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Limbless Ex-Service Men

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 28 July 1954

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10.57 p.m.

May I say at the outset of this short debate that I am almost disarmed by the generosity of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance who very kindly, at very short notice, has come to reply to the grievance that I wish to raise tonight.

Nevertheless, I want to protest against the failure of the Government to do anything for the disabled ex-Service men. It would be unfair, in this debate, to raise the general issue which I have raised before in the House, of the failure of the Government to do something in this year's Budget for the old-age pensioners, the persons living on fixed incomes, widows and ex-Service men. That has been dealt with recently and adequately in a debate on a Motion moved by the Opposition. I want to raise the specific grievance of the failure of the Government to raise the basic rate of pension for the disabled ex-Service men, and particularly the claim of the ageing limbless ex-Service men.

By ageing limbless I mean one who lost a leg or arm, or part of a leg or arm, or both, in the First World War. There are now alive about 23,000 of some 45,000 heroes who made that sacrifice in the war. If the general debate on pensions that we had the other day was a party debate, I want to make a non-party plea this evening, because some of us try to keep the question of ex-Service men a non-party one. During the last two years we have repeatedly pressed the claim of the limbless ex-Service man. There is an all-party committee of hon. Members interested in the disabled ex-Service men. This committee has met the Minister seven times, and I must say that on each occasion the Minister has been kindness itself, has listened very patiently, and we have received each time the same polite but unsatisfactory answer.

I am here tonight to say, on behalf of the all-party committee, and certainly on behalf of the disabled ex-Service men, that fine words butter no parsnips, and that it is time the disabled soldier had some practical help. Not only have we met the Minister seven times, but we debated this issue in the House on 6th November, 1952, and on 8th February, 1954. Still nothing has happened. The British Limbless Ex-Service Mens' Association has repeatedly, courteously and reasonably pressed on the Minister of Pensions the claims I advance tonight. The general reply of the Minister on pensions matters in the recent debate was, "Wait for the quinquennial review."

Many of us believe that the pensioners should not have to wait—they need an increase now. The special reply of the Minister to the claims of the disabled ex-Service men was, "Wait for the report of the Rock Carling Committee." In case the Minister feels that I am not treating him fairly, I will quote from the letter which I have recently received from him in common with other Members of the All-Party Committee:
"On existing medical advice I have no grounds for discriminating between the elderly limbless or badly wounded and other elderly and other seriously disabled pensioners.…I have stressed on a number of occasions the desirability of deferring a final conclusion on this question of the ageing pensioner until the results of the further investigations of the Rock Carling Committee are known. I sincerely hope that the report we are all waiting for will be available in the not too distant future and that it will be reassuring to the limbless and other badly wounded."
The Rock Carling Committee is a very important medical committee which is doing work not only of national, but of international importance. It is investigating whether a man who gave a limb in the war will pay more in ill-health as the years go on for the sacrifice that he made. The All-Party Committee, the Minister and every medical man is hoping and praying that the result of this scientific investigation will show that a person's heart and lungs are not affected because he has lost a limb and that there is no reason for limbless ex-Service men to fear old age in that way. But whatever the medical testimony may be, we still demand an extra allowance for the ageing limbless ex-Service man.

The case which we are putting repeatedly to the Minister is that the ordinary disabilities and discomforts and handicaps of old age become more grievous in the case of a person who has lost a limb. The men of the 1914–18 war could face the disability of being without a limb at first because they had the resilience of youth to carry them through the sort of sacrificial life they had to lead. As they become older that burden becomes more insistent, more onerous.

B.L.E.S.M.A. and the All-Party Committee have been asking the Government for two years to give a special comforts allowance to the limbless ex-Service men of the First World War to compensate for the increasing loss of amenities with increasing years. I had the privilege of attending the annual conference of B.L.E.S.M.A. a few weeks ago. There, I made what I hope we shall always make in the case of ex-Service men—a nonparty speech. The day has long passed when we want a party battle on the claims of ex-Service men.

At the conference there were men from two world wars, and limbless men from every part of the country. It was the most restrained conference that I have ever attended and the most dignified. There was no whining from the ex-Service men. If they groused, it was in the tone that they groused in former days when the officer came round and asked, "Any complaints?" It was good healthy British grousing. The most remarkable feature of the conference was that the limbless ex-Service men there made their most passionate pleas on behalf of other men who were too seriously disabled to be present.

That conference, I could not help feeling, had a sense of disappointment. It was disappointed because it felt that the claims for an increase in the basic rate expressed with moderate reasonableness and advocated for the last two years had been turned down by this House. I tried to explain the great gratitude this House always shows for our war heroes, but it was very difficult to persuade them that we do feel that gratitude when, time after time a simple and modest request is turned down. So, conference went on record as saying that the time had come for their claim for an amenity allowance should not be tied up with the Rock Carling Report, and it was resolved
"That this Conference notes with profound regret the long delays in reaching a decision on the investigations carried out since July, 1950, by the Rock Carling Committee into the long-term effects of amputations on the lives of limbless war pensioners;"
and it further protested, in a resolution, that
"… the long delays on the part of the Ministry of Pensions in reaching a decision on B.L.E.S.M.A.'s claim for a special allowance for the aging limbless pensioners of the 1914–18 war, additional to the fixed assessments for amputations laid dawn in the 1919 Royal Warrant, to compensate for the added burden and discomfort of artificial limbs and consequential loss of amenities and activities of everyday life."
Since then, we have again seen the Minister and, for the seventh time, we had a refusal by the Minister to grant, not the broad increases in pensions for which this Government thinks that we must wait in order to have the scientific information from the quinquennial review, but something specific and immediate which could be done within the Royal Warrant. That is a narrow, modest claim, affecting a group of aging heroes of the first world war, whose number is decreasing year by year.

I have intervened in the debate tonight in order to make a protest against the action of the Minister in not giving our case the answer which it so much deserves, and I ask that it be once more considered.

11.8 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance
(Brigadier J. G. Smyth)

I am always grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) for the very great interest which he takes in the subject of war disability pensions. I have been very grateful to him on a number of occasions for keeping this whole question on a non-party basis which, I am sure, is the desire of the whole House. The hon. Member was kind enough to say that he had given me only a few minutes' notice of his intention to raise the issue tonight, and, therefore, I hope that he will forgive me if I stand here with no prepared brief. But this is a subject which we have discussed at length together, and I know the Minister's views fairly adequately on all the points which have been raised.

As regards the report of the B.L.E.S.M.A. conference, I have read every word of it. It was an excellent conference, and I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kindly references to my Ministry. But, at the same time, I thought his opening remark a little unfair. He said he wanted to call attention to the failure of this Government to do anything for the war disabled ex-Service men. I do not think he really meant that. I do not think any other Government have done more for the war disabled than this Government, although I do not want to make a party point of it.

In 1952, in a particularly difficult economic period, we did give the biggest ever rise in war pensions and my right hon. Friend told the House the other day that he proposes to do something more within the lifetime of this Parliament and guaranteed that the war disabled would have first priority in any pension rises that were made. I think that what the hon. Member wanted to call attention to particularly was not the general question, but the particular problem of the ageing limbless pensioner.

This is not a new problem; it was considered by our predecessors and we have taken on where they left off. In 1946–47, the Hancock Committee considered this question at great length and members of the T.U.C., B.L.E.S.M.A., the British Legion and all the ex-Service associations reported to that Committee. The question that the Hancock Committee considered was whether any increased pension was necessary to compensate for age. That was one of the particular points it considered and it came to the definite conclusion that it was not and that the criterion that the pension should be given for loss of amenities comparing a disabled with a fit man of the same age should continue to hold good. But, as a result of that Committee, a large number of increases in pensions were given.

In the Ministry we are always ready to consider any particular case where anything has gone wrong with a man's stump, where there is shrinkage of the stump or anything of that sort, which necessitates additional assessment to the ordinary pension being given. In 1950, the Rock Carling Committee was set up. Its terms of reference were to consider whether the amputee was more prone to cardio-vascular disorders than any other section of the community and whether the amputee, as a result of the amputation and wearing an artificial limb, might have a shorter expectation of life.

That Committee issued an interim Report in 1951 and its final Report in 1953. Having given its final Report, it asked for a clinical examination of 5,000 amputees to confirm the first impressions gained simply from the perusal of a whole lot of medical records. Those clinical examinations were completed in March this year and my right hon. Friend hopes that the Rock Carling Committee will be ready to submit that report within a few months. He also hopes that it will not show that the amputee must expect a lessened expectation of life or be more prone to cardiovascular disorders.

I am sure that the hon. Member, who has the war disabled so much at heart, would agree because if that were found to be the case it would bring distress not only to many in this country but all over the world. If the Rock Carling Committee reports to the contrary, we shall have to make a comprehensive review of pension rates for all forms of amputations, and I can guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that we will undertake that.

Does that mean that if the Rock Carling Committee reports as we hope it will, that there is no cardiovascular deterioration because of lack of a limb, the Government will not give any consideration to B.L.E.S.M.A,'s amenity claim?

What I said was that if the Rock Carling Committee reports that the amputee is more prone to cardio-vascular disorders than other sections of the community, obviously the Government will have to review all their assessments on amputations, and I guarantee that we will do that.

Finally, I should like to remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Minister is responsible for all the war disabled—for the blind, the paraplegics and all the other classes of war disabled —and we cannot just consider one class in isolation. That would be considered by other ex-Service associations and by the war disabled themselves as unfair discrimination. Hon. Members can think of many examples. I heard the other day from a friend of mine who was shot through the stomach in the Ypres Salient 30 years ago; he does not feel so good as the years go by, and he has no artificial limb to show for it.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend has the cause of the ageing limbless very much in mind. He has guaranteed to make a review of pensions in the near future, and all the points that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will. I assure him, be most carefully considered.

Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman take it from me that the limbless ex-Service men do not say that only limbless may suffer in the course of old age and that they would not want their claim to jeopardise any other claims? The claims are more general than that. At the same time, they would not want the Minister not to help the ageing limbless ex-Service men because he was afraid that he would have to help some other ageing veterans with other handicaps.

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's assurance, but the case as generally put to us is for the ageing amputee. I thought that that was the B.L.E.S.M.A. case which the hon. Gentleman was putting to me, but I feel that the other case which he has now mentioned, with wider implications, is probably a better one.