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Vote 10 Non-Effective Services

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 15 March 1962

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum, not exceeding £34,100,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of non-effective services, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1963.

8.30 p.m.

In Subhead A there is a reference to terminal grants and gratuities to officers. Is my hon. Friend still paying what was known as the gratuity to the "golden bowler" officers? I imagine that most of the officers referred to have left the forces and that this payment no longer applies.

In Subhead B there is a reference to the commutation of retired pay of officers. As my hon. Friend knows. I hold very strong views about this. I do not like his right hon. Friend being the judge in his own case, which is what happens. If a retired officer puts in an application to commute his pension or part of his pension for some commercial purposes, the case goes before my right hon. Friend, who decides it on the advice given by his Department. It might be that the decision is to the detriment of the retired officer or other rank, particularly the retired officer. This has happened not once, but twice, in my constituency; the officer concerned was refused permission to commute his pension. I do not pretend to be a business expert, but I could see no reason why those applications were turned down.

The Secretary of State for War told me at the time that one of the officers wanted to invest in what was a nonviable project. How can he possibly judge that? How does he know the conditions in Cornwall or in Scotland or in Wales, for example? I hope that my hon. Friend will advise the Secretary of State to set up an independent board or at least to have an independent chairman, preferably an industrialist with wide experience, to give him commercial business advice whether a project in which a retired officer is interested for commutation purposes is a worthwhile project. The position as it stands is very unsatisfactory. The amount involved is £1,900,000, which is a vast sum. I do not rely on my right hon. Friend's judgment being always 100 per cent. right. Even if he is 1 per cent. wrong, then 1 per cent. of the retired officers are being very hardly treated, because this decision could make all the difference in the world.

Subhead D and Subhead G deal with rewards, and I wish to refer, in particular, to holders of the Victoria Cross. I am not certain how many Victoria Cross awards were made to Gurkha troops during the last war and previously, but I think that there were about thirty-six. Is the £100 a year, which is paid to the holders of the Victoria Cross, paid to the retired Gurkha officers or troops who are living in Nepal? If so, how is it paid? How is it paid to those living in outlying villages? Do they receive the full benefit of it?

Does Subhead D, with its reference to rewards to officers, include those whom in the last war we knew as Gurkha officers, equivalent to Viceroy-commissioned officers? Or do they come under Subhead G? It probably will not make much difference, but I should like an assurance on that point.

I wish to put to my right hon. Friend a question about pensions, particularly the pensions of retired officers and officers' widows and families. My hon. Friend realises that I feel extremely strongly about the present position of some retired officers and of some officers' widows. Some of these officers served for a long time. Many of these widows are living in my constituency on a pittance. These officers' widows, particularly widows of officers who died before 1958, are in a parlous condition. I hope that my hon. Friend will pay the greatest attention to the pleas made by my hon. Friends and myself and, indeed, by hon. Members from both sides of the Committee on this point. It is not good enough for him to say, "This is a non-contributory pension. In the old days there was not one at all. The officer did not expect to get a pension; he was just given a buckshee payment."

Some of these women—majors', colonels' and brigadiers' wives as well as the wives of other ranks—whose husbands had retired and then died before 1958, are living in dire penury in many places in this country; unfortunately, I have some in my division.

I am also concerned about the financial position of the retired officers, particularly those retired officers on the earlier rates of pay which were cut in 1929 and not fully restored in 1932. These officers are a long way behind in comparison with the officers who retired between 1958 and 1962. I know that they are now old and that there are few of them, and that may be why my hon. Friend does not worry about them any more. I certainly hope that he will do his utmost to persuade the Chancellor to look very quickly at this matter and that he himself will try to get through a Supplementary Estimate coming under Vote 10 to pay higher pensions to these people.

I must pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who made this point earlier in the debate on the Army Estimates, although I shall not be as outspoken as he was. I agree in spirit with what he said, that these widows and officers who retired away back in the 1920s and 1930s are not getting a fair deal from the Government. I trust that this position will be put right as a matter of urgency, otherwise I shall find it very difficult to know what to do about it.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) has just said about pensions. I should like to reinforce a point that I made the other day. Apart from the equity of it, I do not think that hon. Members on either side would dispute the fact that these people are entitled to decent pensions, after having served perhaps 30 or 40 years. They should have their pension upgraded so that they can have a reasonable standard of living.

A much more important point is that this is one of the worst recruiting factors we can have. No man will go into the Army if be thinks that his widow in 30 or 40 years' time is likely to suffer conditions that these widows are suffering today. My hon. Friend would do very well to press the Chancellor on this matter if he really wants to make the Army an attractive career. I would warm him, moreover, that the Army has now to Compete with commercial undertakings offering very much better pensions on retirement than those of the Army. He must have some sort of regard for these people who have served the country well and who deserve a decent standard of life.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins), who asked about the so-called "golden bowler" scheme, I can tell him that payments are still being made under this scheme. I shall have to write to him about the details.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of our practice when we receive applications from other ranks or from officers in receipt of other rank pensions for the commutation of those pensions, and he felt that, by holding the discretion in his own hands, my right hon. Friend was too much a judge in his owe cause. This matter has been raised many times with us, but after reconsideration we are convinced that, in the interests of all concerned, our practice is the best that can be devised. Those charged with the task of scrutinising the applications are widely experienced in this task, because of the very nature of their job. They have to look at a great number of such applications. We must bear in mind our responsibility to the pensioner concerned, who is to some extent putting himself at a hazard if he transfers his annual or monthly payment into a capital sum which he may lose. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention, but I cannot hold out any great hope that this question, which has often been raised before, can be solved any differently.

My hon. Friend says that these applications are considered by experts, presumably in the War Office. Does he mean experts who come in from the business world and have experience in business and commerce, or are they excellent, first-class people in the Civil Service?

They are first-class men who have the common sense which is necessary for an assessment of the risks we have to assess. I do not claim to be a great expert, but I review numbers of these cases which are raised with me by hon. Members. I am satisfied that very fair consideration is given and that the practice is a good one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North asked about the position of Gurkhas holding the V.C. One officer and one other rank who hold the V.C. are serving with the British Brigade of Gurkhas in Nepal and receive an annuity of £100 from the War Office. Other Gurkha holders of the Victoria Cross who have left the British Army or transferred to the Indian Army still receive a pension from Indian funds.

Is my hon. Friend saying that Gurkhas who have received the V.C. and who have retired and returned to Nepal are not paid by Her Majesty's Government and do not receive the £100, but receive a paltry sum from the Indian Government, which my hon. Friend knows as well as I do is a mere pittance? Is that what my hon. Friend is saying?

I shall have to go further into the details. This is the advice I have received. It may be that if the payment is transferred in this way it gets more expeditiously to the recipient. I will write to my hon. Friend about the details.

Will my hon. Friend give us an assurance that the amount they finally receive in Nepal is the equivalent of what they would receive if it had been paid direct by the British Government?

I take my hon. Friend's point. I will certainly look into it.

On the question of officers' retired pay, I cannot go as far as my hon. Friends would like me to go. My hon. Friends know that pensions increases have been introduced from time to time to relieve hardship caused to existing pensioners by severe falls in money values. The last such Measure had effect from 1st August, 1959. Because these are special Measures to relieve hardship, pensions increases are related to those who need them most—incapacitated pensioners, child pensioners, widows over 40, other widows with dependants, and pensioners reaching the age of 60. This means that Army pensioners, like other public service pensioners, do not qualify for pensions increases before the age of 60, unless they were invalided out or are permanently unfit for full-time employment.

It has been felt by the Government that the taxpayer should not have to find the money for helping pensioners who may reasonably be expected, and be still able, to help themselves. I cannot give an undertaking to go further than this. The answer—my hon. Friends know that this is the policy of the Government—is to ensure that we do not get inflation and do not get a position where the value of pensions is eroded. It would be wrong if we were to treat Service pensioners in isolation. They are in the same position as all public service pensioners and, indeed, as the many others who live on fixed incomes.

8.45 p.m.

As I said in reply to similar points which were raised in the Estimates debate the other night, we are keeping this matter under constant review, but I am afraid I cannot go any further in any statement of the Government's intention or practice at the moment.

I can never understand why always it is the poorest and weakest who can rescue the Government from inflation.

I hope that my hon. Friend will look at the position of the widows whose case has been submitted by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) and myself. I hope that he will give an assurance that he will look once again at the position of the widows of officers and other ranks who retired prior to 1958. I can assure him, from the depths of my heart, that many of them are in a terrible plight.

I wish that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench would realise occasionally that because a thing has been done many times there is no reason why—in the changed circumstances of today, about which they are frequently so eloquent—traditional policy should not be changed.

Of course, if the Government do something for these people they must do it for someone else. I can think of other people for whom it should be done. If I pleaded for them I should be told that the Government must also deal with the people for whom the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) pleaded and, if that were done, the most terrible disaster would overtake the country, galloping inflation would be started, the additional pensions would lead these people into an extravagant way of life and, before we knew where we were, our export-import balance would be further disturbed and final disaster would overtake us and all the things for which we stand.

I just do not believe it. It is astonishing the way in which members of the Government can look at themselves in the mirror and say, "This is a picture which should be hung at the academy as an example of genius and sympathy"—which can never express itself in actual practice. It is deplorable that we should have received the sort of answer to which we were just subjected.

As for the Gurkhas and the V.C., all I can say is that I hope that the service rendered to this country by the Gurkhas will never be thought less of than when they were still in the British Commonwealth. I recollect once hearing the Government upbraded because they had brought some Gurkha troops into Greece during the last war. I said at that time, "All I can say as an old soldier is that in a tight corner I would sooner be there with a Gurkha than with a Greek."

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That a sum, not exceeding £34,100,000. be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of non-effective services, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1963.