their merits. That has not been a possibility in the past. I ask the House to believe that this is a serious matter for ex-service men to-day. I ask the House to remember, at a time when monuments are being erected all over the country to men who served the nation during the great War—and I approve of that—that the most enduring monument that we can erect to the memory of the men who served us is to ensure that none of them or their dependants shall suffer through our neglect of their interests.
I am afraid that, if the House has followed what was said by the last two speakers about the Ministry of Pensions, it will get a totally wrong impression as to the feeling among ex-service men and disabled men generally throughout the country. It amounted to this, that they criticised the Ministry of Pensions because it was efficient. The whole of their argument was devoted to that. They said that the Ministry is acting in strict accordance with the Royal Warrant, and in strict accordance with the legal interpretations of the Law Officers of the Crown as to that Warrant; and, therefore, it is to be condemned as being a soulless, inhuman machine, with the official mind, and all the rest of the paraphernalia of phrase of which Labour Members are so fond. The whole essence of their criticism is simply that. They criticise the Ministry because it is doing its duty thoroughly, without fear or favour.
I say more. The last speaker really gave away the complete case of hon. Members opposite. He hinted very definitely that what he and his colleagues want is a re-introduction of the system which was initiated in the administration of pensions by the present Secretary of State for War when he was Minister of Pensions. They want that decentralisation, that putting in the hands of local committees of enormous powers of patronage in regard to pensions—a policy which the whole of this House practically repudiated as soon as it had the opportunity, a policy which put local Members of Parliament, members of local authorities, and members of pensions committees, in a position, at the expense of the taxpayers generally, to exercise patronage for the fulfilment of their own selfish political ambitions. The last speaker made that perfectly clear. He said, "We want more power"—more power of patronage, that is—"given to the local committees." I do hope that that state of affairs will never come about in this country. We have before us the lesson of the administration of the American Civil War pensions in that country, an administration based very largely upon local patronage, and, therefore, leading to the imposition of an enormous burden upon the unfortunate taxpayers of that country, and to the greatest injustice that there can be in pensions' administration—the injustice which results in men who do not deserve, and are not entitled to, a pension obtaining one at the expense of their fellow citizens. Therefore, I hope that the Ministry of Pensions and this House will be firm on that point, and will not take any steps whatsoever to go back to that absurd and wrong and corrupt policy which was initiated before the present Minister of Pensions took office—the policy of giving into the hands of politicians what hon. Members opposite are really demanding, namely, the power of bestowing pensions upon men who are not really entitled to them, in order that, by obtaining that patronage, they may fulfil their own political ambitions.
I do not intend to attempt to reply to the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson), except to say that I have heard him on several occasions, and I am fast approaching the position of one who realises that no person and no party in this House can raise any subject without having, shall I say, party motives or vote-catching motives attributed to them except the hon. Member for Mossley. He is the Simon Pure of the House. At all times and in all circumstances he is the gentleman who is right. That is his attitude on this question of pensions. I want, very briefly, in supporting this Amendment, to refer first of all to the question of the deductions which have been made in thousands of cases from the pay of men, on the ground that at some previous period they have received an over-payment. I put down a question this afternoon with reference to this matter, and I am not satisfied with the reply that I received. It was to the effect, in the first place, that such a deduction was justified by the Royal Warrant, and that, in the second place, these deductions were only made after the most careful inquiry and with due regard to the circumstances of the pensioner from whom the money was being deducted. The first point is, to my mind, doubtful, in view of the decision in the Law Courts during the last week. On the second point, I am not doubtful at all. There is no question that in many cases these deductions have been made without full and adequate inquiry, and there is no question, further, that in many cases these deductions have been made from persons who, after the deduction has been made, are left without even the means for the barest possible existence. That may not be the desire of the Minister or of the Parliamentary Secretary. I should not like to say or suggest that it is. But I do say that in our experience we are being brought face to face with these conditions weekly.
I want to quote a ease which has come within my own knowledge during the past few weeks, and which will, I think, illustrate the point. A discharged man suffering from heart and chest trouble in my own constituency was recommended by a medical officer for institutional treatment. He accepted the institutional treatment, as indeed he was bound to do. Had he not accepted it he would have been liable to have his pension reduced as one who was not doing his best to recover his health and to become fit for work. He was sent to an institution approved by the Ministry for the treatment of cases such as his, namely, the sanatorium at Middleton, in Wharfedale. After three or four months' treatment he was discharged considerably improved in health. During the time he was there his treatment allowance had been paid to his wife and family. After he came out he was examined by a further medical officer attached to the Ministry who, finding him considerably improved, decided that the officer who had recommended him for the treatment had made a mistake, and that the treatment that he had received was not what he would term appropriate treatment, and the Ministry, I suppose, acting on the decision of that medical officer, decided that as the treatment had not been appropriate treatment the treatment allowance had not been properly paid, and they instituted a system of deduction from his pay. I am at a loss to understand how that can be justified. The man stood to lose in either case. Had he refused to accept the treatment he would have been treated as a malingerer and a deduction would have been made. He accepted the treatment and was benefited by it and came home somewhat restored in health to find that he was treated as an offender, and a deduction was made from his 30 per cent. pension.
That is not the only case I could quote. There are more within my own constituency. I agree it is time something was done to bring home to officials of the Ministry that they are not acting as Parliament would desire them to act in this matter, or as the nation would desire them to act. I am still prepared to believe that the great heart of the nation beats sound towards these men who served and suffered for them. They are anxious that they should have given to them in every case what was always promised, that in doubtful matters they should have the benefit of the doubt. I have come to the conclusion that in actual practice, in doubtful matters, the Ministry have taken the benefit and the man has had to suffer.
I should like to say a word or two in reference to the case of the man who is in receipt of a partial disability pension—who may be receiving a pension for 30 per cent. or 40 per cent. disability— according to the medical opinion, disabled to the extent of three-tenths or two-fifths of his working capacity, though in actual practice, looking upon him as a candidate for work, and having to place his ability in the labour market, it often proves a total disablement. He is unable to get work, and in consequence these men who were to be heroes, who were our real patriots, had been compelled to seek Poor Law relief, and in my own district scarcely a week goes by but I receive resolutions from boards of guardians protesting against the amount of relief they are having to pay to discharged men or their dependants. I know the Minister would say, "What would you have me do; would you have every man on full pay?" So far as I see this matter, I should say the national obligation to these men is to see that they have work provided suitable to their disability or for the State to accept the full responsibility and provide them with the means to lead a respectable life—one or the other. I should prefer the suitable work. I think it, would be best for the men. But in the absence of suitable work the State has no right to evade its responsibility and to foist it on the boards of guardians and the local rates. That is what is being done.
I should like to say a word with reference to a matter which is hotly denied from that bench, but which many of us know to be a fact, and that is the gradual hardening and cutting-down policy which is being pursued by the Ministry and its officials in reference to pensions. I know that every time the matter is brought up the point is denied. I know from actual experience in the districts and among the men, without exception, that a cutting-down policy is in operation, and that men are being deprived of their just and legitimate rights. That is not a personal or party opinion. I wish the hon. Member (Mr. Hopkinson) could come into my division and meet the board of guardians, which, at all events, is not composed of a majority of Labour men. They would tell him quite frankly what is their experience, and they would tell him they believe they have been unduly burdened because the Ministry is pursuing a cutting-down policy and is not carrying out its obligations to these men. In the area I represent, without regard to party or to politics, in asserting that these men are not being treated justly, as they are entitled to be, I speak for the whole division. I speak for employers of labour, for boards of guardians, and for everyone with whom I am brought into contact. The ex-service men themselves, and practically the whole population, are filled with bitterness and with resentment, because they feel that the ex-service man is not being treated in accordance with promises which were made to him when he was induced to enlist, and he is not being treated in accordance with the promises which were made to him at the last election, that the nation would not fail in its duty to those who had served it best.
However much we admire the ability and the versatility of the hon. Member (Mr. Hopkinson) on the many occasions on which he amuses the House by the remarks he has to make, we strongly protest against the cold-blooded, unsympathetic attitude adopted by him in this question of pensions and the operations of the Pensions Ministry. There can hardly be a Member of the House who, during the last few years, has not had brought very prominently before him the difficulties arising in respect to the administration of pensions and the hardships which have been experienced by those who have served us, and in serving us have saved the country. I want to enter my very strong protest against mere lip service. We eulogised the men who went to the colours, we lauded them to the seventh Heaven as the men who were saving the women and children and the civilisation of the world. There, again, my hon. Friend shows his unsympathy, because he wishes we had not. Whether he wishes it or not we did, and the fact remains, and I for one hold them in great reverence, despite the cold-blooded, unsympathetic attitude of my hon. Friend, be- cause as an old man I deliberately say I have built an altar in my heart to the men who served this country and, whether it be openly or not, I pay reverence to them every day, and I feel it incumbent upon me to have regard to the service they have rendered and in every possible way to endeavour to see that the disabilities which are crowding round them are removed, and I rise in order to say deliberately to the Ministry of Pensions, "Do not shield yourselves behind the tribunal. Do not set up your tribunal as a buffer." That has been so frequently our experience in regard to Government Departments, even before I came into the House, when I had to do with matters concerning the administration of this country, that you set up this and that Committee and this and the other tribunal, and then the Ministry, when a question is raised, says, "We can do nothing, because it is the finding of the tribunal."
I know there are scores of cases of men who are trying to impose themselves upon the funds of the country, but there are thousands of cases of the other kind. At this very moment I have a very grave and serious case with the Ministry of Pensions. It has been turned down by the tribunal. I have no doubt the answer will be "The Ministry can do nothing because the tribunal's findings are such and such." I say, as an honest and candid man, if they shield themselves behind that they are not doing their duty to the men who served this country and who helped us in the hour of our need, and therefore I am seriously concerned when men take up a cold, calculating, hard attitude, because if these men, let them be what they may, had not served the country we should not be sitting under this roof to-day. Therefore let us have a larger element of consideration and charity towards these men. I say to the representative of the Ministry of Pensions, "Do not camouflage this thing; do not shield yourselves behind the tribunal. Deal with all these cases upon their merits, and upon the just requirements, and where matters have supervened on their service—tuberculosis or other disability—treat them as men, and mete out to them that which they have a right to expect from us if we have any sense of gratitude for the service they have rendered."
I was interested to hear the suggestion of the hon. Member (Mr. Hopkinson) that this matter has been raised on these Benches in a more or less corrupt way. I should like to ask a question or two of the Minister in connection with that aspect of the matter. I want to know whether there is any corruption in operation. I want to know whether the constituents of Coalition Members are being better treated than the constituents of Members on this side. If they are, there seems to be some sort of corruption. Are all the men who went from Mosley being treated fairly in the way of pensions? Are they being better treated at Mosley than at Hamilton? It may be they are because the hon. Member who represents that Division votes with the Government and they are not being treated fairly in Hamilton because the Member for Hamilton votes against them. I do not know. I am sure the Minister of Pensions and the vast majority of hon. Members will not for a moment imagine that we have raised this matter from any corrupt or political motive. We honestly believe that all hon. Members, no matter to what party they belong or on which side of the House they sit, are troubled with the same difficulty in regard to the men whom they sincerely believe have a. right to have their pensions continued, but find themselves being deprived of them. How are they deprived? I am making no complaint against the Pensions Minister, I think he is the victim of circumstances. I have always obtained quite reasonable and satisfactory treatment from him, so far as he could go. The unfortunate thing is that he cannot go very far. He comes up against the doctor. I am not dealing with the tribunals at present, but I want to say something about the medical boards. Who are they? What are they? Is there anybody who has any faith in them? Has any soldier or any Member of Parliament any faith in them? I am a Member of Parliament, and I have absolutely no faith in the doctors who form the medical hoard in Glasgow, and I have a good reason. Has not the medical man who is the panel doctor of a soldier or ex-soldier gone through the same scholastic training, attended the university, and undergone the same severe study in order to secure a degree entitling him to act as a doctor? Judging from reports I have received from those who have served long years in the Army, the ordinary civilian doctor is very much superior to the doctor in the Army. Here we have a panel doctor certifying that men are unfit to work because of services rendered in the Army during the War, and that their present disability is either caused or aggravated by such service. These men go to the medical boards, and the medical boards say, "Go back to your panel doctors. You are not fit to work, but you are not entitled to get any pension or treatment allowance. You may be in poverty, you may be in starvation, but, so far as we are concerned, you can either get from the parochial authorities sufficient to maintain you, or you can starve."
I venture to say that if anybody is corrupt at all in this matter it is the members of the Government who, in 1918, pledged themselves that the treatment to be meted out to the men who served during the last Great War should be very different from that accorded to the men who served in previous wars. We all professed to he shocked at the treatment received by those of our fathers who served in the Crimean and Peninsular Wars. We solemnly swore before God Almighty that we would not act in that way so far as the men who fought in the last War were concerned; but now we have an amount of misery in the country, in consequence of the evil treatment that ex-soldiers and ex-pensioners are receiving, which is a standing disgrace to hon. Members of this House. It may be that the tribunal has a power superior to that of the Minister of Pensions. Nobody here knows the tribunal, but we do know the Minister of Pensions. He is responsible to this House, and if the tribunals are giving what we believe and know to be unsatisfactory decisions, it is clearly the duty of hon. Members to change the law, so that the Minister shall have control over the tribunals, and we shall have some control over him. The onus of proving that a claim for a pension by a man who rendered services during the War is fraudulent and unreasonable ought to lie with the Ministry.
When a man has served, and finds himself in this position because of his service, it ought not to be his duty to prove his case; the other side should have to prove that his case is wrong. They do not do. so. It is peculiarly unfair so far as that particular industry with which I am associated is concerned. A miner may be fit for light employment, but, because he is fit for light employment, he may not be, and certainly is not fit for his ordinary employment. Over 400,000 went into the War from the mining industry. A large number of them have returned very much less skilful and able physically than they went away. At the present time there are more men in the industry than the employers can find work for, and the first men who are turned off, or the men who are the least likely to get a job, are the ex-soldiers. They are told that they are fit for light employment, but no light employment can be obtained. If a man went into the Army in 1914, and served during the four years of the War, and if at the end of that time he is found to be unfit to follow his usual occupation, then a duty rests on the Government—whether it is composed of hon. Members from this side of the House or from that—and upon every citizen of the country to provide the means to insure that such a man's position will not be worsened in consequence of the services he has rendered.
I do not know what the Minister of Pensions is going to say, but I hope it will he something different from what he has always said in dealing with this matter. I hope he will say that the Government intend to adopt some plan to insure that at least even-handed fair-play will be given to the ex-soldier, and that he shall not be bandied from pillar to post. He should not be sent first to a medical board, which does not say he is unfit or fit for work, but sends him home to his panel doctor. He then goes back to the panel doctor, who says he can work. Then he makes application to the Labour Ministry and gets nothing. Possibly he has to go to the parish authority, and the local ratepayers have to maintain him, whereas it should have been a pleasure for the country to find the money to keep this man, of whom it was said that he had rendered such service that it was impossible to give him sufficient honour and reward. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give some indication of his intentions. We are not making a protest on behalf of the Labour party but on behalf of the whole of the House. We are all equally anxious that the Pensions Minister should state that the Government policy in future should either be to make good the promise of 1918 to these men who served the country, or that the authorities themselves should have to prove that the men were fit to continue the work they were doing prior to joining up. I hope that some good result will arise from this Debate.
Hon. Members who have taken part in the Debate have put forward a number of very important points in reference to pensions, and it is conceded by everyone that we are as much interested in the welfare of ex-service men as are they. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Sir A. Warren), who spoke eloquently about the people who only pay lip service to the cause of pensions, went out of the House immediately after his speech, and is not here to listen on behalf of his constituents to the reply from the Government. Hon. Members have talked of the new policy of cutting down and of placing obstacles in the way of men getting pensions. At this moment, however, we are admitting to pension fresh claims at the rate of 300 every week. That is not in accordance with the criticisms which have been made. Of that number, from 15 to 20 are cases of tuberculosis each week. Moreover, we have brought in special provisions dealing with tuberculosis cases, and we are carrying on these men at specially high rates of pension for longer periods than other cases. We are treating these cases on specially favourable terms, because even when a man is discharged from hospital he gets 100 per cent. pension for six months, although he is very much better, and 50 per cent. for two years, even though he may be well.
With reference to the general reform of the Ministry, it hardly seems to me fair that hon. Members in this House should criticise in such adverse terms an entirely new reform which was carried, I think, unanimously, by the House on all the Readings of the Bill, and which has only just been put into operation. In Scotland the new areas are practically completed, but in some parts of England the scheme is not yet in operation. Yet, before this new system is working at all, it is eloquently condemned by hon. Members who neither criticised it or voted against it originally.
I am speaking of the great, change of areas, and of the new system of reconstruction and local administration. That new system is only beginning its operation, and many of the examples quoted to-day date from prior to that change. It is impossible to condemn a system before it has begun to work. We are told that this is a change of policy in regard to pensions. It is no change of policy whatever. We are working the warrants as we have always worked them. Not only that, but, so far from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions being dominated by officials, as has been said, though I have not consulted him, I say that he and I are quite prepared to stand here and take the responsibility upon ourselves. We in no way wish to throw the blame on the officials. That is not a fair line of criticism. Blame us, if you like, but not the officials. We are responsible to the House.
So far from being dominated by officials, and from being solely concerned with economy, I would point out that we had at the Ministry a Committee, of which I had the honour of being Chairman, which completed what hon. Members now say we ought to begin to do. Some hon. Members do not realise that this was a complete overhaul of the Pensions Ministry, or that it was complete before they suggested it should be done. They do not realise that the whole spirit of that inquiry, conducted by me on behalf of my right hon. Friend, was that there should be no economy at the expense of the pensioners, but that the entire economy should be made and pushed to the utmost on the cost of administration. Moreover, when we see this year lower Estimates, we must remember that there are various reasons for those reductions, such as children getting beyond the pensionable age, and widows remarrying. About one-fourth of the widows have remarried. There are also reductions through administrative reforms. For instance, the very system which has been criticised, of having areas instead of the old local committees, is estimated in the present year to bring about a reduction in expenditure of £300,000. There are reforms in many other ways which are bringing about reductions in the cost of administration, but during my right hon. Friend's term of office those reforms and economies will never be made at the cost of the pensioners.
It is said that there have been wholesale reductions of pensions, and that there is a new system of cutting down pensions. That is absolutely and totally inaccurate. All that is happening is this: We have medical boards, and we have cases of men who are getting better and of men who are getting worse. Thousands of men are getting increased pensions. You never hear of them; but when there is a case where, as a result of enormous expenditure on the part of the State in the provision of skilled medical attention and so on, it man gets better and his pension is reduced, you hear of it. Never do you hear of the thousands of eases where the pensions have been increased.
It would be wiser if the hon. Member waited to hear the whole of the facts, without interrupting. A short time ago—I have not the full facts up to date—over the whole range of the medical boards the net percentage reduction of the assessments was only 4 per cent., and the last figure I saw was a little less than that. Therefore, the reduction as a result of the medical boards was only 4 per cent., and was gradually tending to become less. The moment a man's pension is reduced one hears of it.
Of course, there is no complaint then. Very strong statements have been made, based on isolated and often unverified cases, but these must be judged in the light of the fact that over the whole range of pensions the reduction of assessments has been extremely small. It is absolutely untrue to say that it is a soulless official machine. Those who speak so eloquently for the ex-service men bring a very serious charge against ex-service men in that respect. Of all the temporary staff working throughout these committees, who are doing their best to help the ex-service men, 99 per cent. are ex-service men. These are described as soulless officials.
I asked a very definite question when I spoke. I asked what was the composition of the ex-service men in the staff conference and in the higher places in the Ministry?
Of the whole temporary staff of the Ministry, about 99 per cent. are ex-service men. A large number of distinguished men in charge of the regions hold high office, and some of these men have held positions of great responsibility in the naval and military service of the Crown. Therefore, the charge that those who are in our offices throughout the country are soulless officials, is a charge made directly against ex-service men when they find themselves in the employment of the Ministry of Pensions, and that is a charge which ought never to have been made. The proposals made by some hon. Members would lead to absolute chaos in the country. One proposal is to sweep away regulations. How can you have an equitable administration of pensions in districts unless you have some sort of regulation? Another proposal was to allow the old local committees the power of deciding pensions. The old committees were abolished by the Bill of last year. The charge as to deliberate attempts to economise at the expense of the pensioners is absolutely untrue. Necessarily, some pensions are reduced and some pensions are increased; but the charge is untrue, because it is contrary to the figures, which show that the net reduction over all the medical boards is only four per cent. on the total assessment.
It is a little difficult to reply to certain points, because I had no notice from hon. Members that they were going to raise the particular points, but there is the Liverpool memorandum which has for a long time past been in the possession of my right hon. Friend, and we have been going into questions which it raises and also going fully into the question of the seven years' limit and other points. We have been at work steadily on this for some time. I spent the whole of this morning and yesterday on one of these points. If the House will allow me, I will give some particulars as to how
far we have got in endeavouring to solve the particular problems which have been raised in this Debate. With regard to the complaint about the withdrawal of grants for the education of children, the position is this:
The Special Grants Committee, in administering grants for education, were always limited under their rules of working by the condition that the education which it was proposed to provide for the children by means of the grant, was such as the father would have been able to afford to give. The Controller and Auditor-General called attention to many cases of obvious irregularity in which the grants had actually been paid, and which he was unable to pass at audit.
That is why hon. Members hear of these individual cases. We were challenged for having wrongly paid out public money to certain cases.
The matter had to be gone into very carefully in conjunction with the Treasury and the Special Grants Committee. The result was that a compromise was reached, at the instance of the Ministry, which involved the cancellation of only three hundred grants wrongly given out of the many thousands of grants which had been made by the Special Grants Committee.
I may add that these education grants have not been abolished or stopped in any way. New grants are still being made. What has been stopped is the payment of certain grants in cases where they have been made outside the regulations and were not properly authorised.
We have no authority to administer public money except in accordance with the Regulations which have been approved by the Department responsible for the public purse, namely, the Treasury. We have directed that special care should be taken in dealing with the cancellation of grants, and special consideration should be given to a case, for example, where a considerable time has already been spent in the child's education, and only a comparatively short time, for instance, a year or so, is still necessary to complete the education. It would be both a hardship to the child and false economy to cancel the grant. Regard must be had to the nature of the education, namely, the kind of school in which the education is being given. For example, a case in which a child receiving secondary or technical education is on a different footing from one in which the child is merely receiving education at a preparatory school which could be equally well given in a public elementary school.
In regard to the question of removal from duty, the hon. Member who raised the point is under a complete misapprehension.
The suggestion made in the Liverpool Memorandum that in the new Warrant,
signed on the 21st June last, steps were taken by the Pensions Ministry to legalise, "with secrecy," an entirely new interpretation of the words removal from duty ' is wholly erroneous. The term 'removal from duty' has consistently been interpreted by the Ministry and by the War Office before this Ministry took over the work as the occasion of first removal from duty, and it was solely in order to make the position clear that these words were inserted. The principle involved is, speaking generally, a sound one. The State undertakes to give compensation by way of pension to those widows only who had been married before their husbands sustained the injury which ultimately led to their death. It is clearly not a reasonable liability for the State to be required to give compensation in the event of death where the man had married when he was manifestly not in a condition to undertake with any security the obligation of support involved by his marriage.
At the same time we have fully recognised that there are exceptional cases in which aggravation of the pre-marriage disability has been caused by subsequent service, the man having, in such cases, contracted his marriage when, to all appearances, he had recovered from the effects of the original disability. In cases of this class, in which it is clear that the man, after marriage, was returned either to general service or to service of such character as did not clearly indicate that he was permanently and materially in a worse physical condition than before the original disability was sustained, we are empowered to give a pension at suitable rates where aggravation by subsequent service is shown.
Does the hon. and gallant Member say that it has been the usual practice to interpret the "removal from duty" as the first time when he was removed from duty? Most people connected with the administration of pensions will be very surprised to hear a statement of that kind.
As I understand the grievance complained of, and it is a serious one, it is this, that if a man goes to hospital and while in hospital he marries and then he goes back to duty, that his widow is deprived of the pension.
That is not the point specifically raised. It is a point in regard to the wife. On that point she may become eligible, in the event of illness being aggravated by subsequent service. Another point is that of the seven years:
The Liverpool Memorandum suggests an amendment of the Warrant, and apparently
this amendment would take the form of the removal of the time limit of seven rears altogether from Article 11. The seven years' time limit is a provision of old standing in the Pension Warrant before the days of the Ministry, and was adopted for two very good reasons, namely:
That answers to some extent the point made in the Liverpool Memorandum that owing to the greater resources of medical science the man may live longer.
The original time limit was two years, and this was later extended to seven years.
The time limit was extended to seven years in order to allow the fullest margin of time within which the man's death could really be certified to be due to his service. We are assured by our medical advisers that in very rare eases earl it be said, after the seven year period, with any degree of accuracy, that the death is wholly duo to, service. To do away with the time limit of seven years, in Article 11, altogether would mean that widows of men who have themselves never claimed a pension during their lifetime would be able to claim a pension under Article 11, although the death might have occurred 10 or 20 years after the discharge from service. Moreover, it would mean giving pensions to widows of men who had merely developed some complaint during service which had nothing whatever to do with their service, when the men themselves were not entitled to pension during their lifetime. Finally, the proposal would mean a very large, steadily increasing addition amounting to many millions to the annual cost of widows pensions not justified by any real connection with the War. The eases which the Liverpool Memorandum has in view are already dealt with by way of pension under Article 17 of the Warrant, but that Article in its present form does not in our opinion deal satisfactorily with some of the cases which merit special consideration.
We have been working at this steadily, and it is a much more difficult problem than it would appear to those who have not gone carefully into the question, because we want to relieve those who are
most deserving, and not to open the door so wide as to admit men who have no claim against the State.
I put the exact position to my hon. and gallant Friend:
We have been for some time past endeavouring to find a solution to this question and are engaged in preparing a scheme now which will, I hope, meet the difficulty on equitable lines.
I am sorry to have detained the House so long, but these matters are of vital importance. We have had a very important memorandum issued from Liverpool as to the actual position. There is talk in that memorandum about an undertaking being given in 1916:
No undertaking was given to the House in 1916 with regard to need pensions because this class of pension did not then exist. The discussion in the House, which is referred to by the Liverpool memorandum, arose in connection with pre-War dependence pensions and supplements to those pensions by the Statutory Committee, and Mr. McKenna rightly stated that as regards the pre-War dependence pensions the State did not wish to take advantage of private benefaction. The pre-War dependence pension was based on the actual amount which the son had contributed before his death or before enlistment to his parent. In regard to this class of pension the undertaking given has been faithfully observed by this Department. Need pensions are on a different footing from pre-War dependence pensions, but in regard to these also the instruction given by my Department make it quite clear that temporary and occasional grants from private funds are disregarded. On the other hand we are bound to take into account—because the need pension is based on the average existing circumstances of the claimant—regular income from whatever source it is derived. The basis of need pension as recommended by the Select Committee on Pensions to the House was the amount of support which the deceased son might reasonably be expected to give had he survived. This principle was approved by the House and it is on this principle that need pensions are at present being administered.
It will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Suggestions have been made that we are in some way sheltering ourselves behind the Appeal Tribunal. Those criticisms ought never to be made by any Member of the House of Commons. Anybody who makes them should remember that this tribunal was set up on the insistent demand of the ex-service men themselves, and sweeping it away would mean that we should have to deal with the matter, and they would have no right of appeal to anybody.
If you swept away the tribunals, you would find yourself at variance with the organised bodies of ex-service men, because you would deprive them of a right which is not merely valuable, but has led to the granting of large numbers of pensions which otherwise would not have been given.
I see what the complaint is. The hon. Member says that there have been refusals. What sort of tribunal would it be if there were no refusals? It means that if anybody applies for anything he is to get it. We do not shelter ourselves behind the tribunals. They are not a body of our creation. They were set up by the House of Commons over us, and by their decision we are bound. In large numbers of cases pensions are granted by those tribunals, and we have to pay whether we agree with the findings of the tribunal or not, and their decisions are final. The hon. Member says that everybody is getting so disgusted with the tribunals that his constituents will not go to them. With a number of ex-service men and others we went into this whole question some time ago, and so far from the tribunals being less used than before the increase in the number of cases a year or nine months ago was so great that we had to increase the number from 12 to 24 in order to do the work.
We will take which ever is the more convenient course. If my hon. Friend has read it accurately it will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT, but if there is any question at all we shall be very glad to give it to the House.
The Parliamentary Secretary in his opening remarks expressed a considerable amount of indignation at the fact that some who were taking part in the Debate were criticising the Ministry of Pensions, and he pointed out that the Minister was just as anxious to secure justice for the ex-service men as any section of Members of this House could be. I do not think that there has been very keen personal criticism either of the Minister of Pensions or the hon. and gallant Gentleman himself. The burden of complaint has been that, whether it is the fault of the system which has been gradually built up or of the Ministry or of the officials who are working out this system in the Ministry, there are very large numbers of ex-service men in this country who are not getting justice and it is the duty of every section of this House to bring that before the Pensions Minister and to try to get these, cases remedied at the earliest possible moment. The hon. and gallant Gentleman also stated, with the view, I think, of proving that there was not very much in the complaints that had been made by my hon. Friends and others, that so far from the number of difficult cases increasing they were diminishing. At least the figures that he quoted led me to believe that that was the argument which he wanted to convey, because, he said, we are granting pensions at the rate of 300 per week.
That may be true. I have no means of contraverting that figure. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is in a far better position to give the exact figure than any private Member. But one thing equally important which I notice is that he did not tell the House of the number of men whose claims to pensions had been already recognised who have been cut off. It would be very important to get that figure. It is that type of case that has already been dealt with by myself and others in this House. The point which I am about to raise now, I suppose, I must address rather to the Attorney-General than to the Ministry of Pensions. It refers to the growing number of ex-service men whose cases are considered by all the machinery set up by the Ministry of Pensions, and are finally disposed of by the final appeal board by whom their claims are dismissed, generally on the ground that their present condition is not attributable to, and has not been aggravated by, War service.
Many of these men and their dependants are in very straitened circumstances at the moment. In many instances they are either dependent upon friends or upon the parish council in Scotland or the board of guardians in England. There is no more tragic figure to-day in our national life than the man who has put his all into the service of the State during the War, and, in the course of performing that service, has either contracted some form of disease or has been wounded, and is no longer able to maintain himself and his dependants. We were frequently told in this House and in the country, in the course of the War, that we were to put in the last man and the last shilling in order to come victorious through the conflict. Well I do know that we pretty well put in the last man.
Or even the party I represent. We have by no means carried out the other promise, to put in the last shilling. We certainly have not carried it out in the case of the men who have been disabled, for many of them are left to bear entirely on their own shoulders a burden that ought to be borne jointly by the State and themselves. The number of these men is growing and their cases will have to be dealt with, whether or not the Pensions Minister decides that that shall be done. There is growing up among the ex-service men and among the general public of this country such a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the rapidly-growing number of such eases that it will compel the doing of something, whether the Pensions Minister and the Attorney-General are or are not willing that it should be done. I know that I may be met with the answer that the cases of these men have gone through all the machinery set up by the Ministry, that they have finally come to the Appeal Board, which is an institution outside the control of the Ministry of Pensions, and that the final decision has been that the condition of the applicants is neither attributable to nor aggravated by war service. That is a very poor consolation to the man who finds himself, after three or four years of war service, unable to maintain himself and his dependants. I do not care how carefully these cases may have been investigated. There are bound to be mistakes made, and there ought to be some machinery for dealing further with them. They ought to be dealt with by someone who is responsible to this House. There are cases of men who, before enlisting, never had a day's illness in their working lives. During their military service, or subsequent to it, they were attacked by disease which they know they contracted during the War.
Is it to be wondered at that you have growing dissatisfaction among these men when their cases are turned down? Is it to be wondered at that there is dissatisfaction among the dependants of men who were forced into the Army, although they knew that they were medically unfit, and in many cases were able to produce medical certificates to that effect? In the course of their service they aggravated the diseases from which they suffered, and eventually they died. Is it to be wondered at that their dependants should be dissatisfied? There is a considerable number of such cases in my own constituency, as in every other constituency. I have no intention of going into details, but I will give two examples. The first is the case of a trooper in the Yeomanry, who enlisted in April, 1915. He was medically unfit, and was so certified by his own medical attendant. Nevertheless, he was declared to be in a sufficiently high category for the Army. In consequence of the faulty construction of the hut in which this man was placed, the illness from which he had suffered was aggravated, and to such an extent that he died within two months of his enlistment. His widow and his children, who had been struggling to keep on his business, had eventually to give it up. The widow was granted a temporary pension of 15s. a week for herself, but received nothing for the children. That temporary pension will end after a certain period. The case has gone through all the machinery set up by the Ministry of Pensions, and eventually it found its way to the Final Appeal Board, which turned it down. Nothing can be granted to the children.
Take another case. It is that of a man now 37 years of age, the father of seven children. He served for four years in France and during the terrible time on the French Front contracted a certain disease. He came home and has never been able to do the work of a miner since. His case went through all the machinery of the Pensions Ministry, and finally reached the Appeal Board and was turned down. Such cases I could multiply to an enormous extent from my own constituency. They could be multiplied by the thousand from other constituencies. The number of such cases is becoming alarming. The matter will demand the attention of the Minister of Pensions and of the Attorney-General and of others who are responsible. They may reply, "What do you suggest should be done?" I have a suggestion to make. I make it as one who places very little reliance, on the Appeal Board. It would be very difficult to convince the House, the Minister of Pensions or the Attorney-General that we should depart from the system of Appeal Boards. Consequently, I suggest the improvement of that system in a way which will lead to a reconsideration of the cases. The suggestion is that the Attorney-General should set up a National Appeal Board, to which there can he referred cases which have been turned down by the area Appeal Boards.
Under the ordinary law cases turned down in one Court go to another and a higher Court, and when all the Courts have dealt with them there is still the opportunity of appeal to the House of Lords. We want some such parallel as that. What I suggest would at least give the men concerned the satisfaction of knowing that there would be another hearing of all the circumstances of their cases. I suggest, further, that before this National Appeal Board the parties interested should be represented. I know that before the present Appeal Board they can be represented, but, as I am reminded, it is by payment, and in many cases they are not represented. They ought to be represented before this National Board, so that their cases may be sifted by people more competent than themselves to present intricate details of the kind. I make the suggestion in all seriousness, believing that it will go a considerable way towards solving the difficulty with which we are faced so far as many thousands of ex-service men are concerned. The day is not far distant when the Government will require to deal with this matter, because I can assure them that a very bitter spirit is growing up which must be met and dealt with and treated on lines of justice and fair play. I believe the suggestion that I have made would go a long way in the direction of meeting the needs of the class of ex-service men who are affected.
The Ministry has been attacked from every direction in the course of this evening. Possibly it will he a little change if someone who has at least as much experience as anyone on the opposite benches gives the result of his experiences. I am the secretary of a society which lost over 600 men killed in the War and had over 2,000 of its members suffering either from wounds or bad health. I have been chairman of a war pensions committee for some years, and I had my own offices turned into the central recruiting office of the Cirencester Division of Gloucester. That being so, my experience has been at least as great as that of any of the hon. Members who have condemned the Ministry this evening in unmeasured terms. Let me say at once, as far as the personnel of the Ministry is concerned—whether it be the Minister himself, the Parliamentary Secretary or the staff at the office of the Ministry—I have visited them all personally, frequently; I have also frequently corresponded with them, and I have taken up something like 600 cases with them, and in every single case I have been met with the greatest possible sympathy. I am speaking of the Ministry as I find it, and hon. Gentlemen opposite can speak of it as they find it, but I wish to bear my testimony, which is perfectly independent, to the fact that nothing could exceed the courtesy, the kindness, and the promptitude with which the various matters brought by me before the Ministry have been dealt with. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed!"]
I do not mean to say that in every single case I have been satisfied with their decision, but I do say, that as far as the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary and the chief officials are con- cerned, nothing could exceed their courtesy, kindness and promptitude. While I did not agree with every decision they made, I will say this, that when I disagreed with their decisions, I visited the Ministry and had further communications with them, and I have always found that the cases concerned were just on the border line, and that very little would have turned the decision one way or the other. I want to go a step further, and to say—though in no offensive way—that I do not think criticism should be directed to the Ministry at all, but rather to this House of Commons which passed the various Acts dealing with pensions. No one in this Debate up to now proved that the Ministry has done anything against the law. Therefore, if we are dissatisfied with the results obtained up to now, the blame rests as much upon us as Members of this House as upon anyone else. It is perfectly useless for us to seek to divest ourselves of our responsibility by pitching into the Ministry.
It is said that the system is wrong. Let me point out in the first place that the system has not even been in universal application up to now. It has not been possible to cover the whole of England, Scotland and Wales with these new area committees. It is grossly unfair to condemn a system before it has been put into full working order. It is said that the Minister should not be bound by the letter of the law, but should exercise his own discretion. Supposing one were to go into a law court, and say to the judge, "You must not be bound by the law, but use your own discretion," the judge would at once reply, "If you are going to do it, you will have no law at all, and decisions will be given, not upon legal points, but according to the whim and fancy of the judge who hears the case." That is not the way in which we ought to deal with this matter. If the law is wrong, let us alter it. Do not let us seek to place the responsibility for ma own misdoings, if misdoings there are, on the Ministry. I do not say that all the cases brought before us in our various divisions are genuine. There are and there always will be, as long as the world continues, a small proportion who are not justified in the demands which they make. I am afraid that Members have quoted extreme cases, and that many of these cases, if closely inquired into, would be found not to be quite as genuine as they appear on the surface.
It takes a certain amount of courage to tell people who come to one with complaints, "This will not do." I myself on several occasions have listened patiently to what a man has had to say, and I have proved to myself that he is a thorough scoundrel, and I have threatened to kick him out if he did not go. I think some hon. Members should take exactly the same line and ask the man who makes the complaint to come and see them. That is what I do in every single case where I am dissatisfied. My division covers 188 parishes, and is, I think, the second biggest in the British Isles. But if the man cannot come to me I take a motor car and go to see him. I must confess that about 99 per cent. of the cases are really cases which need to be inquired into, but when you have pointed out what the law is, not what the whim or fancy of anyone else is, or what they imagine the law should be, out of the 99 per cent. the great majority are reasonable people who recognise that their case cannot be helped. You will get a small percentage of people who will try every dodge under the sun to see whether they cannot, as they call it, "best the Government." Remember this, that in a regiment the men are not all angels; at any rate, not all good angels. There is a percentage not as good as they might be. The men who try to make application for that to which they are not entitled are the men who make all the fuss, who kick up the rows and write to the newspapers, and those who are really honest, I have found as a rule, have very little complaint to make.
On occasions on which I have disagreed with the Ministry, I have, as I said before, either visited the offices or had further communication with them, and while there always must be a certain number of border-line cases, where it is hard to say whether the Ministry ought to come down on the one side or the other, in the majority of the eases the Ministry gave the applicant the benefit of the doubt. I think it is only fair that anyone who has had to deal with such an enormous number of cases as I have should give his experience. It may require a certain amount of courage to stand up for a Department which has been pitched into right and left in the course of this Debate, but let me say, in conclusion, as I said at the start, that I have found the Ministry carry out its duties with sympathy and promptitude, and an earnest desire to do the best possible for the men. If there is anything wrong, it is not with the Ministry, but with the House of Commons. The House passed the Pension Acts, which hon. Members now say are not operating as they should. Why should not those hon. Members bring in an amending Act, and let us have in front of us what they think should be done? Ministers are human and make mistakes. We in this House recognised that, and set up an absolutely independent tribunal over which the Ministry has no control whatever. If that tribunal gives a decision against the Ministry, the Ministry has to carry out that decision. I do not know any fairer system than that. If it is within the competence and wisdom of the House to set up a better system, it is up to those who make these complaints to show what they can propose which is better than what is being done at the present time.
Surely if a law is not working satisfactorily, it is one of the functions of this House to point out where it is not working satisfactorily, with a view to having it remedied. When the hon. Member who has just sat down says that we should bring in an amending Act, he knows there is no possible chance of our doing anything of the kind. My complaint is not so much against the law as against the administration of the Acts which are now the law of the land. Although the hon. Member may have 188 parishes in his Division, I have got something like 350 square miles, I have no motor car, and I devote every hour of my Saturday and Sunday to interviewing people, especially pensioners, who are, as I consider, being subjected to injustice. I say without hesitation that one of the greatest calamities caused by the Act now in operation is the abolition of the local pensions committees. It may be I shall not have a great deal of support in this view, and the hon. Gentleman who spoke for the Pensions Ministry said this was a. saving of £300,000 a year. I say that saving is largely at the expense of the pensioners.
I do not mind what is said on the other side of the House as to theory. I know thousands of practical instances in Derbyshire and other parts of the country, and no Member of this House has worried the Pensions Ministry more than I have with regard to these particular matters. We had a remarkable speech from the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. A. Hopkinson) who is a theorist, an idealist, and a visionary, and who knows nothing of the practical difficulties that have to be met among pensioners and ex-service men. I hope his speech will be well circulated in his constituency. It is not the first time he has had something to say against ex-service men in this House. It is a fact that in many districts pensioners live many miles from pensions committees or pensions offices, and I know cases where they live from 12 to 20 miles distant from either. Consequently, the human touch is destroyed. How are these people to get into touch with the Ministry except by means of somebody who is sent down from the Ministry or from the area committee to inquire into the circumstances of the particular case. The pensions committees that have been abolished were very much better able to deal with these cases, and were very much better judges, because they had these men and women under constant supervision. This question is not confined by any means to any one party in the House. This question is too serious to make the ex-service man or woman who is a pensioner a stalking horse. On the whole, if you can get to the Minister of Pensions you get sympathetic consideration, but there are so many cases that do not come to him at all, that are decided—