I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the problems facing war pensioners. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for being here to answer the debate after what I know has been a demanding week for him. I took up some of his time this afternoon when he saw a deputation from Southend.
One thing on which we are all united is the sentiment that we owe a huge debt to the millions of Britons and members of the Commonwealth forces who fought for the preservation of our freedom. We owe a particular debt to those who were injured in the conflict, and to the widows and families of those who lost their lives. In times of peace, we have a special obligation to those who sustain injury or illness in the continuing battle to preserve the peace through service in the armed forces. Although I appreciate that Governments of both parties have consistently claimed to give a high priority to this basic duty and obligation, I believe that the time has come for a comprehensive review of our procedures and policies, and tonight I shall make several suggestions which I hope will be considered by the Minister as a matter of urgency.
The first proposal is that much more must be done to inform ex-service men of their entitlement to pensions and to give them advice on how claims can be submitted and considered. Many ex-service men have developed illnesses and disabilities stemming from their war service many years ago, but they are unaware that they have the right to apply, even after the lapse of time involved. This may appear to be an unusual proposition, but I know of several cases in my constituency where ex-service men were prompted to apply, and obtained the pensions to which they were entitled, simply because individuals with specialist knowledge went out of their way to give advice.
In that connection, the Minister will be aware of the outstanding campaigning and sheer hard work carried out by many interested people throughout the country, and of the endeavours in the Southend area of Mr. Holtham of the Far East Prisoners of War Association, and Mr. Micky Strauss, who, as a disabled ex-service man, has devoted much of his life to his former comrades-in-arms.
My argument is that this is not an area that we should leave to the dedicated work of individuals, because, inevitably, some will slip through the voluntary net. There is an urgent need for the Department to initiate a publicity campaign to advise ex-service men of their rights and to provide convenient and suitably qualified facilities to give advice on the claims mechanism. The least that I would ask is that pamphlets be displayed in post offices and in other public offices, and that some newspaper advertise-ments be submitted for publication in the national press.
My second proposal is that there is an urgent need for steps to be taken to speed the processes of dealing with claims. Many of the claimants are aged 70 years or more, and it seems outrageous that months pass before decisions are made. There are also long delays in the appeals procedure. I appreciate that medical issues cannot be decided within 24 hours, but I hope that the Minister will be aware of the resentment that exists over the long delays — especially in the assessment of claims relating to tropical diseases.
The third issue on which I would appreciate advice is the onus of proof. Of course, it is no easy task to make a decision on the relevance of disabilities and illnesses stemming from military service years ago, and to isolate that factor, but when we consider the contribution that has been made by ex-service men, there is a need for more flexibility and humanity to be shown.
My fourth suggestion relates to what I consider to be an unjust anomaly for those whose pension entitlement stems from service before and after 1973. My understanding is that a private soldier who left the services with a 100 per cent. war disablement before 1973 receives £58·40 a week, which seems extremely low. However, I understand that those who left the forces with 100 per cent. disablement after 1973 receive £86·60 a week. Likewise, pre-1973 war widows receive £46·55 a week, while those whose husbands were killed after 1973 receive £95·43 a week. There should be no differentiation between ex-service people who suffer from the same disability, or widows who have lost their husbands serving their country, because of the time of disablement or death. Surely one man's arm or leg is as valuable as another's, and one widow's husband was as dear as the next's. Is there any prospect of removing what seems to be an absurd anomaly?
Another strange anomaly relates to the distinction made between payments to war widows of officers and those of other ranks on remarriage or on the death of the second husband. Perhaps the Minister would also comment on that.
My final point relates to the size and scale of service pensions. Of course, I am aware of the enormous problems facing all Governments in the area of public spending, but there can be no greater priority than the care and welfare of those who abandoned their homes and loved ones to secure the preservation of our freedom and way of life. The information that I have shows that Britain does not excel in the league table of pension provision for ex-service men among the nations of the free world. Does my hon. Friend agree with that on the basis of the information available to him?
May we have my hon. Friend's firm pledge that he will fight to ensure that the highest possible priority is given to our war pensioners and war widows, to whom we owe the kind of debt which cannot be quantified in cash? That debt demands the provision of substantial and continuing resources to deal with their problems.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to put my points, and I thank my hon. Friend for the attention that he has paid to what I have said.
I am greatful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) for initiating this debate about war pensioners. He was kind enough to give me a detailed idea of the points he intended to raise and that will enable me to give him a detailed reply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) recently initiated a similar debate about war widows, and in this year, which marks the 40th anniversary of the ending of the second world war, it is appropriate that we should remind ourselves of the debt that we owe to those who were disabled or bereaved in the service of this country. We all understand that nothing can fully compensate those who have been seriously disabled as a result of service in the armed forces, but the special circumstances of their disablement are recognised in the preferential provisions made for them under the war pensions scheme administered by my Department. There are still about 225,000 war disabled pensioners. I should like to give the House some details of the benefits that those pensioners receive under the war pensions scheme.
The rate of war disablement pension depends on the degree of disablement. A pensioner whose disablement is assessed at 100 per cent. receives a basic pension of £58·40 a week. There are proportionately lower rates for lower degrees of disablement, down to £11·68 a week for a pensioner whose disablement is assessed at 20 per cent. Awards for disablement of less than 20 per cent. take the form of a lump sum gratuity. In addition to the basic war disablement pension, there is a range of additional, supplementary allowances which are paid as part of the weekly pension. They are, in the main, designed to provide extra help for the more seriously disabled. My hon. Friend will be aware of some of the details of those special allowances.
A severely disabled war pensioner with maximum allowances can receive a total pension in the region of £200 a week and, moreover, that sum will be entirely free of income tax. I am quoting these figures not in any boastful way, because, as I have said, no amount of money can compensate someone for such grievous disablement, but to show hon. Members that the war pensions scheme seeks to ensure, as far as it can, that financial worries of war pensioners are reduced to the minimum.
It is important to make it clear that the proposals for the reform of social security in the Green Paper recently published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State do not relate to war pensions and allowances. The war pensions scheme was specifically excluded from the scope of the social security review. In consultation with the ex-service organisations, we shall be looking separately at any implications that the proposed changes may have for war pensioners and war widows.
It has long been the policy of Governments of all complexions that war pensioners should be accorded preferential treatment. Indeed, that preference has been progressively extended over the years as additional pensions have been introduced into the war pensions scheme. As recently as 1983, we introduced the new war pensioners mobility supplement for pensioners with serious walking difficulties occasioned by their war disablement. The supplement is paid at a preferentially higher rate than the national insurance mobility allowance and, unlike mobility allowance, has no age restriction. Nearly 11,000 pensioners have benefited so far from the new supplement.
Adequate financial provision for the war disabled is most important, but the Government's responsibility does not end there. Any war pensioner who needs treatment for his war disablement is given priority treatment within the National Health Service, subject only to emergency and other very urgent cases. If the necessary treatment is not available under the NHS, the DHSS can approve and pay for private treatment. Treatment may also be arranged in hospitals with special facilities for war pensioners and, in some circumstances, in service hospitals. All medicines prescribed under the NHS for a pensioner's war disablement are free of charge, and any aid or appliance is also provided free of charge.
The DHSS also runs a special war pensioners' welfare service which provides help and advice for war pensioners on any problems which they may have. Through a nationwide network of specially trained welfare officers, help is given with pensions, allowances and more personal matters, such as work and housing. The service is available on call from pensioners, and it also takes the initiative in visiting the more severely disabled war pensioners, for whom regular personal visits can be arranged either from welfare officers or voluntary visitors. The welfare service also runs a national homecrafts scheme, through which the Department's handicraft instructors can assist pensioners to take up a wide range of crafts.
We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) for raising this difficult issue. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider getting his Department to publish a small work outlining what he is saying now? It is vastly complicated, and many of us would like something like a child's guide which draws together all the strands, including war pensioners from the Falkland Islands.
I entirely accept my hon. and learned Friend's point, and in response to our hon. Friend I shall shortly deal with publicity.
At this stage, I should like to pay a warm tribute to the enormous contribution made by the voluntary sector in safeguarding the interests and well-being of war pensioners. My hon. Friend has already mentioned the work of the Far Eastern Prisoners of War Association in his constituency. It is not possible to praise too highly the valuable part played by this and many other organisations. I speak as someone who has for many years been a proud member of the Royal British Legion. We all know of the contributions that it makes. The success of a partnership between the public and private sectors with common aims and interests is surely seen to no better effect than in the area of war pensions and war pensioners.
Both my hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend raised the question of publicity. My hon. Friend pointed to the possibility that there may be former members of the armed forces who do not begin to suffer from the effects of injuries or diseases arising from their service until many years later and may not then realise that they can still claim a pension. We recognise the need for publicity. Information about war pensions is already included in literature issued to all service personnel on discharge. It explains to them about the availability of pensions, and how to make a claim if, either then or at any future date, they suffer from a disability caused or made worse by their service. Leaflets about war pensions are also available at DHSS offices and from ex-service and other voluntary organisations.
While I take my hon. Friend's point, there is already a considerable level of awareness of the war pensions scheme among service and ex-service personnel. In 1984, for example, we received significantly more than 4,000 new claims in respect of service after 2 September 1939, and 38 claims from ex-service men from the great war.
Nevertheless, I accept that we could do even more— as my right hon. and hon. Friends have pressed me to do — to publicise the availability of war pensions. The House will be glad to know that we are preparing a new leaflet aimed specifically at ex-service personnel. It will outline the allowances available under the war pensions scheme, explain who may be eligible and make it clear that "war pensions" are not necessarily restricted to people who served in war time but can be paid in respect of any disablement due to service after 2 September 1939. The distribution arrangements for the new leaflet have still to be finalised, but we shall take into account the points made by my hon. Friends about the need for improved publicity.
I shall give careful consideration to that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East referred to the problem of deciding claims for war pensions. As he will appreciate, this can be a complicated business, particularly when it may be necessary to look back over a period of 40 years or more. Like my hon. Friend, I know well from experience in my constituency what problems can arise in individual cases.
It is true that recently the time taken to decide war pensions claims has been even longer than usual due to staffing difficulties in the medical sections of the Department. I am pleased to say, however, that there has been an improvement in recent months. The number of claims awaiting medical decision is less than half what it was six months ago and there are now no delays in priority cases, claims from ex-far eastern prisoners of war and claims for supplementary allowances.
My hon. Friend raised the question of the onus of proof in deciding claims for war pension, a subject which is put to us from time to time. If pension is claimed within seven years of the man leaving the Services, his claim automatically succeeds, unless the Department can show that the disablement for which he is claiming is not due to service. The onus of proof in these cases is placed squarely on the Department. Where a claim is made more than seven years after the end of service, the onus shifts to the claimant. But the law requires that the claimant shall be given the benefit of any reasonable doubt.
If the claimant is dissatisfied with the Department's decision, he usually has a right of appeal to the independent pensions appeal tribunal. Hon. Members will agree that the terms under which claims are decided are very favourable, particularly when it is recalled that there is effectively no time limit on claiming a war pension.
I recognise the force of what my hon. Friend said about the pensions payable to war pensioners and war widows from before 1973.I should stress that the pensions payable under the war pensions scheme administered by my Department are made on the same basis, irrespective of the date of service. The disparity to which my hon. Friend refers arises from the improved pensions payable since 1973 under the occupational pension scheme for the armed forces administered by the Ministry of Defence in its capacity as the service man's employer.
The cost alone of making restrospective the 1973 improvements in that scheme is prohibitive—about £600 million a year in current terms. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that to have failed to make those improvements because they could not be made restrospective would not have been in the best interests of current and future service men and their families.
My hon. Friend mentioned an anomaly in the rules governing the payment of war widow's pension to widows who remarry and then are widowed a second time. The widow of an officer does not receive a gratuity on her remarriage, but if her second husband dies and she can show that she is in financial need her war widow's pension can be reinstated. These provisions date back more than 60 years and the reasons behind them are largely historical. I have previously debated this subject with my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth, and I take note of my hon. Friend's comments on the issue.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East raised the question of how we treat our war pensioners compared with other countries. First, let me say that comparisons between one country's provisions and another's are not easy to make. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that. Regard would need to be had not only to the rates of pensions and allowances themselves and the cost of living in those countries but to such things as the conditions for entitlement under respective schemes and whether pensions were taxable or means-tested in any way. One needs to have regard also to the non-cash provision, such as priority treatment and the war pensioners' welfare service, which I have mentioned, and to other, more general provisions, like arrangements in the National Health Service and social services.
All in all, I think that our provisions for war pensioners generally compare favourably with those of other countries. What matters, surely, is not what other countries do for their war pensioners but what this country does for its war disabled; and on that our record is good.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised this matter, and I am glad of this opportunity to assure him and other hon. Members of the Government's continuing commitment to the cause of war pensioners and war widows.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.