Orders of the Day — Ex-Prisoner of War Japan (Pension)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th December 1957.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr William Deedes Mr William Deedes , Ashford 12:00 am, 6th December 1957

The outline of this case which I wish to bring before the House is simple to state. Mr. C. W. Harmar, of Goudhurst, is an ex-Gunner, and between February, 1942, and October, 1945, he was a prisoner in the Far East in the hands of the Japanese. Of this ordeal it is only necessary for me to say that he emerged weighing 4 stone, 9 pounds. He was X-rayed in October, 1945, and no abnormality was discovered. In January, 1947, he was discharged from the Service and re-enlisted for four years. At the end of that time, in December, 1950, he appeared before a medical board which passed him clear, so that really he had two examinations, one immediately after his return and the second five years after his return. I want to make that quite clear, because it stresses the nature of this problem.

In March, 1957, he contracted pneumonia and was treated for it. He is now at this moment suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis and receiving hospital treatment in Sussex. He may be out this month, but he has been told that he will not be able to work for twelve months. So he has had pneumonia nine years after leaving the prisoner-of-war camp and now, after 12 years, he has pulmonary tuberculosis. In those circumstances, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance has felt that it must refuse the request made on his behalf by many people for a war disablement pension. This was done after the most scrupulous inquiry—I should like to acknowledge that—and also after considerable correspondence, as my hon. Friend so informed me last October.

This is not a case about which anyone ought to use immoderate language. The refusal of the Ministry cannot be characterised as outrageous. But, unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. It involves the very difficult problem of assessing Mr. Harmar's disabilities in the light of his experience as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese. My hon. Friend will have had far greater experience in these matters than I, but I fancy he will admit how difficult it is to assess fairly the consequences of that experience.

Unhappily, this is by no means the first case of its kind. I know of a case where tuberculosis occurred four years after the release of a man from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. In that case it was attributed to hardship and a pension awarded. There have been other cases which my hon. Friend will know about where the nerves of people have been permanently affected, and so on, and I think he will accept that scars can be left on a man as a result of these experiences which he will bear all his life. I am not blind to the difficulties of the Ministry. Where should the Ministry draw the line? Outside the category of prisoners of war we know that there are thousands of cases—many hon. Members have had to deal with such cases in their correspondence—and I accept that a line must be drawn after which it may be presumed that disability suffered by a man cannot be directly attributed to his service.

The Japanese cases present special difficulties. Because of the effect on the individual they vary in every case. I do not pretend as a layman to talk with any knowledge about tubercular causes or development. I think it is accepted that the rate at which it may make itself manifest is variable. In the case of Mr. Harmar, medical opinion is divided. Mr. Harmar's advisers and those looking after him sincerely believe this is attributable to his experience. The Minister's advisers, no less sincerely, believe otherwise.

I think I should quote from a letter I have from Mr. Harmar's chest physician, in which he states his grounds as follows: When he was originally X-rayed, we thought there was evidence of old disease in his lungs, and later we thought that there was some activity so he was admitted to a Sanatorium. I advised him originally to apply for a pension and was very surprised when he did not get it. In view of his past history of being a prisoner of war in the Far East, I think he undoubtedly contracted the disease whilst a prisoner of war and it has only just recently broken down again. Under these circumstances, I think he should be entitled to a disability pension. It will be seen that there is a clear, sincere but, nonetheless, sharp difference of opinion between reliable medical evidence on the two sides. In those circumstances, a layman must speak with strict moderation. A terribly narrow line clearly divides knowledge and truth in cases of this kind. I think I am entitled to ask my hon. Friend what sort of term is set to the occurrence of such maladies in the case of the Japanese prisoner of war and whether this particular case is so far outside that term. I think that is doubtful, because I know how immensely careful the Ministry my hon. Friend represents is in such cases. Obviously this is not the only case of this sort. There must be others in which there is an honest division between the doctors.

Is there any way in which one can resolve such a situation? Where, as here, there is a scintilla of doubt, it seems to me that unless there are very convincing reasons otherwise, that scintilla of doubt should lead to the individual—in this case Mr. Harmar—getting the benefit of the doubt. That is all I ask my hon. Friend on behalf of Mr. Harmar.