I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your courtesy in allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment, and I thank you also for rearranging the time allocated so that my debate will not be prejudiced. It is my duty in these circumstances to be as brief as I can, and I propose, therefore, not to elaborate certain matters which I have in mind. It is my duty, also, not to refer to legislation but to outline only in a factual sense the effect of Acts of Parliament upon war disability pensioners, and this I shall do.
What are the main problems confronting war disability pensioners? First, there is the question of the value of pensions. The improvement in war disability pensions in March, 1965, when the basic rate of compensation was raised to 135s. a week, brought the purchasing value of the pension to slightly more than the old 40s. a week pension of 1938. That increase in March, 1965, in the basic payment, therefore, which brought the value of the pension to only slightly above the rate in 1938, illustrates that for these pensioners, and probably for all pensioners, inflation knows no frontiers, and these pensioners, the most deserving in the population, suffer just as much in terms of income or compensation as anyone else.
In March, 1965, when 135s. a week became the operative basic rate, the Index of Retail Prices stood at 109·9, but in August, 1966, the index had risen to 117·3. In other words, since March, 1965, the purchasing power has dropped to 126s. 8d. Therefore, even at the present quite generous basic rate of 135s., the pensioner is slightly worse off in terms of purchasing power than he was in 1938 at the 40s. level.
There are, surprisingly, no fewer than 448,000 war disability pensioners, and there are 13,700 whose income is limited to war pension and allowances. These 13,000 severely disabled consist of about 5,000 survivors from the First World War and 7,000 from the Second World War. I beg the Government to realise, in their future consideration of this matter, that it is this section of the disabled, the severely disabled numbering 13,700, who are entitled to first priority in any easements which the Government, in due time, I hope, will be able to make in regard to pensions.
I turn now to another subject, artificial limbs and appliances. It is very sad that, although Great Britain used to be far ahead in the design and fitting of artificial limbs, we have now lost our place in the world in this work. I was distressed two or three years ago when a delegation of British limbless ex-Service men went to the Scandinavian countries and Germany and found that their British limbs were considered by the Scandinavians and the Germans to be inferior to what they themselves possessed. But there is a possibility that, even if we cannot achieve our old position, we can catch up again by the creation of the bio-mechanical research department at Roehampton which, I understand, the Minister of Health is to open in the new year.
I hope that there will be research not only into improving many of our fittings and appliances but into ways to cure the present delays in limb fitting at Roehampton. I need not remind the House of a most distressing strike which took place a few weeks ago among the limb fitters at Roehampton. It was most unfortunate. A special appeal about it was made on television programmes. While I sympathise with the members of the organisation for whom I am privileged to speak, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, I am sympathetic also to the views expressed by the limb fitters who were on strike. I feel that there is a way by which the problems created in distressing circumstances like that can be cured. I realise that on this theme there are differences between the parties, but this is my proposal. I should like to see limb fitting centres set up under the regional hospital boards in our orthopaedic hospitals and the limb fitters at Roehampton brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health, being treated as fully qualified technicians on level terms with other technical grades in the National Health Service.
In those circumstances, the Ministry of Health would not only be responsible for supplying the limbs but would become responsible for the technicians and the fitting of those limbs. I know that different views have been expressed from both sides of the House as to just how far the great National Health Service umbrella should be extended. But I am anxious never to see again a limb fitting strike such as that which took place at Roehampton and caused so much distress among the members of the organisation for whom I speak.
I now turn to a third subject, the provision of mini-cars for the disabled. No doubt hon. Members saw the headline and article in the Evening Standard last night concerning invalid drivers and the great row blowing up in Sussex about tricycles and wheeled vehicles. It is necessary to send to a special depôt in Lancashire for fittings, and there is delay. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security knows all about that problem. I do not want to elaborate on it, but to take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Health for supplying no fewer than 5,000 mini-cars to disabled ex-Service men.
That is a great triumph. How superb that small car is. I hoped for years that the motor manufacturers would design a vehicle which would be perfect for the limbless man, and suddenly they produced for the public at large a car that is not only popular with everybody but is extremely suitable for the limbless ex-Service man. There is still a large demand. I know that the hon. Gentleman will also be speaking for the Ministry of Health, which controls these matters, and I know that the sum involved is enormous. This subject has been mentioned at Question Time.
If any Government had to meet the entire requirement it would cost them about £40 million. However, we are grateful to the Government for their cooperation so far not only in regard to the provision of mini-cars for disabled drivers but for their most helpful cooperation in dealing with individual cases. I know that the hon. Gentleman is extremely well-informed on this subject and is most sympathetic to our claims. I hope that, as 1967 progresses, we shall perhaps have another small helping. I may not be able to ask for 500, but how about a suitable supply to take the 5,000 just a little higher in the coming year?
I now turn to the main point, which is the matter which creates the most burning anger among the disabled. That is the rate rebate scheme. The impact of the scheme is well known to all hon. Members. I and the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. L. M. Lever) recently circulated the necessary documents to all hon. Members. I am angry with the Government because, under the scheme, for the first time since 1919 the war disability pension has been treated as income and not as a compensation.
It is an award earned in the field by a man who has been gravely injured. We have never interfered with his right to have that as compensation and not considered as income. It is not for me to elaborate on the scheme, based on the Allen Report, whereby 75 per cent. of the ratepayers subsidise the other 25 per cent. But it compelled the Government to make two levels, and for a married couple the ceiling for rate rebate was set at £10 a week.
The result is that if two married couples living next door to each other both enjoy the National Insurance pension of £6 10s. a week, but one man has a disability compensation payment of £4 9s., that couple are taken over the ceiling of £10. They therefore cannot receive the rebate, and that means that the war disability pensioner is put in the position of subsidising his next door neighbour.
I would much rather see the rebate provided from central funds and not brought down to the homes in this way. There is nothing more disastrous than making people quarrel, as happens at present, about rate rebate. In the debates on this matter at the end of the last Parliament the Government did not modify their view about war disability pensions, and we shall cover that ground again. I still look upon such pensions as an award and compensation and I resent the Treasury's treating them as part of income for the first time in our history. Not even in the great financial crisis of 1931 did we invade the compensation sum paid to war pensioners.
Mr. Speaker, you know my position in the House. I belong to a very small number of hon. Members who served in the battles of the Somme. I also belong to another small surviving number of hon. Members who left the House on 3rd September, 1939, to rejoin the Armed Forces. That I survived both conflicts without a scratch is, perhaps, the greatest blessing I enjoy in life. I never go to that great gathering, the annual conference of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association, without thanking the Creator, when I see that great roomful of men shattered by war, that I should have been allowed to go through the hazards of both wars without a scratch. I cannot recall suffering even one day's sickness in all my service as a professional soldier.
In taking over your great office, Mr. Speaker, you ended your speech of dedication by paying tribute to those who gave their lives in two world wars, and to those who are still with us, the members of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association. I hope that the time will come when the House will take steps to bring to an end the circumstances in which limbless ex-Servicemen have their right in compensation described as an income.