Orders of the Day — Police Constable, Keighley (Widow's Pension)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th January 1945.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Mathers.]

7.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ivor Thomas Mr Ivor Thomas , Keighley

I apologise to the House for pursuing this matter at such a late hour, but there are legal and personal reasons why I must do so. It is a constituency matter, but it raises the general question of the State as an employer. Police Constable Joseph Victor Plant was a member of the West Riding Force at the Keighley Station, and in February, 1943, he was required to take part in a drill. As a result of that drill, which was unusually severe in my submission, he contracted heart disease, from which he subsequently died. These facts are not contested by the police authorities, and I think I can best show that by reading a medical certificate given by the Staff Surgeon to the West Riding Constabulary, Mr. Thomas Walker, on 5th August, 1943. He stated: I beg to report that I have to-day examined P.C. Plant at Harrogate and find him to be suffering from myocarditis, and he is unfit for Police duty. In my opinion the immediate cause of the myocarditis was the drill parade in February last, which caused severe exertion and so the heart failure. Disability 100 per cent. I ought to state at this point that two constables had to drop out of this parade; they could not complete it. It was supervised by a former warrant officer from one of the Guards regiments, and although I have no doubt that the exercise would have been well within the capacity of young Guardsmen, it was altogether beyond what should have been required from members of the police force, particularly those over the age of 50, as Police Constable Plant was. The next consequence was a letter from the Chief Constable of the West Riding, directing that constables and auxiliaries over the age of 45 years should be excused from drill parades. I mention these facts only to show that the police authority clearly accept full responsibility for the fact that Police Constable Plant did die of heart trouble, contracted in this unusually severe drill.

I am informed that the drill consisted of marching in double time for five or seven minutes. Although that may not, on the surface, appear severe, it does in fact amount, even for men of 50, to running for something like a mile. I submit that that is more than should have been required from such persons. Whether that be so or not this man had in the first instance to retire from the force, and subsequently he died from his heart trouble.

The question of pension then arose. He was awarded on retirement an ordinary pension at the accidental rate, under the Police Pensions Act, 1921, but after his death the award was revised to a special pension at the accidental rate. The Act provides for two classes of pension, ordinary and special; and special pensions may be at accidental rates or at non-accidental rates. When the police constable died, his widow became entitled to a pension. It is my contention that she should have been awarded a widow's special pension, but in fact she has been awarded only a widow's ordinary pension. The difference that that makes in practice is that she now receives a pension of 50s. per month, whereas she would have received a pension equal to one-third of her husband's pay at the time of his retirement. This lady, deprived of her husband through injury received in the execution of his duty, is in need. She had two sons in the Royal Air Force. One of them was killed in operations; the other is still alive. She is a good example of the way in which the ordinary citizen of this country can get caught up in meshes of red tape. These lads were not contributing to the household before they joined up, because they were not wage-earners. Therefore, she does not qualify either for a parent's pension or for a war service grant in respect of her sons, and she is, therefore, in need.

I believe that the police authority would willingly have granted a special pension to this lady if they had felt that they had power under the Police Pensions Act to do so, but the police authority, and I imagine the Home Office, take the view that they have not the power. But this presupposes a view of the Act so contrary to logic and to the normal usages of English that I feel bound to raise it here. I must quote the relevant portions of the Act of 1921. The first quotation is from Section 3, paragraph (b): Where in any case a member of a police force dies whilst serving in the force from the effects of an injury received in the execution of his duty without his own default, or having been granted a pension, in respect of any such injury, dies from the effects of such injury, his widow shall be entitled, where the injury was accidental to a widow's ordinary pension, and where the injury was non-accidental to a widow's special pension. It is necessary for me to show that the injury from which the police constable died was non-accidental. I should have thought, on any ordinary English usage, that when a man dies as the result of drill which he is required to attend, his death is certainly not accidental. The police authority and the Home Office, however, rely on Section 33 (3), of the Act of 1921, which says: Any injury intentionally inflicted, or incurred in the performance of a duty involving special risks, shall be deemed to be a non-accidental injury. and they urge that the drill was not a duty involving special risks. I would be prepared, if necessary, to argue that such a drill, for a man of such an age, did involve special risks for him. Clearly, to ask a man of over 50 to run a mile, as, in fact, he was required, is to subject him to a special risk, but that is not the argument I wish to use, for it seems clear to me that the interpretation of the Home Office runs completely contrary to logic.

What this Sub-section clearly says is that any injury incurred in the performance of a duty involving special risk shall be deemed to be a non-accidental injury. It does not say that all non-accidental injuries shall be defined as being injuries intentionally inflicted or incurred in the performance of a duty involving special risks. I could illustrate it perhaps by an example. It would be equivalent to saying that, because all Ministers are cautious men, therefore all cautious men are Ministers, which would clearly not be true. What this Sub-section does is to tell us that certain injuries shall be treated as non-accidental, but it does not define what a non-accidental injury is, and nowhere in the Act is there a definition of a non-accidental injury. We have, therefore, I submit, to rely on the ordinary usage of English, helped by the standard dictionaries. I have looked them up and I see no reason to change the view which I came to at once, that the police constable's death was, in fact, non-accidental, and that, therefore, his widow is clearly entitled, within the Act, to a widow's special pension.

What I would like to know is what reasons the Government have for taking this view, It is quite clear to me that the lady is entitled to such a pension within the Act, and I would like to know whether the Government have submitted this matter to the Lord Chancellor's Department, or to the Law Officers of the Crown to get their opinion. I have no doubt that I shall be told that this may be quite a cogent case, but, if the lady is not satisfied with the award, under Section 17 of the Act of 1921, she may appeal to Quarter Sessions. Well, that is indeed so, but why has that course not been taken and why am I raising this in the House instead? The first question is, frankly, one of expense. This lady, as I explained, is in very straitened circumstances as the result of the death of her husband and, now, of a son, and, like so many other people, does not want to contemplate what, even on a minimum calculation, must cost £10.

I would like to say that the colleagues of the late police constable in the Force are very anxious to help Mrs. Plant over this difficulty, and they were not allowed to do so until quite recently. I think that that is a little scandalous and if my taking up this matter in the House of Commons has had this good result, it has at least done something already. At least they are now permitted to make a collection to meet legal expenses if necessary. The second reason for not taking the matter in the first instance to Quarter Sessions is the uncertainty of the law. We all know that great risks are involved, even when a case is absolutely clear, in going to law; and the third reason, and the one which is strongest with me, is, Why should this matter be taken to the court? The meaning of the Act is absolutely plain.

I would put this to my hon. Friend who is to reply to my speech. The Act of 1921 gives power to grant a widow special pension to this lady. It is not disputed that her husband died as a result of a compulsory parade and by inference from the Chief Constable's letter which I have mentioned, it is admitted that the parade was undoubtedly severe. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to announce, if he can, that such a pension will be given, or at any rate, as it is for the police authority and not for the Government to award a pension, that they will not give an interpretation of the Act which seems contrary to logic, to English usage, and to humanity.

7.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Grimston Mr Robert Grimston , Westbury

I think my hon. Friend understands that I am taking this matter on behalf of the Home Office, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, unfortunately, is still away ill, and I thank him for his courtesy in agreeing to that arrangement. This is a sad case and I am not going to dispute the facts which have been very reasonably recited by my hon. Friend. I would like to come straight to the point, and in doing that I must make one or two remarks. As things stand, and as my hon. Friend has said, Mrs. Plant has been awarded an ordinary pension and he thinks that she should have a special pension, and that really is the whole crux of the matter. As he has already said, awards are made under the Police Pensions Act, 1921, and the Standing Joint Committee of the West Riding have taken the view that, whether they would like it or whether they would not, they cannot, under the Statute, award Mrs. Plant a special pension.

My hon. Friend realises that my right hon. Friend has no power to direct the Standing Joint Committee one way or another. The interpretation of the Act in this case is a matter which is their responsibility. But he says, "The Home Secretary can give advice." It is true that from time time the Home Office sends circulars of advice to Police authorities as to the practice and procedure to be taken under this Act, but here you have an individual case surrounded by particular circumstances. No such circulars have been or, I think, can be issued to cover cases of this sort, each of them with a very different history. For reasons which will be apparent in a moment, it would be improper for me on the Floor of this House to follow my hon. Friend in the remarks he made about arguing the case for the interpretation of the Act. When we get into a position of this sort, as he himself said, the Act itself provides the remedy under Section 17.

Mrs. Plant under that Section has the right of appeal, as he knows, against the decision of the Standing Joint Committee to the next practicable Quarter Sessions, and I must say it seems to me that that is the proper course which should be taken. The Act has expressly provided for cases of this sort where there is a difference of opinion upon its interpretation but, as he has mentioned and as I understand, there may have been some hesitation and I can well believe it, on the grounds of cost. Neither the Standing Joint Committee nor my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would wish that to be a bar to Mrs. Plant exercising the rights which she has, and my right hon. Friend has authorised me to say that he and the responsible police authority, with whom he has been in consultation on the point, are quite sure that means can be found of overcoming this difficulty. He has authorised me to say that.

That being so, I think I must leave it to my hon. Friend to try to see what he can do in that direction, but I would like to add that I hope he does not feel that either the Home Secretary or the Standing Joint Committee are unsympathetic in this case. Quite the reverse is the truth, as I have found in my discussions with the Department before coming down here, but they felt them- selves quite honestly precluded from giving her a special pension under the interpretation of the Act which they have felt bound to reach and, of course, they have their responsibilities for being scrupulous in the administration of public funds. I think that if this procedure is followed, and Mrs. Plant is now enabled to exercise the appeal to which she is entitled, my hon. Friend will perhaps agree that we can all feel that she, whatever the result may be, will have had a fair deal, and I hope he will feel that perhaps his time has not altogether been wasted by raising the matter in the House.

7.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ivor Thomas Mr Ivor Thomas , Keighley

If, with the leave of the House, I may add a few sentences, I would like to echo what my hon. Friend has said, that in this matter I found the police authority and the Home Secretary most sympathetic, and that it is simply the view that they were precluded by the Act which has prevented them from doing this. I thank my hon. Friend very much for the generous promise he has given on behalf of the Home Secretary, and I will advise Mrs. Plant to exercise her legal rights.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes before Eight o'Clock.