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Armed Forces (Pensions And Grants)

Volume 388: debated on Thursday 22 April 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. James Stuart.]

This is the third occasion on which I have tried to make the statement I want to make to-day. I suppose it is an accepted Welsh tradition that the Welsh have to try three times. The short point is with regard to the war service grants that are paid to the wife of a serving soldier and to the dependants. I should like to indicate the general background against which the point arises. It is common knowledge that members of the Forces get a qualifying allotment which is increased by allowances from the Government. The total amount is paid to the dependants and to the wife. There is, however, a distinction in that the wife gets the allowance as a right, while the dependants get the allowance only as the result of a means test. The first allowance that the dependants get is already means-tested before the war service grant is considered. If the grant is inadequate, there is a war service grant. I want to draw the attention of the House to-day to the methods of calculating this war service grant.

The purpose of the war service grant is to provide for a minimum standard of existence in the household after all other commitments, outside commitments, have been met. It will be recollected that after the passage of the Determination of Needs Act an announcement was made that this new method of assessing resources in the household would apply in the calculation of war service grants. At first it applied equally to wives of serving men and to dependants of serving men. Then, in order to induce a large number of these wives of soldiers to enter industry, a new announcement was made. The effect of that announcement was that in calculating the war service grant in the case of a childless wife the first 15s. of earnings would be ignored, and in the case of a wife with children the first £1 of the earnings there might be out of this war-time industry would be ignored. It was generally understood that when this disregard was established on war-time earnings it would apply equally to the wholly dependent widow or the unmarried mother as it would to the wife of a serving soldier. But as time went on it became evident that this disregard would not apply to the dependants, and that a wholly dependent widowed mother would be penalised if she went into war-time industry, whereas a wife was encouraged and rewarded. On 29th November last year I put a Question down for non-oral reply to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions. On 16th December the Parliamentary Secretary replied:
"This matter is receiving further consideration." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1942; col. 1958, Vol. 385.]
So, after the Christmas Recess, the Question was again put down, and I should like to quote the Question and the supplementary question, and the answers that' were given by the Parliamentary Secretary. I quote from the Official Report of 4th February of this year. This is the Question: The Minister of Pensions was asked:
"whether the first £1 of earnings, which is ignored in the case of the wife of a serving man for the purpose of calculating any war-service grant that may be due, also applies in the case of a widowed mother who was wholly dependent upon her serving son?"
Here is the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary:
"This matter has been carefully considered, but I am unable to add anything to the reply which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave to a similar question on 10th December last."
Then there was the supplementary question:
"Is not the Parliamentary Secretary aware that the announcement was made that the first £1 of earnings for the purpose of calculating war service grant would be disregarded in the case of wives of serving men? Why cannot a dependent mother have the same disregard?"
The Parliamentary Secretary replied:
"The reply was given in the answer of the Chancellor of the Exchequer." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1943; col. 1037, Vol. 386.]
My hon. Friend was again pressed, and he read the reply that had been given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which he said:
"The disregard of the first 15s. or 20s. of wives for war service grants purposes was approved in order to provide a special inducement to the wives of serving men to undertake paid employment assisting the war effort. The information at present at my disposal does not lead me to think that the present rule operates to deter dependants other than wives from accepting employment assisting the war effort."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1942, col. 1707, Vol. 385.]
That was the reply of the Chancellor of the Exchequer behind which my hon. Friend is apparently hiding. This reply suggests one or two other interesting points. First of all, might I ask by whom the further consideration was given to this problem? Was it a responsibility of the Department in which my hon. Friend serves? Was it an independent decision of the Ministry of Pensions, whose virtues the Minister proclaims so loudly? There is another point in this matter: If this is not a decision of my hon. Friend's Department—and I take it that he is going to reply to what may be said on this side of the House—might I ask him not to become the whipping boy for the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this matter? It is no use his standing between us and those who may be responsible for this decision, that is, if he is not responsible. As I understand that the administration of war service grants is largely in the hands of my hon. Friend, perhaps he will give some attention to that question.

The second point is this: The Chancellor of the Exchequer does not attempt to justify this discrimination on the grounds of equity. He says that the present rule does not deter dependants other than wives from accepting employment. Why is that? I suppose it is because the income going into the household, even the ordinary allowance, is determined as a result of a means test, and the application of that means test itself is sufficient to drive these older women into industry without inducement such as we offered to the younger wives of the men in the Forces. It is on the ground of pure expediency; there is no attempt to be just, there is no attempt to be equitable. This discrimination is made merely because the result is achieved, although by an unjust method. My hon. Friend now has to operate that unjust method. I want to ask my hon. Friend, who built his reputation in this House on a vehement defence of those who were unjustly treated, whether he is going to justify this discrimination. Is he going to face up to all the speeches he has made in the past? In fact, I was tempted to resurrect ghosts of the past. I was tempted to quote some of his speeches. I am satisfied he would recognise the ghosts, but I am not so certain that the ghosts would recognise him. He seems to have changed his role in this House, and I ask him to give some consideration to the reputation he rightly established on matters of this sort.

Let me give an example of the effect of this discrimination with regard to our womenfolk. I have in my constituency three women. One is the wife of a soldier. Another is an unmarried mother, whose son was born in the last war; his father had never lived up to his obligations, and she has reared that boy, run her own home and after that terrible trial and hardship her son is in the Army. I have a widow whose son also is in the Army. The three women were wholly dependent, in two cases, on the earnings of their sons and in the case of the wife on the earnings of her husband. The three live in the same street, pay the same rent and are, by and large, under precisely similar conditions, with, roughly speaking, precisely similar commitments. The three were getting 25s. Army allowance. The rent in the three cases is 10s. 6d. and the war service grant would be the same in each case.

What happens? There is a demand that these women should go into employment. The Minister of Labour puts out attractive posters inviting these women to help the country in its hour of need. The three women are able to get employment, and for the purpose of my example I assume that the earnings in the three cases, in part-time employment, are 15s. a week. The soldier's wife retains her Army allowance and her war service grant, and she has her 15s. a week of earnings. The unmarried mother loses her war service grant, she loses her Army allowance and retains only the direct contribution from her son. The widow loses her war service grant, and she loses her Army allowance. She merely has the allotment which her son has made to her. There are three women, as I say, in precisely similar circumstances and with the same financial commitments, and you treat two of them as if they were dirt, and reward the other—and invariably in these cases the other woman is years younger than those who are so badly treated. The result is that the wife gets a total income of 45s., the unmarried mother gets an income of 25s. 6d. and the dependent widowed mother gets an income of 25s. 6d.

Why discriminate between these women? This is a new feature in the application of the determination of need tests. It is a new feature in our whole structure of social assistance. Here are needs precisely the same, earnings precisely the same, commitments precisely the same, and you give one 19s. 6d. more than the other two, from State funds. I submit that that cannot be justified by the Department. May I put this point? There is no discrimination of this type in unemployment benefit; there is no discrimination in unemployment assistance; there is no discrimination in supplementary pensions. Yet the three things come under the same Determination of Needs Act. I submit that the Chancellor is not entitled—if the Chancellor is responsible—to achieve an end which is desirable, by a method which imposes injustice upon hundreds of thousands of women in this country.

I have put my case, and I want to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary two questions: First, whether he and his Minister—the Minister who has made this House aware of his virtue so frequently—justify this discrimination. In the second place, I would ask them whether they are responsible, and if they are not responsible, who is? I think we ought to give an indication that we propose to follow this matter to whatever Department or Departments may be responsible for it, and to raise it again, in order that we may get a square deal, especially for the older women in this country. I ask the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary to convey to the respective committees, in which these matters may be decided, the strong feelings which some of us have on the present position.

I wish to raise two comparatively small questions, though they are not small to the people concerned. The first is the question of medical treatment for dependants of serving men. At present there is no allowance for such treatment unless the dependants are willing to go before the appropriate authorities and prove that they are in need, in the ordinary way, as is done in normal circumstances. There is a very strong feeling about this matter, not among Members of Parliament on one side only, but among Members of Parliament generally, and not only among Members of Parliament generally, but among members of the medical profession. I do not know whether the Minister has seen a report of a recent conference of the British Medical Association, in which one speaker referred to the dependants of serving men, in this connection, as a "new depressed class." So strong is this feeling that it has been expressed in the most drastic and effective way possible, many doctors have actually waived their fees and given free treatment in case after case. There are numbers of cases in my own constituency and near it where doctors are willing to give treatment free to dependants of serving men because they know that these people cannot possibly afford to pay for the treatment, and they do not feel able, in fairness, to ask them to pay anything at all. At present the doctors are paying for something for which they and many other people feel the Minister ought to pay.

What is the reason given by the Government for taking no action in this matter? I understand the first reason is that they cannot separate the particular question of medical treatment for the dependants of serving men from the question of free medical treatment generally. They say that this can only be dealt with as a general question, and that the question of a free medical service in general is much too large to be dealt with at this precise moment. I ask, why cannot the two questions be separated? After all, the position of the dependants of serving men is entirely separate, their whole system of allowances is quite different from that of ordinary wage-earners in industry, and I cannot see why a differentiation cannot be made in this matter between the dependants of serving men who require medical treatment and other people, workers in industry, who also require medical treatment.

My second point relates to the cases of men who are invalided out of the Army. I understand that such men are given one month's pay. In many cases that will help them up to a certain point, but there are many men for whom it is not enough. They are invalided out of the Service, and they are still in need of medical treatment. Very often they have to pay for that treatment. T.B. cases are a particularly bad example. Men suffering from this disease have to go on receiving medical treatment for months, it may even be for years, after they have left the Forces, but they get no contribution from the Ministry of Pensions towards the cost. But T.B. cases are not the only ones. There was a case in my division of a man who had 15 months' convalescence after leaving the Army, and during that time he received no free medical treatment. Not only had he to pay for treatment, but he had also to pay for his keep. Eventually he had to go to the public assistance committee. I submit that a man who has served in the Forces should not have to go to a public assistance committee because he is unfit and the Ministry have made no arrangements for him to get any medical allowance. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider both the dependants of the serving men who receive medical treatment, and the serving men themselves who are discharged and who are still in need of medical treatment. I hope that, having considered those matters, he will be able to inform us that he is taking some action.

My hon. Friend who initiated this discussion has performed a service to the House and to the country by the splendid way in which he put before us the case of the womenfolk of the serving men. I feel that besides the womenfolk who are suffering, we should consider the children of serving men, who obtain grants and then are at a disadvantage when they go into industry. I know of quite a number of cases in my division of girls who go into industry and their mothers then lose their war service grants. I share my hon. Friend's view that when wives or mothers are working it is wrong to take away a large portion of their grants. Very often the expenses which they incur in order to earn their wages are considerable, and they are at a great disadvantage when they are deprived of their grants. I would also refer to the position which arises when a man is killed in the Services and the war service grant to his dependants ceases. There should be, I feel, a longer continuance of the grant when men are invalided from the Services. I would join in asking the Minister to tell us whether there is in the Cabinet some influence at work compelling his Department to mete out this bad treatment to Service people. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Pensions has a vocal reputation in the country of desiring to see the Service men and their dependants properly treated.

Could we be told whether the inquiries made by the Assistance Board take place as a result of suggestions made by the Ministry of Pensions? In my division I known of a widow whose only boy was called up for service. He was the only breadwinner and the only other occupant of the house, but the Assistance Board decided that this widowed lady's distress was not a consequence of the war. Surely when we take the only breadwinner in the household to War that must be considered to have caused distress. I wonder whether that decision arose out of the suggestion from the Department, or whether it was entirely the decision of the Assistance Board. I want to stress the position which arises when the dependants of serving men lose their menfolk in the Forces. Nothing dis- turbs the minds of not only the parties themselves, but also the public, more than does the unfair loss of the war service grant in such cases. I have had details of a case sent to me only this morning. A lady writes to tell me that her husband was formerly working in Scotland as a chauffeur. When he went on service his employers, who lived in a castle in Scotland, shame to them I think, took steps immediately to have his wife ejected from the cottage they occupied on the estate. She had to reside with her father in my division for a time. When she eventually got a house she had to pay a much higher rent than she had formerly paid. She applied for a war service grant, and the officer of the Board said that she had no right to leave Scotland and come to live in the Barnsley district. He went on to say that, because of her living first with her father and then getting a house in the district, she had, in his own language, "not a smell of a chance" of any war service grant.

Surely the Ministry should either suggest to the Assistance Board that they should alter their tactics or it should totally disclaim responsibility for the Board, so that we could direct our criticisms in this House against the Board itself. I hope that the Department will take note of these things. In the case of children starting work nothing like the full amount of their earnings should be taken into account, because of the charges they incur at the commencement of their going into industry, which are fairly heavy, and in the case of wives who are working and helping the country, they should be assisted and encouraged more than they are at present. Also, when the man in the Forces is killed in the service of the country, the war service grant which is paid to his dependants should continue. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some assurances on these points.

I see that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War has just come into the Chamber. It is a pity that a representative from his Department was not here to listen to some of the remarks that have been made particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. J. Dugdale). It is unfortunate, but true nevertheless, that there is some dual control of administration on some of those extras which the Service man or his de- pendants may get. The Ministry of Pensions is responsible entirely for the administration of war service grants, and I think that that could be improved. Though it has not been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), I think that the 18s. basis is too low. It was recently increased from a 16s. to an 18s. basis, but the Minister and probably his Parliamentary Secretary know that the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association thought it ought to be at least 20s. This matter should seriously be looked into to see whether it can be improved.

Reference has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Collindridge) to the sudden cessation of the war service grant in the event of the death of the soldier. Actually what happens is that the Ministry of Pensions continue the war service grant as long as the allowances are continued to the dependant, or the soldier's wife, by the War Office, which is 13 weeks. Then immediately the curtain comes down, and although the widow has her continuing liabilities for which she was originally able to get the war service grant, all she gets is a pension of 25s. or 17s. 6d. a week if her late husband was a private soldier. While the husband was alive she was getting allowances as a married woman, and probably the war service grant, and all of a sudden, because the man has given his life for his country, she gets the bare rate of pension and no more. That is not entirely a matter for the Ministry of Pensions, but it is a matter for the Government. There ought to be more co-ordination between the Ministry of Pensions and the Service Departments. You get Service dependants' allowances being administered by Service Departments, and the war service grant, another form of subsidy to the dependent wife or mother or other relation of the Service man, administered by the Ministry of Pensions. There are occasions where the Service Departments refuse to grant dependant's allowance, and the Ministry of Pensions can, if conditions warrant it, give a war service grant. Although there are no representatives at all from the Service Departments here—and they ought to have been here to hear the case put by my hon. Friends—this is a matter which the Minister ought to bring prominently to their notice. If he does not do it, I am afraid the House will have to do it themselves.

The other matter referred to by my hon. Friend about free medical treatment for dependants of Service men does not, I think, come within the province of the Ministry of Pensions. Probably it would be a matter either for the Service Departments or the Ministry of Health, but it is a matter of substance. We do our best to get the fighting men fighting fit. The Service Departments spend large sums of money in order to ensure that the man is fit to face the enemy, and he may die in the battle. What do we do for his dependants—his wife and children? Very little, I am afraid. We do not look after the dependants of these Service men in the same way that we look after the Service men themselves in the medical service given to them in the Forces. My hon. Friend is right in saying that this is a matter to which the Government must pay attention. I only rose to call attention to these points. I have great sympathy with the points of view put by my hon. Friends. Probably the cases which they have put are very intricate, and I have no doubt that the Minister will reply in that respect, but there are these linked-up questions which ought to be looked into at a very early date.

I intervene in this Debate for the purpose of making a few short observations upon two matters to which some reference has already been made. I happen to represent a constituency in which we have a very large proportion of Service families in receipt of war service grants. As my hon. Friend the Membert for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) has just reminded the House, the unit basis for service grants was increased a short time ago from 16s. to 18s. The House welcomed that increase, and certainly those of us who represent a large number of Service families in respect of grants welcomed it very warmly indeed. Since then I have been endeavouring to ascertain to what extent the position of the families affected has been improved by the increase from 16s. to 18s. To some extent the advantage which they received from the increase in the children's allowances has been lost, because, in certain circumstances, it has involved a reduction in the war service grant which has offset the advantage that the family would otherwise have received from the increase in the family allowances.

As far as my information goes, there has been an improvement, but it is also the case, as hon. Members have already pointed out, that the main difficulty which the Service family has to encounter under the present conditions arises when exceptional expenses, such as medical treatment or dental treatment, have been incurred. I am satisfied from what I have seen in my own division, as well as from what I have been told, that although there has been some benefit from the increase in the amount of the unit basis, the position where special expenses have to be incurred by the family for medical and dental benefit and so forth is still very unsatisfactory. I would invite my right hon. Friend to consider whether in those circumstances at any rate some additional assistance should not be given to the Service Dependants for the purpose of meeting exceptional expenses of this nature. I am satisfied that there is a considerable measure of hardship in cases where those circumstances arise.

The other point to which I desire to draw attention is the position of the widow who has been in receipt of a war service grant when her husband loses his life and she passes, at the end of the 13 weeks' period during which she remains in receipt of the family allowance and the war service grant, to the flat-rate pension scale. I have drawn the attention of my right hon. Friend to this matter before, but hitherto without any great measure of success. Therefore I desire to point out to him again that in those districts where the average rent level is high, as it is in all the districts of the Greater London area, there is a very great change in the family income when the family passes from the family allowance scale, with the war service grant, to the flat-rate pension scale. It may be—I do not know, as I have no experience—that the flat-rate scale in areas where the average rent level is lower than in Greater London is satisfactory. In the last Debate which took place in this House on this subject I gathered from speeches which were made on both sides of the House that that was probably the case. But it is certainly the case that in the areas where the level of average rents is high the flat-rate scale is insufficient. Flat-rate scales for pensions are frequently justified upon the ground that it is, after all, open to the pensioner to leave the neighbourhood where he was formerly living and take up his residence in a place where the rent level is lower. But that consideration does not apply to war widows. First of all, there is the great difficulty in getting accommodation. If the war widow leaves the area where she has been accustomed to live, it is almost certain that she will fail in her attempt to find cheaper accommodation elsewhere. There is a further consideration, which is an even stronger consideration. It is not fair to expect a woman who has made her home in a certain place, very often in the area where her relatives reside, when she loses her husband, to leave that neighbourhood and endeavour to obtain accommodation elsewhere.

I would like the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether it would not be possible for him to continue something in the nature of a war service grant to the widow who was in receipt of the war service grant at the time when her husband became a casualty. I can understand the reluctance of my right hon. Friend to revise his flat-rate pension scale at present. It is not very long since the scale was reviewed. But I do invite him to consider this alternative. If it was possible to issue something in the nature of a war service grant after the death of the husband, it would go a very long way to meet one of the principal hardships which is arising in the higher rented districts under the present system of flat-rate scales.

On the last occasion when my right hon. Friend was invited to consider this matter—I think my recollection is right in this—he stated that he was waiting until some evidence was forthcoming that hardship had arisen. If that is the case, I can furnish the Minister with evidence of that nature, and, if evidence is now forthcoming, I would invite him to give us an assurance that, if, in fact, these cases are giving rise to hardship in the Greater London area, he will give this matter of the extension of the war service grant his careful consideration.

The matter which has been raised by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) is one upon which we are mostly agreed and really needs little support from anybody in this House. The position is reinforced by the recent decision of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, in his recent Budget, decided to bring within the scope of allowances a similar set of people to those for whom the hon. Member is making a claim to-day. That was done only last week. Now it is admitted that that class of case should qualify for tax exemption in the same ratio as the worker, and the claim to-day made by my hon. Friend is similar in substance to what the Chancellor has already conceived for tax purposes. I have considerable sympathy with the hon. and learned Member for Ilford (Mr. Hutchinson). The hardship of moving people who have lived in decent surroundings to places not so decent is a real one. I represent a much different type of division from that which the hon. and learned Member represents and I welcome the opportunity which people from my division have to go to better suroundings. Nobody wants to reverse that process.

On this matter of hardship, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) struck the main issue. I think this question of the 18s. unit ought to be looked at again, because it is impossible in these days for human beings to maintain themselves in decency and comfort, when prices are soaring, and especially when they are living in districts where other people are earning comparatively big wages and where it is almost impossible to get anything but the barest of controlled necessities. The hon. and learned Member for Ilford also raised the question of sickness. I know that the Ministry have power to meet bills of £2 and over, but I do not think you will often find a person running up a bill merely for the sake of it, just because it will be paid. So, frequently, the bill stops at, say, £1 14s., £1 15s., or £1 17s., and because of that people are penalised. The limit of £2 is too high. It is easy for a doctor to run up a bill if he is that type of man, although I think the medical profession have a very creditable record in public life, and I do not think many of its members like to do that kind of thing. I know that when sums of 2s. 6d. and 5s. are involved administration would be very difficult, but I think the Minister ought to look again at the £2 limit and see whether it is not possible to reduce the level or make it more flexible. Do not make the £2 an arbitrary figure. If a person can show that the bill would have run to £2 or over if he had wished to force the matter then the Minister ought to have power to meet the bill if it is less than £2.

In administering hardship grants, the Minister takes account of commitments entered into before a certain date. That is to say, if a man is married——