Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 14th April 1938.

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Photo of Mr Herwald Ramsbotham Mr Herwald Ramsbotham , Lancaster

I am sorry to have in any way caused the cutting short of any speeches by hon. Members, but a number of other topics are to be raised, and that is the only reason why I am intervening now. We had a long discussion on the subject of war pensions on the Adjournment before Christmas, and most of the points raised to-day were mentioned then and dealt with by myself. I am sure that the House will excuse me if I do not repeat at any considerable length the points which I made a few months ago. As in the last Debate, so to-day, and I suppose inevitably, a great many general allegations have been made, but comparatively few facts—to-day, no fresh facts, so far as I can ascertain—have been put before me to answer. The hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate agreed that there were certain standard regulations in the administration of the pensions system which had to be upheld, but his point, I gathered, was that there were technicalities and rules which stood in the way of our exercising that discretion which he thinks should be exercised on some occasions.

It is obvious that, in coming to a determination in a pensions matter, medical considerations must play by far the largest part. I am prohibited, and rightly prohibited, from granting entitlement to a pension unless I have a medical certificate. When I am pressed to exercise my discretion or to indulge in more laxity it comes to my being pressed to ask my medical advisers for medical certificates which might not represent their honest view of the cases. I am sure that the House would never expect me to do such a thing. I put that point to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. F. O. Roberts) before Christmas, and I asked him whether he wanted an alteration or an addition to the warrant or wished me to disregard the medical evidence. His reply was, "No." I pointed out to him and to the House that when they asked me to be more lax I had to indicate somehow to the medical profession, whose duty it was to furnish me with a certificate, that they should not, as they at present undoubtedly do, give me the certificate which, in their honest and conscientious opinion, they think I ought to have on the disability in question. I am sure that hon. Members, in pressing for more discretion, will not for one moment wish that I or the Ministry should fall into error of that kind.

Hon. Members have drawn attention to the meagreness of successful results in cases which they have brought to my notice. I agree that the successful percentage of cases put by hon. Members is very small. The normal statutory body for receiving complaints is the local War Pensions Committee, appointed by Statute to do that work. I have been visiting a large number of them in the last few weeks. There are 160, and I have visited 110, and I propose to visit them all. It has been pointed out to me in almost all cases that, from the point of view of the chairman of the War Pensions Committee, there is far less contact between them and the local Members of Parliament than they would like. I pointed out to them how small a percentage of successful cases Members of Parliament obtained, and I have agreed with them that it is largely due to the fact that the committees, being the statutory bodies to whom cases should come, get the best cases, and that the cases which are turned down by them as a result of their local knowledge are not likely to be successful at a later stage.

The same is true, in a less degree, of the British Legion, which does an immense amount of work and is in contact through its officials with the Ministry. The British Legion and the War Pensions Committees are a sort of filter through which comes a constant stream of cases to the Ministry. Many of the cases are successful. In the last Debate I showed the comparatively high percentage of successes achieved in this way against those achieved by my hon. Friends and colleagues in this House. We ought to bear in mind the machinery that is in existence. I have had experience in my own constituency of cases being brought to me which had been through the hands of the War Pensions Committee or the British Legion for years and had met with an unsatisfactory response from them. Hon. Members must not be unduly disappointed at the little success which I admit they receive at my hands.

The hon. Member who opened the Debate said that the pensioner should have the benefit of the doubt; I agree. In the last Debate I gave a definition of what that meant. I will not weary the House by repeating it now, but, broadly speaking, we cannot award a pension on a mere possibility. We can, and do, award pensions on a reasonable probability. In very short terms that is the definition of the benefit of the doubt which I quoted in my last speech on this matter. Reference was made also to the British scales and it was pointed out that the curve of British expenditure was downwards. Over the lapse of years the number of pensioners is decreasing, but when hon. Members say that there is no corresponding downward curve in other countries they should realise that we are the only country in the world among the combatants that did not reduce our pensions scales during the financial crisis. Every other country did so, and since then, those countries have restored the reductions. That affects the curve, of course, or the expenditure graph of those countries, and it is very unfair to point to the British curve descending without at the same time remembering that there was no correspending descent in the British curve at that time because His Majesty's Government did not make any reduction, and that there were no reductions to restore. Another point to bear in mind is that the social services in this country do not exist in comparable fashion in other Continental countries with which comparison is made.

Reference was made to the question of employment. As I pointed out last time, the provision of employment in private firms for disabled service men is our constant pre-occupation, and I am glad to say that the percentage of employment among ex-service men is higher than among non-ex-service men, thanks to the King's Roll, the special arrangements made with the Employment Exchanges, and the attention which everyone concerned with the problem gives to it, and, I hope, will continue to give to it. Reference was made to the report of a committee of the British Legion dealing with what is called the prematurely aged ex-service man. I referred to that problem before Christmas, but I could not refer to the report, because it was not then published. It has since been published, and, as hon. Members know, the Prime Minister has received a deputation which came to him to deal with the recommendations of the committee.

I cannot go into questions affecting the recommendations of the report, for the good reason that it would raise an entirely new class of claimants not demonstrably disabled by war service. As matters at present stand, there must be reasonable evidence that a man for whom I am to be responsible is not only an ex-service man, but a man who has been disabled in the War. Unless there is such evidence, the man is not within the province of my Department, and legislation would be required in order to bring him in. Therefore, I can only deal with the man who is demonstrably disabled, and in that connection I would point out to the House that, so far as the Ministry of Pensions is concerned, the report of the British Legion Committee makes several observations of a kind which are reassuring, not only to myself as Minister, but to all hon. Members who are interested in the administration. The report states that this committee, which investigated the matter for 18 months: is satisfied that the general principles which form the basis of the Pension Warrants are sound. In other words, there is nothing in this report which suggests that the general basis of the Pension Warrants on which I now act should be altered or changed. The report goes on to say: The committee is satisfied that where reasonable evidence is produced to show the disablement is due to War service, pension is paid under the War Compensation Schemes. I do not think that the House or the country can ask for more or expect less. The House does not want war pensions awarded to men who suffered no injury in the War. The House desires that pensions should be compensation for war injuries, and, in establishing the right to compensation, there must be reasonable evidence to support that right. Otherwise, the whole system of war pensions goes into the melting pot, and becomes no system at all, but a series of veterans' bonuses and general ex-service doles. That is clearly recognised by the following statement of the British Legion Committee: It has no desire unduly to load the list of pensioners for whom the Minister of Pensions is responsible, as this would only react adversely on war-disabled men. My concern is for the war-disabled men, and I should never think of suggesting to the House that I should take any action which would react adversely upon them. Therefore, so far as the requirement relates to a body of ex-service men not demonstrably disabled as a result of the war, it is certainly no concern of mine as Minister of Pensions. Whatever other arrangements may have to be made for those cases, I myself cannot and should not have such a responsibility.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) made the statement that ex-service men were not generously treated. By that I assume he means disabled men. If we take the existing rate of pensions on the scale laid down by this House in 1919, when the cost of living was 215, taking pre-war as 100, we find that today, with the cost of living at 154 the same pension is held, it having been stabilised in 1928; and, on the basis of the difference between these two index figures, we find that a pension on the scale of 40s. awarded in 1919 and stabilised in 1928 has to-day a purchasing power of 55s. It is easy to say that the scale laid down in 1919 is an ungenerous scale, but its purchasing power has been increased to the extent I have indicated, and the same applies all the way down the scale. If we make comparisons with other countries, like Germany, France and Italy, we find that, while our expenditure works out at £53 per annum per disabled man, the Germany expenditure is £42, and the French is£36 I think the hon. Member said that the expenditure in the United States was more generous, but in the 1936 report of the Ministry of Pensions it was shown, taking the cost of living then, that that is not so. It is, however, very unsafe to compare our expenditure with that of the United States, because we are comparing our war pensions system, which is administered, as I have said, under certain rules and regulations connected with war disablement and war service, with, in the United States, what is known as a veterans' bonus, which is really not comparable with anything of the kind in this country.