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Armed Forces (Pensions And Grants)

Volume 388: debated on Thursday 22 April 1943

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The point I was coming to was the hardship grant where a commitment for the purchase of furniture was entered into before the man joined His Majesty's Forces. I take it that the wife of a soldier ought to have access to improved housing accommodation as much as any other section of the community. They can only have that access if they can pay the rent, which is usually higher than the house they have left, and can furnish it. I ask the Minister not to confine the grant to pre-enlistment commitments.

It is generally the fact that a hire purchase agreement made before the serving man went into the Forces is met, and where a marriage takes place or a child is born and a new house has to be set up, we can do things, but, generally speaking, on the case my hon. Friend has put, we do not.

I have a case of a serving man and four children who were living in a single apartment. It is desirable that they should move out. My feeling is that in that case it should be met.

We do not meet it now, and I cannot promise that we will, but I will consider the point. With regard to medical attention, provision was made in the war service grant some considerable time ago. My right hon. Friend felt that there was a lack in this regard and that in the case of illness in the Service man's family there might be reluctance to bring in a doctor because of the bill that would follow. We have met that to the extent that in the case of serious and prolonged illness we will meet bills of over £2 up to a maximum of £10. That has been done in a good many thousands of cases and has proved of very great help indeed. We do not meet bills under £2, and I can well believe that in some cases that is a hardship. We have had it under discussion, but have not been able to do anything about it up to the moment. We felt we had to put some figure down in order to avoid getting in perhaps thousands of very small amounts which would make more administrative difficulties than they were worth. Whether £2 is the correct figure or not I admit is open to argument. I will look into that also. That meets to some extent the case of the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale).

As to his second point, I doubt whether it has anything to do with us. I think that would be for another Department. It has been said that the 18s. minimum is not enough. That may be, but one of the troubles I met with when I went into the Department was that there was no minimum whatever. We laid down a minimum of 16s., which was later raised to 18s. It does not mean that 18s. is the most that anyone is getting. It is the amount that we make up to if the standard of life unit figure has been below that. It is only a minimum, and only a certain number are confined to that figure. Most will be above it. Further, it is after certain commitments have been paid—hire purchase, insurance, education grants and various others—so that this is no mean figure. We sought power to make a minimum so as to bring in large numbers of people, and tens of thousands came in because of that, and it has proved of inestimable service to them. The hon. and learned Member for Ilford (Mr. Hutchinson) referred to the effect of the children's allowance being taken into account in our calculation of the income of a family.

My point was that in many cases families have not benefited from the increased family allowance.

To some extent that may be so, but where the war service grant may have been reduced it does not follow that that is because of the increased children's allowance being taken into account. It may be because of an increased income in the family through a dozen different matters. The question of the war service grant to the widow of a soldier who has been killed is a very important matter. It was stated a month ago that it was to be brought before the Central Advisory Committee, and I was asked how long it would be before it met. It has met, and the matter has already been discussed, but it involves so many issues that I am afraid some time must elapse before we can reach a conclusion. A long discussion was held, but it was not possible to reach a conclusion on such an important matter with all its ramifications. It is being considered in the light of the discussion that took place on that day and of things that have been said since.

Will my hon. Friend explain exactly what are the difficulties? It is surely a very simple matter.

There are so many details that I cannot go into them all now, but it is not half as simple as it looks. There are a score of things that have to be taken into consideration. In any event, simple or not, a promise was given that it would be considered, and it is being considered, and when a conclusion is reached it will be conveyed to the House.

With regard to the main question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), I should like to explain the history of the present arrangements and the reasons which have led the Government to adopt them in their present form. Some months ago it was suggested that there were among the wives of serving men a substantial number who were available for work of national importance but were discouraged from undertaking it, particularly if they undertook part-time work, because the net financial benefit to them was small as a reduction in the war service grant was commonly made if they became wage-earners. It should be mentioned in this connection that so far as wives are concerned, the regulated family allowances paid by the Service Departments are in no way conditional on other income, and the question could be looked at solely as a war service grant problem. In other words, this applies to wives, and the introduction of the disregard of the 15s. or the £1, as the case may be, was a simple administrative matter because it was related to our Department. Whether the wife earned or not did not make any alteration to her allotment or allowance from the Service in which her husband was engaged. There was that difference between the wife and the dependant. It became a simple matter for us to deal with administratively and did not affect any other Department.

My hon. Friend says it would not interfere with the wife's allowance administratively, but surely in the administration of war service grants income of any sort does come in under his administration and does interfere with it. How can my hon. Friend make out that an income which interferes with the dependant's allowance does not interfere with the war service grant?

I am making the simple point that the wife receives her allowance from whatever Service her husband is in as a right, and if she goes to work or earns any other money that does not affect the allowance but it does affect the war service grant. A dependant is in a different position. She gets an allowance from the Service in which her ton is on the basis of need. Anything that she earns is, therefore, taken into account by the Service concerned. So that in the case of a dependant more than the war service grant administration is concerned but in the case of the wife, where the 15s. or £1 comes into play, only our Department is concerned administratively.

It was, however, represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour that a departure from the existing rule in the case of wives of serving men would be likely to result in a real and appreciable contribution to the woman-power directly available for the war effort. Having regard to the urgency of the need at this time to make the greatest possible use of the nation's resources of man and woman-power we came to the conclusion that we should be justified in this particular class of case in adopting exceptional measures. It was accordingly agreed that there would be a disregard in the calculation of means for the purpose of a war service grant of the first 15s. or 20s. of the earnings of the wife of a serving man We considered at the same time whether the special arrangement should be extended to the dependants of those wives of serving men in receipt of war service grants or of dependants' allowances. Although there are differences of detail of application, in essence the basis underlying the assessment of the allowances payable in the case of dependants is primarily that of need and the income of the dependants is, therefore, a material consideration. We found no evidence to show that a disregard of earnings in the case of dependants similar to that in the case of wives of serving men would result in a material increase in the woman-power engaged in work of national importance. A very large proportion of the recipients of dependants' allowances are advanced in years. They might well be only too desirous of furthering the war effort but were prevented from doing so by age, infirmity or immobility. It could not therefore be said that there would be a substantial benefit to the national effort which would justify the adoption of an arrangement which would be counter to the fundamental principle underlying the assessment of the allowances payable to these dependants.

In these circumstances, as explained by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in reply to a Question on 10th December last, we decided to limit the special concession to the wives of serving men. With regard to the pool of labour concerned, the total number of advances in payment is about 490,000. Of these, dependants' cases represent about 10 per cent. It was hoped to secure for industry from those drawing war service grants about 50,000 women. No statistics are available of the numbers actually obtained, but numbers of cases are coming along in which the disregard is of value. The average age of dependants is 55. Only 5 per cent. of dependants in receipt of war service grants are in employment. There is little likelihood of this figure being increased. Of those who are working part time over one-half are in some kind of domestic service. The main point about this was getting women, particularly young women, into industry where they are vitally needed. In order to get them in it was felt that the disregard of the war service grant of the 15s. or £1 would help them to come in. It meant running away from the principle upon which the war service grant was based, and that was an important matter to take into consideration. It could only be done if the result to be achieved was important enough. We are told that in the case of the wives, among whom there was a huge pool of labour, it was worth doing in order to encourage them to go to work. Among dependants the pool of labour is very small as compared with that of wives, for the average age is 55 and a good many of them are in domestic service. That being so, together with the other fact which I have already mentioned of this not being a case confined to us in its administration, but being a case which affects all the Services in the case of dependants, it was felt that we should do this in regard to wives in order to get the huge amount of labour that was available, and, as the pool of labour was not available among the dependants, it was not extended to them. My hon. Friend has made out a good case, as he always does. He referred on a good many occasions to injustice. In the case that he gave of two people working side by side there does appear to be injustice, and I admit the difference in the treatment of a wife and a dependant. I would like to point out, however, that the hardship or the injustice that may have been there before has been dealt with by the issue of a war service grant——

In the case of everybody. The initial injustice which the war service grant was intended to remedy has been remedied in the cases both of the wife and the dependant. If injustice or hardship exists it is merely because the wife can go into industry and the other cannot.

My hon. Friend has played about with the average age of 55. Does he not recognise that there are hundreds of dependants of soldiers who are younger than the wives of soldiers and that you will get in the same factory a dependent woman at a lower age than the wife of a soldier who is treated entirely differently?

Is my hon. Friend trying to prove that the average age of a dependant is less than that of a wife?

If the average age is 55, that means that some must be under and some over that age. I am not saying that some dependants are not younger. I have explained why and how this has been done. There was a huge pool of labour in one case and in the other case there was not. In the case of dependants other Departments were affected besides our own, and it is not the simple issue that it is in the case of wives. Although there may be some injustice in this difference of treatment, the fact remains that we have had very few complaints about it. The hon. Member has mentioned one or two, but I have made extensive inquiries and my information is that the complaints we have had in the Department are very few indeed.

I want to make a brief comment upon the important statement that has been made by the Parliamentary Secretary. I am glad that the House has had these considerations put before it. Those of us who are pressing for improvements in certain directions feel that the point of view we are advancing has been assisted by the Parliamentary Secretary's statement. He has clearly shown that in order to meet the problem of woman-power the strict principle that was applied to the war service grant has been set aside. If in order to get an advantage to the nation a principle can be sacrificed, we are entitled to claim that the principle which lays it down that a war service grant or its equivalent can only apply while the husband is alive, can be sacrificed in order to do justice to the widow, who has been in receipt of a grant, after her husband has lost his life. I therefore look forward more hopefully than ever to the consideration that is being given by the Minister to this point which a number of friends and myself have been pressing upon his notice for a long time.

I would like in a few sentences to emphasise what has just been said. I appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary has demonstrated here more than once that there is not a great volume of cases falling into the category which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) has been discussing, but you do not measure justice in terms of numbers. A hard case, wherever it occurs, causes the gravest hardship. If a wife is unable to continue to meet certain obligations she must just slip back. As the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) has said, it frequently means going from a good house to a poorer house, and dropping from one standard of living to another. If this can be prevented by continuing these particular grants until the liability is liquidated I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary should be deterred from taking that step by whatever administrative difficulties there may be. All hon. Members on this side of the House are very happy to say that whenever they have to go to the Parliamentary Secretary with an appeal they find him most co-operative and most understanding, and I very gladly say that is also my experience, but I plead with him not to be deterred by the Departmental hurdles that may be put up. This is a straight matter of justice, and whatever arguments there may be about difficulties in terms of logic or equity they cannot meet the situation. I plead with the Parliamentary Secretary to give the House an assurance as soon as possible this simple proposition will be accepted—that the war service grant, even when the Service man is killed, should be continued until the household's liabilities are liquidated.