Orders of the Day — Supply

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1958.

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Photo of Brigadier Sir John Smyth Brigadier Sir John Smyth , Lambeth Norwood 12:00 am, 7th July 1958

I hope that the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) will forgive me if I do not follow him in his interesting discourse, because I want to confine myself to war pensions since that subject has not been debated for some time. I shall try to keep it very much on a non-party-political level, although both parties are proud of what they have done for war pensioners. I am certainly very proud of what my own party has done over the last five and a half years.

The war pensions scheme should be looked at as a whole. It was built up during the war by the Coalition Government and under Labour and Conservative Governments immediately following the war. The service which we give to war pensioners consists of many parts—the basic rate of pension, the basic war widow's rate, the special allowances, the priority hospital treatment, the provision of artificial limbs and appliances, the provision of cars and bicycles, the welfare system, and the whole social system of the Welfare State—most particularly, the National Health Service.

I have always found it difficult to compare the war pensions schemes of different nations. I had a most interesting tour of the Continent, during which I looked into the war pensions schemes of some of our Allies and tried to compare them with our own. I always came up against the point that in those countries there was not a National Health Service, and, therefore, whatever benefits were given to a war pensioner for his war disability, he still had all the anxiety about the possible sickness of his wife and family and his relations, of which the war pensioner in this country is relieved.

Since the Second World War, the war pensions scheme and the Industrial Injuries scheme have been absolutely linked together, and I think that many people do not realise that that has taken place. It would be quite impossible for any Government to make improvements in, say, the basic rate of the Industrial Injuries scheme without doing the same thing for the war pensions scheme, and vice versa. Many of the allowances are common to both, but they are not always called by the same names.

For instance, the allowance for lower standard occupation in the war pensions scheme is called the hardship allowance in the Industrial Injuries scheme, but the constant attendance allowance, the un-employability supplement and the sickness benefit are more or less common to both schemes. I think that it is extremely sensible that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry should be dealing, as I believe he is at present, with some aspects of the Industrial Injuries scheme as well as the war pension scheme because they are so very similar.

The war pensioner has certain priorities over the industrially injured, and certain financial advantages which perhaps everyone does not realise. I was often asked why there should be any difference between the rates of pensions and allowances of the war disability pensioner and the industrially injured, when their disabilities are exactly the same. Up to now, I think that there has been a very good reason for that, in that the war pensioner probably received his disability while serving overseas far from his home and country, living in deserts and jungles, and, therefore, was perhaps entitled to these little extras which still exist as between the war pensions scheme and the industrial injuries scheme.

I feel that, very probably, if there were ever another war, which God forbid, there would be an ugly rush to the deserts and jungles, and, probably. Members of Parliament and other people compelled to stay in London would be the people to get priority in the way of war pensions and benefits of that sort; but we hope that that will not happen.

Although the war pensions scheme is made up of a lot of different parts, as I have mentioned, the basic rate of pension remains the yardstick by which we measure our progress in war pensions. In 1946, the basic rate was raised from 40s. to 45s., and, at the same time—and I have always given the Labour Party the fullest credit for this—the Government brought in the most valuable and important welfare service, which is an extraordinarily important part of the service which we give to the war pensioners. I find that any foreign Minister of Pensions who comes to this country—and I have taken some of them round our pensions offices—cannot understand this service at all. I refer to the tremendous services given by so many voluntary organisations and other people in this welfare service set up in 1946. On the other hand, the Labour Government made no increase in the war disability basic pension, and by 1951 the purchasing value of that pension had dropped from 45s. to 35s.

There was a very important debate in the House in February, 1951—an all-party debate, as we are hoping all our pensions debates generally will be—on a Motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head), seconded by the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), which urged the Government of the day to make an immediate increase in the basic rate of war pensions to compensate for the great decrease in the value of the pension which had occurred between 1946 and 1951. The Labour Party at this time had two Ministers in the Ministry of Pensions for whom I have the highest regard—the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs), who was the Minister, and the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) who was the Parliamentary Secretary.

I am quite sure that they wanted an increase in the basic rate of pensions just as much as everyone else who took part in that debate, but, when it came to the Budget just afterwards, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was unable to give any rise in the basic pension at all, and that was because, as we know, there was a financial crisis at the time. When there is a financial crisis, the climate is not good for the war disability pensioner. A valuable increase was made, however, of £600,000 in the comforts allowance in the Budget of 1951.

Immediately we came in power, we made a most courageous and certainly most necessary increase in war pensions in our first Budget of 1952. We increased the basic pension by 10s., at a cost of £10 million. Perhaps even more important than that, we instituted a system of priorities, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in her speech this afternoon. We tried to pick out certain classes of pensioner whom we thought needed help more urgently than anyone else.

The first of these were the badly disabled men who were unable to work. Since the war, employment for war pensioners has been extremely high, and work to a disabled man is really the most important thing that we can give him. I have always said that the greatest service which we can do for the war disabled is to help them to help themselves, to restore their self-respect and the feeling that they are playing an important part in life again.

I only realised how important that factor was when, a few years ago, I went to the Star and Garter Home and saw a badly disabled man of the last war who was completely paralysed from the neck downwards, but who had always had an ambition to become a painter. He had learned to paint pictures, and very good pictures, by holding the brush between his teeth, and that had given him back an interest in life. That is why I say that employment is such an important factor for any category of disabled man.

We therefore selected them for first priority. In 1951 a single man who was unable to work received a minimum pension of 80s. a week. We raised that first to 90s., and later, in 1955, to 112s. That is an increase of 32s. 6d. per week. My right hon. Friend the Minister has continued that priority to that class of man, and in his recent increases in January of this year that first priority class has been raised by another 38s. per week. If a man is married and has a family, or if he needs the constant attendance or the comforts allowances, he gets very much more.

The second class of pensioner about whom I was very worried myself was the war widow, the elderly war widow, the the widow going out to work or the widow with children, and, in two pensions increases, we gave the war widow with two children an increase of 26s. per week, while the Minister, in his recent increases, has raised that figure again considerably. In the last five years, the basic pension of the war widow has been raised by 31s. 6d. per week, and the children's and rent allowances have also been increased.

The basic pension for men in the last five and a half years has been raised by 40s. a week, so it has been very nearly doubled, and there have been big increases also in all the special allowances. I was particularly glad that the Minister increased the recent unemployability supplement from 45s. to 55s. and also increased the constant attendance allowance. It is important to know that the cost to the Exchequer of the war pensions increases given in the last five and a half years is about £41½ million a year, which is a considerable contribution to this all-important cause.

I was also glad that the Minister introduced last year a special benefit for older pensioners. My experience over a number of years has been that a man feels a disability most in two periods of his life. He feels it acutely when he first receives the disability as a young man, particularly if he is fond of athletics or dancing and suddenly finds himself a cripple. So he needs our help particularly at that period of his life to get him back into the world. Secondly, he begins to feel his disability severely when he reaches the age of 60. That is when the artificial limb becomes most irksome and any form of disability becomes more difficult.

My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has called attention to the Transfer of Functions Order. This merger took place on 30th June, 1953, and I can remember, as I am sure do other hon. Members here who are interested in war pensions, the great anxiety expressed about the merger by the ex-Service men's associations, by many individuals and by a number of hon. Members. I would remind hon. Members that the Order only went through the House with a Government majority of 14, so there was a very close vote on it.

I believe that most people interested in war pensions would agree, however, that the merger has not worked to the detriment of the war pensioner generally. It may have done so in one or two respects, but overall it has worked out to his benefit, particularly in the sphere mentioned by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary—the local offices. When the merger took place we had in the Ministry of Pensions 80 local offices and we acquired another 900 from the Ministry of National Insurance. This was a great benefit to the pensioner, who no longer had to travel so far or wait so long to have his disability attended to.

At the time the Minister of Pensions gave certain assurances about Roehampton Hospital, which holds an extremely important place in the lives of these people. It is, of course, an internationally famous hospital and the war pensioners regard it as their own, although today it takes in many more civilians than it used to do as the war pensioners become fewer.

There is one point I want to clarify about Roehampton Hospital, because the Minister of Pensions mentioned it in 1953 when the merger took place. It is that the governing body of the hospital has no responsibility for the medical treatment, for the staffing, for the medical organisation, the acceptance or rejection of patients, etc. All that is now the province and responsibility of the Minister of Health. May I say, in passing, that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) did a wonderful job as chairman of the governors for five years, and has now been succeeded by Sir Arton Wilson, who was the last Permanent Secretary to the old Ministry of Pensions. The job of the governors today is concerned with the bricks and mortar and there has been a great deal of rebuilding going on. The governing body is also concerned with the amenities we can give to the war disabled, in the form of a new library, cafeterias, new telephones, etc.

I hear good accounts of the artificial limb service. I thought it was a tribute to Roehampton to read in my newspaper the other day that a prisoner undergoing sentence, who was taken to Roehampton to have a new artificial limb fitted, made off and eluded the warders. So they must have given him a good one and there cannot be much wrong with the service. Fear was expressed to me the other day that the tropical diseases centre at Roehampton is to be abolished. I can assure anyone who has in his constituency any Far Eastern prisoners of war, as many hon. Members have, that there is no truth in this rumour. The centre has been reduced owing to the reduction in the number of people who use it.

Now I ask the Committee to examine for a moment how our war pensions schemes stand today. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) said he wanted to take stock of the National Insurance scheme and I have tried to take stock of the war pensions scheme. There is no doubt that enormous improvements have been made in it since the war by successive Governments. I think that the improvements are due in no small part to the great interest taken in war pensions by Members of the House of Commons and also by the work of the war pension committees, the ex-Service men's associations, such as the British Legion and B.L.E.S.M.A., the welfare officers all over the country and a host of individuals.

Does our scheme fail in any particular? No scheme is perfect and I will suggest some ways in which we might improve our war pensions scheme. First, I feel that the time has come when the old-fashioned single-seater invalid tricycles should be replaced by some form of small, handy two-seater vehicle such as one sees running along the roads today in large numbers. I believe strongly that the last people who ought to travel alone are the war disabled or disabled civilians, so I hope that attention will be given to this point as soon as possible.

Secondly, in my experience the people who do not come off so well in the assessment of their disabilities are those who suffer from nervous disorders. They are the people I am most sorry for, the people for whom one gets a job, who break down and lose it. They are a nuisance to the Ministry and to themselves, and they deserve more sympathy in the scheme than perhaps we have given in the past.

There is one other category of person which it is very difficult for the Minister to help, but I hope my right hon. Friend will give the matter his attention. There are certain people who are apt to come off rather badly when pensions are being awarded. They are those whom I describe as, "Dead, but they won't lie down," those who will never go sick and always want to dodge the doctors and avoid hospitals. Then, after perhaps many difficult and dangerous experiences, the human body rebels and they are forced to apply for a pension.

Naturally, the Ministry of Pensions says "Where is the proof? To what hospital did you go? Did you apply for a pension?" All the man is able to say is that he was sunk three times by torpedoes, or something like that. Alas, in the majority of cases, that is not sufficient to give them a pension. I most strongly suggest to the Minister that when such cases arise closer attention should be given to what the man has been through when considering whether he should have a pension or not.

I do not want to talk in generalities. I want to mention a certain case that I have in mind. In March, 1942, we suffered in the Far East some of the greatest defeats and disasters in our history, and many things occurred about which no one in this country has ever heard. I do not suppose that anyone has ever heard of the incident that I am about to mention. Two armoured merchant cruisers, "H.M.S. Dorsetshire" and "H.M.S. Cornwall" were on patrol duty in the Indian Ocean when they suddenly sighted a mass of Japanese dive-bombers approaching.

The captains of the ships had time only to give the order, "Action stations" and to don lifejackets before the Japanese attack started. The ships hit back with everything they had, but it was completely hopeless. The Japanese pressed home their attack with their usual ruthless disregard for their own lives or anybody else's, and in a few minutes both ships went to the bottom, smashed to pieces.

The captain of "H.M.S. Dorsetshire", who had been decorated in the First World War and was 52 years of age, a time of life when many people would think that they ought to go out of the firing line and get an easier job, went down so deep with his ship that he burst a lung, and he is now a very seriously disabled man. When he came to the surface, he found that half the ship's company had been killed outright and the remainder were swimming about.

There then appeared a danger even worse than the Japanese, that of attack by sharks. It was decided that the only method to keep the sharks off was to collect all the dead bodies in the middle and have a circle of live men outside them. The men held on like that in the hope of someone coming to rescue them, and they remained like that in the water, fighting off the sharks, for 36 hours. I maintain that none of those men will ever be the same again after such an experience. Those men may be all right for a time, but sooner or later the tortured body will rebel and they will claim pensions. Will they get their pensions?

How Captain Agar, the captain of "H.M.S. Dorsetshire", managed to dodge the doctors I shall never know, but he avoided a medical examination and got another ship. He saw active service for another two years, and then, somehow, the doctors got hold of him and at once invalided him out with a 100 per cent. disability pension. The captain pays the highest tribute to the Ministry of Pensions and how it dealt with him, but he told me that at least 90 per cent. of his surviving ship's company dodged the doctors, would not have a medical examination or go to hospital but got another ship.

My advice to any young friend of mine going on service—I know it would be very wrong to give it and I would not really give it, but it would perhaps be correct if I did—would be to say, "Do not be too noble if you are hit or disabled. Lie down, go into hospital and get a doctor's certificate. Then, if anything goes wrong in the future you will at least have a claim for a pension." The best soldiers, sailors 'and airmen do not do that, and they are, unfortunately, the people who come off worst. Consequently, I urge my right hon. Friend to ask, when such claims arise, not, "Where is the proof?", but "What did you go through?"

I wish to pay a particular tribute to my right hon. Friend for what he has done for the war disabled and the Far Eastern prisoners-of-war both when he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury and in his present post. In both capacities he has been a tremendous friend to the Far Eastern prisoners-of-war. It is very largely owing to the help that we got from him that F.E.P.O.W. got from the Japanese nearly £5 million, a great deal more than we thought possible at one time.

Increases in pensions, and the value of those increases when made, depend entirely upon our national economy being in a healthy and flourishing state. What the war pensioner wants is a solvent and generous Chancellor of the Exchequer and a sympathetic and forcible Minister of Pensions. We have had that combination in the past, and I think we have it now when one remembers that the present Chancellor was the Minister of Pensions in 1952.

The position of the war pensioner today is satisfactory, but, like other pensioners, he is affected by the high cost of living. However, I wanted briefly to trace the progress that has been made, and I hope that the same interest will be taken in this House in the war pensioner in the future as has always been taken in the past.