§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
I must first declare an interest. I served in the Colonial Service in Nigeria, and I derive a pension from my service there. Also I was a service man in the Royal Air Force during the war. I would therefore be a beneficiary of any change of policy that the Government might make as a result of the claim about which I intend to speak.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the debate. The subject has been raised before in the House—on 1 May last year—and I am fully aware of the official replies to the points that I intend to make. I have no quarrel with my hon. Friend. In the past, the claim has been raised at the highest level—Cabinet level—where it has been refused because, it is said, the money simply cannot be found to satisfy it. I believe, and I hope to persuade the House, that the Cabinet should be ashamed of its attitude.
All branches of the public service of this country, except one, are entitled to include war service in the computation of members' pensions when they retire. That provision was made to allow for the many people who, during the war, were taken on by the Home Civil Service. So that their position would not be prejudiced, members of the Civil Service who were called up were taken on as non-established staff without pension rights. Immediately after the war, it was decided that those with war service should be entitled to count half of it towards their total service for pension purposes, just as those who had non-established service were entitled to count half of theirs. That was seen as equality of treatment between civil servants who had done war service and those who had remained at home.
The principle was adopted in other branches of the public service, particularly in the 1970s, when it was extended to the police, local government, teachers and others. The Colonial Service, which is now called the Overseas Civil Service, was never included in that movement. Credit for war service that had been performed before the first appointment to the Colonial Service has never been given.
The question, therefore, is: why was the Overseas Civil Service excluded from this privilege, which had been given to every other civil and public servant? There are three possible reasons, and in dealing with the claim we may take our choice.
First, there was the legal fiction that a colonial officer was recruited in this country by the Secretary of State for the Colonies and to some extent trained here but that then he was sent to a colony which then, through its Government, employed him and were responsible for his conditions of service thereafter. Therefore, the British Government, not being the employer of colonial officers, never felt that they were responsible for the pensions of those officers. The colonial Governments, even when they became the Governments of independent Commonwealth territories, respected the pension rights of their expatriate staff, but they did not accept—at independence, at least—responsibility for war service that had been performed before the individual concerned joined their own service.
The Colonial Service officer was therefore denied the benefit of a privilege that, by the 1970s, had been extended to every other public servant. Naturally, independent Commonwealth Governments could not be asked to take 856 responsibility for periods of time when their expatriate staff were not working for them. The British Government rested on the notion that they were not the employers and that the people concerned would therefore have to look elsewhere. That is inherently unjust, and that notion is no longer pursued by the Government.
The second line of argument is the one that I apprehend will he used by my hon. Friend the Minister: that the British Government cannot afford the cost. Cost is an element in this problem. The Overseas Development Administration is responsible for the pensions of 46,000 former Colonial Service officers. The additional money that would be required to pay for war service, together with other service, in the pensions of those people would have to be found from somewhere. One accepts that it should not be found from funds that are allocated to overseas aid. The Treasury would have to find the money. It is not overseas aid; it is a matter of honour.
The Overseas Development Administration believes that about 10 per cent. of the 46,000 officers had war service before their first appointment to the Colonial Service. Therefore, 4,600 officers might be entitled to claim an additional pension entitlement. A recent estimate of the cost was £3 million. However, on 1 May 1986 my hon. Friend, the then Minister of State, told me that the cost might be as much as £5 million, or even £6 million. There is no basis for his estimate, save for a glance at the files and the derivation of some evidence from individual cases. The cost element is exaggerated. We must remember that we are dealing with a declining number of people because they are mostly elderly.
The third argument that is somtimes advocated is that officers of the Overseas Civil Service, the old Colonial Service, do not deserve this privilege because of the special conditions that applied to them. Some say that they were so beneficial that they are not entitled to the privilege. Those reasons were touched on by the former Minister of State, who said that Colonial Service officers were entitled to retire earlier than Home Civil Service officers, at55 rather than 60."—[Official Report, 1 May 1986: Vol. 96, c. 1187.]He said nothing about the shorter careers for those who served in unfavourable climes, in particular, the notion that was well justified for a long time that west Africa was the white man's grave.
That is one alleged advantage. Another is that the commutation of pensions is possible with the Overseas Civil Service, particularly in places where the colony concerned is about to gain independence and the careers of the officers are brought to a premature end. That strikes me not as an advantage, but as a natural consequence of the British traditional policy of granting self-government and independence while ensuring that the pension interests of expatriate staff are respected.
A further argument is that those officers whose careers are brought to a premature end should be entitled to compensation for early retirement, which is not something that is generally accepted in the Home Civil Service. It was suggested by the then Minister of State that Colonial Service officers have the advantage of a second career, such as being a Member of Parliament.
It is true that there is a difference between the Overseas Civil Service and the rest of the public service, but the difference is that conditions overseas were inferior to almost every other branch of the service. It is not and was not an easy life. In general, low levels of pay applied 857 because the salary scales were adjusted not to United Kingdom levels but to what the colony could afford. Therefore, that often being a matter of local negotiation, salaries tended to be rather low.
It was a short career and there were adverse climatic conditions, poor health services and few amenities. The typical colonial officer endured malaria, dysentery and typhoid as normal occupational hazards. I caught typhus when I was out in the bush and my wife saved my life by taking me to the hospital at the provincial headquarters. One night our house in the bush was burnt down by an arsonist who had a grudge against my predecessor. We endured plagues and suffered all manner of pestilence. Every colonial officer led a similar life and loved it because we had the satisfaction of working directly and personally to improve the conditions of life for the people among whom we worked.
We in the Colonial Service with our African friends spent our time digging deep concrete-lined wells to get pure water. We built bush roads to enable lorries to use them and so stimulate trade. We organised the schools. We improved farms. We talked to, trained and helped the people of the colonies to govern themselves. We gave no thought to things like pensions. Most of the people of whom I speak are now elderly, living in the United Kingdom on the pensions that they earned during their service. It is a matter of shame that they, who ruled the empire so well, should be denied the privilege allowed to the most junior clerk in a town hall. The amount of money involved, whatever it is, would make a small, but significant, difference to their lives. It is a matter not of affordability; it is a debt of honour. Why is it not paid?
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the small remaining band of happy warriors look so comfortable at nearly three in the morning that I am sure you will be disappointed to hear that I shall be brief. I should like to follow up a few of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). I start by declaring an indirect interest. Most of my mother's relations were overseas servants with the Colonial Service and its sister services and at least one would be a beneficiary of the proposed measure, were it ever to be adopted.
I have little to add to my hon. Friend's eloquent points. It is appropriate that we should debate this matter here. One of the principal aims, perhaps the principal one, of the Colonial Service was to bring this sort of democracy to many parts of the world. This Chamber has been duplicated in some 40 or 50 countries as a result of the work of the Colonial Service.
Life in the Colonial Service was tough. I pay particular tribute to the section to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington belonged. He worked in west Africa. To show how tough conditions were, I should like to give an example of an organisation that did not draw on the public purse. Recently, I heard a talk by a missionary from west Africa who told me that, in the part of Africa in which he served, none of the first missionaries to start work in the 1920s, not so long ago, survived for more than 18 months. The oldest was 36. It was, indeed, a hard life.
The war service of many overseas pensioners was not easy. It is an extraordinary anomaly that these people who 858 gave the best part of their lives to serving their country should lose up to a quarter of their pension rights because they chose to spend part of that time serving in our armed forces.
I shall not labour the point. The hour is late. The Government have a good record in war service matters. For examply, it is this Government who, for the first time in 40 years, took the firm decision that war widows' pensions would be paid tax-free and this Government who have taken a number of steps to give much better treatment to members of the armed forces, regular and territorial, who while serving in uniform suffer injuries caused by enemy forces or accident. With this good record, it is sad that this one anomaly has been allowed to continue. I urge the Government to look at it again.
§ Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)
There are many anomalies in public sector pay and pensions rather than the single one to which the hon. and new Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who opposes the Channel tunnel, referred.
There are considerable anomalies in the pay of temporary civil servants. I know from personal experience. In the 1960s, I was invited to advise a Prime Minister for pay equivalent to a student grant. When I took the matter up with the establishment officer, I was told that many people would regard it as a privilege to advise the Prime Minister. I said that it was, but that I could not afford to subsidise the experience. That attitude seems to have persisted in certain sectors of the Civil Service. It is regarded as a privilege to serve one's country and bad luck if one's pension is not properly funded.
I can think of other anomalies. Ministers have Departments and several thousand staff. Shadow Ministers, if they are lucky, have one, or half of one, research assistant. The Minister is able to travel on the approval of his superiors and take private staff. The shadow Minister has no budget on which to travel. Shadow Ministers for foreign affairs or overseas development cannot even get public funding for a telephone on which to make overseas calls. They cannot even get a postage stamp.
There are many people who gave war service—and were taken from their jobs to do it—and whose pensions were not funded for that period. Many fought through the war without gaining any public sector pension. Others gave their lives. I appreciate the point about war widows' pensions. That was an outstanding anomaly.
There is an anomaly here, however, which previous Governments probably should have addressed. It is a matter of diminishing and not major cost, and the Government should consider meeting at least in part, the claims concerned. I had to leave the Chamber briefly while the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) was speaking, so I do not know whether he referred to hardship cases, but the Government should address that matter.
Many of the colonies may not have appreciated that they were enjoying what the hon. Member for Orpington called progress towards democracy. Rather, they saw their natural resources being extracted and exported at prices which were not reflected in the pay of those who drew them from the ground. Often, as a condition of independence, those countries had to pay pensions to 859 former civil servants. That is quite wrong, as some of those countries now face falling commodity prices and heavy debt burdens.
I agree with the hon. Member for Orpington that any funds that might be forthcoming should not be regarded as part of the aid budget.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
I take it that the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Eggar)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on raising yet again this topic. I remember some years ago attending a meeting when he first raised the issue privately with my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison), who was at that time the Minister for Overseas Development. My hon. Friend has again argued eloquently and forcefully the case that post-war entrants to the Colonial Service should be able, like other British civil service groups, to reckon half of their military service for pension purposes.
As the House knows, this is a somewhat specialised and narrow issue and sadly, but inevitably, we are bound to traverse much of the same ground, as my hon. Friend predicted, that was covered in the Adjournment debate on 1 May last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury replied to that debate and attempted to put the issue into historical context. It would be helpful if I recapitulated some of the points made on that occasion because I believe that the background is rather more complex than has been presented tonight.
First, it is important to recall why the concession on war service for pension purposes was introduced. The Superannuation Act 1935 provided that the unestablished services staff who subsequently became established without a break in service should reckon at one half its length for superannuation purposes. Recruitment to the Home Civil Service during the second world war was on an unestablished basis. The concession introduced for the Home Civil Service in 1946, therefore, was to remove an anomaly that would otherwise have arisen between wartime and post-war entrants to the service. Recruitment to the Colonial Service during the second world war was on a much smaller scale but generally continued along "normal lines". In other words, unlike the Home Civil Service, appointments could be made on pensionable terms. Although no hard and fast conclusions can be drawn, it appeared that the anomaly in the Home Civil Service that needed to be corrected by the 1946 concession did not arise in the Colonial Service.
It has been suggested that the Colonial Office, which retained control over pension matters until a colony achieved independence, may have overlooked the need to ask colonies to amend their legislation to allow war service to count as pensionable service. I think this scenario unlikely. The recruitment literature at the time gave details of a salary scheme for war service that stated quite specifically that war service before appointment to the Colonial Service would not count as colonial service for purposes of a pension. Post-war entrants to the Colonial Service thus had no expectation at the time of their appointment that war service would count towards their 860 pension. I cannot accept the argument therefore that, by withholding the concession, the Government are defaulting on their obligations.
Expectations among this group of pensioners may have changed because of developments in the 1970s. However, those circumstances are not identical. The public service groups to whom the war service concession was extended during the 1970s—teachers, health workers and so on—have contributory pension schemes. Beneficiaries were required to make a contribution to the cost of implementing the concession. Colonial Service pensions, for officers at least, were non-contributory. Additional public expenditure resources have to be found, therefore, if the war service concession is to be extended to this group of pensioners.
I do not believe that it is sensible to characterise the public services as a single amorphous body. The Home Civil Service and other United Kingdom public services, the Indian Civil Service, the Sudan Service, the Diplomatic Service and the Colonial Service are distinct entities. Conditions of service differ in all kinds of ways, as do superannuation arrangements. In some respects, the arrangements for the colonial service were more advantageous than those of the Home Civil Service. For instance, colonial pension accrual rates were higher and retirement ages were lower. Admittedly, as my hon. Friend made clear, this was in part a reflection of the harsh conditions in tropical areas, but in many respects the post-war years saw steady improvements in those conditions.
Colonial service pensions are index-linked from the age of 55 rather than from the age of 60. Many officers retired at independence, some with immediate payment of pension, while still at an age to begin successful second careers, even if all could not follow my hon. Friend. It is difficult to argue, therefore, that, as a group, Colonial Service pensioners have fared significantly worse than their peers in the United Kingdom public services. Similarly, there is no case for treating them automatically as on all fours with those groups in superannuation arrangements.
The case for granting war service credit to Colonial Service officers in the immediate post-war years, therefore, was clearly not considered self-evident. Extending that concession now to that group of pensioners would, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington has admitted. hold an additional public expenditure commitment, unlike the United Kingdom public service groups, to whom it was extended during the 1970s. I am afraid that we do not accept that the cost of the extension of the concession is trivial, even though it may be trivial to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland), to whom an amount between £3 million and £6 million, to accept my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington's estimate of the cost, must pale into insignificance compared with the £34 billion extra spending commitment that was made during the election campaign by his party.
§ Mr. Eggar
—we estimate that perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 pensioners could be eligible at a cost of about £5 million to £6 million. That is our best estimate. Information on war service in a significant number of cases was either incomplete or lacking so the estimate is subject to a wide margin of error.
I know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington is aware, that the Overseas Service Pensioners Association is not persuaded that the cost would be so high and argues that a figure of £3 million a year is more realistic. Nevertheless we are satisfied that our sample survey, which gives the figure of £5 million to £6 million, gives an adequate order of magnitude that is sufficiently accurate for present purposes.
§ Mr. Holland
Had the Minister left me alone I would not have intervened. However, he has been saying that there is an anomaly here and an anomaly there and that certain things are not self-evident. What is quite evident is that the Government will not address the quite reasonable claim that is being made and are not prepared to come forward with the funding when it is inconsistent with the rest of what has happened. As to whether £3 million is sizeable or not, the Minister may recollect that I said that, although it may not be the case that that should be met in full, it certainly seems that there is an anomaly. That is evident but the Minister simply wants to avoid the point.
§ Mr. Eggar
The whole point of what I was saying is that it is not possible to compare directly the Colonial Service with service in the other public services. There are a great number of differences, to some of which I have drawn attention.
862 With regard to the question as to whether £3 million or £5 million to £6 million, which is our estimate, is a significant sum, I am interested that the hon. Gentleman suggests that part payment should be made without telling the House how he would go about deciding which part. Would he select specific pensioners for special treatment or would he pay only a quarter of war service credits? He cannot get away with an airy fairy assertion that he would try to be reasonably prudent. He was coming out with almost an alliance-type policy. I would have expected a more robust and clearer statement from the Opposition Front Bench. [Interruption.] The only alliance Member who has been around has spoken once so, unfortunately, is unable to contribute to our debate. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) wanted an evening off from his fratricidal strife and he has to come in to address the House on the question of nuclear weapon controls.
The claim, which has been argued so forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, has been considered carefully in previous public expenditure survey discussions. So far, the Government have not felt able to accommodate the extra commitment. That remains the position, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington knows, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development are keeping the matter under close review. I am sure that the points that were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) will be given due consideration. However, I regret that I cannot give any undertaking as to whether or when the Government might be prepared to allow the reckoning of war service for pension purposes for former members of the Colonial Service.