Pensions Administration.

Part of Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. – in the House of Commons on 2nd August 1922.

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Photo of Mr Charles White Mr Charles White , Derbyshire Western

At. 8.15 p.m. I was saying that on the whole, if one could get to the Minister of Pensions, one could always obtain personal sympathetic consideration from him. I greatly fear that the Minister is not acquainted with all that goes on and—I say it with all respect—that he is not master in his own house. He gives full power to heads of Departments and regional directors to place their own construction upon Regulations. They appear to be responsible to no one. If that is so, they have a great deal to answer for, because many things happen which will not stand the light of day. They also place such a construction on the Regulations that they are seldom exercised in favour of the pension. I will give an instance of what is happening in a pension office with which I am somewhat acquainted. It is provided' in the Royal Warrant of 1919 that a surviving parent can claim a transfer of a pension which they enjoyed before the man or woman died. The Regulation passed by this House, to which we have been referred, provided that a dependency or family pension could not be awarded unless application was made before 1st April, 1922. The other day I took the liberty of reading here a pension instruction which had been sent to one of the pension officers in a constituency in the North Midlands. The Minister of Pensions said he would like to see it, as he was not quite conversant with what had been done. I am going to read what has been said by the regional director, and I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman on what amended Warrant this Warrant of 1919 has been altered. This is what was said: I am informed that it is now been decided that upon the death of a parent in receipt of a pension under Article 21 of the Royal Warrant, payment of such pension cannot now be transferred to a surviving parent. Further, it is understood that an amendment to the handbook will shortly he issued. I suppose that I ought not to have secured possession of that document, but I got it, and I got it in a confidential way. I received an answer the other day from the Ministry that the surviving parents would have a pension granted to them if they could show that they were in need. It has been held by a regional director that the claim by a surviving parent shall be treated as though it were a new application, and it is, therefore, barred under the Amendment, which says that claims for needs and dependency pensions must be made before the let April. Consequently, the claim has not been heard, and it has been ruled out by, the regional director. Why is it not within the province of the Minister of Pensions to see that this thing is not possible to be done?

We have heard from the Parliamentary Secretary to-night that 99 per cent. of those temporarily employed under the pensions administration are ex-service men. That is put forward as a reason why justice is always done. Ninety-nine per cent. of the subordinates in the Pensions Ministry would say that the pensioners are suffering great injustice. If they were asked officially they would not dare to say that the pensioners are suffering injustice, and it is only because some of us, knowing many thousands of ex-service men and pensioners, both men and women, are able to get into touch with some of these people, without undermining their authority or interfering in their business, that we get to know their real opinions. Some time ago I took up the question of medical boards, and the assessors sending back to them asking them to alter decisions at which they had already arrived. Strangely enough, since that question was asked by me in this House this practice has been discontinued in the district where it was always done before. On the Floor of this House one would think that no injustice occurred.

I have heard what has been said about "removal from duty," and the explanation given. I can give an instance which came to my knowledge, and which is now before the Ministry of Pensions, and has been for weeks, although I have had no answer. A man was discharged from hospital, cured, passed A 1 by the medical board, and sent back to general service. The man thought he was well, and he married the day idler coming out of hospital, the medical board having said, "You are quite fit for general service." A few months after marriage he became ill, whether from the same disability or not does not appear to me to enter into the question. If it does enter into the question, then it is clear that the man was not cured of his disability, although he was passed A 1 when he came out of hospital, and therefore was justified in getting married. The man was discharged from military service later, and he was granted a pension arid his wife had a pension. Two years afterwards the pension of the wife was stopped. They had a child, and the pension for the child was stopped, and the man is left with his individual pension.

A good deal has been said in the last few days about the needs pension being increased from 18s. to 20s. How many parents and others are there who are getting the full needs pension of 20s.? You will find a very small percentage. I will give a case of a lady in a village of my constituency who, up to last month, was receiving a pension of 18s. a week in consequence of her son having been killed in France. Had the son been living he would have been getting £300 a year, and the mother being a widow, he would have been the sole support of the home. She has an invalid son grown up. Her income is only 10s. a week except her pension of 18s. Only a fortnight ago this woman's pension was reduced from 18s. to 10s. a week, with a 2s. bonus to which she is entitled. One would think, when one hears what is said by the Minister of Pensions and the Parliamentary Secretary, that it is impossible for these things to happen. This is not a solitary case. All the Members of this side of the House know of such cases. We on this side of the House may be much better acquainted with these cases than hon. Members on the other side, because we live amongst the people, the majority of whom live in cottage homes. What will happen in this case? This respectable old lady, who had been expecting that her son would come home and maintain her, will have to apply to the guardians for relief. She is the widow of the schoolmaster of the village in which she lives. I am not asking that she should bare preferential treatment because of that, but when I hear that, nobody is suffering, I say that they are suffering greatly in many respects.

Now about the assessment of disability. No regard whatever appears to be had as to what the man was engaged in before he joined the Army. A man might be a watchmaker. I know one man who lives close to me, a shoemaker, whose pension is now being stopped on the ground that his disability has passed away. He has a stiff shoulder, and he has to turn the hoot round to stitch it with one hand because he cannot use the other. Surely some regard should be paid to what a man did before he entered the Army, and as to the percentage of disability which does not allow him to follow the trade which he followed previous to joining the Army. Very much has been said about the consideration given to tuberculous cases. I brought forward a case a few days ago, and I was fairly treated by the Ministry, because they are going to allow a further examination. Here was a man who for 4½, years has been treated for tuberculosis, and has a full pension granted to him. The specialists of the Pensions Ministry found that during that time he was suffering from tuberculosis, but a new man comes along with a new broom, and he says, "You are not suffering from tuberculosis, and you never have been." I was able to produce certificates from the Ministry's own specialist, to whom they had sent him, to show that during 4½ years he had been suffering from that complaint. These are cases that one does not hear a great deal about in this House except when they are brought forward by some of us who live amongst these people.

With regard to attributability, aggravated in many eases by military service, it is found that the aggravation has passed away. Who is best able to judge? The doctor who examines the man when he leaves military service, and who attributes the disability to military service, or the doctor who examines him 4½ years afterwards? I can quote many cases. A long time ago I quoted a case of a man who was sent into a military hospital suffering from gas poisoning directly attributable to military service. That was stated on the certificate. Then the medical board said that he was suffering from nephritis, 100 per cent.—surely that is the sequel to gas poisoning if I know anything about it, and I have inquired from doctors—and that it was not attributable to nor aggravated by military service. The man died in agony of mind as well as body, fearing that his wife and children would get no pension when he was dead. The pension was refused by the Ministry, and justice was only done because she had a friend in the House of Commons who fought her case here.

Any applicant who can get through the instructions given to the investigation officers, in addition to the forms which he himself has to fill up, is a very lucky individual. I have never seen such an inquisitorial examination. I have had cases in which local pensions committees and investigators have proposed the reduction and, in some cases, the abolition of a pension, and the Minister himself, in cases which I can mention if I am challenged, has reversed the decision of these local committees such as exist at present—because there are very few of them—and of the investigation officers, because somebody in the House of Commons has been able to bring the full circumstances of the case before him. Otherwise, the decision would not have been interfered with. Consciously or unconsciously, there is no doubt that some of those responsible for the administration of pensions are not on the side of the pensioner.

As to the Pensions Appeal Tribunals, I agree that there must be finality somewhere. Many cases are lost through the inability of the pensioners or ex-service men to employ counsel to put their case before the tribunal. It is all very well to say that the tribunal always sees that justice is done. I know that in eases in the Law Courts I have suffered because I have had expensive counsel against me, and before the tribunals a case is often prejudiced because it is not put fully and fairly, as it would be if counsel were employed. I submit that the pensioner should have such expense allowed him or her as would enable him or her to be represented by counsel at the appeal. This is logical, inasmuch as so much solicitude is expressed for the pensioner when he goes before the tribunal. Surely it is not asking so much, in view of that phase, that expenses should be allowed so that the applicant may be represented by counsel.

I would further suggest that power should not be given to officials to interpret and to act on their own initiative, as they do at present and as they have done in that particular case which I have mentioned here which came to my notice not long ago; that assessors should not use their influence with medical boards as they were doing not long ago but which has since ceased; that medical boards, having once arrived at a decision as to percentage of disability, that decision should be accepted without any attempt to curtail it; and that the seven years' limit should be abolished altogether. That is one of the most unjust provisions. I understand that it is going to be altered. There should be no time limit whatever, and the fact that the man's death was attributable to or aggravated by military service should be sufficient. I know that these suggestions are received with derision by an idealist opposite, who knows nothing about the practical part of the matter, but the men who fought our battles and the women who are left behind should have justice done to them. The pensioners may be safeguarded in theory, but to my knowledge—and I live largely among them—this is not corking out in practice, and injustice is being perpetrated in the administration of our pensions.