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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Local Government Finance

Question agreed to.

24 Feb 1999 : Column 512

War Pensions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

11.21 pm

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise in the House the issue of the backdating of war pensions. In the debate, I shall refer to two of my constituents: to preserve their anonymity, I shall call them service man 1 and service man 2, although the Minister has, of course, been given details of their identity and their history. At the outset, I declare an interest in respect of the first of those two constituents: he hand-crafted a dolls' house for my seven-year-old daughter--a beautiful and touching gift, for which I am proud to express my thanks on her behalf.

Service man 1 will be 80 years old in July, but the past 58 of those years have been years of great suffering. Following the evacuation at Dunkirk, mines were laid by our own troops around the south coast as a defence against possible invasion. They were anti-tank mines, not anti-personnel mines; they were designed to destroy enemy landing craft and, when they exploded, they made craters 8 ft deep. During storms, in heavy seas, those mines shifted and service man 1's unit was sent to recover and replace them. They had no mine detectors, only bayonets, as they went into the storm, on to the shifting shingle.

Service man 1 was squatting on his heels, replacing the arming lever in one such mine, with two of his comrades beside him, when the mine exploded. The two men with him were killed. He survived, but was blown 40 yd into the sea. He suffered lacerations to his hands and face and within his mouth; his teeth were blown out at gum level; an injury to his right elbow prevented it from being fully extended; and flash blindness meant that he was without sight for five weeks. His nerves were shattered and he suffered deep concussion, memory loss, frequent nightmares and flashbacks. He was treated for seven months by the leading expert of the age, William Sargant, about whom I shall say more shortly.

On 19 August 1941, service man 1 was discharged from hospital suffering from, among other things, war neurosis--post-concussion, which is better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a chronic condition, whose symptoms include severe depression, awful dreams, flashbacks, aggressiveness, massive mood changes, gross irritability, anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, excessive fatigue, headaches and stress-related heart disease. On 15 September 1941, he was discharged from the Army and he applied, of course, for a war disablement pension.

On 18 September, service man 1 was sent Ministry form MPB 240, which stated that, despite the range of injuries suffered, only post-concussion syndrome and the injury to his elbow were to be recognised for war pension purposes. Worse still--bizarrely, even hideously, one might think--the Ministry denied that the conditions were directly attributable to war service and that exploding mine. It said that the war may have exacerbated prior conditions.

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In consequence, service man 1 was awarded a partial war pension only, even in respect of the limited conditions that the Ministry recognised. However, worse was to follow. The partial award, made in 1941, was reduced steadily until it was removed altogether in 1953.

Some people may think that service man 1 must have been making a remarkable recovery, but post-traumatic stress disorder is a chronic condition. The available medical records--which I have seen and forwarded to the Secretary of State--show conclusively that service man 1 received medical treatment for the various indicia of the condition in every decade from the date of injury to the present.

After discharge, he was unable, because of illness, to recommence his pre-war trade. He was forced to take a menial job. In 1981, just weeks after seeing his doctor for depression yet again, he was forced to take early retirement on medical grounds from that menial job.

Service man 1 tells me, and I believe him, that he made no miraculous recovery, that he suffered throughout and that he suffers now. He cannot even be treated for cataracts because of feared internal head injuries. Yet from 1941, this brave man received a reduced war pension and, from 1953, no war pension at all.

Some people may say that he should have continued to appeal, year after year. He did appeal, from 1941 to 1955, and was rebuffed. Why? William Sargant, the doctor to whose care service man 1 was entrusted gives us the answer in his seminal work on traumatised world war two veterans entitled "The Unquiet Mind". The book demands greater scrutiny than I can give it today, but in it he states:

Service man 1 was not just a victim of war, of an exploding mine or of post-traumatic stress disorder: he was a victim of official blindness to his suffering.

In world war two, we may not have executed personnel traumatised by the conflict, as happened a quarter of a century earlier, but neither did we give them war pensions. We cannot have expected such men, who were already damaged, to continue to apply for war pensions, year after year, in the face of official denial. Even the loving wife of service man 1, who has stood by him and suffered with him all these years, could not bring herself to apply on his behalf, at further risk to his fragile peace of mind.

In 1996, with the encouragement and support of the Royal British Legion and the organisation Combat Stress, service man 1 reapplied for a war pension. It was then conceded that mistakes had been made, that he had suffered a wider range of injuries than had been recognised all those years before, that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that that was caused by the exploding mine in 1941. That had been denied when he first applied.

A war pension was at last awarded to him again, and even upgraded after the War Pensions Agency found papers that had previously been lost. However, even though it related to suffering that dated from 1941, that war pension was backdated only to 1996, the date of the latest application.

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Service man 2 also lives in my constituency. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a regular before the second world war. He was 17. He had excellent eyesight, he was an athlete and he weighed 12 st 7 lb. He boxed at the upper limit of the light heavyweight division for the RAMC team. He was stationed in north China between 1937 and 1939, and he contracted typhoid, amoebic dysentery and other diseases. During the battle of Singapore, his first aid post was bombed and shelled from air and sea. He was shot in the leg, and he suffered a fracture and shrapnel wounds. He was taken prisoner by the imperial Japanese forces. He spent three and a half years in captivity, and he worked on the Burma-Siam railway.

Service man 2 contracted terrible tropical diseases. He was beaten, and he suffered loss of teeth, ruptured ear drums and a broken nose. He was starved; the former light heavyweight boxer's weight fell to under 7 st. He became so emaciated that he was blinded for three months by malnutrition. When he could see, he witnessed depravity--man's inhumanity to man, and sights no man should have to endure. They cannot bear repeating in the House.

On his release, like service man 1, service man 2 suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He returned to this country after the war, after 11 years of unbroken military service. That regular soldier, who had expected to serve for 18 years, was found unfit for further service. He was part of the human debris of war.

Service man 2--a brave man--was subjected to ridicule. Broken, physically and mentally, he was abused and humiliated. In 1946, he changed his name by deed poll to try to bury the traumas of his past.

The very least that service man 2 might have expected was proper treatment by those responsible for war disablement pensions. Yet, in 1946, he was awarded disablement pension in respect only of myopia with astigmatism, malaria and dysentery--just three of the conditions on the list of injuries and conditions from which he was suffering. In 1950, his war pension in respect of the three recognised conditions was reduced to 20 per cent. In 1955, it was reduced to the range of 6 to 14 per cent. In those days, assessments of under 20 per cent. took the form of a small weekly pension followed by a lump sum payment, and that was made in February 1957. For 30 years and more, that was his lot.

Service man 2 had to wait until access to medical records legislation came into force in 1989 before he could scrutinise medical documents he had not previously seen. Afterwards, he presented himself for medical re-examination, and it was confirmed several months later that, in addition to the three conditions previously recognised, he had been suffering from seven further long-standing--I stress long-standing--conditions induced by war. They were bilateral hearing loss; Meniere's disease; shrapnel wounds to his legs; a fractured left ankle; an injury to his pelvis; malnutrition; and, again, post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1990, the seven additional disabilities were acknowledged, and service man 2 was awarded a war pension accordingly. As with service man 1, it was backdated only to the date of latest application--1990.

My two brave constituents were wrongly denied war pensions for many years. Some disabilities were missed, others wrongly stated not to have been caused by war.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder was ignored, airbrushed out of medical history as if it simply did not exist. We do not need to condemn out of hand those responsible for the errors; they were made in times very different from today. However, in a humane society, we must condemn any system that prevents those mistakes from being rectified now.

My hon. Friend the Minister will known that, until 7 April 1997, the Secretary of State was vested with a broad discretion to issue backdated war pensions in appropriate and exceptional cases. That discretion afforded the Secretary of State the capacity to act and to do justice in appropriate and compelling cases. From that date on, however, the Conservative Government all but removed the discretion.

On 3 February 1999, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he thought it sensible to restore to his Secretary of State the discretion that the Conservatives had removed. He said that the Government would

On the issue of cost, I remind my hon. Friend of two things. First, on this point, all I am asking for is restoration of a discretion to backdate in appropriate and compelling cases. That is not a huge spending commitment. Secondly, as I understand it, the first year of the Labour Government yielded a saving of £53 million on war pensions alone. Even after conceding to the Royal British Legion's demand--which I support--that we reverse restrictions on deafness pensions for ex-service men and women, there must still be money available from that pot to make restoration of the discretion a real and a worthy measure.

I ask my hon. Friend tonight--just as I asked our mutual right hon. Friend the Prime Minister a short time ago--whether he thinks it is sensible to restore to the Secretary of State the discretion to issue backdated war pensions in cases that truly merit it. If not, why not? What conceivable reason could any Secretary of State have for wishing to deprive himself of at least the capacity to exercise mercy, compassion and discretion when fairness compels it? I await my hon. Friend's answer with great interest. I have thought hard about that question, and I can think of no reason whatsoever.

My hon. Friend does not have to go that far--although I implore him to do so--to help service men 1 and 2. After all, they applied for backdating before 7 April 1997. The Secretary of State retains his discretion to remedy the unfairness that they have suffered. It is about discretion--it is not about rigid rules to which there must be slavish adherence. As of 1 April 1998, the then Secretary of State did not even know when the discretion was last exercised or how many times it had been exercised since the general election. I consider that to be a lamentable state of affairs. I also think it begs the question whether past Secretaries of State have acted lawfully.

How can discretion have been exercised fairly and consistently in the past if we do not even know how and when it was exercised? How can we be sure that we have been treating like cases in a like manner? Can my hon. Friend tell me tonight whether the discretion has ever been exercised by this Government? It certainly has not been exercised thus far in favour of either of my constituents.

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There has been nothing by way of backdating for service man 1, who was blown up by our own land mine. He was forced to abandon his trade through shattered nerves and to take early retirement by reason of depression. He has received nothing, despite known errors in the way in which his case was handled and despite medical evidence of on-going suffering for nearly 60 years.

There has been nothing for service man 2, who was starved on the Burma-Siam railway and whose post-traumatic stress disorder was ignored. He has received nothing, despite the six other missed long-standing medical conditions from which he has been suffering since the war.

There has been nothing for either of them.

Will my hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State, in whom the discretion is vested, to examine both cases again? Will he ask him to exercise that discretion--a discretion which is still available to him--so as to right the wrongs inflicted on my two constituents? They do not want huge sums of money, but they want the mistakes of the past acknowledged and corrected. They want fairness--a fairness that they have been denied by successive Governments for far too long. I want fairness too: I want it for my constituents. Until we have it, there will be a scar on the soul of this country.

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