§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]
§ 11.1 p.m.
§ Mr. BATEY
The House has been discussing all day an important foreign question, and I ask hon. Members now to turn their attention for a few minutes to an important domestic question. The Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Pensions Act, 1925, provided that men should receive pensions at 65 years of age and that the wives of such men should also receive pensions on reaching the age of 65. After ten years' experience of the 1550 Act, we find that that provision is inflicting immense hardship upon a large number of wives. We continuously receive letters of complaint on this matter and I take this opportunity of raising the question in the hope of being able to persuade the Government to take steps to remedy this anomaly. Under the Act to which I refer, a man may be receiving 26s. a week unemployment benefit but, as soon as he reaches the age, of 65, his 26s. a week stops and he immediately goes on to the pension of 10s. a week. If his wife is not 65 she cannot get anything and nobody can argue that it is possible for a man and his wife to live on 10s. a week. The natural result is that, in many cases, the wives have to apply for Poor Law relief.
I put a question on the subject to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury a week ago, and asked him how much it would cost to give pensions to the wives of these men as soon as the husbands receive the pension. The answer I got was that it would cost £6,500,000, rising in 10 years time to £8,000,000. That sum helps to reveal the large number of women who are, at present, being deprived of the pension. It means that there are 150,000 of these wives who are unable to get the pension. It is to be remembered that at the beginning of this year the contributions to this fund were increased by an amount estimated at £5,500,000 per year. When we take that fact into 'account, the sum of £6,500,000 does not seem so large as it might at first appear. Then we have also to consider the fact that last year the fund had a balance of £22,000,000. In view of those facts we believe that the Government would be justified in granting pensions to these women at the same time as the pensions are granted to their husbands.
The Financial Secretary may remind me that last year the Government made provision from this fund for unemployed men to be protected so as to receive a pension at 65. That did not amount to such a large sum of money. The Government actuary reported, at the time when that Bill was passed, that the additional pensions expenditure resulting would be £20,000 in 1935–6, £100,000 in 1936–7, rising by rather less than £200,000 a year thereafter to 100,000 in 1942–3. It seems to me that what the Government did then is no excuse for their saying to-day that they cannot afford to grant this 1551 absolutely essential thing for these wives. This is far more than a financial question; it is a human question. These people are having to receive Poor Law relief, from a place where they have never been in the habit of going, and many of them feel strongly that they ought not to be forced to go there in their old age. It is the duty of the Government to provide ways and means in order to prevent these old people from having to go for Poor Law relief, especially at a time when the Government have been so lavish in giving away public money to so many people. They should try to solve this human problem and to make it possible for these old women to get a pension when their men get a pension, so that at least they might have 20s. a week for life.
§ 11.8 p.m.
§ Mr. WHITELEY
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) on this very important question. He has dealt with the thing on very right lines, and I am sure the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will respond in the same spirit. This question does not affect Durham County alone, but the whole of the country, but I wish to call attention to what we do for our old people in Durham County in order to try to get the hon. and learned Gentleman to appreciate the voluntary work that is being done and so that he might in turn ask the Government to supplement this kind of work, so as to enable our people to maintain that independent spirit which they have always endeavoured to live up to. We have a system in Durham whereby we provide aged workers' cottages for our aged miners when they attain the age of 60 years. If they are not able to continue work after that age, we have a system whereby we provide them with a free cottage, free rent, rates, and coals, etc.
I was at a meeting on Saturday representing the whole of the miners of Durham County, and this important matter was raised, of some of our aged miners occupying these homes, whose wives have not reached the age of 65, but who themselves have and are receiving 10s. pension. Their wives, however, are not, and they are placed in the very serious position of having to go to get outdoor relief at that age. It is a very serious matter. They feel very much 1552 concerned about it. When by voluntary effort we are housing nearly 6,000 aged people free of rent, rates and coal, and when we see that some of these people are having to approach the relieving officer to make it possible for them to get along reasonably we think there is a real opportunity for the Government to come along and do justice to these aged people, and show some appreciation of the voluntary work we are doing on their behalf.
§ 11.11 p.m.
§ Mr. TINKER
I just want to reinforce what has been said by ray hon. Friend, and of course the reply that is always quoted is the reply given to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), which means that nothing can he done. I want to emphasise the position in Lancashire because there we have the same ground for complaint. In fact it is tie general question all over the country, and I think the Government would be well advised to examine the question. By giving greater spending power to the people you get better trade, and no one can deny that these people are in need of greater spending power. I think everyone will agree that 10s. for a man and his wife is insufficient. In industrial areas it is almost impossible for a. male worker to get a job after 65, and in the mining world it is impossible even earlier than that. That means that a man has either to look to his children for help or to the poor law. No one can defend a position of that kind. When a man has given the best of his life to the community, it is not good enough to say that at the age of 65 years 10s. is sufficient for him. We shall hammer at this question on the Budget and we shall hammer at it on every possible occasion in the hope that at some time or another something will be done.
§ 11.13 p.m.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. W. S. Morrison)
I do not complain of this matter being raised on the Adjournment, nor can I complain of the very moderate way in which it has been voiced by the three hon. Members. The answer to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), which has formed the basis of so many subsequent replies, was that similar proposals had been made in the past, but so far it had not been found 1553 practicable to adopt them. I have referred to it so often that I know it by heart. I would like to indicate to hon. Members why it has not been found practicable. It is easy to say that many wives of insured men who are under the age of 65 are in distressed circumstances, and it is easy to proceed from that to say that something should be done to help them. The question is, when there is public money to disburse, what is the best way of using it?
The proposal in effect is that you should select one group of women, the wives of insured men who have reached the age of 65, and give them treatment which it is not proposed to grant to other persons. In the first place, as to cost. The figures which I gave in reply to a question by the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) were necessarily vague. A scheme of this sort would, if it were carried into effect, probably have certain conditions attached to it as to the age of the wife, or some other condition, and the cost would depend entirely upon the sort of conditions that were attached. I cannot give the hon. Member a figure unless I know what conditions he is willing to attach to the grant. The cost which I gave of £6,500,000, rising to £8,000,000 in 10 years, is the cost of the proposal without conditions, that is to say, if the insured man has reached the age of 65 and has a wife aged 20. I recently saw that in a transatlantic country there had been a remarkable increase in the marriage rate of veterans with persons very much their junior. Although one hopes that love inspired most of those unions, one cannot help a lurking feeling in one's mind that an aged veteran with a pension is perhaps a fairly good investment. As I said, wives of insured men are only one class of woman who may be distressed.
§ Mr. MORRISON
If pensions when the wife is more than five years younger than her husband were postponed until she 1554 reached 60, the cost would be £3,750,000 rising to £4,750,000 in 10 years. Suppose we gave the wife of an insured man this preferential treatment, we would at once be reminded that there are other classes of women equally distressed, and whose case from the point of view of deserts may be even stronger than that of the wife of an insured man, who, one presumes, has been in work all his life. The hon. Member no doubt has heard of the agitation on behalf of pensions for spinsters. In the light of that consideration, the question of pensions may assume very different proportions.
The difficulty about the hon. Member's proposal, and why successive Governments have not found it practicable to adopt it, is that it brings inevitably in its train a large number of other proposals which it would be difficult, on grounds of equity, to resist. The condition of the elderly spinster is often more precarious than that of the wife of an insured man.
§ Mr. MORRISON
If the wife, aged 60, of an insured man had a pension, how could you refuse a pension to an insured wife of 60 even though her husband was not insured? Why differentiate between two women both aged 60, because the husband of one was insured and the other was not?
§ Mr. MORRISON
Yes, but if the hon. Member is proposing to give a pension at 60 to the wife of an insured man who has an old age pension, how could he refuse it to a wife at 60 of an insured man without an old age pension? A married insured woman of 60, possibly deserted by her husband and with children to support, would be a more deserving case than the wife of a pensioner, or, indeed, a spinster. If this proposal were granted, would it be possible to stop short of giving old age pensions at 60 to women generally At present the Contributory Pensions Act is giving the benefit of old age pensions at 65 to men and their wives, whether insured or not, and that is a certain, definite line. The theory that has animated successive Governments has been that, if you depart from that principle and grant a case which it is easy to make into a strong case by isolating it and directing 1555 special attention to it, you find yourself in the position that you are giving such grants that it is impossible to prevent the financial position from becoming much more serious than the cost of this present proposal would involve.
§ Mr. MORRISON
It may be that a man was drawing 26s. in unemployment benefit, and when he gets a pension his income drops to 10s. That, no doubt, is a hardship to the man, but it is a question for decision whether you shall have a system of pensions or not; and in practice the only consolation I can give the hon. Member is that there is a system of public assistance; and the fact that a man draws his old age pension when his unemployment insurance is terminated—which will relieve him at the same time from the contributions to unemployment insurance—does not preclude him from getting public assistance if he requires it. I admit that no one likes to think of men who have spent their days in honest toil being reduced to public assistance, but the fact remains that it is better to have public assistance than no assistance at all. You have to consider what you are going to do with the money, and I find it very difficult to assume that you could select this particular body of women for this special treatment, and not extend it, because you would find a great number of other hard cases which it would he very difficult to differentiate.
§ Mr. WHITELEY
Can the Financial Secretary say what it would cost to give pensions at 60 to all women, spinsters and others, so as to give something like equality?
§ Mr. MORRISON
I am afraid I could not give that figure to-night, but I should think it would involve at least double the sum I originally mentioned. One sees money going out in one direction, and every hon. Member thinks it could be better spent in another. That is one of the things on which the Government have to make up their minds—as to the best way of spending the money and what things should come first. When this question was asked in the House, there was a supplementary question to the effect that we spent so much on creating, 1556 say, a battleship, which seemed a very wrong thing to do. That argument is sometimes used, but I must say that those who use it are confusing two entirely different things. If the hon. Member agrees with me that better defence for the nation is necessary, he must admit that the lack of proper defence might expose, not only this small section of the community, but the whole community to a state of affairs, compared with which the hardship suffered here would be inconsiderable. I assure the hon. Member that the reason why this Government and the Labour Government found it impossible to deal with this matter was not so much the cost, though that is formidable, but the fact that it would mean selecting a particular body of women of the age of 60 for preferential treatment which we should find it difficult to justify. I can only repeat, on the facts as they are before me, the time honoured answer to the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker), that similar proposals have been made in the past, but it has not so far been found practicable to adopt them.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. R. J. TAYLOR
We in Northumberland are also interested in miners' cottage homes, in which aged people in this category live. Nothing in my experience has been more hard than to go amongst these old people in our regular visits to see that they are comfortable, than the fear that because the husband is four or five years older than the wife they have only 10s. to live on. With the cottage rent free and usually coal supplied, if they had the other 10s. they would have that sheltered old age that we want for our old people. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has brought in the spinster. That is rather begging the question. It might have been a difficulty if the Government intended to give pensions to spinsters, but; they do not. Pensions are given at 65 to insured contributors, and we come up against the terrible anomaly that when a man is 65 it is a very common thing for his wife to be about four years younger. Up to 65 the man receives 20s. unemployment assistance, but at 65 the amount drops to 10s. We realise the difficulties of local councils with regard I to the burden of rates. It would be rendering a great service and prove of incalculable value in terms of money in the relief to the 1557 rates, if the burden could be taken off the local rates and placed upon the shoulders of the State. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury told us that the money is not such a formidable proposition. When a youngster at school, reading Goldsmith's "Deserted Village," 1558 I used to wonder, well fed, well clothed and well housed, what Goldsmith meant— It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.