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War Pensions (Parents)

Volume 438: debated on Monday 9 June 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.1 p.m.

Since this Government took office one of the most gratifying features of its administration has been the large scale and widespread improvement in pensions and allowances. The one serious exception is in the pensions payable to the parents of sons and daughters who gave their lives in the 1914–18 war. There has been some small improvement, but the objectionable means test has still been retained, and the qualifying income limits are so low that many people in urgent need are excluded from benefit. For nearly two years hon. Members have urged the Government to reconsider the position, and recently I presented to the House a petition bearing the signatures of nearly 100,000 bereaved parents. So far, unfortunately, nothing has been achieved, and my purpose tonight is to show the effects of the present system, because I am convinced that when the facts are fully known this House will demand that His Majesty's Government should make a radical change at the earliest possible moment.

The system in operation after 1918, which was altered in 1922, was the payment of a basic parents' pension of 5s. a week to the parents of unmarried sons who were not more than 26 years of age at the date of enlistment. This pension was supplemented by grants based on loss of income to the home, and the average pension actually paid was about 15s. a week. There was no test of pecuniary need, and many parents are still drawing pensions from the first world war. The present system under the new Royal Warrant bases pensions on proof of pecuniary need, and the income limit is 40s. for one parent and 60s. for two which, for all practical purposes, eliminates from benefit any parent who is still working. These limits are loaded in various ways, and certain types of income are disregarded in assessing need. But, in any case, the standard is pitiably low, and the maximum pensions payable under any circumstances are 27s. 6d. for one parent and 40s. for two, and only one pension is payable irrespective of the number of sons and daughters who have given their lives in any one family. The comparatively small number of parents who benefit under present arrangements is indicated by the fact that up to December, 1945, there were only 75,000 applications for parents' pensions, and of these, 37,500 had received awards at a total annual cost of £1,371,000—an average of 14s. a week, less than parents are obtaining from the first world war. The remaining 50 per cent. were informed that they had proved their entitlement, but could not be given a pension unless, their financial circumstances deteriorated.

In a letter which I received last November from my right hon. Friend the former Minister, it was stated that the Government regarded the present system as allowing substantial pensions to parents in real need, and added that it was the policy of the Department to apply as generously as possible the principles laid down by Parliament. Let us see how generously this system works out in practice. I would like to quote a few examples of cases which have come to my knowledge within recent weeks. They have not been specially selected, but they do illustrate various types of cases.

First of all, there is a case of the widow of a man who gave his life in the 1914–18 war. She is drawing the widows' pension of 35s. a week. She had one son who worked from the time he was 14 years of age to help his mother, and between them, by hard work, they paid off the mortgage on a small bungalow. The son joined up in this war and the mother received a Government allowance of 7s. per week while he was serving. He was killed in action at the age of 32. Last month the Ministry of Pensions wrote to say that the 7s. was to he reduced to 5s. a week. She has been fined 2s a week because her only son followed his father's example by giving his life for his country. She is elderly, and has a bad leg, and cannot go out to work. Is it possible that any civilised community should tolerate such treatment of the dependants of those who saved civilisation? Is that generosity?

Then there is the case of Private George Mitchell who was killed after being awarded the V.C. His parents are both old age pensioners and have been receiving the parents' pension of 15s. 10d. a week, which was recently reduced to 12s. 4d. a week because they recently received an increase in their old age pensions. Both are old age pensioners. The Minister is quite powerless in this matter so long as the Treasury insist in acting in this way, a way which is quite abhorrent to public opinion. Another case concerns a widow aged 59 who had two sons who were both killed in the war. They were her sole support. She was awarded the maximum special pension of 275. 6d. a week. I referred this case to the Minister, who replied that he was paying the exceptional maximum, and he concluded his letter by saying:
"The case is, indeed, a hard' one, but, much as I sympathise with Mrs. Sheffield in the great loss that she has sustained in the death of her two sons, I have no authority to increase the existing award or to grant a second pension."
There are scores of cases of families who made tremendous sacrifices just to give their children an education and a chance in life. Now the children are gone, and they find themselves in late middle age, broken down in health, needing a special diet, in many cases through illnesses due to worry and grief directly attributable to their tragic losses. But the Minister cannot help them. Indeed, I can quote cases of the withdrawal of a paltry 5s. pension merely because of a microscopic increase in superannuation, microscopic increases given because of the increased cost of living. The Minister wrote in respect of one case:
"I am very sorry that in present circumstances there is nothing I can do to help"
It is incredible that a British Minutes should be compelled to carry our these things. Another constituent, a widow aged 68, lost her only son ace was awarded a pension of 15s. later increased to 205. She recently took up part time domestic employment, and because of that her pension was cut to 5s. a week, with the proviso that if her circumstances deteriorated—in other words, if she gave up work—the matter would be reviewed. That is not only inhuman but idiotic.

I do ask the Minister and the House, can anyone seriously maintain that these pensions are substantial, or al c generously applied? These people did not receive substantial help, when they were bringing up their families. There were no family allowances, no free milk or school meals—things to which today, as taxpayers, they willingly contribute for the benefit of the children of +heir parents. They made endless sacrifices to give their children a chance in life. In many cases they entered into heavy financial commitments, such as better housing and living conditions, to which their sons and daughters contributed substantially. When the children left to fight, the parents bore this burden alone. They are now deprived of the small comforts, the easements to old age, which the children might have provided. Here is a typical case which reached me this morning. The father is earning £2 19s. 6d. and the mother £1 6s. 4d., and the son used to give them 17s. 6d. a week, and his firm made an allowance of 15s. They lost this income of 32s. 6d., and still cannot qualify for pension. Had their lives been lost in a munition factory there would have been statutory provision for the parents.

A beneficent Government pays compensation to the owners of Alsatian dogs and carrier pigeons lost in the service of their country. I cannot believe that a Chancellor of the Exchequer who pays for these things with a song in his heart cannot spare something for the benefit of war bereaved parents. It is no part of my case to suggest that any payment could make good the loss of one's child. I ask for justice, not blood money. I maintain that this country, and particularly this Government, cannot afford to add to irreparable loss by permitting financial hardship to arise from it. I maintain that those who went away to fight went away secure in the belief that if anything happened to them we would look after their dear ones. We cannot let them down. The payment of parents' pensions should be regarded as a recognition of their sacrifice.

I urge the Government that immediate action should be taken to review the situation with the object, first of all, of providing a basic pension of 10s. a week to these parents, to be applied for in the same way as family allowances; and secondly, of providing an economic supplement based on loss of income, either actual or potential, and for exceptional circumstances, such as mortgage interest and those kinds of things, which were taken into account as valid considerations for war service grants. If this were done it would provide for those in the greatest need. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he will not say that the present system does it better than the system I have suggested, because that is nonsense; it does not do it better. The means test, which should be abolished at this stage, is the very antithesis of the policy of the Labour Party. A basic pension of 10s a week for all these parents would amount to less than £8 million a year: less than half one day's cost of the war. That would be the peak figure, and would be constantly declining. The cost of payment in respect of unmarried sons only would be less than £5 million.

I do not say this suggestion is the only way of dealing with the problem. But common humanity demands that the situation should be reviewed, and injustice wiped out. I hope the Minister will give us some encouragement and hope that his Department will urge upon the Treasury the necessity for dealing with this in a humane way. Of course, we have his sympathy, because I know he once wrote of his determination "to ensure that the parents of those men who made the supreme sacrifice in the war should not be allowed to suffer further anguish." I am sure everyone in the House will join with me in asking the Minister to strive to overcome whatever obstacles lie in the path of securing justice and recognition for the dependants of those people but for whose sacrifice we should never have had the opportunity of building the world anew.

10.13 p.m.

It would, be easy to argue the case for parents' pensions on sentimental grounds; but I do not think there are many, if any, parents, proud of their sons who died during the war, who would thank any of us if we debated this matter on any basis other than that of fair play and justice. I do not want to repeat all the points that have been put so admirably by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins), but I should like to reiterate that at present the parents must be in pecuniary need by reason of old age or infirmity, or other adverse conditions, which are not merely of a temporary character. To the best of my knowledge, the Minister has never disclosed what he or his Department deem to be "pecuniary need," or what is the standard upon which they work. I know other hon. Members want to speak, and I will sum up what I wish to say in two questions to the Minister. First: Will he explain the standards on which he works in assessing need? Secondly: In view of the increased cost of living, will he consider raising the standard?

10.14 p.m.

I am sure we all wish that there was a great deal more time than we have tonight to discuss this very important and rather complicated question. I have not a great deal of time, but there is one point I should like to put forward, because I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins), feel very strongly on this matter, and I have a number of very hard cases in my constituency among the parents of men who lost their lives. We would admit, I think, that the Ministry could argue that to introduce a flat-rate pension at this point might be to divert some of our resources from those who need them more to those who need them less. The category of person with whom I am concerned tonight comprises those who are already getting more than 10s. a week, but who are still not getting enough because their need is such a severe and hard one. Therefore, I suggest to the Minister that, whatever he may have to say about the merits or demerits of flat-rate pensions, he should face up to the inadequacy of his own means test scale for securing decent assistance where there is the most need for it. He can argue, quite rightly, that considerable improvements have been made by his Ministry and that the minimum to- wards which he now makes up the income by means of pension has been raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton has said, it is now 40s. a week for one parent or 60s. a week for two, plus additions graded according to the contributions made by the son before his death. But because we have got a maximum pension above which payments cannot be made, however great the need, we find that in cases of most stringency the Minister's own minimum standards are not being reached.

Let me take a case in my own constituency of a widow of 50 who has a widow's pension of 10s. Because the maximum parent's pension is 27s. 6d. a week, that woman's income can be made up to only 37s. 6d. regardless of her son's contributions in the past. Yet according to the very complicated and illogical scale of the Ministry, if that woman had an income of 30s. a week and the son had been making certain contributions before his death, despite the fact that she has already 30s. she would still have received 20S. pension in order to give her a minimum income of 50s. a week. Again when the same widow becomes 60 years of age and draws 26s. pension she will still get 20s. pension, bringing her up to 46s. If she gets 46s. at this age, why not now? It can only be that she is expected to go out to work until 60, but we maintain that that is too much to ask of these mothers who have given their sons for this country. I ask that the maximum limit should be abolished and the pensions given at least according to the Ministry's own standards.

10.17 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) for having raised this subject tonight. I know that this is a matter about which there is very real feeling, and very naturally, it is a subject upon which Members in all parts of the House have different views. My hon. Friend has rightly taken the opportunity to raise it tonight.

I should like to say one or two words about the way in which our present parents' pension scheme came into existence. It is of some importance in relation to the remarks made by my hon. Friend and the hon. and gallant Member for Antrim (Major Haughton). It is not true to say that after the 1914–18 war there was merely a flat-rate pension paid. There were, in fact, three types of pensions in payment, one of which was a flat-rate pension of 5s. a week, paid only in cases where a parent had lost a married son of 26 or under. That pension was not added to, but was a flat rate of 5s. a week. There were two other schemes under which parent pensions were paid. One of these was pensions paid on the basis of prewar dependence—rather similar to the proposals under the Industrial Injuries Act. The third scheme was the needs pension, which was on rather similar lines to the scheme we operate today. It was found that these three schemes simply could not be operated together. They were causing hardship and anomalies on all sides, and the Select Committee on Pension Administration, set up just after the end of that war, recommended that these three schemes should be assimilated into one scheme based upon need broadly interpreted. That was brought in in 1922, so from then until the present day we have operated the parents' pension scheme on the basis of need.

When this Government came into office a review was made of the whole of our pensions administration, and I think Members on all sides recognise that sweeping changes have been made. Among the matters that came under review was this question of the parents' pension. It was decided by the Government that we should maintain the needs test, but that we should review the basis on which the needs test was to apply. I would like to quote, in support of that decision, the remarks made by the hon. Member for Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) on this point, in a major Debate on pensions administration in 1944. The hon. Member said:
"I do not believe that hon. Members in any part of the House can really say that the Government should take the responsibility, for all time, of paying pensions to all parents, whatever their situation. Ought we not to relate our Governmental action to the view which would be taken by ordinary people in such an eventuality?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 7th July, 5944; Vol. 401, C. 1508.]

As my hon. Friend has just said, that was the view of a Member on the other side of the House, but it was supported by Members on this side of the House, in particular by a Member who had himself experienced loss in his own family. It is true that there was some division in the House as to the best way of operating the scheme, but the great majority agreed that there should be some review of the scales on which the means limits were based. The Government did review that position, and considerable changes were made in the basis of these means test regulations. I suggest that the Government cannot accept responsibility for paying in cases where the son, had he lived, might, in all probability, not have been called on, or have been required, to make any contribution himself. It is the responsibility of the Government to try, so far as we can, to meet the responsibility that would otherwise have fallen on the son who has died, and it is our view that we are meeting that fairly by insisting that we are at all times ready to meet any cases of hardship as they arise.

Many different proposals have been made for a flat rate pension. Some propose that there should be an ordinary flat rate pension of 10s. a week, or something of that sort, without any economic supplementation. My hon. Friend has not supported that view tonight, but some do. If that were done, we would fail to meet the cases which the Ministry of Pensions is able to meet today. The Ministry is paying some 44,000 parents' pensions, based on the 1939–45 war, and the average amount we are paying is something like 15s. a week.

Yes. Under the regulations I have mentioned, including the needs test, we are paying an average figure of 15s. a week.

Therefore, it is quite clear that an all-in flat rate of 10s. a week would not meet the need, and it is essential, as the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Collins) has suggested, that, if we are to meet the need, to add to the flat rate pension another form of needs test of some kind in order to meet the case.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary answer the point as to whether the ever-increasing cost of living is being taken into account?

I want to make clear the point made by the hon. Member for Taunton. If he is saying that he is prepared to advocate an economic supplementation to a flat rate, he is surely admitting the need for some form of needs test, and the only difference between us is that he is prepared to pay out the flat rate pension to a large number of people, who, one must admit, do not, in fact, need the flat rate which is proposed. We must, I think, face the fact that, in any event, if we are really trying to meet the hardship cases, we have to establish some form of needs test. There are some proposals that a basic flat rate should be only payable for a short period of years. I would make quite clear—I do not know if any hon. Member here has put it forward, but this is being canvassed outside—

Is it not the duty of the Parliamentary Secretary to answer the case put tonight instead of answering cases which he says have been put on other occasions?

I am anxious to answer the point raised and to put this matter in its proper perspective. We are paying out 44,000 pensions at the moment, and a further 40,000 have established their title to apply for pensions at any time should need arise. Another 103,000 pensions for parents are being paid in relation to the 1914–18 war. The majority of these are based either on prewar dependence or upon need.

May I say a few words on the subject of the scheme we are actually adopting today. We maintain that the basis of the scheme is a flexible one. First of all, it is not essential that there should be prewar dependence. We are assuming a certain contribution from a young man who probably is only serving his apprenticeship at the time he goes into the Forces. We assume that he would, had he lived, have contributed to his home, and we assume, in some cases, a fairly large contribution. That means that we can add to the basic needs of the family a considerable supplementation on the basis of our assumption of a contribution from the serving man. Secondly, we can even pay in cases where a serving man is married when he goes into the Forces. Even though we may be paying a widow's pension in addition, we can, in certain circumstances, pay an allowance to the parent. A further point that is of real importance is that there is an indefinite period for making claims. This means that should at any time, due to old age, ill-health or for any other reason circumstances worsen, it is always possible for us to review the claims that are made.

Since this Administration came in we have been able to revise the needs basis and so bring in many thousands of claims that before were not admitted. This means, for example, that in the case of a widow having an income of 30s. a week from any source, if her son, before the war, was paying a contribution of 35s., it is possible for that widow to be paid by us a further 20s. in addition to her income or earnings. Even though the son has made no contribution whatever, and there was no prewar dependence, it is possible for us to make a contribution of at least 10s. and probably more. I suggest that many hon. Members who have raised this subject in the House are raising it on general grounds of hardship in the home when it is really a civilian hardship. I think that the main difficulty of many hon. Members is that they are apt to confuse the two forms of hardship.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.