Ex-Service Men.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 23rd December 1937.

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Photo of Mr Ellis Smith Mr Ellis Smith , Stoke-on-Trent Stoke

I am sure that my hon. Friends will welcome the support which is being given to the appeal we are making by the two hon. Members who have spoken from the other side. I would refer in particular to the speech of the hon. Member who indicated clearly that he was reflecting the feeling in the industrial centre which he represents. What applies to his area can be applied to every industrial area in the country. I want to produce evidence that can go on the records of the House in order that during the Recess the Minister and the Cabinet can consider it. I am convinced that if they are prepared to give the same sympathetic consideration to this question as Lord Baldwin was prepared to do 18 months ago, something will be forthcoming as a result of this Debate. Had the national crisis not have arisen when it did, and had not the ex-Prime Minister had to give all his attention to it, this question would have been dealt with before now. The Notice of Motion which has been on the Order Paper for nearly 18 months should go on the records of the House so that the Minister, the Cabinet, and hon Members on the other side can consider it. The Notice of Motion is: That a Select Committee be appointed to investigate the administration of the Ministry of Pensions with particular reference to war pensions and applications for war service pensions; that the Committee have power to receive evidence from ex-service men, widows of ex-service men, and to send for persons, papers, and records. One would have thought that the feeling that existed at the Conservative conference at Scarborough in October would have reflected itself in this House among the Government supporters before now. As, however, the Government supporters have not been prepared to reflect the feeling of that conference, it behoves us, with our national responsibility and as representing the people of the country, to reflect it. There is no need to remind the Minister of what was said. He himself took up the attitude at the conference that the country was honouring its pledges to ex-service men, and there were loud cries of "No" from all parts of the conference. I could quote extract after extract, but as my time is short owing to so many other Members desiring to take part in the Debate, I will only say that I hope the Minister will be good enough to re-read the report of that conference.

We suggest that while those investigations are taking place, more generous treatment should be given to the applicants for pensions and to those who desire medical attention. In the Coal Bill it is proposed to compensate the royalty owners to the extent of £65,000,000, and the Government have also decided to allocate £10,000,000 in order that the Commission can cover any difficulties which may arise. If it is right to do that in the case of the Coal Bill, a substantial sum ought to be placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Pensions in order that the benefit of the doubt may be given to all applicants for a pension or applicants for treatment. Let me make it clear that under no circumstances do we want this matter to be dealt with on a charitable basis. For too long ex-service men have been left to charitable institutions. They ought to be a national responsibility of the Government, and of the Ministry of Pensions in particular. When ex-service men apply for pensions, if their medical record is such as to show that they should receive pensions or medical treatment it ought not to be left to charitable institutions to deal with the cases. It ought to be the right of a man to claim that, seeing that he served his country, he should receive the treatment which the country would desire him to have.

I cannot approach this question in the detached way of some hon. Members. I always feel that I myself might easily have been one of those men. As I go about the industrial centres and London I see a large number of men begging for coppers, playing musical instruments and walking along the roads in groups and on crutches. Evidentally they have been wounded. As I pass them I often think I might easily have been one of them, or that my dependants might have been in the same position as their dependants. I cannot approach this question in a detached way. I would remind the House of what we owe to these men. I have a copy of a poster in the Imperial War Museum. It was an appeal for Welshmen to join the Army as pioneers and it is signed by D. Watts Morgan and others. That is typical of the appeals which were made in industrial centres during the War. The men for whom we are speaking risked their all for the country, and now the country desires that the Government should treat them in a worthy manner, and that they ought not to be forced to go on to the streets or to beg from door to door. If only we can get justice for these men they ought to be prevented from going on the roads, because any one with any humanitarian feelings feels a shudder down the back when he sees them suffering as they are. When justice is meted out to them by the Ministry of Pensions those men should no longer be allowed to appear on the streets.

In the last 10 years there has been a reduction in expenditure by the Ministry of Pensions of approximately £24,000,000 and we say that that economy has gone on long enough. I would specifically ask the Minister of Pensions to tell us who it is that is preventing justice being done. When I talk with the Minister I find that he is sympathetic; when I talk with Government supporters they are sympathetic; individual members of the Government with whom I speak are sympathetic; and in the library and in the corridors of this House Member after Member expresses sympathy with our point of view since last I spoke on this question. They say they desire that this, that and the other should be done.

Seeing there is that sympathetic feeling in all parts of the House I repeat, "Who is preventing something being done? Is it the Treasury?" If it is the Treasury, I would remind hon. Members that it is the House of Commons that represents the people, and that it is the Cabinet which is the Government. If it is the Treasury which is holding up this matter, it is time the Cabinet dealt with the issue. Is it true that a policy of economy has been laid down for the Ministry of Pensions? We are all prepared to accept the verdict of a Select Committee on this issue. We are not asking for anything extravagant or unreasonable, only that a Select Committee should be set up to investigate the whole position, investigate the grievances of ex-service men, and the widows of ex-service men in particular. We have sufficient confidence in our case, we consider it so reasonable that we should have no hesitation in awaiting the findings of that Select Committee.

I do not want to go into individual cases, although I have upstairs a large pile of correspondence dealing with them. The only one I will quote is that of a man who joined the Army in 1898. He served in India and was on active service and under fire on two occasions. This man was on active service all the time from 1914 to 1918. He was wounded in the Dardanelles, and only those who went through the campaign in the Dardanelles can really appreciate what our men did endure there. He was wounded also in France. I have a photograph of the man. When young he was a proud young man, a picture of manhood, a true patriot if ever a patriot lived. Now this man receives 10s. a week old age pension and 5s. from the public assistance committee. He is a broken-hearted man, so broken hearted that he is thinking of applying to go into the institution. It is for such men that we are speaking this morning.

Not only are we interesting ourselves in this matter; a large number of organisations throughout the country are taking it up. I have here the last report of the officers' benevolent department of the British Legion. As did previous reports, it reflects the feeling which we have been trying to present to-day. I have received many letters from branches of the British Legion supporting our attitude. In the Minister of Pensions' own report there is an analysis of the administration of War pensions from 1916, and although I cannot agree with the conclusions I think there is sufficient evidence in the report to show the need for investigation on the lines we suggest. When a person is affected with physical defect or disease he is handicapped in life, especially if he has to depend for his living on manual labour. Only those who have had to depend upon manual labour know how great that handicap can be. Physical defects and diseases, most of which are attributable to War service, affect not only the men in obtaining their livelihood, but their wives and children, and are reflected in mental torture and economic difficulty, for which there is no excuse even in the present state of society, in view of the fact that those men were prepared to risk all.

New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America have a far better administration of war pensions. According to a report which I have on the subject of Germany and other Continental countries, and to graphs which it contains, our treatment of ex-service men is better than in those countries, but that is not much consolation to us. In this country and the Dominions we set up an altogether higher standard of treatment, and we therefore ask that that standard should be maintained. It is not being maintained in the present pensions administration. I admit that local pension committees, and British Legion branches in particular, as well as many other voluntary organisations, have done, and continue to do, great Work on behalf of these men. The present position is unfair to the sacrifice and the voluntary work that is taking place in the organisations catering for ex-service men, and therefore, in justice to those organisations and to the men for whom we speak, we are not unreasonably asking that during the Christmas Recess the Government should consider the facts that have now been placed upon the records of the House—not only from these benches, but from others—and should see whether sufficient evidence has been put forward to warrant them instituting a Select Committee to investigate the grievances of the men.